Changemakers: Allen Zhang

20 years from now, most consumption could be virtual, says WeChat’s founder

By Julian Birkinshaw and Dickie Liang-Hong Ke 27 September 2019

Allen-Zhang974x296

Photo by

Qilai Shen / Getty

As the ‘Father of WeChat’, the ‘super app’ that more than 1bn Chinese use daily for everything from sending messages to paying bills and hailing rides, Allen Zhang enjoys rock-star status in China. The story of how Zhang and his tiny team of developers created the first version of the app in just 70 days has become the stuff of legend.

Seldom seen in public, 49-year-old Zhang has become an increasingly influential figure in internet circles, not only in China but throughout the world. In a rare interview earlier this year he sat down with Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and LBS Sloan Fellow Dickie Liang-Hong Ke to talk about WeChat now and what’s coming down the line.

What is your approach to developing new software products?

Craftsmanship was highly valued in China in the past. In more modern times, respect for craftsmanship has been somewhat lacking, at a time when it has become widely adopted across industry abroad. China now needs a rethink regarding products and product excellence. 

That goes for Internet products too -- because many people only recognize them for their commercial properties, which hardly makes for products distinguished by exceptional quality. The iPhone stands apart from most other American products, which show relatively less attention to detail. This explains why iPhones are adored by so many.

Photo by

Qilai Shen / Getty

In the case of WeChat, before perceiving it as a commercial product, I’d rather see it first as an impressive work of art. A commercial product can only touch people when it is truly extraordinary. Many who study WeChat fail to see this. Instead of looking at a gorgeous piece of design, they only talk about how WeChat seized a market opportunity.  

Let me explain why WeChat was made like this. I personally devised many products in the past, including Foxmail, which I built from scratch and on my own, from codes to graphics. It was a learning process for me. Seeing myself as an individual craftsman, I needed to make everything great, every detail meticulously polished. After the experience of Foxmail, I started with WeChat but in a different way, because WeChat relies on such a big team. But the approach remains the same —always strive for perfection in every detail.

People tell us there is a strong top-down approach to innovation here. But you also talk about getting people to propose bottom-up ideas. What is the balance?
 

You raise a great question about the mechanism of innovation. I’ve been thinking about it myself, to avoid turning myself into an innovation bottleneck. I think it’s more like a cycle. In the early phases, I dominated all major aspects of design. We were still a small team, and I used to sit down with them to go over solutions and improvements. Mini Programs [small apps within the WeChat app], on the other hand, was primarily led by me, to help with its execution as a massive system. Of course, I’m expecting more bottom-up innovations in future. Most may fail, but it’s great even if only a few make it through. In particular, I am encouraging innovation in offerings around WeChat.  For example, I have given the team of Top Stories full authority for anything they want to try, without asking for permission.

But freedom to innovate also means taking responsibility. I have seen teams change from feeling totally self-assured to panic, the moment they know it’s their full responsibility. I recall a team two years ago – working on a feature for exploring life nearby – struggling to develop a good plan. They approached me with a proposal they claimed to be the best they could come up with. I would have rejected it right away, but I didn’t want to be too bossy, so I told them to go ahead, to pick one or two pilot cities for a soft launch to see how it rolled out. They backed out. Responsibility makes a difference.

"A commercial product can only touch people when it is truly extraordinary"

You seem to be quite a perfectionist in your approach to product design

I agree, to an extent. That’s why I do not allow a single flaw in a product. I know the world itself is not perfect. Still, this is how I’m wired. I’m the only senior executive I know of, both inside and outside our company, who sits in a meeting with frontline product managers to go through each and every detail. Many people think I micromanage too much, but it’s worth this amount of attention. I probably use criteria different to others. Put it this way: I try to set aside the way a company normally does things, because every detail needs to be focused on, otherwise our product cannot be guaranteed to be the best. This kind of approach is not without disadvantages, though. It makes many colleagues feel that they never get a chance, since their proposals never make it to the launch. They’ll need to be encouraged through other means, of course, but, this is the way I work.

As WeChat grows, how can the business maintain its agility?

 In my opinion, the biggest issue concerning agility is the size of the team. We call it “the big-company syndrome”. The best way to handle it is to have a smaller team—which is what I do. Each team here has about 100 people. I set up different teams for different parts of the business with a minimum number of people, and keep them independent. These teams are self-sufficient like a closed loop, and are able to finish their tasks absolutely on their own, with designers, developers, testing engineers all working together. This is how I minimize inefficiency as we expand--but of course, another problem is that a team of 100 will eventually grow to 200 or 300.  The idea then is to split it up again. I try to keep each team as small as possible.

Let me also comment on processes. Back in the age of industrialization, long processes were needed for manufactured goods that stayed unchanged for years. For Internet products, however, a small team is much preferable to speedily respond to market changes. To be frank, our company is not doing a great job in this regard. Judging from the outcomes, we are slow. That has been an ongoing issue for the management team at large, given the 40,000 or so people in Tencent.


allen-zhang-article-photo621x430


WeChat is only 2000 people, a relatively small part of Tencent, but it shares the same management approach, and will be influenced by the management system of Tencent in general. Even though WeChat wants to become more agile, without a supportive mechanism from the company level, it’ll be hard to fully execute it.

You must get tens of thousands of students wanting to come to work for you and obviously you can be very selective about who you choose. What sorts of skills and what sort of qualities do you look for?

Unlike other departments, WeChat has a special interview committee for talent recruitment. For any CV the committee receives, a candidate interview will be set up with 2 to 3 interviewers randomly picked from the committee, so as to follow consistent hiring criteria.

What kind of recruits are we looking for? I’d say we are looking for a candidate who is smart, with their own ideas and creativity. Rather than experience, we prefer someone who presents his/her own way of thinking. For new hires, we expect them to come up with new ways to cope with new environments, which makes it less important to look at their past experience. Each year more than half of new recruits are fresh graduates. We’d rather hire more of them, even though they have little experience – they often demonstrate more potential and higher qualities.

So how do you get the balance right between encouraging critical thinking and entrepreneurial effort and getting people to do their assigned job?

Internet companies want to stay away from employees who just take orders, showing no creativity. This is especially true for a multi-layer organization, where the order is passed down layer by layer. In a small team of less than 100 people, there’s no need to be obedient, because everyone can participate in discussions every day. I’ve always wanted to continue an earlier tradition where the frontline product managers joined the discussions with me.

Having said that, the huge difference in position levels can be quite tricky, making some front-liners feel intimidated and too shy to express themselves. I try to encourage them to speak out. And it’s not a contradiction, because I’m always telling the team not to take it personally when we discuss an issue, and it helps to put aside titles to only focus on the problem. Of course not everyone is able to do it, especially juniors with minimal experience, who tend to get emotional easily. When I reject their proposals, they often take it personally and can't stick to the facts. Therefore, I have been trying to advocate a problem-solving approach with no emotions attached, so that more colleagues feel free to speak up.

Nevertheless, the issue still exists, and many people quit in the past year or two, mainly because they couldn’t see eye to eye with their line managers. It was our loss. It seems that there’s no perfect fix for such situations. Even if I’m able to not take things personally during discussions, I can't speak for every line manager who reports to me. Yes, the issue still exists extensively.  

How do you spend your typical day at work?

I spend most of my time in meetings, of which there are two kinds. The first is management meetings - personally I don’t like them, but I have to show up.

Another kind of meetings is associated with our business or product, which I much prefer. I enjoy them, sitting with everyone to go through new features or think how to optimize the product. I think it’s something we should do more often. We always use up our scheduled meeting hours, but everybody seems to be cool with it, even if discussions continue into the night. Given that our product influences 1 billion users, even a tiny improvement saving one second of time makes us proud. So it’s worth doing. That’s how I normally spend a day. Sometimes after a half-day of management meetings, I really need to go golfing to shake off the negative mood.

How can you ensure the future success of WeChat?  What’s coming down the track that might challenge your dominance?

WeChat will for sure be challenged in future. WeChat seized the opportunity when the industry transitioned from PC to phones, and turned it into a success. I don’t think a product of the same kind will be a threat to us, but an emerging user demand might be, especially a social need that we fail to satisfy. A big challenge for us in future could also come from a new device or communications system that would replace our current human-machine interaction or smart phones. Of course that’s further down the road. But people’s life styles change rapidly. In China we used to say one decade was one generation, but now it’s three or four years. I have no idea how much our users will change in future and how their needs will differ. This I believe is where our true potential threat is. 

Many companies like Facebook are investing in Virtual Reality (VR). Do you buy the argument that we will increasingly live our lives through VR in the future?

Have you seen the film Ready Player One?  It depicts a future 20 years from now when Facebook’s technologies come to reality. Personally, I think our future is probably going to resemble this film in some ways.

When I was golfing in Scotland, I didn’t even need my mobile phone, nor the Internet, because life there was such a delight. I liked it a lot. But things are quite different in China. In Scotland there’s one golf course for every 10,000 people. In China with more than 1 billion population we only have 100 golf courses in total. No wonder we need a virtual life!

VR technologies are not yet developed enough to deliver a comfortable experience. But 20 years from now, people might become more dependent on a virtual life, where the majority of their consumption might take place. Now, VR is only powerful enough to animate video games -- but remember, this business has already made Tencent a huge apparel company: the money players spend on virtual garments is probably more than the annual sales revenue of a big clothing firm.

These users spend more than half their money on virtual rather than real outfits. Gradually, consumers will spend more money on games or virtual worlds. I do believe that VR is likely to be our future. 

Comments 0