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Kevin Aluwi is the co-founder and former CEO of Gojek. With over 2.7 million drivers and over 3 billion orders completed, Gojek is the biggest startup in Indonesia and all of Southeast Asia. In today’s podcast, Kevin shares the story of how Gojek overcame endless obstacles—including being underfunded, being unable to send drivers payment, and the local motorcycle mafia coming after their drivers. We cover the importance of brand, the value of doing the hard things, how to be super-scrappy, and helpful tips on building a tech company outside of Silicon Valley.
Where to find Kevin Aluwi:
• Twitter: https://twitter.com/kaluwi
• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kaluwi/
Where to find Lenny:
• Newsletter: https://www.lennysnewsletter.com
• Twitter: https://twitter.com/lennysan
• LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lennyrachitsky/
• Gojek: https://www.gojek.com/en-id/
• WeChat: https://www.wechat.com/
• Sequoia: https://www.sequoiacap.com/
• eFishery: https://efishery.com/en/
• What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture: https://www.amazon.com/What-You-Do-Who-Are/dp/0062871331
• How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know: https://www.amazon.com/How-Brands-Grow-What-Marketers/dp/0195573560/
• The Menu on HBO: https://www.hbo.com/movies/the-menu
• Cyberpunk Edgerunners on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81054853
• Arc: https://arc.net/
• Steam Deck: https://store.steampowered.com/steamdeck
In this episode, we cover:
(00:00) Kevin’s background
(05:00) How Gojek got started and the current scale
(08:35) Some of the services that Gojek currently offers or has offered
(09:37) Kevin’s thoughts on super-apps
(15:36) The importance of brand
(23:08) How to create branding with consistency across copy and design
(26:53) Challenges Gojek had in the early days that required scrappiness
(33:03) Why Kevin doesn’t believe in moats as a durable solution, and the value of doing hard things
(37:30) How Gojek hired private security to keep their drivers safe
(39:38) The value of founders doing and understanding multiple roles within the company
(44:12) How Kevin’s failed finance career led him to take a bet on building tech in Indonesia
(47:30) Tips on building a tech company outside of Silicon Valley
(52:09) What the market is like in Indonesia
(55:42) What’s next for Kevin
(57:41) Lightning round
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Kevin Aluwi (00:00:00):
In the early days of Gojek, there was a lot of resistance to our services. The most common form of that resistance in the early days was actually by motorcycle taxi mafia. So you would have these areas that are essentially controlled through violence by specific area mafia. And when we start having drivers pick up orders and pick up passengers, these people would actually physically assault our drivers. We've had everything from bricks thrown at our drivers to knives and machetes being brandished at them, and I think it would've been easy for us to say like, "Hey, they're all contractors. They're third parties, let them kind of just sort it out." But instead, we actually hired private security. So we actually work with private security companies to help our drivers in those situations, to help kind of extract them out of these sticky situations. And so we actually ran a fairly big private security operation for a fairly long time.
Welcome to Lenny's podcast, where I interview world-class product leaders and growth experts to learn from their hard won experiences building and growing today's most successful products. Today my guest is Kevin Aluwi. Kevin is the co-founder and former CEO of a company called Gojek, which I've always been fascinated by. You may recall a former guest Crystal Widjaja, who was head of growth at Gojek, and I've always wanted to get more of the story. Gojek is infamous for their scrappiness, their unique approach to ops and growth, and as being one of the first and most successful super apps in the world. They've also long been maybe the biggest startup in Indonesia and all of Southeast Asia. Kevin and the story of Gojek have a lot to teach founders in the US and all over the world, and so I was really excited to sit down with Kevin to dig into the story, he did not disappoint.
You'll hear all kinds of wild stories about them having to hire a private security team to protect their drivers, having to build their own cash distribution centers to pay their drivers, plus how they won in large part thanks to their early investment in brand, why it's important to do the hard things as a startup. Also, why super apps are surprisingly overrated and much more. Enjoy this episode with Kevin Aluwi after a short word from our sponsors.
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Kevin, welcome to the podcast.
Kevin Aluwi (00:05:03):
Thank you. Thanks for having me, Lenny. We've finally made it happen after a few weeks or months of going back and forth.
Yeah, I'm really excited to finally meet you and to dig into a bunch of stuff. I think this is going to be a really unique episode. I don't often have founders on the podcast, especially founders of companies that are not based in the US. In this case, Indonesia, Crystal Widjaja, who is on this podcast previously. One of my favorite guests is just like "Lenny, you got to get Kevin on your podcast." And so here we are.
Kevin Aluwi (00:05:32):
I'm glad to be in a small group of category of people that you invite. Thank you. I'm a huge fan of what you do.
Thanks, man, I really appreciate that. And just redirect to you, you are the co-founder of a company called Gojek. Many people listening have never heard of Gojek, especially people in the US. So just to start, can you just describe what is Gojek, what do y'all do? And then also I think more interestingly is just the scale of I think people in the US, their mind will blow once they hear the scale you've reached with this company. They probably hadn't heard of it.
Kevin Aluwi (00:06:03):
So Gojek started as a motorcycle taxi based service. So it's a kind of uniquely Indonesian things where we have millions of motorcycle taxi drivers in all of the urban centers in Indonesia. And so we started with a very local problem and the first product was a on-demand super app, if you will, where you could ask someone on a motorcycle to give you a ride, send a package for you or buy something and deliver it to you. This then evolved over the years into a more general on demand consumer super app that also included car drivers and other services ranging from the ones mentioned to grocery deliveries and payments and financial services.
And today we took the company public about a year and a half ago after we merged with Indonesia's top e-commerce platform. And we've managed to also expand outside of just Indonesia, where today we have about 2.7 million drivers across Southeast Asia. We've completed about 3 billion orders last year, so that's 3 billion orders. So the scale of our region is often under underappreciated, where we also have about 15 million merchants doing general e-commerce, but also restaurants on our food delivery service. And on that IPO, we're pretty proud to say that it was Indonesia's largest IPO of all time, where we raised over a billion dollars at something like 27, 28 billion dollars in terms of valuation.
And these numbers you shared 2.7 million drivers, 30 billion orders,
Kevin Aluwi (00:07:55):
3 billion. How would that compare to an Uber or Lyft?
Kevin Aluwi (00:07:58):
I don't know what their latest numbers are, but just in terms of the numbers of people and the number of activity, I would place our scale among the largest US companies.
That's pretty wild that there's this company out there that a lot of people didn't know about that is basically of the scale of Uber and Lyft.
Kevin Aluwi (00:08:17):
In terms of volume, I would say that we're up there with Uber globally and definitely larger than Lyft. I don't remember how many drivers are in the US, but we definitely have more drivers in the region than all of America.
Just to kind of check this check box, you said it was a super app. What are all the things that Gojek does? Just whatever you want to share, all the things that you can do.
Kevin Aluwi (00:08:43):
From the point when we had the most services, we had everything from ride hailing to package delivery to food delivery, to grocery deliveries. We had moving services on trucks and vans. We had on demand massages, cleaning services. You could get your hair done on Gojek, you could order movie tickets, you could get a loan, you could pay for things. I think at our peak we had something like near 30 different services all in one app.
I think it's like you're officially a super app if your founder can't even remember all the things that you do right now.
Kevin Aluwi (00:09:25):
Yeah, definitely. I would challenge anyone within the company to be able to name all of our services that we've ever had on the app because it was pretty wild at one point. And I'd love to talk a little bit about my thoughts on super apps at some point during the session because I definitely have some mixed views over it as a product strategy as we've gone through that whole cycle.
It might be actually a good time just to jump into it. I know that I was actually saving that for later, but this might be a good time. And part of the reason I think this is really interesting is if you open up Uber these days, it's like 40 things that they're offering now. Elon at Twitter is talking about turning Twitter into a super app like payments, communication, messaging, all these things. So I think it's a really interesting trend that continues to pop up here in the US and I would absolutely love to hear your perspective on super apps.
Kevin Aluwi (00:10:19):
Okay, I'm going to come off a little strong on this, but I am kind of annoyed at how much it's being mentioned these days. It's really popular in VC-consultant-analyst circles because it sounds really great on a strategy deck because all of the things that are really appealing, we'll talk about lower customer acquisition costs, higher attach rates to different products, talk about higher retention across different services, the ease of cross-selling and upselling. All of these things sound great, but in reality, a lot of those benefits don't pan out. And one probably really good example that I like to reference is that I remember one of our products was mobile phone top up and recharge. In Southeast Asia, a majority of people are on prepaid plans instead of postpaid plans. So everyone basically buys their minutes and their data plans upfront in the beginning of the week or the beginning of the month.
So we had a product which was a mobile top-up product. And so the reason I mentioned this specific product as a really illustrative point on super apps is that it's a product that 95% plus of our customers need because they're all on prepaid plans. So it's a very relevant product. And we had our UX research research team actually look into why the engagement in the product wasn't as high as we thought it should be. So one of the questions that our URX team asked our customers was like, "Hey, do you know that you could top up your mobile minutes and by data on the Gojek app?" And only about 40% of our customers, like 30 or 40% of our customers knew that this product existed. And that completely blew our minds because one, it's a product that is relevant for all of our customers.
Two, it was literally there on one of the six buttons on the homepage. And I think the insight that we got here was that there kind of needs to be a unifying concept across all of your services within the app for your users to be able to think about your product in a sensible way. And for us, the way that our customers thought about us was that they thought about the driver. And so when we went from ride hailing to package delivery to food delivery, to grocery delivery, customers really understood that. And we didn't have to sell this idea to our customers that you had all of these services under one app because they thought about the Gojek driver. That made sense. You can easily cross sell somebody from a ride hailing customer to a grocery customer or a food delivery customer because they understood the unifying factor there being the driver.
But then when you start doing other things that don't have that unifying factor in terms of the concept that a customer has when they think about your service, it starts breaking down. So one other fun UXR insight here was when we launched massage services. So we had at one point though we've shut it down a few years after, we had massage services where you can order a masseuse to come to your place. And a question that many of our customers asked was that, "oh, is the driver going to come into my house and give me a massage?" And for us, that was insane. Of course not, our drivers are not trained masseuses, but that was the question that people asked because they thought like, "oh, this app is an app for these driver related services, so if there was a massage service, I'm assuming it's that same man who's going to give me a massage."
And so I think this kind of illustrates the importance of having these unifying concepts that are easy for customers to think about the multiple different services. It's not as simple as just saying, oh, we have a lot of engagement, we have a lot of eyeballs at a service. And then you have a super app that makes sense for customers. And so that whole nirvana of lower CAC, higher retention that are all on these great strategy decks often don't pan out because you kind of have to then resell this idea of like, oh, this is another service and that you can use. And that's a bit of investment that you have to actually put in terms of advertising and customer education that increases those customer acquisition costs.
And it also leads to design constraints because there's only so many ways you can display a whole bunch of different services that actually have little to do with each other, which is why when you see super apps today, it's kind of like this giant menu or this giant grid which does limit the design decisions that you can make, which is unfortunate because if you actually, I think it's an unsolved problem at this point.
It's hilarious story about the massage product. Sounds like a lot of startups are going to have some issues scaling to new products and trying to become a super app. I want to shift a little bit and talk about brand. I did a little research on you ahead of this chat. I watched your Marshall graduation and speech and a few other interviews you did, and something that came out of your previous writing and talks is just how much you care about brand and how much value you put into brand. And that you just have a lot of opinions about the importance of brand. And to me and to most people, brand is this really squishy thing and it's hard to know what exactly to do to build your brand, when to prioritize it, how to prioritize it amongst other things you're doing, especially early on. So I'd love to hear your advice for founders that are listening and just like, what should I actually do around brand? What's your advice for how to tactically do something about brand and also just why do you think it's so important?
Kevin Aluwi (00:16:23):
I do agree with you that it is kind of this squishy thing that most people see as an afterthought, may be because it is kind of this squishy thing that it's hard to define, but I'm a very big believer that the two most important things in a consumer business are product and brand in that order. And I don't think I need to sell the idea, especially to your audience. That product is absolutely critical and probably the most important. But brand as an afterthought is definitely one of the areas where I think there's a giant missed opportunity for consumer tech businesses. And I get why we opened the session by talking about the size of the business to get an appreciation of the scale for audience members who might be unfamiliar with us or with the region.
But I wish I did have to start there because we actually started as a very scrappy company where we were by far the underfunded player and without brand. We probably would've never gotten to escape velocity beyond that scrappy stage, we've maintained our leadership in Indonesia through a lot of the things that we actually did on the brand side to give you a sense of how scrappy we had to be in competition.
For the first six months after launching our app, we had only raised about $2 million and our regional competitor had already raised 250. So they had literally more than a hundred times more capital than we have. So it's easy to talk about what we built as this kind of giant business, but we came from a place where we were seriously underfunded. And I think a big reason why we survived was that we built a great brand for our consumers and for our drivers and for our merchants. And I think that great brands create associations in their customer's minds that transcend the typically transactional or utilitarian one that most people have with businesses and they become part of one's identity.
I think some of the best-in-class examples of these are probably all the Apple fanboys and fangirls, Nike sneakerheads, for these individuals, the brand becomes a really big part of their identity and their loyalty towards the products of the company go beyond a relationship that can easily be swayed just through discounts or other more features that other competitors might have. And so I'm a really firm believer of how important this is because you can see it if you step out of the tech bubble for a second, you can see that there's so many great companies out there that really rely on the strength of their brand to build these fantastic businesses and to create great experiences for their customers. And you ask, what are the things that one can do?
I think for us, we invested a lot in our brand across multiple areas. And I think one specific area that I think is really important is that you create consistency across all customer touchpoints. And so branding is not just cool logo, cool advertising, fun imagery, but it's really about the impression that a customer or user has with your product and with your business. So having that consistency across all customer touchpoints is really important. So how you write copy and advertising and in the app, how you've even designed the app, but we were the first company of scale to have ads that don't take ourselves too seriously. We make fun of ourselves, we make fun of our cultural observations of Indonesia. And again, to just build this overall field that like, Hey, we get, we are part of the overall culture of Indonesia. And I think even going beyond the more aesthetic or communication oriented investments, we also leaned into cultural artifacts in our product features to really build this brand that is part of day-to-day culture.
One of my favorite cultural artifacts is that in Asia it's fairly common to send food as gifts to your loved ones or maybe people you're interested in dating. So people would send over food as gifts to their romantic interests. And so when we launched our food delivery service, a lot of people were actually using it for this, I'm going to send it to my boyfriend or my girlfriend or the person that I'm interested in dating. And so it became this whole cultural phenomenon of sending go-food for these people and we kind of lean into it in our product feature where all of the other players in the market at the time basically only allowed you to deliver food to your home or your office, but we actually created a feature that allowed you to choose a delivery point that was far away from where you were.
There was a lot of reasons why other companies didn't allow it at the time because it's like, oh, it might be used for fraud and stuff like that. But we leaned into it, we leaned into it and actually created features that allowed to put your pickup point far away from where your actual location was. And then we just had fun with this whole idea of go-food dating. And so yes, it's kind of part of branding, but thinking about branding beyond just marketing communication but actually be as being relatable and being part of the culture and being sensitive of what that culture is, I think was something that we did really well in the early days that allowed us to continue maintaining leadership in spite of the fact that our competitors had more money, which meant that they could offer more discounts, they could offer more incentives to drivers, but we really kind of lean very hard into being not just a utilitarian commodity, which is what a lot of people would say is the nature of our business to some level of accuracy.
So just to get even more concrete, one takeaway from what you just shared, which is interesting, is the first part of figuring out how to approach your brand is what's the personality of your product for you? You said it was like we're just of the people, we're like you, we're here to help you, make your life easier. And then that informs the copy, the messaging, be a little, I forget how you describe it, but just almost bad grammar and stuff just because it relates more to people and then some of these product launches that connect to that. So maybe if there's anything else you want to add there that'd be interesting. And then what's like, I don't know, one or two moments that most helped build the brand. I know you're kind of famous for having helmets and jackets on the drivers that help spread the Gojek brand. Is there anything else that just like, wow, this was really effective to build this brand that ended up dominating Indonesia?
Kevin Aluwi (00:23:58):
The jackets and helmets piece I think is really, really important for two reasons. One, the more obvious reason, which is that because they were just all over the streets of many cities in Indonesia, people were familiar with the imagery and the names, but I think it's also really important that people saw what was happening. So if we were like, I don't know, an airline and we branded a bunch of people on the streets with our brand, yeah, sure, that might help with brand recall and people might know about the name. But what was really powerful was that when people would be seeing these drivers with their jackets and helmets, they would be seeing passengers on the backseat as they were stuck in traffic. So I'm stuck in traffic and I'm seeing these people whiz past me with with this imagery on them, and immediately I get that association like, oh, I'm stuck in traffic, but I could be out there cutting through traffic on a motorcycle or you see them carrying packages or delivering food, and you immediately get like, oh, these are guys who can deliver food or deliver packages for me.
And so it was like this beautiful combination of one just having that imagery and having that visual everywhere as a reminder of the brand. But more importantly, it was also a physical reminder of the service of what we do and of how we can help you. And so looking for these opportunities where again, customers can make that connection between the logo and the colors and the name with actually what the service is, I think are the opportunities that I would say people should look out for. They're admittedly quite rare, which is why in my opinion, the laziest kind of branding tends to be the most popular. Just put your name and your copy on a billboard or on a CPM or CPC campaign. But there are these opportunities I think, on being able to reinforce the value proposition of your business in a way that is beyond just visual recall. And I think that was why that specific anecdote is something I like to talk about because it was really one of those special things that reminded people on why we're here.
Yeah, I think you tweeted that it was one of the most important things you ever did as a company is decide to put these logos on the helmets and jackets. Reminds me of Lyft's pink mustache, which went away, but felt like a really important way for them to differentiate.
Kevin Aluwi (00:26:51):
You talked about how scrappy you've been, and I want to dig into that a little bit more. I think there's like US startup scrappy, and then there's like Gojek scrappy, and it'd be fun to hear maybe a story or two just to illustrate how ridiculously scrappy you were as a company early on, especially.
Kevin Aluwi (00:27:11):
One thing that we did in the early days that was absolutely crazy was that we were one of the pioneering companies, one of the pioneering technology companies in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. And so we came into a environment where a lot of the things that maybe companies or people in more developed economies take for granted, for example, having electronic or digital payments, that was something that actually didn't really exist that much when we first started. And so we had a problem of actually trying to pay drivers because drivers every day we would be paying out incentives or just having customers pay with their credit cards or their store balance, and then we'd have a challenge and getting our drivers to actually be able to take that money out for their earnings. And in the early days, we actually had cash booths. So we actually had physical spaces with a vault and cash sitting in the vault where drivers can show up that, oh, this is my driver ID and this is the balance that I have with you. Please give me the cash.
And so we would have these actual physical locations where there would be lions of drivers essentially taking cash. And we eventually figured this out of like, okay, we'll work with a bank and integrate with an ATM network and all that. But in the early days we just did it ourselves of building essentially a mini at ATM network, which I think even that sounds too fancy of what it was it. Because it was literally a booth with a vault with cash in it. And we had at the time already tens of thousands of drivers all across in Indonesia.
Another scrappy story that actually Crystal reminded me of recently that we did was at the time there was a lot of fake driver apps out there because we didn't have all of the security investments that we eventually made, things like code obfuscation and better API security that wouldn't allow for these fraudulent driver apps, these basically third party driver apps to connect to our platform. So there were a lot of these drivers using these third party driver apps that were doing things that... So they were kind of doing unsavory things like stealing driver details, some of them even as bad as financial details so that they can then at some point drain driver funds. And the way that they did it, the way that they convinced drivers to actually use these apps was that they actually added some features that at the time we didn't allow. So things like we wanted drivers to be conscious of what was happening on the app, and so we would actually make sure that drivers would push the accept order button.
We made sure that that was the only way that drivers could accept orders, but this app had a functionality that would automatically accept orders as soon as they came in. And so actually it was kind of this interesting situation where they were doing things that were fraudulent and were not safe for the integrity of the platform, but at the same time they were also providing some value to the people who were using them. And so at the time we had to make a decision of like, okay, we need to nip this in the bud and one way that we could have done it, that would've taken time was it really invest in a lot of the technical security aspects of it, but we didn't have the bandwidth to be able to do that. Engineering and security talent is actually super scarce in Southeast Asia at the time, still is today, but at that time extremely scarce.
And so we ended up making the decision of actually copying those features. So we actually saw all of these third party fraudulent apps and instead of building a whole system to prevent them from being built or preventing them from working on the platform, we just said, "Hey, let's take their top two or three features and let's build them into our app." And that actually significantly reduced the number of users on these third party apps just by having this mentality of you can't beat them, then join them. And that I would say that wasn't a philosophical decision or a principal decision. Is was actually a decision made out of necessity because we simply couldn't build all the capability to combat these apps at the time?
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These are hilarious stories that you had to compete with these ripoff jail broken apps, fraudulent apps, and then you had to build a cash box network all over the country. That's amazing. I knew there would be good stories in this question and I'm glad you delivered. There's also this feeling of within Gojek of just doing the hard thing and you just shared a couple stories of this versus the simple... A lot of startups are like, let's do the simplest thing, feels like you guys lean into the hard thing. Why is that? Where'd that come from? And then is there any other story of something that you did that was like, we'll do it the hard way?
Kevin Aluwi (00:33:41):
I really don't like the idea of moats. Again, one of the concepts that gets thrown out a lot by strategy type folks of what's the moat of your business or your product? And usually people are looking for an answer like, oh, look at this capability or look at this feature or look at this distribution partner or all of those kind of things. And I don't believe that any moats are durable over time. Eventually with enough time all moats can be crossed. And I think one so-called moat that doesn't get talked about enough is the fact that you're able to do hard things because hard things are hard and just simply doing things that are hard, as long as they create value to your customers, actually is a position that makes it harder for your competitors to be able to win over your customers because it's hard to do those things.
And probably another example of doing something that sounds very difficult was that in the early days of Gojek, there was a lot of resistance to our services and one of the forms of that resistance, one of the more most common form of that resistance in the early days was actually by motorcycle taxi mafia. So you would have these areas that are essentially controlled through violence by specific area mafia. And when we start having drivers pick up orders and pick up passengers, these people would actually physically assault our drivers. We've had everything from bricks thrown at our drivers to knives and machetes being brandished at them to just physical altercations, literally mobs of people getting into these brawls. And there was a lot of these kind of things that actually happened in the streets of Jakarta at the time. And I think it would've been easy for us to say, "Hey, they're all contractors, they're third parties, let them kind of just sort it out."
But instead we actually hired private security. So we actually work with private security companies to help these situations, to help our drivers in those situations, to help extract them out of these sticky situations. And so we actually ran a fairly big private security operation for a fairly long time until it became common to have Gojek drivers do all of these things across cities. We actually ran this very operation intensive thing just to make sure that our drivers could be as safe as possible and it showed our commitment to the driver community, it showed our commitment that we cared. And again, going back to that earlier point around having that branding association, drivers knew that, hey, we weren't just a platform that didn't care. We actually cared about their safety and that helped build that goodwill even as competitors started coming in and paying more money, we still had a lot of loyalty within the driver community because of things like that.
How did you actually have a security person on a motorcycle? Were they pretending to be the rider and then just get out and punch them in the face?
Kevin Aluwi (00:37:39):
A minority of situations were like that, but a lot of that was just like, having an on-call service where they could just dial a number and somebody within a 5-10 minute distance would actually show up. And so we would have these patrols effectively in specific hotspots where if there was a situation brewing that they would instantly or almost instantly show up to the site and help diffuse it.
I love that you have this super app that's doing all these things for people. Plus within the company you've built all these mini businesses, like a whole bank to pay people, private security company. There's probably some other... Crystal shared a story of you guys rented out a stadium for drivers to collect all the drivers and give them phones.
Kevin Aluwi (00:38:33):
Okay. This is great.
Kevin Aluwi (00:38:34):
Yeah, that I think is probably one of the hallmarks of this region in general where I have no doubt that what we were building and what we are today is a technology company, but I do think that in the early days you do have to be a lot more operations heavy. And then I think that lends to that scrappiness because there are a lot of things that to solve elegantly and technically will take a lot of time and just kind of over focusing on those type of solutions I think would be doing your customers a disservice because there are opportunities to make things a lot better just through probably more innovation in operations to kind of kickstart things until you have the more elegant, scalable, technical or product solution.
That reminds me that at Gojek, you held tons of different roles throughout the time you were there. You were obviously co-founder, your Co-CEO at one point, defacto CPO at one point, CIO, CFO. I heard that you were writing like push notification copy, became a driver at one point just to keep things running. So feels like another good example of exactly what you're talking about of just doing the hard thing in the operational component.
Kevin Aluwi (00:40:05):
I mean, yes, actually I did have a stint as an amateur performance marketer in the early days of Gojek. I would write copy, I would upload ads onto Facebook and Google and try and do my best in optimizing our online marketing spend. But I think I did all of those things, not because I wanted to be scrappy necessarily, but I do think that as, and this is probably most relevant for founders, less for executives, but I think as a founder, I do think it's really important to understand the work that needs to be done in order to see what excellence looks like. And for us, again, we came from an ecosystem where the availability of experienced talent was relatively low. And so for me it was very hard to be able to say, "oh, let's hire person X from organization Y with job description Z," and we know that they probably can deliver because again, the talent availability was really low.
And so a lot of times I felt like I needed to understand, okay, what is this job? What exactly does it entail is, and seeing how bad I am at it allowed me to understand what good looked like. And so I held a lot of those roles just because I wanted to understand every part of the business as best as I could in order to then find somebody who could do it orders of magnitude better than myself. I would say that is true for all of these roles except for being a driver. I think being a driver, I wasn't trying to understand what excellence as a driver look like. Obviously the drivers do a really challenging job and I think I just wanted to understand what that role was like to build a lot more empathy towards the job and make sure that our product was catered towards what those needs were.
So when we first launched our car ride hailing services, I think I was the first actual driver on the app and I would every now and then be a driver. And I remember the early days when I actually picked up a customer. It was this lady and she put in her destination as a mall. And so I went to this house and I knew that, okay, I needed to drive to this mall, but then this lady comes out with this giant bag and so I had to hop out the car, take this giant bag, put it in my trunk, and then off we went. And in the middle of the drive she's like, "Hey, I need to drop off and do my laundry on the way to the mall." And I just had to, "okay, cool." We took a detour, I lugged this giant bag out of our trunk and helped this lady do her laundry.
And then we went to the mall and I got very little money out of that experience and it wasn't instant, but this is eventually what led to, I think a lot of the support I gave to our driver teams when they were pushing for, Hey, we need more waiting fees, we need to add multiple stops in order to make sure that hey, a lot of this extra work was actually compensated. And it was something that I obviously experienced personally and it was something that I definitely was excited about as a set of product features and principles when it came to building our driver app.
It feels like having to do that ends up being a feature as you said, that you actually experienced a lot of these challenges and you said the really good point about knowing what to hire and what these people are going to actually do.
Kevin Aluwi (00:44:07):
That's interesting how that often turns into a good thing. I know you also have a pretty interesting journey into tech. What can you share around that?
Kevin Aluwi (00:44:18):
So I am basically a failed finance professional. I didn't really know what I wanted to do in my life. And in 2005, which is when I entered college, the hot sexy thing to do was finance. And I guess that was what I wanted to do. And I went, studied finance, and then the crash of 2008 happened and I graduated 2009, so it's probably the worst time to try and be a finance professional. And so I went through a really challenging time there, but eventually I got a job at a boutique investment banking firm. And that was, I thought like, okay, now I was set for life. I got the job that I wanted. I'm working in finance. But then long story short, I was not very good. I was not very good. My bosses thought I was underperforming. I didn't feel like I was performing, and I kind of left that field that I thought I built my entire, I guess future dreams and identity around.
And after I did that, I decided to take a bet in Indonesian technology because when all of this was happening was around 2010, 2011, and it was starting to see the development of the current technology giants in the US at the time. And I thought that it would be pretty cool if Indonesia ever had a technology industry to be part of it at the ground floor. And so I moved back in 2011 and it was super early. It was really early at the time where the level of talent, the level of funding, the level of product market fit, the number of people who transacted on the internet was also still super low. People still saw the internet as a place for chat apps and social media. And so the level of belief that people had in the space at that time was pretty low.
People didn't think that real businesses and real valuable products could be built, especially be built locally. And so taking that bet was something that I think it really panned out for us to be really early in the space, which today has become very vibrant to the scene. Southeast Asia has become, I think one of the most exciting spaces in technology in the world to date. But at the time it wasn't obvious. And being able to see that development I think was something that was really important to me because it really shows you what's possible in a very short time. And I think it's something that probably people in technology in the US can relate to, the people who've been working in this space for like 20, 30 years. But being able to see those early days for me was just really valuable and I think was an experience that I definitely cherish.
It's really hard to just build a company outside of Silicon Valley, and it was even harder back then. COVID and remote work almost made it the easiest it's ever been.
Kevin Aluwi (00:47:40):
Sounds like a lot of the fact that you were so far away from the Bay Area informed the way that you built this company, the scrappiness that you talked about. I'm curious if you have any advice for a founder who's trying to build a company now outside of, say the Bay Area or just US in general based on your experience.
Kevin Aluwi (00:47:58):
Yeah, look, it was super hard back then. It was particularly hard because Indonesia is such a valuable market, Indonesia and the rest, I would say primarily Indonesia just because of its scale. But I think overall Southeast Asia was just such a valuable market and it was interesting for global companies to want to win it. So we competed with global and regional companies, but the local talent and funding ecosystems were really underdeveloped. So that challenge of having to compete with the best in the world for customers in the market while also not having all of the resources available within the market to be able to build products and companies that can compete was I would say one of the most challenging parts of building probably in markets that are atypical or outside of Silicon Valley and maybe some of the other technology centers in the world like China and India.
So some of my learnings probably there that I would take going forward is I think we talked a lot about being scrappy. In the beginning, we were a lot more ops-heavy than tech-heavy. And doing the things that don't scale through other means I think is definitely something that is absolutely necessary if you're building outside of these main technology hubs. Another thing I would say is you need to get good at remote work really early. And I think today that's kind of become a lot more prevalent as more and more people have experience with remote work. For us, we built an engineering center in Bangalore in 2015, and this allowed us to compete a lot better with the global giants because we had access to a really deep talent market in India at the time, but we were really early in this whole remote work thing because it wasn't common for people in our region, but also globally to have so much talent concentration outside of headquarters.
And I do believe that companies who want to compete against world class competitors outside of these technology centers like Silicon Valley need to become good at remote work really fast because getting that talent probably means having offices or individuals who are outside of your home market or your headquarters. And probably the final I would say tip here is don't just copy, because Gojek was not an Uber clone, even though that was kind of how some investors or analysts talk about us, we were focused on a solution that was uniquely an Indonesian phenomenon, the motorcycle taxi driver. And this led to both product and branding innovation. On the product side, we were an on-demand super app because we saw that a human being on a motorcycle could do a lot of things. And so we built a product around that idea and hence we ended up with a super app even before super apps were really a thing.
And then that branding point that we talked about a little earlier about giving our drivers jackets and helmets so people could see them zip around town, which actually doesn't make sense if you're a car ride hailing service because it's not very easy to brand a car and the drivers are inside the car. But all of our competitors at the time when they first entered the motorcycle ride hailing space didn't brand their drivers because they came from a car-centric view. And so again, understanding your unique market dynamics is also really important if you're building outside of these technology centers.
We've been chatting about Indonesia and Southeast Asia. I'd love to hear just what should people know about that market? We've chatted about what you guys have built and a few other companies here and there, but what companies should people be aware of what's happening? What's the latest, what's exciting?
Kevin Aluwi (00:52:24):
Yeah, I think specifically Indonesia, most people don't know that Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and that Southeast Asia holds almost 10% of the world's population. But beyond the macro picture, I think also we've experienced a pretty unique level of pace of adoption for products with great product market fit. So products with great product market fit grow tremendously fast in this part of the world. And in 2015, for example, when we launched our app, we grew more than a hundred percent month on month for the first 16, 18 months. So we more than doubled every month for more than a year.
That is insane. I've never heard of that.
Kevin Aluwi (00:53:19):
No, and our investors at the time, Sequoia is one of our investors at the time, told us that this was the craziest growth story that they've ever heard of in the world. And I wouldn't say because of our necessarily our brilliance, it was a combination of how in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia, there are a lot of these things that are obviously broken and could be improved with better technology and better products. But we also have in this region a very young population who are excited to try new things. And so if you find a solution that really resonates with a lot of these common day-to-day problems, the adoption curve is just absolutely insane. And I think it's one of the things that are definitely unique to developing regions like this one.
One company that's really interesting for example, just to give a flavor of the type of seemingly off the wall product or company being built in this part of the world, there's a company called eFishery, and what they do is they basically create a closed loop ecosystem for fish farmers in currently, I think they're only operational Indonesia or they're recently expanding beyond Indonesia.
They help farmers feed their fish through this IOT smart device that helps measure the amount of fish feed that needs to go into the ponds, but they also then help farmers do things that get financing and also sell their produce out to local or even regional or global markets. And it's a company doing something like a quarter billion dollars in revenue and it's profitable and it's basically a fish farmer, a close loop ecosystem. And it's pretty wild that something like this exists, but it does speak to, I think again earlier what I said earlier about the hunger that the population have for better solutions. And if you can find these better solutions, you can really build companies of the very meaningful scale very, very quickly.
So at this point, you've stepped down a CEO, you've stepped down from the board, what's next and how does it feel?
Kevin Aluwi (00:55:50):
Yeah, I'm still on this journey honestly, of how does it feel. I think that building Gojek is by far the most important professional experience and frankly, one of the most important life experiences I've had. It's made me a way better person actually. And now that I've stepped away, I am not as bored or as aimless as people would expect after having such a kind of all-consuming thing be part of my life experience.
What's next? Honestly, Lenny, I don't know. I don't have a plan at this stage. I do some angel investing on the side. I work with other founders to be able to maybe just share some of these experiences that I shared today and just figuring out what makes me happy and what are the kind activities that I find rewarding. I don't know, maybe I'll start another company at some point. I think that's my default, but I think right now I'm just taking things easy and trying to figure out another problem I guess, that I could be obsessed about.
You've earned that time to explore and look for new problems. Is there anything else you wanted to touch on before we get to our very exciting lightning round?
Kevin Aluwi (00:57:33):
No Lenny. I think we've covered a lot today, and I just wanted to thank you for the time.
Amazing. It's absolutely my pleasure. And with that, we've reached our very exciting lightning round. I've got five questions for you. Are you ready?
Kevin Aluwi (00:57:48):
Yes, let's go.
What are two or three books that you've recommended most to other people?
Kevin Aluwi (00:57:54):
What You Do Is Who You Are. I think that was the second most popular Ben Horowitz's book, but I'm really obsessed with building interesting and engaging cultures, so I think that's one. Another is a classic marketing book. Again, we talked a lot about branding today, so there's this book called How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. I don't agree necessarily with everything in it, but I do think that it's a great primer on how to think about branding and marketing.
Favorite recent movie or TV show?
Kevin Aluwi (00:58:27):
Favorite recent movie, The Menu and favorite recent TV show? Netflix show is a Cyberpunk 2077 Edge Runners.
Oh, wow. I haven't heard of that one.
Kevin Aluwi (00:58:39):
Oh, you should check it out. It's super cool.
I'll go check it out.
Kevin Aluwi (00:58:43):
Favorite interview question that you like to ask.
Kevin Aluwi (00:58:46):
Tell me about a subject or activity you've been obsessed with for a long time.
What do you look for in an answer that's like, okay, this is good.
Kevin Aluwi (00:58:54):
I want somebody to basically almost pitch to me an obsession they have than makes me interested in knowing more into that subject. The more obscure, the better and the more passionate they are about an obscure thing, even better. And I think it shows people's capability to be really passionate about something and sell something and think about something in a very structured and detailed way.
What are some products that you love and have recently discovered?
Kevin Aluwi (00:59:30):
Two products, I think right now that I've found absolutely delightful. One is the ARC Browser. I know that it's gaining a lot of traction out there, but I'm a very chronic tab hoarder. My Chrome tabs are just all over the place, and I love that they've figured out I would say the best approach to kind of tab management, and there's just a ton of little delightful, awesome design details in the app that I think is just really cool. And it's a browser. When's the last time there was a really cool browser that came out? So I also love the ambition that the company has.
Second product, Steam Deck. I'm a huge gamer, and I think it is probably, I would say the best game platform to actually build on the vision of truly portable mobile gaming.
I love your point with ARC for tab hoarders. I also used to have a lot of tabs and I love it just auto deletes stuff and just disappear, and it forces you to lose your tabs and it works out surprisingly.
Kevin Aluwi (01:00:38):
I'm curious what comes up for this one? What's something you've recently changed or that you've heard of someone at Gojek recently changed in their product development process that was maybe minor, that had a tremendous impact on the team's ability to execute.
Kevin Aluwi (01:00:53):
One relatively minor thing that I thought had a lot of impact with execution is being very clear that whoever is accountable for the results should also be the decider. I found that a lot of literature out there says that product teams should be this communal best ideas come from everywhere group, which I think is well-intentioned and absolutely everyone should contribute ideas, but I think not having it be super clear who is accountable and who is deciding often slows down execution a lot. And I think when we switch to making it really clear that who was the decider for any kind of product development process, I think our execution definitely improved significantly.
Amazing. Kevin, thank you so much for being here. Gojek is such an interesting and important story, and I feel like most founders can learn something from the story, so I was really excited to bring you on and to hear a lot of these wild stories that you shared. Two final questions. Where can folks find your line if they want to reach out, learn more, and how can listeners be useful to you?
Kevin Aluwi (01:01:57):
I am @kaluwi on Twitter. That's also my email, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll always be happy to chat about Gojek or just generally anything technology related. Again, I have nothing I'm working on at the moment, so I just would love to jam with cool people.
Amazing. Thank you again for being here.
Kevin Aluwi (01:02:25):
Thank you so much for listening. If you found this valuable, you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. Also, please consider giving us a rating or leaving a review as that really helps other listeners find the podcast. You can find all past episodes or learn more about the show at lennyspodcast.com. See you in the next episode.