Go-Jek, which launched its main app in 2015 and is in only Indonesia at the moment, is counting on people coming back to its services again and again as it competes against both Uber and Grab, a Singapore-based ride-hailing company operating in seven Southeast Asian countries.
“We have huge respect for Uber as a technology company,” said Nadiem Makarim, Go-Jek’s 33-year-old founder and chief executive. “But we just out-innovate them. We just move that much faster.”
Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million people that is adding more internet users each month than anywhere else on the planet, has become a magnet for tech investment — and one of the toughest battlegrounds for Uber, which is under pressure to curb its losses around the world ahead of a planned public offering.
Grab, which was valued at $6 billion after its latest fund-raising, recently said it had completed its billionth ride. By contrast, Lyft, Uber’s largest American rival, has reached half that.
“It is a super growth market,” said Brooks Entwistle, Uber’s chief business officer for Asia. “There’s no question there are challenges.”
China’s biggest tech companies, spying opportunity in the region, have contributed to those challenges.
Go-Jek is backed by Tencent Holdings, the video game and social media behemoth. Grab this year received a combined $2 billion in investment from Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing powerhouse that outgunned Uber in China, and the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
Outside of transport, the Alibaba Group, which dominates online shopping in China, controls a regional e-commerce company called Lazada and has invested in Tokopedia, an Indonesian site. Tencent is a major shareholder of Sea, a Singapore-based company that operates a video game platform, shopping site and digital payments service.
“We all looked to China” to learn to develop e-commerce, said Nick Nash, Sea’s president. “The playbook was clear.”
It is no accident that Jakarta has attracted so many companies that help people get around — or that help them avoid having to get around in the first place.
The capital of the world’s fourth-most-populous nation has 10 million residents but no metro system. The traffic is so soul-crushing at all times that many residents have stopped speaking of discrete rush hours.
“In Southeast Asia, there’s little public transport, many dense cities and low car ownership,” said Ming Maa, Grab’s president. “It makes ride-sharing a much more compelling product than in India or even, frankly, China.”
Before ride-hailing apps came along, motorcycle taxis, or “ojek” in Indonesian, plied Jakarta’s clogged streets. But getting a good price required haggling. And safety was a concern, particularly for women.
Go-Jek is a “lifesaver,” said Hera Diani, a magazine editor in Jakarta. She orders food on the app, and booked a pedicure through Go-Life when she was pregnant and couldn’t walk easily. “The traffic jams are getting worse and worse,” she said.
Both Grab and Go-Jek are making big pushes outside transportation. The companies want their app-based wallets to replace cash as the main way Indonesians pay for coffee, fried rice and everything else offline, as is commonplace in Chinese cities.
It is unproven, though, that people will stick with a payment app just because they use it for rides. China’s dominant mobile payment services, AliPay and WeChat Pay, grew big because they could easily be used to buy stuff online and transfer money to friends, respectively.
“Transport is a very, very large marketplace — I would argue, larger than e-commerce,” said Mr. Maa of Grab. “We think that creates the right ground for an amazing payments company.”
Grab and Go-Jek’s breakneck growth has set off many of the frictions with regulators and drivers that Uber has encountered in wealthier countries. But one reason ride-hailing has expanded so rapidly in Southeast Asia is that the region has had a gig economy long before anyone called it that. In countries like Indonesia, work for many people has never been anything but grueling and unregulated.
Several Go-Jek and Grab drivers in Jakarta described driving both before and after a full day’s work in a factory or warehouse. Others said they saw their children only between the end of a night shift and the start of the school day. Some said they drove seven days a week.
Their earnings can be inconsistent, too. The ride-hailing companies have repeatedly slashed fares in Indonesia to defend market share. At a recent protest in Jakarta, hundreds of drivers demanded a government-mandated price floor for motorbike rides.
Mr. Makarim said that he supported a minimum fare, but that Go-Jek wouldn’t be able to employ as many people as it does — 900,000 registered car and motorbike drivers — without “flexibility” around labor standards. “The fact of the matter is that the formal economy simply cannot contain that number of people,” he said.
Still, many drivers in Jakarta described their work as a step up from what they were doing before. Mr. Nasrun — who, like many Indonesians, uses a single name — used to clean rooms at a hotel. Mr. Irawan parked cars at a nightclub.
Maharani, 29, was a stay-at-home mother. She now makes around $200 a month driving for Go-Jek.
That is less than the average income nationwide. But “it’s the freedom of the job that I really like,” she said on a recent evening, sipping iced coffee and waiting near a mall for orders. “I don’t have a boss behind me always watching what I do.”
Being a female driver in Jakarta isn’t easy. Sometimes, customers see her name, then cancel their orders. Others ask whether they can drive her motorbike while she sits in the back.
Suddenly, Ms. Maharani’s smartphone sounded. Someone at the mall wanted a ride. She slipped her helmet over her black head scarf, fired up her motorbike and joined the dense swarm of vehicles advancing into the fading daylight.