"GrabGas Screwed Me Over," Says Ex-CTO Of Local Startup

"The community needs to know. This isn’t something that should be cultivated in our growing ecosystem."

Cover image via SAYS

Last week, a personal blogpost chronicling a developer's unpleasant experience working with local startup GrabGas went viral, exposing what seemed like unfair business practices within the company

The blogpost - titled 'A tale of lies and deceit. My experience on how GrabGas screwed me over.' - was penned by former GrabGas developer Julian Ee and published on Friday, 25 August "to enlighten people of what took place so that it would serve as a cautionary tale".

Developer Julian Ee had joined GrabGas in February this year after he was recruited by one of the startup's co-founders (who is a mutual friend) under the impression that he would be made "one of the shareholders"

Screenshots of a conversation between Julian and GrabGas co-founder Jeson Lee.

Image via Julian Ee

GrabGas had launched its services in October 2015, but was left in a lurch a few months later after their existing tech guy made no progress beyond delivering a one-page prototype for the launch.

"As a result, business cannot expand and the team is completely stuck. Their traction is a flat line at about one order a day and they have no revenue, funding or resources," Julian wrote.

Despite that, the team managed to maintain the illusion that the company is doing well and making progress. Even so, they are in dire need of a new developer to actually build the company's tech. This is where Julian came in.

"After meeting with Jeson (mutual friend) and the team several times, I was invited to join GrabGas as “one of the shareholders” (their words, not mine). One would have thought that this meant that there were other shareholders (like themselves) and I was being invited to join them as equals," he wrote.

At that point, GrabGas' tech was practically non-existent. Julian wrote the first line of code on 1 March and within three months, had delivered a website complete with an automation system for the startup's intended service.

"Things were finally turning around for the company. The tech was coming together, traction was picking up (average of 3 to 5 orders a day when I left) and we were being featured in several tech press," he wrote.

"The team was also making progress towards a partnership with Petron and we even qualified for Digi Accelerate Program," he added, explaining that the Digi program was a big deal for the company as it came with a four-month bootcamp, mentors, and RM100,000.

A potential partnership with Petron and qualifying for the Digi Accelerate Program aside, the company was also featured on several media sites. However, Julian recalls feeling "uneasy" about what was included in the articles.

GrabGas was selected for the Digi Accelerate Program in April.

Image via GrabGas Facebook

"Almost everything that was written in them were either vast exaggerations, future plans disguised as existing features that are no-where near in the pipeline or outright blatant lies," he explained.

"I understand that this is part of the sales and PR process, but the degree of lies is too much. I did voice some objections, however, after the first article, I let it rest, understanding that it was just business "smoke" and a necessary evil."

It wasn't until mid-June that Julian discovered that he had been "duped". The three co-founders of GrabGas - Sean Hoo, Jeson Lee, and Gabriel Lim - had registered the company without him as he was only an "early employee".

Co-founders of GrabGas, from left: Gabriel Lim, Jeson Lee, and Sean Hoo.

Image via GrabGas Facebook

Julian pointed out that the founding trio's stance is a stark contrast from their initial "join us as one of the shareholders" offer.

"What they actually meant was that they wanted me to work for them (a startup with no traction, revenue, funding or tech), as an early employee, for free (no salary) for an indeterminate period of time, all the while building their entire tech/product from scratch, and helping them to secure Petron and Digi Accelerate (3 business guys with no tech guy and no resources is not going to qualify)," he wrote.

"For the entire duration that I was with them, they conveniently “forgot” to mention such a “unique” arrangement upfront in a clear and concise manner. Instead, baiting conversations with misleading “shareholder” terms (They even said "early employee with share is also a shareholder what!". Technically true, but super misleading.)."

Negotiations between both parties reached an impasse, as Julian had little leverage due to the lack of "black and white" agreements. So he decided to leave GrabGas with all of the company's tech in August.

The GrabGas executive team (l-r): CFO Gabriel Lim; head of design Samson Cheong; COO Jeson Lee; CEO Sean Hoo; CTO Julian Ee; and head of vendors Tan Suet Keem.

Image via Digital News Asia

"With no black and white (I didn’t talk about equity when I joined because they just had a bad experience with a non-performing CTO, so I figured that it would be better that I show results first before talking about it. Silly me.), Digi’s 100k coming in and the company wholly under their names, there was nothing much I could do," Julian wrote.

"Naturally, as you might have guessed by now, I have left the company, taking the tech with me (the only plus side for having no black and white)," he added.

"If you ask them now, they will probably tell you that they have learnt their lesson and it was all a misunderstanding. It definitely was not. The intent for the "unique" offer was there all along, and the details conveniently left out."

"Time and time again during negotiations, with their sweet words and smiles, I believed them, yet time and time again the actions they take was the complete opposite," Julian wrote.

"I am writing this story, not just because I want to feel less alone, but because the community needs to know. This isn’t something that should be cultivated in our growing ecosystem. If someone out there can at least learn something from this experience, 1 less heartache, then I guess I’ve at least done my job."

You can read the Julian Ee's entire post here.

The next day, GrabGas released a statement acknowledging their former developer's viral post and announcing their intention to continue negotiations with Julian if he is "agreeable"

On the other hand, Digi - who'd selected the startup for its Accelerate Program - is in the process of reviewing Julian's allegations against GrabGas

Digi CDO Praveen Rajan (fifth from left) with GrabGas co-founders Sean Hoo (third from left) and Jeson Lee (fourth from right).

Image via Malaysian Wireless

"Digi Accelerate is intended to nurture and grow new businesses, and we saw the potential in and opportunity to help GrabGas develop their business," said Praveen Rajan, Chief Digital Officer of Digi, in a statement.

"Having said that, we have a strict zero tolerance policy on proper business conduct by our partners, vendors and all parties within our value chain, and expect them to uphold the integrity of their way of work and dealings with us. In this respect, we will perform a comprehensive review with regards to this matter to ensure these standards are met and adhered to.”

What next steps should GrabGas take? Let us know your take in the comments below!

On happier note, check out these local startups that aim to make daily life easier: