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Part-time model, full-time GrabTaxi executive Natasha Bautista introduces us to GrabCar’s stoic drivers

The battle in transportation tech raging across Southeast Asia is so top heavy with storylines from the major players – GrabTaxi, EasyTaxi, and Uber – that it’s easy to lose sight of one key group: the drivers.

“Revolution” and its verb form, “revolutionizing,” are often overused in the startup world, but in the case of your average, everyman driver operating a cab today, the term is very much accurate. Just take a look at Metro Manila, Philippines.

All of what Filipino taxi drivers had previously known – such as the fact that you could only earn money by illegally demanding an additional fee on top of the metered fare – is being upended by GrabTaxi and rival taxi apps. Now they can make money through an Android application, through which users can book a ride with you for an additional Php 70 (US$1.61), and you’re free to accept or decline as you wish. Plus, you earn a nifty smartphone. If that’s not a revolution, I don’t know what is.

GrabTaxi Philippines assistant general manager Natasha Bautista believes that Filipino drivers will eagerly embrace this revolution, owing to our national culture. “We are the texting capital of the world. Almost everyone in the Philippines – whatever social status they are in – have one to two phones. Plus, the growth of smartphone penetration is insane. Knowing how Filipinos are, I believe that we are very capable of adapting fast to tech,” Bautista says.

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In addition to being the assistant general manager of GrabTaxi Philippines, Bautista is a professional model. Photo Credit: Jar Concengco.

How these drivers respond to the revolution, engage with the pioneering trio of companies, and accept or reject their value propositions will have as much effect on the outcome of the race as any funding news on the frontpage.

See: Reinventing four wheels: 14 apps that are changing the way we get around

A model teacher

GrabCar, which is Bautista’s brainchild, pits the company directly against Uber. Through the GrabTaxi application, users can book their premium GrabCar service, which will send an unmarked vehicle your way, a la Uber, to pick you up.

Despite accessing them both through the GrabTaxi application, GrabCar required a new set of drivers. Bautista explains, “GrabCar taps into the rent-a-car service, meaning GrabCar drivers are different from GrabTaxi drivers.”

As such, she pitched to private drivers, most of whom had never even heard of Uber because it is still relatively new and smallish in the country, on the value of GrabCar.

“I can say that it was easier to pitch to them at this point because GrabTaxi has been very successful for the past year, which meant I didn’t even need to explain to the drivers what our platform does,” Bautista says. She did, however, have to explain the specs of GrabCar as a premium service within GrabTaxi.

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L-R: Jesse Maxwell (director), Natasha Bautista (assistant general manager), Anthony Tan (founder and CEO), Brian Cu (director), Franco Varona (former general manager).

Chief among these key specs was compensation. “These drivers are rent-a-car drivers and were paid before with a fixed monthly salary for their scheduled pick-ups – usually two to three jobs per day,” Bautista explains. “With GrabCar, they get paid a fixed salary plus a commission for up to 10 jobs per day.”

Despite the generous compensation scheme, Bautista did encounter occasional resistance from prospective GrabCar drivers, mostly related to the smartphone that you had to buy through GrabTaxi’s microfinancing. “Only objection I can think of is that they have to pay for their phones on a monthly basis or ‘hulugan’ (pay by installment),” Bautista says. “Maybe one in a hundred drivers say no to this, but most of them would definitely want a new smartphone, especially if it’s microfinanced!”

Perhaps the biggest challenge is not signing drivers, but orienting them. “I personally do all the training to GrabCar drivers myself, and to be honest, it gets really exhausting,” Bautista confesses. “Our training is classroom-type training and the tendency is that some drivers don’t listen or that some keep asking the same questions that have been tackled already.”

Bautista frames this struggle this way:

A lot of drivers are college graduates while some are only high school graduates. It’s not that they are not used to classroom education – it’s more of learning something they have never tried out before, which can be quite a struggle for some.

Ostensibly at least, Bautista is very different from them. In addition to leading GrabTaxi Philippines as one of its youngest executives, she’s a part time print and runway model. Bautista is a member of Professional Models Association of the Philippines (PMAP), regularly travels through southeast Asia for runway jobs, and does shoots for top Philippine magazine publishers like Mega and Preview.

Despite these superficial, but some would say overwhelming, differences, Bautista is always trying to better engage them. In doing so, she applies more the deft of a teacher than the confidence of a businesswoman. “It helps to have a standard training material – video tutorial, Powerpoint, and even manuals,” she says, but ultimately it may come down to doing it for the sheer love of it. “What I’ve realized is that you really have to have a passion for teaching, and I’m glad I have that in me.”

To her credit, the drivers all affectionately refer to her as “Miss Natasha” and many even already know that she is the passenger when her home address flashes on the GrabTaxi application.

Watch as the drivers become digitally savvy

When the GrabCar orientations get tough, Bautista is keen on reminding herself of the value it will eventually provide them.

“The GrabCar platform, I’d like to believe, has improved their lives not just financially, some receive additional Php 5,000 (US$115) per month!, but also in terms of the knowledge that they have now compared to before,” Bautista says.

The “knowledge” that Bautista refers to is directly tied to the smartphones provided to drivers via GrabTaxi microfinancing. While she admits that “there are still some struggles with drivers shifting from their feature phones straight to full touch screen smartphones,” such as them thinking that something is wrong when their smartphone locks and the screen goes off (as they are used to manually locking their phones through their menu screens), the drivers become more “tech-savvy” as they are “exposed to the wonderful world of the Internet.”

This may sound like lip service until you think about it more deeply: for many of these drivers, it will be the first time that they personally own an Internet-enabled device.

This value is part of the reason why Bautista believes that GrabCar drivers so quickly get on board with the service: they both derive mutual benefit. The drivers are thus not unfairly referred to as their “partners,” who are free to chime in on how GrabCar can improve, should they so choose. Many already have, and their suggestions run the gamut, including everything from switching GrabCar’s fixed fare to a meter system and allowing passengers the option of paying with credit card.

Bautista takes all of these suggestions seriously. For example, of a possible meter rate, she says, “This is something that we still have to study further as I believe it has both its advantages and disadvantages,” while of credit card integration, she admits, “This is definitely something that we plan to do, as our mission is to cater to everyone.”

Let them speak

Despite GrabTaxi viewing them as “partners,” they are still marginalized in the media to the point of non-mention, almost as though the cars drive themselves. This is of course unfortunate. The drivers push innovation in the Philippines as much as GrabTaxi and Uber do. While the company makes the technology available, it’s the drivers who accept it with open arms.

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Bautista with some GrabTaxi drivers. (L-R): Mark Villarin, Oliver Bocuya, Natasha Bautista, Rene Regalado.

Bautista feels that most media coverage on GrabTaxi, however, focuses on how the app safeguards passengers, especially women, from attacks by drivers rather than how it improves the lives of the drivers who enthusiastically get on board with it. She is making an active effort to change all this:

An integral part of our mission with GrabTaxi is to uplift the lives of drivers and we hope that our platform would change the way people see them. We hope that media catches on to what we are trying to do because these drivers are really the heart of GrabTaxi.

This section is thus an opportunity to let them speak and see why these particular drivers agreed to sign on with GrabCar. Of the three drivers interviewed, each said that GrabCar was attractive because of the financial incentives. Two of the three drivers – Florentino Maglanque and Nelson Jacobo – used the phrasing “big kita” (higher salary / take home pay). The third, Natividad Isidro, spoke of how it would help his loved ones (translation ours):

GrabTaxi has been a great help in giving me an opportunity to earn more for my family. I never had second thoughts in joining it.

Isidro initially had doubts about GrabCar, but was eventually won over by Natasha and the seminar staff, who all three praised. He was particularly happy with the income increase that came over the next few months.

He says (translation ours), “I was able to renovate my house and buy a sofa because of the extra income I earn from GrabTaxi. I am so happy.”

As for their criticisms, most of them emphasized things that GrabCar has little control over (such as Manila having fewer bookings than Makati City, which probably is due to the fact that the latter is denser) to things that GrabCar has no control over (such as passenger cancellations).

Despite these speedbumps, the drivers remain a fan of GrabCar and what it can do for them.

Maglanque says (translation ours), “I did not have any doubts, so long as it gave me additional income. I am willing to try it to provide more for my family.”

(UPDATE: The title of this article was changed from “Part-time model, full-time GrabTaxi executive Natasha Bautista introduces us to GrabCar’s stoic drivers” and a modeling picture of Bautista was removed after feedback that both the title and the image set the wrong tone)

Editing by Paul Bischoff

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