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Pony Ma: Bookworm behind QQ and WeChat

Mr Ma's belief in coming up with totally different products led to the birth of popular messaging app WeChat.
Mr Ma's belief in coming up with totally different products led to the birth of popular messaging app WeChat.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When micro-blogging website Weibo became hugely popular in China in the late 2000s, Mr Pony Ma's first instinct was to follow suit and build a similar product.

But the Chinese Internet entrepreneur soon realised this was not the way to fight competition.

"Only when you have a totally different productcan you solve the problem. That was the birth of WeChat," he told a forum at Tsinghua University in October.

The 45-year-old founder of Tencent Holdings created desktop messaging service QQ in 1999; the number of registered users hit 800 million by 2008. But his next product needed to be mobile-based.

The rise of smartphones meant "Internet companies that could react will survive, and those who can't will die", said Mr Ma.

In 2010, he had three teams each working on a mobile-based product. The one working on a messaging service emerged with the winning product - WeChat.

Six years on, the smartphone messaging platform has become the most popular Internet app in China, with 846 million monthly active users.

Born in Shantou, in Guangdong province, Mr Ma studied computer science at Shenzhen University. When he registered Tencent in 1998, his parents were surprised that a bookworm like him would want to start a company.


A self-professed computer geek, Mr Ma was not interested in being an entrepreneur or a leader. He merely wanted to make a product that many people would use. Today, Tencent is China's biggest Internet company by market value at US$237 billion (S$336 billion).

China still lags behind the United States in coming up with innovative ideas, but intense competition has forced companies to be creative in applying these ideas in the Chinese context, said Mr Ma.

"You can win this competition only by adding many new, unique and innovative features," he told the forum, adding that Tencent is moving into artificial intelligence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Bookworm behind QQ and WeChat'. Print Edition | Subscribe