Market insights

How Asian start-ups such as Grab and Lazada outsmart their global competitors

02 November 2017 by Anthony Fensom

A number of Asian start-ups are giving their larger global competitors a run for their money. Notable successes include ride-hailing service Grab, e-commerce group Lazada and real estate company PropertyGuru, which have fought off more established competitors to achieve rapid growth across Asia.

The secret of their success seems to lie in finding the right combination of local flavour, innovative breakthroughs and strategic partnerships.  

Asian business and brand strategist, Martin Roll, points to common characteristics of successful start-ups.

“Whether East or West, the anatomy of a start-up is really the same – it’s about disrupting, it’s about newness, it’s about arbitrage,” says Roll, an 18-year resident of Singapore, and adviser to Fortune 100 and family businesses. He also suggests that local knowledge and being agile are key to success.

“Grab, Lazada and PropertyGuru were all early movers who had excellent timing, were well-funded and helped turn traditional industries upside down… For locals, there’s a sense of ‘yes, Asia can do it’, and that instils a sense of local optimism and patriotism too.”

Different players we spoke to in the start-up scene point out that among the myriad success factors that go into making a local player successful on the regional or global stage, three stand out as mandatory.

Be a global or regional brand, but behave like a local one: Localise your strategy to each market

Like many start-ups, Singapore-based PropertyGuru was founded with the goal of fixing an existing problem. Co-founders Steve Melhuish and Jani Rautiainen were frustrated with their experiences seeking a property in Singapore, which in the mid-2000s required searching through “postage stamp-sized ads” in newspapers. After spending hours scouring through print classifieds, they realised the need for a better alternative and started PropertyGuru.

Since its launch in 2007, PropertyGuru has grown from a start-up in a small shop to become a regional powerhouse, claiming market leadership in four of its five markets. It currently connects over 35,000 agents, real estate developers and property sellers with 23 million property seekers a month, across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

CEO Hari Krishnan describes its successful strategy as “developing deep focus, be it in the domain of real estate or the market that we are in”. He explains: “By spending a good amount of time in each market to truly understand customer pain points, we are able to improve our existing offerings.”

Malaysia-based Grab has similarly succeeded by tailoring its product to the local market and using digital innovation to stay ahead of the game as part of its hyperlocal strategy.

Since its founding in 2012 by two Harvard Business School graduates, Grab has become the dominant ride-hailing app in Southeast Asia, succeeding despite the competitive threat from global operators such as California’s Uber.

An example of Grab’s hyperlocal strategy is GrabBike, which offers safe on-demand motorbikes in cities such as Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City where these vehicles are used to beat traffic congestion. Similarly, in Singapore Grab runs a number of localised campaigns, including a recent one to celebrate the country’s National Day by allowing Singaporeans to order durians via the Grab app, which were then delivered by a Grab driver.

In contrast, Uber sought to implement the same strategies that brought it success in Western markets. This included requiring customers to have credit cards, which are not always common in Asia, as well as using variable pricing compared to Grab’s fixed fares.

Now operating in six countries, Grab aims to maintain market leadership by investing in new services such as Grab for Work, which helps businesses manage employees’ taxi expenses.

Use technology to offer innovative products and services that are useful to your consumers

Technological innovation has been key to the success of Asia’s start-ups. E-commerce retailer Lazada was founded in Singapore in 2012 and has been described as the ‘Amazon of Southeast Asia’. The company now operates in six Southeast Asian markets:  Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Lazada Singapore CEO Alexis Lanternier attributes the company’s success to “having our ears on the ground, listening to our customers and innovating to enhance the shopper experience”.

One such innovation is its LiveUp customer loyalty programme, which rewards Singapore’s digital natives for their lifestyle with discounts from brands such as RedMart, Netflix and Uber, as well as Lazada itself. According to Lanternier, the reward scheme has tripled its targets and enabled a “healthy conversion rate” from trial to paid memberships.

PropertyGuru’s Krishnan also points to the importance of innovation “to help solve consumer pain points”.

“For instance, we realise that difficult traffic conditions and the frequency of cross-border property investments mean that consumers often spend a lot of time travelling to see a property, only to realise that it is not suitable for them. Using virtual reality technology, we help consumers explore a property or allow real estate developers to bring their properties to roadshows in other countries,” he says.

Work together to make the best use of each other’s strengths: Cultivate strong partnerships to create a beneficial ecosystem

Building a strong network of partners, which includes small businesses and e-commerce service providers, is also key to successful growth.

In Grab’s case, its taxi service, GrabTaxi, is built on partnerships with three Singapore taxi companies that enable drivers to accept bookings on the Grab platform, giving the company exclusive access to these taxi fleets.

Lanternier points out that a country such as Singapore offers just this kind of opportunity for partnership, which involves “leveraging on each other’s strengths with the common goal of benefitting the customer”.

He adds: “Singapore has all the right ingredients for a company to set up its headquarters – good governance, reliable infrastructure, and clear, transparent regulations and laws. It is also centrally located in Southeast Asia and an established travel hub. These are the key reasons Lazada Group decided to base itself here since 2012.”

By focusing on the needs of local customers and addressing their pain points, being innovative and developing strong partnerships, Asian  start-ups are poised for even more rapid expansion across world.