China’s Weibo Guru, Kai-fu Lee
Shu-Ching Jean Chen, Contributor
In September 2009, Kai-fu Lee quit his job as head of Google China, announcing it by way of Weibo, a new micro-blogging service in China that had recently been launched by Sina.com. Three days later, he introduced his new company, Innovation Works, issued press releases and started hiring, all through Weibo. It was a remarkably prescient move.
Two years later, Google abandoned China but Weibo stays. It has became the biggest online sensation in China. About 250 million Chinese internet users, or nearly half of China’s online population of 513 million, signed up on Weibo, up from 63 million a year ago. The spread of smart phones accelerates the fast adoption of Weibo, now more popular than emails. As much as 69.3% of Chinese internet users get online through handsets, only 4% lower than PCs.
Lee becomes the indisputable face of China Inc, as his online popularity soars: he tops the business hall of fame at both the two dominant Weibo service providers, Sina Corp and Tencent. His following of 33.5 million Weibo fans, mainly 20-something, mostly male, tech-savvy students in cities across China, is far larger than that of any other business leaders and nationwide is matched only by half a dozen entertainment celebrities. “Weibo is the most open communication channel in China. Sina and Tencent have enabled lots of Chinese share information through their services,” Lee says, a diligent blogger who posts more than five weibos in a typical day.
Lee started out to attract eyeballs but adjusted and simplified his messages to get across to an increasingly younger crowd as Weibo extends beyond older and professional early-adoptors. His fan base grew more than four times as much in 2011. A constant thread of his weibos is updates and analysis of current events of global high technology, from the latest product offerings (yes, iPhones and iPads) and financials of Google and Apple, his two former employers, to market trends at home, all mixed up with personal interactions with industry movers and shakers.
But his weibos stand out among the pack for lively sharing and honest exchange of views, with good humor and wit, on topics of every possible description. Most recently his fans followed him, through Weibo, to visit Apple’s ornate shop in London; Davos; camel-riding in the Gobi desert; food stalls in Hong Kong; a museum in Zurich; and a dark Swiss back alley where he tweeted about being robbed off everything except his iPhone, an Android handset and a credit card.
Much has been said about Weibo’s power to upend the official order of things, with scoops from netizens, most vividly illustrated in the documentation of the tragic high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in September. Various Chinese government bureaus are also savvy enough to put out their own Weibo postings. In business it opens a valuable direct channel for Chinese corporate titans to connect with the general public. When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates hosted a philanthropy banquet with 50 local tycoon in September 2010, Pan Shiyi, chairman of real estate developer Soho China and an avid micro-blogger, broadcast the event real time through Weibo postings, while a throng of reporters waited outside in the cold.
As with Lee, his company Innovation Works is growing in tandem with his Weibo stature. Of the 43 projects it has invested in (involving everything from e-coupons to Q&A social networking to cloud-based security) through its $180 million fund, 20 of them received first-round funding in sums from $5 million to $12 million. The company will raise a larger fund later this year to keep it going, but the last thing Lee needs to worry about would be the supply of future entrepreneurs, if China can refrain from nipping Weibo’s extraordinary vibrancy in the bud. Here is a sampling of Lee’s views of the world:
Kaifu Lee’s five most popular weibo postings in 2011:
*Reposting weibos is a power, and responsibility. We spread messages, not rumors; observe, not follow blindly; be critical, without violating truth; straightforward, not foul-mouthed. You and I are not just visitors, but active participants. Let weibos be clear and warm, starting with ourselves (October 25, 21:23, 2012).
* A friend who lives near Apple Inc. spoke to me over the phone: “I saw a spectacular rainbow over the sky this morning on my way sending kids to school. No rain. Maybe this is how God commemorates Steve Jobs.” (October 6, 08:07, 2011).
* George W. Bush’s brother, Neil Bush (who tweets on Weibo almost entirely in Chinese on Sina.com) wrote to his daughter on the eve of her wedding to Ralph Lauren‘s son: “Of the men in your life I loved you first.” Chinese fathers can learn from him such expression of profuse compassion (September 8, 20:15, 2011).
* A high-speed train derailed in German in 1998, killing 101 people. Authorities thoroughly investigated and prosecuted those responsible, then built a memorial on the site of the disaster (see attached picture). I support the idea of building a memorial on the site of high-speed train crash in Wenzhou to commemorate victims and serve a warning to future generations, after proper investigations (August 7, 11:31, 2011).
* Many people remain skeptical about my prognosis about patent acquisition driving Google into acquiring Motorola Mobility. Last night over dinner, a former Google board director, agreed with me on the issue. Here are pointers you can follow: patents are very valuable (even though this is something today’s China lacks ); not every company wants to be the next Apple; companies cannot betray their genes, in Google’s case, its open platform; do not believe in conspiracy theories. Lastly, even if you don’t believe this prognosis, I do. August 17, 06:00, 2011
Words of wisdom (these are hugely popular with Chinese fans)
*“Judge a man on how he reacts to failure, not success.” — Martin Luther King (March 27 14:31,2011).
*When you are afraid of trying something new, think about this: Titanic was built by experts; Noah’s Ark was built by beginners (June 24, 10:45, 2011).
*”And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” –from Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address (March 15, 09:15, 2011).
* One day, people would no longer use iPhones, iPads, Macs. Apple may even lose its luster, but Steve Jobs’ belief and wisdom will survive. His commencement speech at Stanford (“Stay hunger, stay foolish,” “connect the dots,” “follow your heart”‘) will stimulate young people the way those of Churchill, Lincoln and Martin Luther King do (October 6, 19:42, 2011).
* Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about his Law of Social Sharing: the amount of stuff you shared today is double the amount you shared a year ago. It creates similar compounding effects much like Moore’s law in semiconductor ( July 8, 11:03, 2011).
*HTC recently caught worldwide attention with its market cap exceeding Nokia’s. HTC chairwoman is Cher Wang, daughter of Taiwanese tycoon Wang Yung-ching. She started from scratches despite hailing from a wealthy family and may accomplish more than her father. She is a model of China’s second generation of family wealth, and an investor in my company Innovation Works ( April 10, 13:47, 2011).