Allen Zhang: Father of WeChat and its string of innovations

Copyright: CompassList

Get to know the man behind the app in every Chinese user’s smartphone


When people are asked to cite an example of Chinese internet innovation, the name WeChat often comes to mind.

The mobile application by Tencent has surprised the world both in China and overseas with its string of innovations: the way it popularized the use of the QR code, the WeChat Shake, the WeChat official account, the digital red envelope, and more recently, the WeChat mini program.

Those digital offerings have in turn translated into strong business numbers. According to the 2017 WeChat Data Report, WeChat has about 902 million active daily users sending 38 billion messages a day, subscribing to 3.5 million WeChat official accounts, and chalking up spending worth around 40% of China’s total online transactions.

And according to HSBC in 2015, WeChat is worth about half of Tencent’s market capitalization, a valuation that translates to about US$170 billion today.

Yet, outside of China, little is known about Allen Zhang (Zhang Xiaolong), the father of WeChat.

Indie developer

Born in 1969, Zhang belongs to the first generation of software engineers in China. In his own country, as the creator of WeChat, Zhang is seen as their Steve Jobs. But he was already famous among computer engineers even before. As a journalist once put it, “If you stood at the crossroads of Huangzhuang and shouted to the crowd, 'I'm Zhang Xiaolong,' people would crowd around and ask for your autograph.”

The journalist was referring to Huangzhuang in Haidian District, Beijing, where the computer engineers hang out. The product that made Zhang so famous then was Foxmail, an email program he created that became so popular, it attracted 2 million users in those early days when personal computers were still little used in China – or about two years after Jack Ma first discovered computers and the Internet through his American friends.

Despite the large user base Foxmail attracted, Zhang, the tech whiz that he was, wasn't such a born entrepreneur, and even cringed at the thought of having to monetize the software.

Zhou Hongyi, who later became the CEO of internet and mobile services company Qihoo 360, used to hang out with Zhang. He recalled arguing with Zhang that Foxmail should be monetized, with the conversations often ending in Zhang’s long silences. “As long as users like it [Foxmail], I don't see the need [for monetization],’” Zhou recalled Zhang saying. 

Not surprisingly, by the year 2000 Zhang had to sell Foxmail, ending his career as an indie developer. The company that acquired Foxmail later sold it to Tencent, and Zhang moved to work in Tencent as part of the deal. He started working on Tencent's QQ mail in 2005. Although he built QQ mail into a strong product, Zhang remained a low-key figure at Tencent since email was never a big contributor to Tencent's revenue. 

Zhang kept his habits of writing code at night, listening to rock music, reviewing his own product and keeping up with the tech trends. One day, as he was using an RSS tool that he added to QQ mail, he read about a mobile application called Kik that was developed by a group of Canadian students. He wrote to Pony Ma, CEO of Tencent, asking for permission to create a similar app for the company. Ma said yes, and WeChat was born.

Introvert who wished to communicate

Users of WeChat could sense its idiosyncrasies. The app opens with the graphic of a single man standing on the horizon, facing a blue planet. It’s a solitary figure, and not a group of friends laughing together, as one might expect from a social networking app.

WeChat is also surprisingly slow at adding features that some want badly, such as the “read” ticks to messages. It never sends users unnecessary notifications, unlike Tencent's other popular social app QQ. WeChat is distinctive in that it allows its users to connect with others, but never disturbs them – an unmistakable reflection of the personality of its creator.

Even as a child, Zhang had always been an introvert. “He never joined us in our games, like hide and seek,” relatives who grew up with him said. Though he did make some friends later in life, Zhang recalled “there were only three girls in my class at college. [I realized that] one of them still didn’t know me, during our gathering this year.” This was in 2013, nearly 20 years after Zhang graduated.

The introvert who was unnoticed by his classmates designed WeChat Shake (Yaoyiyao), a feature in WeChat that allows people to make new friends – when both sides shake their smartphones at the same time. This was the function that, along with the Nearby People function, made WeChat outpace its rivals during its early days.

The same introvert also introduced WeChat Official Account, giving everyone – whether famous or ordinary, rich or poor, extroverted or introverted – a voice. Each account could push information to users once a day and can only appear at the top of listings if users chose them. The WeChat Official Account caused such a stir in China that it came to define and represent the term “new media.”

Over the years, not one function was added to WeChat without Zhang’s approval. He once wrote: "After all these years, I'm still working on communication tools. This makes me believe in a destiny: that every kid who is bad at communication has great potential to help others communicate.”

Decentralized ecosystem 

The programmers in Zhang's team have two books that are must reads. One is the biography of Steve Jobs; the other is Out of Control by Kevin Kelly.

Zhang resembles Jobs in many ways. He is a perfectionist who can tell the difference in a UI design by pixels. He even bought the copyright of one of his favorite songs so he could display its lyrics on the opening page of QQ mail, just like Steve Jobs. However, Zhang’s similarity to Kevin Kelly runs deeper, in his product philosophy, which is to build a decentralized system.

As the app installed on nearly every smartphone in China, WeChat is surprisingly “decentralized.” One can talk to anyone so long as they are WeChat friends. Anyone or any company can easily open a WeChat account and push information to the users who subscribe to their account – unlike the centralized Facebook, which selects the content pushed to users. 

WeChat’s latest innovation, the WeChat mini program, continues to reflect this philosophy. Launched in January 2017, the WeChat mini program is a simplified version of an app that users could open within WeChat whenever they wanted, and would disappear if little used.

At a time when large internet players have pretty much crushed the small indie developers, and downloading a newly created app has gotten increasingly rare, the WeChat mini program is a refreshing development.

The mini program uses a code that's easy to learn, allowing developers to code independently so long as they know HTML and Javascript. “The WeChat mini program gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to beat the tech giants,” said GSR Ventures Managing Director Allen Zhu (Zhu Xiaohu) in a speech. “[Through the WeChat network,] WeChat mini programs allow new startups to acquire millions of users in a very short span of time.”

By June 2018, the number of WeChat mini programs had reached 1 million, doubling from January 2018. About 80% of China’s first-tier venture capital funding went to WeChat mini program-based startups in the same period, amounting to at least RMB 3 billion.

Many had reckoned that when Steve Jobs passed away, Apple products would fall out of favor. But Apple users continued to stay on, not because of the attractiveness of Apple’s hardware, but because they love its ecosystem. In this sense, Allen Zhang, as the father of WeChat, could indeed be the “Steve Jobs of China.”

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