I left Google to join Grab
This is my first time using Medium. Please forgive any faux pas.
Also, it’s pretty long even for me, so you might want to go grab
a coffee. I’ll wait.
please note that these are my own personal opinions: I do not
speak for my employers, old or new.
nearly 13 years at Google, I have finally left the nest! Never
thought it would happen. I always thought I would die at
Google — maybe choking to death on one of their free chocolate
brownies, or maybe finally having a heart attack over YouTube’s
increasingly bizarre policy enforcement. But regardless of how I
envisioned the Grim Reaper catching up with me, I always assumed
he’d be hauling me in surrounded by colorful furniture, free food
and snacks, and slightly entitled geniuses.
is difficult to pry people away from Google. Even after almost 20
years of operation, Google is still one of the very best places to
work on Earth, just about any way you care to measure it.
have a lot of good stories saved up that I’d love to share. Google
corporate didn’t much care for my blogging, and even though they
never outright forbade it, I received a lot of indirect pressure
from various VPs. So eventually I stopped. Sad.
that’s not where my mind’s at today. Those stories will have to
wait for my book. Today I just want to tell you about my new gig,
because I think you’re going to be amazed. In fact I think I can
safely predict that no matter who you are, something in
this post is going to amaze you.
I tell you about the new gig, I’ll share a few brief observations
about Google, to help paint a backdrop for why, of all the great
companies out there, I chose to join Grab.
I left Google
main reason I left Google is that they can no longer innovate.
They’ve pretty much lost that ability. I believe there are several
contributing factors, of which I’ll list four here.
they’re conservative: They are so focused on protecting what
they’ve got, that they fear risk-taking and real innovation.
Gatekeeping and risk aversion at Google are the norm rather the
they are mired in politics, which is sort of inevitable with a
large enough organization; the only real alternative is a
dictatorship, which has its own downsides. Politics, as ex-Google
SVP Bill Coughran once said, is the best solution humanity has
come up with to this problem in the past 5000 years: the problem
of resource contention. So it’s not necessarily bad. But politics
is a cumbersome process, and it slows you down and leads to
Google is arrogant. It has taken me years to understand that a
company full of humble individuals can still be an arrogant
company. Google has the arrogance of the “we”, not the “I”. When a
company is as dramatically successful as Google has been, the
organization can become afflicted with a sense of invincibility
and almost manifest destiny, which leads to tragic outcomes:
complacency, not-invented-here syndrome, loss of touch with
customers, poor strategic decision-making. So I love the people at
Google; they’re super smart and world class and always humble
individuals, no matter how badass they are in their respective
disciplines. But the company strategy is a mess.
think this is obvious to anyone who has followed Google’s public
launches over the past five or ten years. Google does all sorts of
things these days that leave everyone scratching their heads:
Picking unwinnable fights and then trying to force their product
on us (e.g. Google+), launching products that are universally
panned (e.g. Allo), deprecating and turning down well-loved
services (e.g. Reader, Hangouts), launching official APIs with
competing and incompatible frameworks (e.g. gRPC vs. REST),
launching obviously competing stacks that don’t talk to each other
(e.g. Android native vs. Dart/Flutter), etc. Their attempts at
innovation have been confusing and mostly unsuccessful for close
to a decade. Googlers know this is happening and are as frustrated
by it as you are, but their leadership is failing them.
fourth, last, and probably worst of all, Google has become 100%
competitor-focused rather than customer focused. They’ve made a
weak attempt to pivot from this, with their new internal slogan
“Focus on the user and all else will follow.” But unfortunately
it’s just lip service. It’s not that they don’t care. The problem
is that their incentive structure isn’t aligned for focusing on
their customers, so they wind up being too busy and it always gets
deprioritized. A slogan isn’t good enough. It takes real effort to
set aside time regularly for every employee to interact with your
customers. Instead they play the dangerous but easier game of
using competitor activity as a proxy for what customers really
need. This is where their incentives are focused. Google
incentivizes successful feature and product launches, and by far
the easiest, safest way to produce those is by copying
can look at Google’s entire portfolio of launches over the past
decade, and trace nearly all of them to copying a competitor:
Google+ (Facebook), Google Cloud (AWS), Google Home (Amazon
Echo), Allo (WhatsApp), Android Instant Apps (Facebook, WeChat),
Google Assistant (Apple/Siri), and on and on and on. They are
stuck in me-too mode and have been for years. They simply don’t
have innovation in their DNA any more. And it’s because their
eyes are fixed on their competitors, not their customers.
be fair, there are exceptions. Google’s Cloud Spanner, BigQuery,
TensorFlow, Waymo and a few others are generational innovations
and will take some time for the industry to catch up with. But
they do not excuse nor justify the parade of failed me-too
consumer products that Google has been launching of late.
short, Google just isn’t a very inspiring place to work anymore. I
love being fired up by my work, but Google had gradually beaten it
out of me.
so, like many Googlers, I’d been thinking of moving on for a few
years. But where would you go? It takes a lot to pry someone away
from the best place to work on earth, since if nothing else,
Google still has a pretty incredible work environment, especially
big name-brand tech companies are almost all operating in the
Seattle area, but I think they mostly suffer from the same
big-company problems. Facebook gets most of its “innovations” from
acquisitions these days (Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus). And I also
don’t like what I’ve heard about their culture, from friends
who’ve gone there.
continues to innovate a fair bit, but they’re also not above
copying ideas from competitors and trying to squish the smaller
ones and generally being big mean bullies. I am tempted to make
fun of Jeff Bezos here, but I’ve heard that nobody has done that
three times in a row and lived to tell the tale, so I’ll, ah, quit
while I’m ahead. But I spent seven years at Amazon and this time
around, I was aiming for something different. Oracle, Twitter,
Apple, eBay, Microsoft, Adobe, SalesForce, and the other big
brands here? They all seem kinda meh.
seems like you can only really get inspiration from startups these
days, so I nearly joined a few. But none seemed just right.
there I was, scouring the landscape for some inspiration, when I
got an email out of the blue from an old Google buddy of mine,
Theo Vassilakis. Theo had read the tea leaves years ago and had
left Google to do his own big-data startup Metanautix, which he
successfully sold to Microsoft.
was writing to let me know he had just become the CTO of Grab, a
Singapore-based startup with an eng office here in Seattle.
that, folks, is where our adventure begins.
I joined Grab
my lasting surprise, I have gone to war.
is no better way to put it. I feel like I’ve joined a literal
revolutionary war, surrounded by and fighting alongside guerilla
troops, and it’s win or die.
have not been this excited about something since maybe the early
days of Grok, when I was working 12+ hour days on my mini-startup
within Google to revolutionize the way developers interacted with
a billion-line code base. But even that was only changing the
world for devs. This is so much bigger.
you look at the heat map of tech opportunities in the greater
Seattle area, from the lukewarm (Niantic, OfferUp) to the warm
(Facebook, Amazon) to the hot (SpaceX, small startups), then Grab
is a huge green ball of flame just about blasting your face off.
is the biggest startup in the history of Southeast Asia. Grab is
fighting the most important battle in the world today, on the
biggest stage. I am typing this on a plane coming back from
Jakarta, where I just witnessed history in the making.
have not seen a land rush this massive since the early days of the
Web, and it just might be even bigger.
what is Grab? Well, the simple and unsatisfying answer is: They’re
the Uber of Southeast Asia. But that’s a terrible marketing
message, because Uber is trying their best to become the most
hated company in the U.S. It’s like touting them as the Comcast of
Southeast Asia. And it’s also inaccurate because the Grab and Uber
company philosophies are so radically different.
of comparing Grab to Uber, let me try to thread the narrative from
my view on the ground, from back when my sister-in-law Cathy and
her husband Romano started a food truck. Until then, Cathy had
been working at an optometrist’s shop and Romano at a library, so
we’re talking about pretty humble beginnings. They had been saving
for years to start their own business, and they had researched the
heck out of it so they could be as successful as possible.
2012 they launched their Xplosive food truck, serving a
Filipino/Vietnamese fusion menu of tasty street food, and it was
about as successful as a food truck can be. They won awards, were
featured prominently in major Seattle magazines, were introduced
by the Seattle Mayor, landed huge catering gigs, and were even the
highlight act in a video that Jeff Bezos made for his investors,
about how hip Amazon was in the South Lake Union area. Xplosive’s
customers (mostly Amazon employees) would line up for an hour each
day before the truck arrived, and would beg and plead when their
full truck ran out of food after just a few hours.
like success, right? They had ridden the food truck wave at
exactly the right time, and for a couple of years, food trucks
they were the in thing. But early last year, Cathy and Romano
abruptly sold their truck and their coveted city parking spot
right next to Amazon, and quietly opened up a full-time kitchen
dedicated to food delivery through Peach.
made this dramatic change because they had their ear to the
ground, so they were among the first to recognize the significance
of the Restaurant Apocalypse.
and food trucks are both about to be obliterated by Peach and Uber
Eats. The whole restaurant industry is quaking over this; it’s why
you’ve seen some big restaurants starting up food trucks. But that
won’t save them. The entire food truck industry is about to go
tango uniform, disrupted by food delivery just as it was getting
off the ground. Trucks will never disappear completely, because
they can make money in local venues in good weather. But they’re
not where the real money is. The best profit for small business
owners now lies in food delivery.
delivery is hitting the world like a cat-5 hurricane. You can’t
watch a network football game without seeing commercials about it.
It is an exponentially-growing new industry built atop
ride-hailing infrastructure, which itself only emerged a few years
ago. The driver network can pick up food from literally anywhere
and deliver it anywhere within a city-sized radius.
idea has far-reaching consequences. It turns out that food
delivery is a democratization process: It democratizes the
restaurant business, creating mom-and-pop entrepreneurial
opportunities that simply never existed before. Opening a
restaurant is a huge, prohibitively expensive endeavor. Food
trucks lowered the barrier to entry significantly, but food
delivery lowers it to near-zero. Cathy and Romano realized you can
literally cook out of your own kitchen to get started. They are
the forefront of a new era. When this idea inevitably takes off,
people are going to be able to order take-out from their
neighbors, from anyone in the city who wants to cook their family
recipe. It will change cuisine forever.
astonishing about all this is how fast we went from ride hailing
to food delivery to dedicated kitchens for small business owners.
In tech years it has unfolded practically overnight. From my
perspective, these past few years have been filled with Google
teams bickering with each other about what to launch; meanwhile,
entire new industries were springing up and evolving through
successive disruptors, with more sure to come.
began this story by grousing that Google can’t innovate anymore,
but let’s face it: Uber, Amazon and Facebook (with Facebook
Takeout) all didn’t see food coming either. They just copied it.
that context in mind, let’s look at why I jumped on Grab. Because
when I heard about the opportunity and finally understood its
potential, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Asia: The World’s Battleground
painted ride hailing as a big disruptor, but hey, you already knew
that. It has enraged taxi businesses around the world to the point
of physical violence. It’s a revolutionary change, and it has
become a platform that has enabled the burgeoning and incredibly
disruptive food delivery industry.
in the U.S., people love to hate on Uber because “their drivers
are slave labor.” The driver has to pay for a car, maintain the
car, insure it, pay for fuel, clean it, etc., so on the whole Uber
is viewed as somewhat predatory. I honestly don’t know how much of
this is truth vs. perception. But given that millions of drivers
are opting in, and given that people are generally pretty clever
about optimizing their income, the economics would seem to be at
worst a moral gray area in the States and Europe, and more likely
a pretty good deal for most drivers.
ride hailing isn’t really changing society for the better in the
U.S. and Europe. It’s simply making personal transportation a bit
cheaper and more accessible. The food delivery revolution is a big
social change, but ride hailing itself, not so much.
Southeast Asia (SEA), however, ride hailing is absolutely
transformative and society-changing in ways that we can barely
appreciate here in a country where we elect reality TV stars to
the office of the presidency. The traffic in SEA is terrible.
Aside from Singapore, the traffic infrastructure ranges from bad
to terrible to near-nonexistent. (I mean, c’mon, Indonesia alone
is 17,000 islands.) The credit-card industry is near-nonexistent.
This is a much, much harder problem than it is in the States. But
there are half a billion people who desperately need both cheap
transportation and jobs. Ride hailing provides both!
not uncommon for people in Southeast Asia to get jobs as drivers
and make 3 to 5 times their previous income. I don’t need to read
some Gartner report to know this. I just have to go ask family
members. My wife Linh is Vietnamese and she has tons of friends
and family in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.
We already have half a dozen family and close friends who have
become Grab drivers in those countries, and they
love it. It has changed their lives.
unlike in the U.S., ride-hailing transport is a game-changer for
the entire social and economic infrastructure of Southeast Asia,
including Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar,
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. That’s 620 million
people — twice the size of the US, including 12 cities of 2M+, of
which the US has only four. And the middle class in SEA is
expected to double in a couple of years to over 400 million.
I mention this is a big opportunity?
transport, you get the food-delivery wave, which is following suit
exactly the way it has in the U.S. And it is growing more rapidly
in Southeast Asia, because — as any Asian person will happily tell
you — they love their food more than you do. Food unites their
cultures in a way that’s nearly incomprehensible to westerners,
especially outside the large cities.
the thing, though: Transport and food are only scratching
the surface. Same-day food delivery can be generalized
to same-day anything delivery, for instance. We’re going to see
major disruptors happening yearly (if not faster) for many years
to come. Payments and financial services are up next, and they’re
a staggeringly huge
need to download the Grab app in order to hail a ride or order
food. Everyone in Southeast Asia has smartphones, so everyone
there is getting the Grab app. Which means the next step is mobile
Payments. Grab is signing up local merchants — and there are
millions of them who can participate — at an incredible rate, so
that people can pay for stuff with their Grab app.
does that matter? After all, mobile payments aren’t really taking
off in the U.S. Visa has been pushing them for years and nobody’s
biting; in fact it’s been a disaster. But it matters in Southeast
Asia because SEA is primarily a cash economy. Fewer than 2% of
adults in SEA have credit cards, and over 60% don’t have bank
accounts at all. There’s still a deep distrust of banks, and of
course there’s a ton of credit card fraud, which makes the whole
thing so dicey that everyone just uses cash there.
they trust smartphones! You can thank Steve Jobs for that.
Southeast Asians use smartphones possibly more than anyone else in
the world. Westerners have all these stuffy conventions about not
staring into your smartphone while you’re eating with your family,
or out having fun with friends, or riding as a passenger on a
motorbike, or, you know, driving one. Not so in SEA. Everyone
stares happily into their smart phones all the time.
is a cash economy. But cash has a ton of problems. Thieves are
everywhere, yes; but there is also an old-world substrate of
bribery, corruption, scamming and fraud. For instance, getting
into a taxi, if you’re not careful, can quickly land you in a
situation where the driver has no meter and demands an exorbitant
fee, which he will split with the police officer who will arrest
you if you don’t pay up. Heck, we saw a worker today in the
Jakarta airport with a company shirt that said “NO TIPPING” on the
back, because in SEA there can sometimes be a fine line between
tipping and mandatory bribes.
you pay for everything with your Grab app, then all the prices are
agreed and decided up front, and you don’t need to carry any cash
at all. So people are adopting it at a rate that’s nothing short
of astonishing, given how cash-centric the SEA economy has been,
literally forever. But they can “top up” their Grab account with
cash, so their distrust of banks is bypassed completely.
payments of course opens up even more verticals and
services — pretty much anything you do with money these days in
the West, you cannot do
in SEA (or you can, but they gouge you on fees, which really hurts
when you are poor). Payments are going to open up these verticals
to everyone, even people who live out in remote villages. It’s
nuts. The world is changing right under our noses.
why do I say I’m going to war?
Uber’s there, obviously. Uber is everywhere… except for China,
that is, where they had to pull out because Didi was killing them
for various reasons. Uber exiting China highlighted a few
important things: Firstly, that this is a winner-take-all space,
because it creates a network effect by uniting all the verticals
and making competition very difficult. Exactly what happened with
Didi in China. So competitors will fight until there is only one
left standing. That, folks, is a fight to the death.
takeaway is that Uber can be beaten, when a few years ago they
seemed unbeatable. Frankly I personally think Uber is gonna lose
SEA as well. They’re planning an IPO and they need to clean up
their books, because Uber, as we all know by now, is losing money
faster than any company has lost money in the
history of money. As one famous investor
put it, the ride-hailing space can be thought of as piling huge
heaps of money on a table, pouring gasoline on it and lighting it
on fire. Uber is dumping billions of
dollars into driver and passenger rewards and incentives and
promotions in an effort to buy loyalty for just long enough to
drive their local competitors (of which there are perhaps eight
worldwide) out of business. And of course their competitors are
all forced to respond in kind.
honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m pretty new to
this space so if you quote me on any of this then you’re an idiot
quoting a bigger idiot. But if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t be
betting on Uber in Southeast Asia long-term. Uber has to cut their
losses soon, and they’re being out-competed in Southeast Asia.
another player in SEA, strongly resembling Grab. And they’re
fierce. That competitor is Go-Jek, which my iPhone happily
auto-corrects to Go-Jerk. They, uh, might want to get that fixed.
and Grab are mortal enemies, locked in a life-and-death land war
that’s going to enable the biggest social and economic
transformation in modern history. So even though Vizzini warned us
not to do exactly
that, I’m getting myself involved in a land war in Asia.
have never been so excited. It didn’t really hit home until my
first day on the job last week. I went to a Grab leadership
conference in Jakarta, and part of it was an Amazing Race where we
had to book 2-wheel and 4-wheel rides to get around the city in a
race with other teams. When I hopped on the back of that bike,
looking up into tropical rain, and the driver headed directly into
oncoming traffic and I uttered the words, “I’m gonna die”, that’s
when I knew this was real. And when I realized I couldn’t look anywhere without
seeing a sea of green Grab and Go-Jek helmets, that’s when I
realized that this is outright war. This is history being made.
war is happening on two fronts: Online and offline. Online, we
have to put together world-class technology in the shortest
timeframe it’s probably ever been done, and the business
requirements and business logic are growing more complicated by
the week. And I mean literally by the week. But Grab makes smart
tech choices — e.g. AWS, the Go language, Kotlin for Android. And
they don’t have Not Invented Here syndrome, so they don’t waste
time reinventing wheels. I have every confidence that we’ll win
there are armies of
agents (real people) involved in expanding the network of drivers,
merchants, passengers, and other participants. We’re talking
thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of
agents. I’m not going to tell you how it’s happening, but those
numbers are real.
and we get to build a platform. :) You know how I love those.
whole world’s attention is focused on Southeast Asia. Banks,
investment firms, mega-corporations, government regulators, mafias
(!), everyone is
charging in, metaphorical guns blazing. This is not hyperbole.
This morning I saw a spy photo of an Indonesian mafia-run
operation: a big seedy-looking room full of guys with stacks of
phones doing fake ride bookings. Amazon just launched same-day
Prime delivery in Singapore. Didi and Softbank and countless
others are funneling money into the key players. I’m not
exaggerating in the slightest when I say the world’s attention is
focused right here on Grab’s territory, on that network of green
motorcycle helmets. Oil companies, power companies, car companies,
battery companies, credit card companies, banks, international
restaurateurs, tourism companies, taxi companies, airlines,
retailers — dozens of major industries are going to be impacted by
this land war for better or worse, and they’re all fighting to
make damn sure it’s “for better” for themselves.
Bezos has been trying for twenty years to
solve the last-mile problem. Back in 1999 he pulled us all into a
room and told all 300-odd of us employees that Amazon was dying.
This was during the spectacular inflection point in Amazon’s
hockey stick growth curve, and we all gaped at him, wondering what
the hell he was smoking. He told us calmly that all we sold were
books, music and video, and all of them were being digitized and
would die soon. Right then and there he predicted the Kindle and
iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, none of which emerged until years
later. He said that if we didn’t get into hardlines and other
businesses, we’d be dead in a few years. He told us we had to be
able to sell and ship anything, a live elephant if need be. So we
at the same time, he told us that if people couldn’t get their
barbecue on the same day, then we were always going to lose to the
local merchants. So he set out to solve the last-mile problem:
Getting your order to you within an hour or so. And 20 years
later, he still hasn’t solved it. Sure, yes, they have same-day
delivery for a few SKUs in a few cities, and he’s got AmazonFresh
and some other fledgling attempts. But for essentially the whole
world, the last-mile problem wasn’t solved until ride-hailing
networks came along.
there is nowhere more difficult to solve that last mile than
Southeast Asia. They have some of the highest population density,
the worst traffic, the worst infrastructure, and the most people
with smartphones who want their stuff now, now, now.
is going to win this war. I know it now because I’ve met them, and
I’ve met their allies, and I’ve met their customers. Grab has an
unbelievable team. Unlike Google, who can’t be bothered to descend
the ivory tower to visit real customers, Grab’s mantra is: “Go
to the ground”. They constantly encourage every
employee to get involved with actual Grab users as often as
possible, so that as an organization they can be instantly aware
of both customer needs and incoming market changes, and pivot
can’t emphasize enough how powerful that mantra is. Amazon’s motto
is “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company”, and they have built a
brand trusted by everyone on earth. But they only interact with
their customers once a year — Jeff Bezos mandates that every
leader in the company spend a day a year in the customer call
centers, because info relayed back from Customer Service reps
doesn’t paint the full picture. You have to experience it.
Google (“Focus on the User and all else will follow”) employees
basically never interact
with their customers. Amazon only puts its ear to the ground
sporadically, and Google, never.
you want to hear the latest rumors and real customer needs, then
you need all your leaders to be out talking to real customers. You
can predict how innovative a company will be by watching how close
they are to their customers. This will also predict how responsive
they will be to market shifts. “Going to the ground” as a
corporate culture is a leading indicator of innovative success.
For Amazon it’s yearly. Grab is aiming for daily.
Their employees all use Grab to commute, which provides direct
contact with drivers and other passengers. (We need to find a way
in the Grab Seattle eng office, somehow.)
to the ground is how Xplosive saw that they needed to sell their
truck and start a kitchen, easily a year before anyone else. It’s
how Peach realized food delivery was going to be huge before
Amazon, Uber and Facebook, all of whom only learned about it from
competitors. You innovate by going to the ground. And that’s
Grab’s motto, which they take dead seriously.
will win because they go to the ground.
seen Grab’s hunger. I’ve felt it. I have it. This space is win or
die. They will fight to the death, and I am with them. This
company, with some 3000 employees I think, is more unified than
I’ve seen with most 5-person companies. This is the kind of
focused camaraderie, cooperation and discipline that you typically
only see in the military, in times of war.
should hardly surprise you, because that’s exactly what this is.
This is war.
am giving everything I’ve got to help Grab win. I am all in. You’d
be amazed at what you can accomplish when you’re all in.
you can’t win a war without allies.
give me a call.