Grab (formerly GrabTaxi), part of the 500 Startups portfolio, is a leading taxi hailing app covering Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia that’s also the startup darling of Southeast Asia.

The company’s been busy doing some impressive things like getting 3.6 million app downloads, hitting 620,000 MAU, reaching a milestone of 70,000 drivers on its network, offering driver insurance (the first platform to do so), and closing a $250 million round from SoftBank — the highest raise for any startup in Southeast Asia to date.

Less than half of Grab’s app installs have come from direct paid acquisition, and they don’t run ads for driver acquisition.

How, then, has Grab managed to grow to over 60K drivers on its network, 3 million app downloads, and over 500k monthly active users?

What could 500 Distro learn from Grab’s growth in over 20 cities across 6 countries throughout Southeast Asia, beating back competition from well-funded visiting teams like Uber and EasyTaxi?

I recently talked to Grab’s regional head of marketing Cheryl Goh to find out.

 

DISTRO LESSON 1: RESPONSIBLE + RESPONSIVE OVER THE COMPETITION

CHERYL GOH:

Most people who use taxis in Southeast Asia don’t necessarily think about the fact that the drivers don’t “belong” to us. If they have a problem with a taxi that they booked through Grab, they’ll come to Grab to sort out that problem, and they’ll hold us responsible.

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We’re a platform that facilitates these rides, not the employer of all the drivers. From a quality assurance perspective, there will be times that the service isn’t perfect. But, the reality is that passengers see us as the go-to for issues and questions.

We think it’s really important that we take as much responsibility as we can — even if we’re not technically the the drivers’ employer. We’re extremely responsive to consumer complaints over email, social media and phone, and try to stay local by answering calls in regional dialects. The result is that even if there’s a technical glitch or inconvenience, our riders like us enough to keep trying.

 

DISTRO LESSON 2: WORD OF MOUTH MATTERS. TRACK IT.

CHERYL:

We focus on providing a good service so people talk about it and recommend. We try really, REALLY hard to make sure the experience is excellent for everybody. To that end, we use social media and email to be extremely responsive not just to complaints, but as a brand.

How do you currently track WOM and referrals?

CHERYL:

We run online and on-ground surveys every quarter to track the WOM among our users. We also have a PR team and an agency that tracks our online and offline buzz.

We actually don’t have a passenger referral program yet, but we do have one for our drivers. Each driver has a unique referral code, which the passenger can use when she or he registers on our system.

In the beginning, we started off with using simple email surveys and then hired an agency for one or two countries. Now we also use tracked promo codes, and aggregate that tracking at a regional level.

Finally, we also rely on date correlation to measure the success of our many offline campaigns.

 

DISTRO LESSON 3: FOR BRAND AWARENESS, GO HYPERLOCAL.

CHERYL:

We focus a lot of efforts on campaigns meant to generate hype and buzz because offline marketing and brand awareness are very important in our target markets.

We work with bigger, fast moving consumer goods brands throughout Southeast Asia — like KitKat, Revive Isotonic and Wonda Coffee — as marketing partners. We leverage their huge spend in traditional media, and we do campaigns that give us a lot of PR.

For example, we’ve worked with a Globe, a major telco in the Philippines where they promote Grab to their users through SMS and social media.

We’ve also partnered with Air Asia in Thailand where the meal tray shows Grab branding and a message to passengers to try us out when they land.

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In all of these big campaigns, what helps is we’re really hyper local. For every country that we’re in, we have an individual and substantial country marketing team just working on partnerships. That team looks at leading players in individual markets, not just at the regional level but hyper local to a country and language.

 

DISTRO LESSON 4: ALWAYS BE REACTIVATING.

You mentioned you do activation and re-activation / re-engagement campaigns, by country market.

CHERYL:

We do a lot of promotions targeting first time users and inactive users based on activity period.

A simple reactivation campaign is when a user downloads our application registers but doesn’t activate the app; we then send them an email to ask why.

We find that many a times the service providers failed us and the passenger failed to receive their activation codes. We then provide them instructions on how to get that code. We have other channels to reach them as well if that doesn’t work.

Re-engagement happens when we find our users dropping off our platform. There might be many reasons why they decided to stop using us therefore we try and get them back either by giving them an incentive or sometimes just giving them a good reason to use us works as well.

Reactivation and re-engagement are processes you can’t always see, but they should be happening all the time behind the scenes.

 

DISTRO LESSON 5: QUALITY CONTROL

Passenger safety and assurance is one of Grab’s unique selling points over standard taxi service. It’s important for the company to maintain its key USPs even as it scales.

CHERYL:

To sign up as a Grab driver, you need to physically meet us through a preset appointment or a walk-in; we don’t allow online signup.

This is for safety reasons. We want to actually see the driver and the car, collect details and sign off documents that clearly communicate that we track all driver and rides.

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We don’t do much of a driver acquisition push online. It works better for us to find good drivers through word of mouth referrals and reputation. The in-person is key for the quality control that’s so central to our reputation and brand.

 

DISTRO LESSON 6: GUERILLA ACQUISITION

CHERYL:

Drivers are busy, and they can be hard to reach — we’ve tried a LOT of tactics to acquire high quality, trustworthy drivers in our existing and new markets.

A lot of drivers don’t have email addresses. There’s no way for us to reach out to them but to go out in person and sign them up.

We staff counters and kiosks in places where drivers hang out. In Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, the taxis use natural gas, so we have counters set up in petrol stations that sell natural gas. This helps us filter for taxi drivers (as opposed to all drivers), find them and sign more of them up.

The staff at our kiosks also help them with their phone problems, specifically teaching them how to use their smartphones better. In the beginning, it was a lot of tips like: first turn on the power, slide to unlock the phone, this kind of thing.

We still do that, but in the more mature markets, the drivers are really motivated and will ask their friends or family to teach them. In most of these countries, your phone is like your rice bowl. It helps feed you.

On-the-ground signup is necessary whenever we start a new market. After 3 – 6 months, we start to get more referrals and walk-ins, but in the beginning, it’s all about the market-specific groundwork.

 

DISTRO LESSON 7: TAKE CARE OF YOUR “TEAM”

NYC restaurateur and hospitality guru Danny Meyer famously makes the point that the highest-leverage way to take care of all the layers of your business is by starting with the people that make your business happen every day.

For Meyer, the customer isn’t always first — his team is. His order of priorities goes 1) Employees 2) Customers 3) Community 4) Suppliers 5) Investors.

Grab exemplifies this. As a marketplace and a platform, the extent of their official duties consists of facilitating the transaction between a driver and a passenger. As long as their passengers are happy, and continue transacting with drivers on their platform, they’re in business.

But they go the extra mile. The company runs a variety of driver-focused programming that they just don’t have to do, ranging from Driver Day carnival open to drivers and their friends (btw, also great for signing up more drivers), to insurance for drivers and other programs in the works like driver education funds.

CHERYL:

We’re looking at more sustainable, more high impact programs for drivers. A lot of times in the countries we operate in, the taxi companies cover the passenger and the car, but they don’t cover the driver, so he or she doesn’t have protection.

If the driver gets hurt the car will be repaired, and the passenger will be taken care of, but the driver does’t get help. We’re currently rolling out driver insurance to our top tier drivers, and we’re looking at other health care and education initiatives.

We don’t normally include an entire photo album in our blog posts, but these pictures of Grab’s recent Driver Day carnival (with hundreds of drivers in attendance) were too warm n fuzzy to resist.

Thanks to Grab for sharing, and for being the kind of taxi hailing app company that gets its drivers chair massages, medical tests, cute group pictures, and plenty of free, delicious makanan.