TC Disrupt Beijing: A Fireside Chat With Tencent CEO Pony Ma

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TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing kicked off with a bang this morning: Pony Ma, founder, Executive Director, Chairman, and CEO of Chinese giant Tencent took the stage for a fireside chat with our own Sarah Lacy. Tencent, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is one of the world’s biggest Internet giants. The company sees $3 billion in revenue and $1 billion in profit annually, with services that include web portals, games, social networks, and IM. According to Forbes, Ma is the 9th richest person in China.

The interview spanned many topics, ranging from Tencent’s past to the role China will have as the web continues to grow and mature. And it was notable for another reason: this was the first time Ma agreed to be interviewed on stage by a foreign journalist.

You’ll find my takeaways below, and a recording of the whole interview above — it’s well worth watching.

Lacy began the interview by asking about the criticisms that Chinese entrepreneurs are “just copycats” — a notion she thinks is overstated (Google wasn’t the first search engine), but that is widely held nonetheless.

Ma said that it’s a difficult topic, explaining that China has a relatively short Internet history compared to the US and Silicon Valley (he notes that Europe is in a similar situation). And he said other sectors have seen a similar mimicry process. But in the long term, he doesn’t see it as a continuing trend — if you don’t have innovative applications and innovative cultures, and you aren’t attracting talent, then the industry won’t be sustained. In other words, it sounds like he believes we’ll see more creativity coming out of China over time.

The conversation then turned to Tencent. The company, while immensely succesful, has also developed a reputation for squashing competition — Lacy pointed out that there’s a saying among Chinese startups: “Life, Death, or Tencent”.

Ma didn’t do much to dispute this idea (he mentioned that Microsoft had a similar reputation in the past). But he said that the company is working hard to change things by embracing a more open platform approach, following in the footsteps of Facebook’s application platform and Apple’s App Store. Ma explains that there’s no way for one company to produce all the applications that its users want, and that the demands of these customers are specialized. Which is why creating ecosystems where many developers and applications can thrive is beneficial.

Lacy then asked about the lack of success many Silicon Valley-based startups have when they try venturing into China, pointing out some of the stumbles Groupon has had along the way.

Ma declined to criticize Groupon too much (he said they’re a Tencent partner), but he said that in general it’s proven that the Chinese market is vastly different compared to America and elsewhere. Sometimes companies don’t have particularly solid integrations and try to get started too quickly. Another issue he points out: in the US, when a company starts to get traction, they often have a 3-6 month headstart compared to the competition. In China, as soon as someone launches a site, hundreds of other people have started working on the same idea within the hour. “You need to have extraordinary wisdom to be the forerunner,” he said.

Some other key takeaways: Asked what keeps him up at night, Ma recounted the myriad ways Internet companies can fail — everything from server outages to data loss. But in the long term, it’s the fact that the company is always looking to make sure it’s on top of the next great business opportunity.

Ma said that, as he set about building Tencent, he learned from many of the articles written in and about Silicon Valley. “I think Steve Jobs is my idol”, he said, explaining that the integration of technical products and art is something everyone should aspire to.  He added, “wealth won’t give you satisfaction, creating a good product that’s well received by users is what matters most.”