Tencent undoubtedly lacks visibility in Europe. But the Chinese group now offers services used by hundreds of millions of people every day. This, the company owes to Pony Ma. From QQ to China’s Silicon Valley, portrait of this mysterious entrepreneur.
Reputation Squad is an international communication agency that works with all audiences, whatever their places of conversation and which has become an expert in its work thanks to the use of new technologies (monitoring tools, virtual reality, data optimization , etc.). The agency’s China division offered to share its knowledge with our readers in a series of portraits of Chinese leaders. Objective: to get to know better the companies and startups which are successful in Asia and will soon be deployed in the rest of the world.
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Ma Huateng is a quiet man. If he is one of the richest men in the world, he hardly seems attracted by the media light. Also known by the nickname Pony Ma, he is the originator of WeChat, the app that 70% of Chinese people use every month. Behind the story of his company, Tencent, reveals the journey of a man with keen intuition, who revolutionized the way the Chinese interact on the web, and who today dreams of revolutionizing the urban landscape.
Revolutionizing the web … and the urban landscape
QQ: make a fortune and meet love
Born in 1971, in the province of Guangdong in the south-east of China, Ma Huateng, whose name means horse, graduated in computer science from Shenzhen University. He began his career in the research and development department of the China Motion Telecom Ltd. telecoms department. While attending a training seminar in Florida, he discovered the development of computer software underway in the United States, including instant messaging with flickering petals, ICQ.
He then decided to create the Chinese version of the software, named without great originality OICQ, and founded the company Tencent with a university colleague, Zhang Zhidong. It is with young people that OICQ, quickly renamed QQ to avoid any legal confrontation with its Israeli-American namesake, has met with tremendous success. QQ, beyond its messaging function, quickly extended its services to games, avatars, and even dating and discussion platforms. According to legend, it is on one of these platforms that Pony Ma would have met his wife, a few months after the launch.
In 2004, Tencent Inc. was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange with the support of Goldman Sachs, and more particularly of a certain Martin Lau. Its mascot – a penguin with a red scarf – becomes a registered trademark, and is found on clothing or even food products. Premium subscriptions and paid use of QQ Mobile make the service profitable. But Pony Ma and his associates are aware that their main weakness lies in their simple training as computer scientists.
After two proposals, Martin Lau, the banker who made the IPO possible, agrees to join Tencent as Chief Strategy Officer, in charge of investor relations and mergers and acquisitions. Thanks to his commercial fiber, Martin Lau will be named president of Tencent in 2006, becoming at the same time the public face of the company. Pony Ma prefers to stay out of the limelight. He does not remain less strongly attached to the development of his business. While the smartphone market is developing from the end of 2010, Tencent suffers from a reputation as a company that simply copies the ideas of others.
It is time for an operational turnaround and the creation of a new service.
WeChat, on the shoulders of giants
Pony Ma draws its inspiration from the biggest names in Silicon Valley. In 2009, in an interview with The China Daily, he paraphrased a quote attributed to Isaac Newton, stating: “ If I saw further, it was by climbing on the shoulders of giants “. With these prospects, it is out of the question to stop at a product like QQ. He then gave a team of 10 developers the mission of creating a product dedicated to mobile use.
A few months later, its developers introduced it to Weixin, renamed WeChat in 2012. Initially a simple mobile messaging application like Whatsapp, WeChat quickly acquired additional features to become indispensable to its millions of monthly users. The tool today looks like a mix of Whatsapp, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and an instant payment platform that resembles Lydia.
As of 2017, WeChat has 950 million monthly active users, which is equivalent to 70% of the Chinese population. A third of them would spend more than 4 hours a day on the application. WeChat is everything Pony Ma wants to accomplish with Tencent. According to the entrepreneur, “ Tencent has always served the online community with the desire to improve people’s lives with the Internet. “. For him, it is necessary above all to create a good product, which receives the approval of the public, before thinking of the profits.
A desert crossing … literal
The creation of a good product, undoubtedly also passes by the management. Drawing inspiration from the giants of Silicon Valley, including Apple, Tencent’s corporate culture has been described by some as cannibal. It is by bringing teams into competition with each other that the company has been able to reinvent itself. For Ross Liang, vice president of Tencent, this is a ” start-up mentality “. In 2016, the Tencent Board of Directors’ seminar took the form of a 2-day trek through the Gobi Desert. On the first day, 26 km were covered. Many executives asked for the seminar to end there, but Martin Lau and Pony Ma insisted on continuing.
On the second day, 26km were again covered. ” We focus on where and how to get there, not the price of our actions Martin Lau comments in an interview with Bloomberg.
Hong Kong – Shenzhen – Macao: China’s Silicon Valley
But what direction is Pony Ma pursuing? A member of the National People’s Congress of China since 2013, the entrepreneur does not appear much. In 2014 he was named the richest man in China by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In 2015, he appeared alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and business leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma, during the 8th edition of the US-China Internet Industry Forum. Alongside entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, and Chinese tech giants, Pony Ma appears, eyes riveted on the ground. Shyness or modesty, no one will know how to interpret this staging.
With an increasingly accepted desire for international expansion, Pony Ma is gradually revealing itself through various initiatives. Taking the example of Mark Zuckerberg, who announced the creation of a foundation in 2015, Pony Ma decided to donate more than $ 2 billion in shares to a foundation working for medical, education and environmental projects in China in April 2016. Ranked 31st in 2017 on the Forbes list of the richest men in the world, Pony Ma navigates between politics, prosperity, and societal impact.
After having revolutionized the Chinese digital landscape, he dreams today of revolutionizing the urban landscape by projecting himself as the leader of a Chinese Silicon Valley. In June 2017, Pony Ma spoke at the first Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Forum in Hong Kong, organized by Tencent: “ We know how painful our teams’ round trips between Mainland China and Hong Kong can be He said, referring to border controls.
For him, the region can become a real talent magnet. This speech, on the part of the man, usually not very talkative, follows a proposal he submitted to the Chinese government during the general assembly of the National People’s Congress in March 2017. He was already expressing its desire to bring together Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macao Bay: “ Hong Kong’s advanced financial services, combined with the innovative capacity of Shenzhen (the economic capital of Guangdong Province) and the manufacturing power of the Pearl River Delta, opens up incredible opportunities for the region. ».
Without approval from the government for the moment, it is launching in August 2017, a week dedicated to the youth of the region. The Bay Area Youth Camp organized by Tencent for teenagers between 16 and 18 years old from Hong Kong, Macao or Guangdong will undoubtedly allow him to realize his ambitions.
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