So, it’s big. Is it a legitimate global player? Put the behemoth side-by-side with the likes of Facebook and Google and critics would argue that it’s an unfair comparison. The Chinese government overly supported Tencent as a ﬂedgling ﬁrm, it beneﬁts from Beijing’s block on Facebook, Twitter and Google, and, in return for help, captures ever more data, they would claim. Some would say it’s part of the government’s surveillance system – that through contentious “social credit” scores, Tencent can ﬁll a gap in China’s ﬁnancial system by taking a big-brother lens to citizens’ purchasing behaviour. China’s central bank, however, clamped down on the pilot in February 2018. Still, Tencent has surged ahead and left national rivals like Baidu behind. Owing to its continual innovation, it’s a fearsome competitor and has long sat at the same table as Western tech giants. So what can the rest of the world learn from the man behind it all?
How Ma keeps designs sharp
In 2006 Ma announced a ﬁve-year business plan: to reach annual revenues of 10 billion renminbi (£1.14 billion). The company’s 2017 annual revenues stood at almost 238 billion renminbi
(£26.8 billion). By 2016, it employed 40,000 people, up from 1,000 in 2004. As the ﬁrm realised its rapid growth ambitions, Ma feared it would lose its nimbleness and become an overly complex, cumbersome giant. As organisations grow larger they often become insular and bureaucratic. Ineﬃciencies and inertia creep in. Employees become disengaged. So Ma created ‘Seven principles’ – agility, openness, user ﬁrst, speed, resilience, evolution and innovation – to guide product creation.
The Oxford Dictionary defines agility as the “ability to move quickly and easily”, which is the foundation on which Ma built the business. How has he created the capacity to pivot in anticipation of and response to changes? By setting the right cultural tone.
Speaking at the Tsinghua Management Global Forum in 2016, Ma pointed to Tencent’s early days as a classroom for culture. He didn’t want to lead, he said. He didn’t have grand ambitions to build a great enterprise. He wanted, simply, to create “excellent products” and have the co-founders see a return on their investment: “I focused on product and Tony Zhang focused on technology. Liqing Zeng looked like a boss and that’s why we asked him to take care of sales and marketing. Yizhou Chen originated from government, therefore he took care of HR, legal, administration and government relations,” Ma explained.
An important feature of Tencent’s dizzying success had been its ability to develop hot products quickly. But, as it matured, Ma felt the risk of the ﬁrm falling into bad habits weigh heavy. It was even risky, he thought, to rely too much on the founding team. He considered the next generation better positioned to dream up the next big product idea. “That’s why we allow those who understand the needs of younger users to do the job,” said Ma.
The launch of WeChat is a case in point. At an internal leadership conference, its creator, Xiaolong Zhang, put the product’s success down to simplicity and agility. Zhang regaled the audience with the tale of how, one night during the launch, he needed an urgent product change. He ﬁ red oﬀ an email and the next day a new software release was online. Changing a product in ﬂight is tough. Agility was their ability to do it.
As well as empowering younger employees to take the lead, Ma and his team put in place simple rules. Younger employees understand what people want. But they’re allergic to rules. Small ﬁrms that have grown rapidly, such as Tencent, have an advantage: they’re born agile. They don’t have to unlearn bad habits. Ma quickly discovered that it was his job to keep bureaucracy at bay.
Unshackled by rules, Tencent employees have freedom to act – to invent, to problem solve, to wow. Teams also have freedom to compete. Ma asks people to “try bravely, without hesitation”, which is how WeChat came about.
In 2010 mobile use was skyrocketing: the surge was a new opportunity to exploit. Zhang emailed Ma asking for permission to create a competitor to Kik Messenger, founded in 2009 by a group of students from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Zhang was concerned that Kik or similar products could rival Tencent’s QQ. Ma gave Zhang permission to go ahead despite other teams, including QQ, plugging away on similar products. Zhang set up an autonomous unit in Guangzhou, away from the Shenzhen headquarters. By giving the project the green light, Ma, in eﬀect, gave Zhang full licence to cannibalise the existing QQ product. On the back of ballooning mobile use – by 2012 China could boast that 89% of the population were users, more than in all European countries combined – WeChat soared.
Many other tech ﬁrms, such as Facebook when it acquired WhatsApp and Instagram, have legitimised internal competition. Think of Apple’s iPhone, which rolled the iPod, cell phone and web access into a single device. As Steve Jobs, Ma’s idol, once quipped, “If you don’t cannibalise yourself, someone else will.”
Openness also means sharing. Ma quickly embraced open-source software. Employees share insights, software and entire bodies of code from other parts of the business. Amazon’s Jeﬀ Bezos created a similar mandate in 2002. He required complete openness and insisted that all Amazon teams plan and design service interfaces so they can be exposed to developers in the outside world. “No exceptions,” said Bezos. Creating back doors was a ﬁ ring oﬀence.
3. User first
It’s now vogue to call customers “users”. But Ma’s early focus was on what he knew. A self-confessed geek who trained in computer science, he knew about the tech people wanted to use. His famous 10/100/1,000 rule reinforces Tencent’s user-ﬁrst philosophy. Each month product managers run 10 end-user surveys, read 100 users’ blogs and collect user-experience feedback from 1,000 people.
Ma also has sharp design insight. “A service starts with the satisfaction and needs of its users in mind and is deﬁ ned by those two things,” he wrote on WeChat’s internal platform in April 2017. He summarised seven deadly sins of product managers, saying that developers undermine their products by convoluting them beyond recognition: “Spending core resources and time repeatedly on the optimisation of the obvious characteristics is basically the mania of novice internet entrepreneurs.”
Regardless of age and background, users want clear, simple, natural, easy-to-use design and products. And with Tencent, that’s what they get. Unlike Western app constellations, Tencent combines as many features into one app as possible.
Take the use of ID cards in China. In January 2018, WeChat launched a pilot digital ID scheme, allowing citizens to link their national identity to the platform’s facial recognition app. The innovation is the latest to integrate WeChat into people’s everyday lives – cementing its status as the app for everything.
No product starts perfect. It takes rapid iteration and even then, according to Ma, perfection is never reached. Tencent’s attention to speed has long had its rivals green. For instance, the ﬁrst major chat app in China wasn’t WeChat; it was Miliao, which was produced by Xiaomi. Xiaomi’s founder and CEO Lei Jun admitted that WeChat eclipsed his product because Tencent could release one or two versions every week. “Miliao could only release one version per month,” he noted. “Even for software as complicated as QQ, they still maintained the speed of releasing two to three versions every month. Tencent’s people are in search of excellence.”
Ma’s tolerance of failure is strategic. Internal battles, where two teams can
(sometimes unknowingly) work on variations of the same product lines, can create waste. But where there are losers, there are winners: Ma expects people to bounce back from losses, pick themselves up and start over.
As for external competition, Tencent has experienced plenty. BAT – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – are China’s power gang. FANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Netﬂix and Google – preside happily over Silicon Valley. The battleground is vibrant. Facebook was banned in China in July 2009, the same year WhatsApp launched. Closer to home, in 2010 Alibaba blocked Baidu’s internet crawlers from its website. Alibaba and Tencent have repeatedly clashed over the same turf. Resilience is all part of Ma’s mission to face down internal and external attackers. You need resilience to keep you on the ball.