WeChat is popularly considered in China to be the vision of one man: Zhang Xiaolong 张小龙 (English name: Allen Zhang). Who is this man? The so called ‘father of WeChat’. How did he come to bring about one of the most innovative and all-encompassing apps in China (the world?).
And why, despite being one of most important internet visionaries in the past decade, so little is written about Zhang Xiaolong in English that (to date) he doesn’t even have an English language page on Wikipedia.
The Foxmail Years
A mild-mannered man from Hunan province Xiaolong is known for being decidedly low key and shunning the lime light. He was a successful entrepreneur well before joining Tencent (the company through which he subsequently created WeChat). Xiaolong graduated from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan way back in 1994 with a master’s degree in telecommunications. He went on to become part of the 1st generation of internet software developers in China creating Foxmail in 1997, which still goes to this day (http://www.foxmail.com/win/en/).
Foxmail was very successful; by 2005 they were bought by Tencent. Foxmail had, by then, become China’s largest email client software. Tencent leveraged Xiaolong’s obvious skill in creating products, putting him in charge of the Guangzhou R&D division. There, as general manager, he went on to spearhead QQ Mail and WeChat.
While the name ‘Weixin 微信’ is said to have come from Tencent founder, Pony Ma. WeChat was undoubtedly the vision of Zhang Xiaolong and his R&D team in Guangzhou. Back in 2010 Xiaolong initially organized a small team of just 10 developers to work on a smartphone messaging app. Few people could have foreseen that WeChat would go on to have over 600 million users, massively impacting Chinese society. It was also one of the first Chinese apps that truly grasped minimalist design as pioneered by Steve Jobs at Apple.
On launch, many people mistook WeChat as a Western App. Instead of the normal clutter, it had a slick intuitive and minimal design. Compared with Tencent’s the rather gaudy looking flagship QQ desktop software, it was hard to believe that WeChat was made by the same company. Xiaolong is said to believe that in IT projects the feelings of people are much more important than the technical issues.
QQ desktop above, quite a different feel from WeChat
Xiaolong, now has legendary status throughout the Chinese tech scene due to the success of WeChat. He currently heads the ‘WeiXin Group’, probably the most strategically important business unit of the internet giant Tencent. Below are his 7 guidelines sent to all staff:
- Do what is valuable for users.
- Hold on to our values, they will be reflected in our products and services.
- Keep teams small and efficient.
- Learning and upgrading are more significant than previous experience.
- Employ a systematic way of thinking
- Build a good reputation and attract users to recommend users.
- Speculation outweighs execution.
Forces within the company must be eager to take advantage of the many ways to make quick money from WeChat’s huge user base. Xiaolong will have his work cut out to strike a balance between commercial interests and protecting the user experience embodied by his original vision of perfection through minimalism.