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Singaporean superapp Grab IPOs – badly – and promises to focus on maps and money

Shares fell over 20 per cent in its first day on NASDAQ

Singaporean superapp Grab has signaled an intention to further its digital banking segment and beef up its mapping tech to improve its ride-hailing services, after an underwhelming debut on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

In an interview on the sidelines of the US market opening yesterday, Grab CEO Anthony Tan told Nikkei Asia that building better digital maps of the areas in which it operates is the number one technology the superapp company will focus on over the next decade.

"We invest in mapping because it's a very local technology: Local technology on the drivers' side, merchants' side and consumers' side gives us an edge versus other peers," said Tan. The company's second priority is figuring out how to deliver groceries more efficiently for both partners and consumers – which is why the mapping effort will concentrate on finding places drivers can stop.

Dr Jan Ondrus, a researcher of digital business models and ecosystems at Singapore's ESSEC Business School, told The Register better maps make sense for Grab, but he feels unsure if the company can improve on the likes of Google Maps.

Tan also said digital banking and financial services – specifically the company's e-wallet GrabPay and lending services – will also receive extra investment. Ondrus said Grab won't be alone chasing those markets, but may have a headstart.

Tan said Grab's new initiatives are "All ... built on a technology that can scale across countries."

But for now, Tan hinted he feels it is best to stay focused on Southeast Asia. "We say internally, 'Why do we want to go out when everyone's trying to come into Southeast Asia?'" he mused.

The Grab CEO further elucidated his strategy:

If we can build the most efficient, lowest cost, on-demand delivery network across all Southeast Asia, that will help a lot of MSMEs (micro, small, medium enterprises) rise. We believe we are building the financial core infrastructure of the future, such as digital banking.

[This] will help other people rise, help all MSMEs rise. That, to me, is a very exciting, huge opportunity. And by building a core infrastructure, we will rise with Southeast Asia.

The superapp started in 2012 and now operates across 465 cities in eight Southeast Asia countries. Originally a taxi-hailing app, it's ridden the waves of COVID by adding services such as food and grocery delivery, payments, insurance, and even lending.

Yesterday, it made its market debut on NASDAQ. Readers who wish to become viewers can see an obviously chuffed Tan cheering loudly for the gig economy as he rings the bell at the 23:45 mark in this video:

Youtube Video

The listing is the biggest ever by a Southeast Asian company and has raised US$4.5 billion.

The IPO has been watched carefully due to Grab's use of a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) to conduct a listing. SPACS list, then invest in a business – a route to public ownership that delivers the benefits without much of the scrutiny required to float independently.

The system, however, seems good enough for the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Tan pointed out. As for local regulators in SE Asia, Tan said the company's approach was to work very collaboratively.

"We helped the Malaysian government to disperse COVID relief money to the population," he pointed out.

Local relationships seem to have benefitted Grab, as has local knowledge and a deeper understanding of the needs of the populace. When Uber expanded into Southeast Asia, Grab was already entrenched. Uber eventually sold its entire regional effort to Grab, thus admitting it could not defeat home field advantage.

Investors weren't keen on Grab's debut as a public entity. Shares closed at US$8.75 after its first day on the market – a twenty per cent fall on opening prices. ®

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