One of Jean Liu’s first acts after becoming president of the Beijing-based taxi-hailing service Didi Dache in February 2015 was engineering the surprise merger with its biggest competitor, Kuaidi Dache, to create the formidable transportation service now known as Didi Chuxing. In less than a year and a half, she has increased head count from 700 people to 5,000 as the company adds bus and ride-sharing offerings. She’s also lined up partnerships with Grab (Singapore), Ola Cabs (India), and Lyft (the U.S.) to offer Didi passengers in-app booking with these services and raised $3 billion for further expansion—all while fending off Uber’s advance into China.
Fast Company: How have you managed so much change in such a short time?
Jean Liu: Our principle is that we send "old" people—people who have been with us for more than two years—to try new things. So when we start a new business line, we send people who are already familiar with our team culture. The communication cost is much lower, since that person knows the company well. He also has to have the charm to get a great team together.
So finding the right employees is a priority when you’re growing this quickly.
To be a great company you need not just the best product but also the best people. We aim to get the best young talent from many different fields and make sure that they have the feeling that they can have a huge impact. The average age of our 5,000 employees is 26
What are the biggest obstacles facing Didi in China?
Less than 10% of the population has cars. The government has regulations that essentially ban cars from the road, because China’s population density is so high. So we are building a platform that will offer transportation to everyone, with black cars, taxis, [carpooling option] Hitch, and even buses.
You also have to keep Uber at bay. The company has spent billions of dollars trying to win a significant share of the Chinese market.
Uber’s arrival didn’t change things much, from my perspective. Competition always makes you better. In developed Western countries, they are used to building products for the upper and middle class. We are offering service to people who can’t even afford cars. Our biggest challenge is delivering an efficient network in a massive, dense market. China has more than 40 cities with more than 2 million people. Didi completed 1.4 billion rides in 2015. The challenges in China are intense.
What keeps you motivated?
When I look outside my window today, it’s highly polluted, it’s highly unpleasant. So we are dealing with lots of different consequences of this traffic. We have 800 million urban people struggling every day. Didi’s goal is that within three years we are going to serve 30 million people a day, by helping them get a car, a bus, or any transportation [including other shared vehicles] within three minutes. Our top mission is to serve all Chinese people so they can have better life quality.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.