It was the fall of 2010, and Pony Ma (Chinese name: Ma Huateng) was trying to figure out what came next for Tencent, the company he had run since founding it in 1998 with four classmates from Shenzhen University. Thanks to its core product, the QQ instant messaging service, which had 650 million monthly active users, Tencent had become one of China’s most valuable Internet companies with revenues of nearly $2 billion, a market capitalization of over $33 billion, and more than ten thousand employees. However, QQ was now a mature desktop product based on late-1990s technology, and its user base had stopped growing. Its American counterpart, AOL Instant Messenger, was already in a swift decline.
Ma was convinced that Tencent had to develop a new breakthrough product for the emerging smartphone platform—or else. “Internet companies that can react will survive,” he said, “and those who can’t will die.”
The message Pony Ma read that night was from one of Tencent’s employees, Allen Zhang (Chinese name: Zhang Xiaolong), a fellow entrepreneur whose company, Foxmail, Tencent had acquired five years earlier. Zhang now ran the company’s Guangzhou R&D division, which was a two-hour drive from Tencent’s Shenzhen headquarters. He had been monitoring the rapid growth of a new social messaging product called Kik, which was especially popular among young people. He decided that Tencent needed to create its own social messenger for smartphones—and quickly.
Zhang’s proposal represented not only a huge opportunity but also a huge risk, with equally huge uncertainty about the outcome. While a new messenger service might appeal to young consumers, it was probably going to cannibalize QQ, which was, after all, Tencent’s core business. Furthermore, Tencent had partnered with leading mobile carriers like China Mobile to receive 40 percent of the SMS charges that QQ users racked up when they sent messages to mobile phones. A new service could hurt Tencent’s financial bottom line and at the same time risk its relationships with some of China’s most powerful companies.
It was the sort of decision that publicly traded, ten-thousand-person companies typically refer to a committee for further study. But Ma wasn’t a typical corporate executive. That very night, he gave Zhang the go-ahead to pursue the idea. Zhang put together a ten-person team, including seven engineers, to build and launch the new product.
In just two months, Zhang’s small team had built a mobile-first social messaging network with a clean, minimalistic design that was the polar opposite of QQ. Ma named the service Weixin, which means “micromessage” in Mandarin. Outside of China, the service became known as WeChat.
What came next was staggering. Just sixteen months after Zhang’s fateful late-night message to Ma, WeChat celebrated its one hundred millionth user. Six months after that, it had grown to two hundred million users. Four months after that, it had grown to three hundred million users.
Pony Ma’s late-night bet paid off handsomely. Tencent reported 2016 revenues of $22 billion, up 48 percent from the previous year, and up nearly 700 percent since 2010, the year before WeChat’s launch. By early 2018, Tencent reached a market capitalization of over $500 billion, making it one of the world’s most valuable companies, and WeChat was one of the most widely and intensively used services in the world.
Fast Company called WeChat “China’s app for everything,” and the Financial Times reported that more than half of its users spend over ninety minutes a day using the app. To put WeChat in an American context, it’s as if one single service combined the functions of Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Venmo, Grubhub, Amazon, Uber, Apple Pay, Gmail, and even Slack into a single megaservice. You can use WeChat to do run-of-the-mill things like texting and calling people, participating in social media, and reading articles, but you can also book a taxi, buy movie tickets, make doctors’ appointments, send money to friends, play games, pay your rent, order dinner for the night, plus so much more. All from a single app on your smartphone.
Ma himself recognized the importance of the decision he had made, saying in an interview, “Looking back, those two months were a matter of life and death.”
These stories of extreme growth, whether in California or halfway around the world in China, are perfect examples of why it’s valuable to study what Blitzscaling is and how it works.
This is a tidbit from the book Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman