Ma Huateng was born in 1971 in Guangdong province and went on to study computer science at Shenzhen University.
He joined China Motion Telecom as a software engineer, becoming a director of software development.
In 1998 Ma came across the Israeli firm ICQ, which had developed an instant messaging service. He realised there was no Chinese language version and decided to design one, founding Tencent in Shenzhen with Rmb1 million of capital.
At the outset the firm was cash-strapped, having to “steal” bandwidth from rivals, says China Computer World.
Why so popular?
Ma’s product, named QQ, was an instant hit with web users, particularly the young.
It allows chat with anyone online, with users liking the fact you can even initiate chats with strangers. The logo, a friendly penguin, caught the imagination too by jumping up and down while chats were ongoing.
QQ’s growth was exponential, from a few million users in the first months to 448 million active today (and a total ‘registered’ user base of 990 million).
It nearly failed…
Tencent faced a cash crunch in 2000, when the dotcom bubble burst. Ma approached portals Sina and China.com to invest, but they declined. Venture capital firm IDG put money in later in the year.
In 2001, Ma started to monetise his user base, when China Mobile began to seek revenue sharing deals with internet firms. In one tactic, it charged for any QQ ‘chat’ traffic that went through its phones and split the revenue with Tencent.
By year end, profits of Rmb10.2 million had been made. Ma then diversified into a portal (to generate ad revenue), online games (with paid subscribers), e-commerce and search.
More recently he has added voice and video functionality to QQ, making it more like Skype.
Need to know
Tencent is arguably the most important internet firm in China. Like Google it has branched out into a range of areas and now boasts the largest user base.
In the first half of the year the Hong Kong-listed firm made a net profit of $330 million.
The governor of Hunan province (visiting the company in July) praised Tencent as the “pride of the Chinese people” and cited Ma – whose English name is the somewhat unusual ‘Pony’ – as a model entrepreneur.
On this year’s Hurun list Ma topped the IT rich list with wealth of Rmb23.9 billion ($3.48 billion).
In his own words
“At the time QQ launched I didn’t know how the product could make money,” says Ma. “I just thought it would be useful.”
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