Vidit Agrawal said that he wants to “go back to building companies”
In early 2013, Uber was a relatively unknown name in Asia’s transportation industry; taxi companies were still snug in their monopolistic positions.
Today, Uber has forced these companies to grovel at its feet. The ride-hailing giant’s fast and aggressive take-no-prisoners approach has allowed it to establish strong footholds in several Southeast Asian markets. Helping to lead the charge was Vidit Agrawal, who handled strategic partnerships for APAC.
Agarwal, who first joined Uber as an operations manager, also happened to be the company’s first Asia-based hire.
Now, after five long years — sticking with the company through its triumphant and turbulent times — Agrawal has departed for a much smaller company, Singapore-based online car marketplace Carro. He joins the company as its Chief Operating Officer (COO).
In a phone interview with e27, Agrawal said he wanted to go back to basics, go back to building small companies and help them scale.
Below is the edited excerpt from the interview:
You were Uber’s first employee in Asia. Tell me, what did it feel like becoming its first hire?
I was working for a bank (UBS Investment Bank) back then. But then I wanted to join an American startup. I had spent some time in Silicon Valley, so I approached a few companies, such as Airbnb and Spotify.
Then I approached Uber — I contacted some of the guys through LinkedIn. I had met Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick in 2009 and thought of him as a maverick. Then, there was an Uber launcher — guys who find new markets for the company — who was in Singapore during Deepavali. So I met him and it turned out Uber was thinking about launching an office in Singapore.
I thought that the best way to launch a product regionally to markets such as India and China was to do it via Singapore. So I joined the company then. This was in December 2012.
Did you think the ride-sharing market in Asia would become as enormous — and competitive — as it has today?
Frankly, I didn’t believe Uber would become that big. I wasn’t thinking about unicorns back then. I just thought Uber as a company with many smart people building a really great product.
Now, the ride-sharing market is super-competitive. Uber and Grab are very creative in their approach and have a lot of cash to experiment. In 2014, I came up with the idea of a car-renting business, and today it’s called the Lion City Rental (LCR). That would not have been possible without financial backing.
Over time, however, there would be some logic and stabilisation in the market. You can’t subsidise the market forever; at some point, the money would run out.
Uber has been battling an avalanche of legal battles recently. It has also faced shutdowns in multiple markets. Did these problems catch you off guard? How did you deal with them?
As an ex-employee of Uber, I still have a lot of faith in the company. We have made many mistakes as we grow. Regarding the legal issues, we will let the judiciary run its course.
How do you think Uber’s management and culture can be improved?
There have been a lot of negative media, but I think Uber has a lot of strong and smart people leading the company.
The beautiful thing is that in six months, Uber has taken steps to make quick changes, with a lot of heart in it. The company is working towards building a good culture. I’m quite positive about the company. Mistakes have been made but I think good change is coming.
Why did you leave Uber?
I have been with Uber for 5 years, and I still have a lot of respect for Uber and its people, but I wanted to join a smaller company.
The idea was to go back to the basics. I love building companies, building teams, and building profitable businesses. So I thought it was a good time to get my hands dirty again. The Singapore startup market is exciting. There is some good tech here.
But why Carro? What attracted you to them?
Carro CEO Aaron Tan is a super smart guy. I’m very impressed by his vision and how he has mapped out the opportunities. If you think about cars, a lot has changed in the industry. But the actual sales and purchase of it still haven’t been touched.
It still feels very old-fashioned; there’s a lot of manual processes. So Aaron’s vision was to automate it. Also, I am personally interested in the automotive industry.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year as COO of Carro?
The goal is to bring the business to 10x and help grow the business internationally. The vision is to be the top second-hand car marketplace in Southeast Asia.
Do you have any side-projects going on?
I do a bit of angel investing. I also teach at General Assembly and Startupbootcamp FinTech. And I’m also an advisor at Scooterson Inc, an electric scooter startup in Singapore.
I like to give back and share education.
Image Credit: Vidit Agrawal
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