After Taking Grab Regional, Eugene Strives to Help Southeast Asian Startups Execute Their Way to Success
We live in exciting times. Recent years have seen the emergence of Southeast Asia’s very first unicorns — startups valued at over $1 billion — the stories of whom we’re now all too familiar with.
But these tales have also perpetuated the myth that founding the next unicorn startup is simply a matter of having a billion-dollar idea, a truckload of cash, and a little bit of luck.
As founders and entrepreneurs ourselves, we at Monk’s Hill Ventures believe otherwise. Far from being overnight successes, billion-dollar startups are built one hire, one process, and one sale at a time. Just ask Eugene Hong, who spent 7.5 years launching and building operations for Grab in markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
“In the early days, there was a lot of hustling. I was the seventh hire at Grab, and I played three to five roles at that time-I was the business development guy, the customer service guy, and even the sales guy,” he recalls.
It was, in Eugene’s words, one of the “craziest” and “busiest” times of his life. There was even a point where he had to travel to four countries within a single week.
By overcoming the numerous challenges and obstacles that a hypergrowth startup like Grab faced regularly, Eugene gained a wealth of experience in launching and building operations in multiple markets across the region. It is this experience and knowledge that he now brings to Monk’s Hill Ventures’ portfolio companies as our newly minted Investment Principal.
But as it turns out, his decision to join Grab back in 2012 was in fact “a stroke of luck.”
A stroke of luck
When he was in university, Eugene majored in actuarial studies and finance. “I wanted to become an actuary or an investment banker,” he says. After three years of studies, however, he realized that he had no desire to “sit behind a desk, crunching numbers all the time.”
Instead, he wanted to “meet people and solve problems.” So upon graduating from the Australian National University, Eugene joined Accenture Malaysia as a business consultant, and spent 2.5 years there learning the ropes.
In 2012, he received two opportunities to advance his career: return to Australia, or join a bank in Singapore. But a third opportunity soon presented itself under unlikely circumstances.
“My ex-boss had her car stolen, and she lived near me. So I fetched her to work for the last three months of her notice period,” Eugene recalls. “And then she started to pitch me on the startup that she was going to be moving to, which turned out to be Grab.”
In those three months, she told him stories about the founder, Anthony Tan, and his mission of changing the taxi industry for the better. It was a subtle form of “brainwashing,” Eugene recounts with a laugh, but it worked.
“I thought, if I wanted to leave Malaysia to explore, why not give this startup with a good social cause a shot first?” he adds.
While Eugene had to let go of two great opportunities to join the then-bootstrapped startup, he truly believed in the mission.
At the start, Eugene decided to give Grab two years to “see how far I can go.” Little did he know that he would end up staying for 7.5 years instead.
One of the key challenges he faced was in hiring-particularly in the first couple of years as a regional launcher. “I was flying everywhere to work with country heads, train teams from scratch, build operations, and provide them with the data they needed,” he recalls.
At that time, Grab had just raised its series A funding round, which was sizable, but not nearly enough for Grab’s ambitions.
To do this, Eugene and his team had to be creative. “For sales guys, I would go to the shopping malls every day to find credit card sellers, or even people selling products, and ask them to be our salespeople,” he says.
This turned out to be one of their most effective hiring methods. The team managed to gather over a hundred salespeople within a month, who in turn signed up 50 to 100 drivers a day each.
For customer service and admin positions, Eugene looked to ex-hoteliers to fill in the gaps.
Beyond hiring, Eugene also had to overcome a number of hurdles when building up processes and operations for core functions in country after country.
For customer service, that meant documenting and implementing various standard operating procedures (SOPs), as well as onboarding the team on internal tools. On the sales front, he had to develop the entire sales framework from scratch: from sales policies and incentives to pitch decks and marketing materials.
Finally, Eugene was also in charge of gathering business intelligence and analytics. “At that time, we were competing with well-funded global giants like EasyTaxi and Uber, so we had to form a systematic and methodical way to gather marketing intelligence,” he says.
And as Grab grew rapidly, Eugene had to ensure that these processes and operations scaled right alongside. By the time they expanded to Indonesia in 2014, most of that playbook had already been established by Eugene and his team.
His toughest challenge, however, was yet to come.
Going deep into Indonesia
“Our goal within the first two years was to have more transactions and drivers than the incumbent,” Eugene recalls. “Out of all the markets, we had decided to launch in Indonesia last because it was the toughest market, and we wanted to have all our SOPs and internal products sorted out first.”
To Eugene, this was quite a different challenge from what he had faced before. He had to figure out how to build up a local team, and a local set of operations that’s very specific to Indonesia.
In the first two years, Eugene and his team managed to expand into the top 10 cities. By the third year, they had scaled operations to second and third-tier satellite cities in Indonesia. Yet, there were moments when he almost threw in the towel. The height of the taxi riots in Indonesia was one of those.
It took four years for Grab to win the transportation market in Indonesia, and Eugene was convinced by the company to stay on and win the rest of the market-namely, in food.
By now, Eugene had gained a reputation for being a “fixer and executer”, and GrabFood Indonesia was facing new challenges as it grew bigger. So once again, he put on his operations cap and went back to work. Within the first year, he had succeeded in raising their market share.
One of the main lessons learned from his time in Indonesia was that every country’s needs and user behavior is unique-and the tech and product people in the team need to understand that.
“We worked closely together to create Indonesia-specific solutions that will make the whole user journey easier not just for merchants, but for the users and for drivers too,” he says. “It was a challenge because many solutions had to be hyperlocalized.”
Localization is made easier if the proper research is done way before entering the respective market. “You need to be convinced that you are able to find the right local talent and that your product fits the local market,” explains Eugene. “Last thing you want is to bring in a product that is nice to have but no real users.”
Of course, as a famous boxer once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. In other words, the CEO or launcher needs to be “very hands-on and have local presence in the country, especially in the early stages,” says Eugene. This not only helps with the morale of the team, but also in giving you a “feel of the field [and] a lot of good local insights that will help you in your go-to-market strategy.”
Eugene also cautions against “losing your startup’s DNA.” In particular, it’s critical that the company’s vision, mission, and principles are communicated strongly and clearly in every market your startup is in.
Execution and hiring
Eugene certainly has some impressive numbers to show from his time at Grab. However, he finds the greatest sense of satisfaction comes from being able to build strong, reliable teams from the ground-up.
“Many of the people I hired have grown into roles far bigger than they thought they could be in,” he explains. “In fact, many of my early hires have gone on to becoming a business owner for one of the verticals at Grab, or even started their own companies.”
“That is my proudest accomplishment in this journey I’ve taken.”
Now, Eugene is ready to embark on a brand new journey on the other side of the table at Monk’s Hill Ventures. “I asked myself, what would give me the same drive and fulfilment as I’ve had at Grab?” he says. “It was either to join a venture capitalist (VC) firm or a conglomerate. And Monk’s Hill Ventures was the first and only VC that I reached out to.”
It just so happened that our belief in “entrepreneurs backing entrepreneurs” resonated strongly with him as well.
Not surprisingly, the key challenge that he wants to help founders tackle is in execution. “Most founders I’ve talked to have interesting ideas, good concepts. But when asked about how they are going to execute on it, they don’t have a clear answer,” Eugene explains.
The second challenge Eugene is uniquely qualified to address is in hiring. How can early-stage startups hire the right people? According to him, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, he recommends founders be a “talent magnet” and actively “sell their larger-than-life problem and how the candidates can be part of that story to drive change.”
“Talented and capable people are always hungry for the next challenge in their career,” Eugene explains. “Flex out all of your contacts for a good referral and scout for talent in avenues that you never thought.”
Finally, Eugene is prepared to share from the mistakes he’s made at Grab, which he admits are many. “I’d love to share with founders the learnings we’ve made from those mistakes, how we managed to manoeuvre around them, innovated and corrected them,” he says.
For this reason, Eugene appreciates founders who are “open to feedback […] ask really critical questions, and really hear you out.”
Mergers and acquisitions
Having seen Grab through multiple acquisitions and mergers, Eugene is well-versed in the art of cultural integration as well.
The first important step, he explains, is to “establish a common mission that both companies can and want to achieve together.” And this responsibility rests largely on the company’s leadership.
“It is more inspiring for the team to see their top leaders working together to accomplish something greater, than one leader being helmed as the victorious party over the other from the M&A,” Eugene adds.
Focusing on the mission also helps with building organizational empathy between both sides. Similar to any couple in a marriage, there are bound to be differences in M&As, Eugene says.
“Teams might have different values, cultures or best practices. It’s an understandable fear that they are “trumped” over and they might lose their identity or comfort zone,” he continues. “These fears can be averted by having both sides focus on the mission, that they are in it together.”
To achieve this, leaders need to ensure that clear and empathetic communication is being practiced as well — particular on the acquirer’s end.
“It is not an easy journey, especially for the one being acquired,” Eugene concludes. “The acquirer should be the bigger person. A collaborative handshake is much better than a victorious fist in the air. The acquirer should be firm in preventing any toxic conversations, and foster trust, synergy, and relationship.”
Still bullish about Indonesia
Having spent a good part of his Grab journey in Indonesia, Eugene thinks that the country’s best days are still ahead of it.
“I feel like Indonesia will have a tech quantum leap,” he explains, pointing to China’s transition from cash-based society to going cashless, bypassing credit and debit cards altogether. “The pace of adoption of e-wallets and e-payments is a lot faster than what I’ve seen in Malaysia, for instance.”
As for markets that he’s interested in exploring, Eugene is particularly excited about industries that are not so heavily invested in, such as agritech, proptech, and renewable energy.
His goal at Monk’s Hill Ventures? To find the “one hidden gem” that will, in the next four to five years, become a unicorn.
Originally published at https://www.monkshill.com on July 22, 2020