Terence Zou does not want your sympathy. While his peers grappled with examinations and puppy love, he had to bury his mother when he was 15. She was a homemaker and took up sewing and babysitting to supplement the meagre household income. “She wasn’t well-educated, but she taught me a lot. She gave emotional support for my studies and pushed me to study harder,” he recalls. Her belief in him led Zou, now 46, to be the only student from St Gabriel’s Primary School to score enough points to go to Raffles Institution.
His mother’s passing devastated the soft-spoken Zou. But it taught him two valuable life lessons: one, take nothing for granted and two, fight for yourself because no one else will. He had to grow up quickly to look after his two younger sisters while his father drove a taxi and was away most of the time.
After a period of mourning, Zou dusted himself off, determined to honour the memory of his mother. Raffles Institution might have been a completely different world for him – his schoolmates came from prestigious schools and affluent neighbourhoods while he was used to a life of struggle and simplicity – but Zou continued fighting, spurred on by the belief that academic achievements could give him a way out.
Many in his place would have lamented their terrible luck. Zou was made of sterner stuff. “I do not like to talk about my past,” he reflects, looking at his glass of whisky. “Sure, we all start from different points in life, but all of us are moving forward.
We shouldn’t wallow in self-pity or lament on the hand you were dealt with. We should just focus on doing better.”
And he did just that. Zou scored a prestigious military scholarship, which allowed him to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the London School of Economics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively. After graduation, he joined the navy to serve out his bond.
He continued excelling and even received the Queen’s Binoculars in 1995, a prestigious award given to the most outstanding naval cadet with the Britannia Royal Naval College, where Prince Charles, Andrew and William trained. In 2006, he became the commander of the RSS Resilience, leading a group of men and women in service to the country.
Leadership is an already momentous responsibility, let alone managing the morale of hundreds of people in a confined space. “The key is to empower people. Give them responsibilities and targets, then let them run; this brings out the best in people. Oh, and good food. Always treat the cook well and he will take care of you!” says Zou, guffawing.
Towards the end of his bond, Zou considered his options. While his military journey had been fulfilling, he wanted to explore the full spectrum of life’s offerings. He’d always had a keen interest in the business and finance industries, so he charted a path in that direction and applied to Harvard Business School (HBS).
Many consider the Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme at HBS, which receives between 10,000 and 15,000 applications a year, to be the best in the world. It’s also one of the hardest to gain entry to with an average annual acceptance rate of 12 per cent. Out of every 100 people who apply, only 12 get in. To give you a frame of reference, this year, 9,304 applicants threw their hat into the ring to be in next year’s incoming class. The school accepted 732 and rejected the rest, making that an acceptance rate of 7 per cent.
Zou got in.
“Getting into Harvard was a high point of my life – a lifelong academic dream come true. The admissions department probably liked my resume and story,” says Zou. The two years in HBS was a transformational experience that opened his eyes to the vast possibilities out there. He interacted with some of the best and brightest from a diversity of backgrounds and the journey gave Zou “the gumption to do bigger things”.
Entrepreneurship was still far from his mind at that stage in his life. His late mother’s words to study hard and work harder guided his decisions, which is why he transitioned into the finance world after receiving his MBA. The lightbulb moment hit him a few years later as he sat at his desk, going through yet another deal for his company.
“I realised the world was not short of money. It was short of good people and ideas,” Zou reflects. Suddenly, it dawned on him that his early struggles and the journey he’d gone through so far were preparing him for this moment in life. He was exactly where he needed to be and was ready to take the entrepreneurial plunge.
Zou knew he wanted to start something in the technology space because its future possibilities were immense, making it scalable. In 2014, he launched Ryde Technologies, the world’s first real-time carpooling mobile app. Its origin story has become start-up lore. Zou was getting fed up with how difficult it was to flag down a taxi in Singapore’s busier areas. He thought about the hundreds of thousands of cars with empty back seats and realised he could solve the traffic congestion, pollution and mobility problems in one fell swoop.
Of course, it was a struggle in the beginning. He wasn’t a software programmer or a coder, so he had to outsource a bulk of the technological development. He was also married, with an infant daughter. Fortunately, his wife was supportive of his dream. He also had the backing of dozens of friends and family who believed in his vision and put their money where their mouths were, contributing to his initial start-up capital. “An entrepreneur needs to draw upon an entire support system to help him. No one can do this alone. You need to rely on the network that you’ve built your entire life to have a shot at success,” says Zou.
Failure was a real possibility. One of every three start-ups fail in the first two years and more than half never make it to the fifth year mark. He was prepared to return to the corporate world or even teaching if Ryde didn’t work out. What made the task more daunting? Zou was David going up against Goliath – giants with deeper pockets. But he relished the challenge. Back against the wall, and being the underdog – Zou was in his element.
“As a naval officer, I have been trained to fight till the end. As an entrepreneur, if you have one more day of runway, you have one more day of hope. You never give up,” says Zou. He continues: “Competition keeps you on your toes and makes you sharper. But I was confident in what we were building and how we were going about it. The competitors are well funded but as long as we provide value at lower costs to consumers and lower commission to our drivers, we will make it work and grow a sustainable business.”
He didn’t only “make it work”, he thrived. While his bigger competitors remain unprofitable to date, Ryde turned a healthy shade of green in the last quarter of 2020, seven years after it first launched. It’s a stunning achievement, considering Ryde takes only a 10 per cent cut from drivers. The competition usually charges 20 per cent on average.
“We don’t do splashy advertising. Instead, we rely heavily on word of mouth – 70 percent of our users come from referrals. Our philosophy has remained the same. Keep the business lean, focus on the product and go above and beyond with our users and drivers,” Zou answers when I ask about his roadmap to profitability.
Today, Ryde boasts over 10,000 drivers and about 200,000 passengers and active users monthly. It’s expanded beyond carpooling and offers private hire and delivery services. There’s even an option for your furry friends. According to Zou, drivers on its platform earn an average of $4,000 to $5,000 a month. “Our top drivers, who clock about 30 trips a day, can gross more than $10,000,” he reveals.
He might have scaled one mountain, but he’s already set his sights on another peak: public listing. In March, Ryde announced that it had appointed financial consultant SAC Capital to lead its preparations to list on Catalist, the Singapore Exchange’s sponsor-supervised platform.
Zou is targeting a SGX-Catalist listing and plans to use the proceeds from the initial public offering (IPO) to hire “engineers, programmers, data scientists, marketers and more to improve the product”. He’s also looking to expand the other e-commerce services on the Ryde app.
“When I set up this company, I wasn’t thinking about returns and an IPO. I set it up because I wanted to create something of value to impact the lives of many. Ryde has evolved at every phase in our humble journey and now, we are within sight of a listing where we can bring in new investors, retail and institutional, to help us progress to the next stage of growth,” says Zou.
And what’s coming after that? He ponders for a while, his kind eyes and insightful mind weighing the gravity of the future. “We try to push the boundaries one bit at a time. The first step was to be a profitable ride-hailing company. Now, we’re thinking in terms of how we can make lives better for everyone. I think Ryde can weave itself into the fabric of everyday Singaporeans, offering both value and convenience.”
Then, he pauses and thinks about what he’s said. “But I don’t want to risk sounding too pretentious.” In that moment, I spot in Zou’s eyes the burning desire to become greater than the cards life has dealt him. He knows there’s a lot more work to be done – and it’s time to get down to it. His mother would be proud.