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A Dialogue between Qian Yingyi and Pony Ma: Cross-border is crucial for innovation and entrepreneurship

Source: China Education News Date: 2016-11-02


Two Tips for Entrepreneurs

First, focus on addressing the pain points.

You need to identify pain points that make people feel uncomfortable and work to address them using the Internet. You don’t need many people to do this. One or two people are enough. If your idea can be verified through the Internet and applied on a wider scope, then you will move in the right direction.

Second, set you eye across borders.

In the future, innovation and transformation of many traditional industries will take place across borders. Industries won’t stay unchanged. If you could seize the opportunities, it could provide a good direction for start-ups.

At the Tsinghua event, people come to know a different Pony Ma, who loves astronomy and science fiction. He said jokingly that if he had applied for the Computer Science Department of Tsinghua, he would have been rejected.

At the 2016 Tsinghua Global Management Forum at the end of October, Pony Ma, Chairman and CEO of Tencent, had a dialogue with Qian Yingyi, Counsellor of the State Council and Dean of the Economic and Management School of Tsinghua, and shared his experience, the difficulties he encountered in starting business as well as views on innovation and entrepreneurship.

In a dark suit, white shirt and black shoes, Pony Ma gave people the same impression as usual, with a flat intonation, a soft voice and no dramatic body language. Surprisingly, this low-key and “bookish man” as he describes himself shared a lot about his personal growth and experience in starting his own business.

A lover of astronomy and science fiction and an innovator across borders

Qian Yingyi: We are meeting the annual Tsinghua Global Management Forum. Every year, we invite one member of our advisory council to talk to our students. You are the first Chinese entrepreneur we have invited to the forum.

No entrepreneur can compare with you as each one of us here uses your products, an accomplishment even Apple and IBM fall short of. It shows that you have great influence in China. Let me start with your personal experience. You went to college in 1989 and chose computer science as a major. Why computer science? How do your college years shape your later life?

Pony Ma: I first came into contact with the computer in middle school and was immediately attracted to it. The more I learned, the more I found that it was different from what I had thought. My interest in computers only grew when I was in college.

Qian Yingyi: Did you take any course on astronomy in college?

Pony Ma: No. I spent my free time looking for materials about the United States and thinking about all big issues.

Qian Yingyi: You bought foreign books on astronomy? Are you still interested in it?

Pony Ma: Yes, I have kept such an interest. Because of me, many of Tencent founders are interested in astronomy too. Some of them even built their own observatories.

Qian Yingyi: Does your interest in astronomy or your knowledge about astronomy have any influence on your work or on your ideas about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Pony Ma: There is no direct impact. But a person who loves astronomy tends to regard himself as a tiny existence. Maybe it is a coincidence that we come to the world. In this sense, it is no big deal even if you encounter some difficulties. It would be helpful if you can have peace of mind and put things in perspective.

Qian Yingyi: You are also interested in science fiction?

Pony Ma: Very interested. Science fiction like the Three Body Problem is very imaginative. In such novels, there are scenarios about science and technology in the future, which can inspire us in R&D.

Qian Yingyi: Science fiction can indeed trigger people’s imagination and provide forward-looking ideas about development of industries. What courses did you take in college? Are they helpful?
Pony Ma: What you learned at college lays the foundation for your future development. That said, interest can take you further towards more academic achievements. For example, our computers were hit by viruses. We were curious to know what the viruses were and how they came about. Intrigued, we did analysis for deeper understanding.

Such knowledge was not taught in class. Moreover, our teachers would give us some projects to work on. Some were collaborative projects with companies. Working through these projects helped improve our abilities in an all-round way, which prove to be of great value in the years to come, more valuable than what we had learnt in textbooks.

Qian Yingyi: Much of the learning actually takes place outside the classroom. It looks like you have a deeper impression about extra-curriculum activities than the lectures given by teachers.
Pony Ma: Extra-curriculum projects are more useful. Some of my classmates were not interested in such projects.

Qian Yingqi: Were you a curve wrecker in your class?

Pony Ma: Not really. I ranked about No.10 in the class.

Qian Yingyi: Were you a student leader?

 Pony Ma: No. Chen Yidan, one of our founders, was the Chairman of the Student Union. We all listened to him speak at the commencement ceremony.

Qian Yingyi: But it was you who became the leader.

Pony Ma: No, we worked together as partners.

Qian Yingyi: Did you plan your career when you were in college from 1989 to 1993?

Pony Ma: Shenzhen is the frontrunner in reform and opening up. There had been many people starting their own business before us. Entrepreneurship started to develop in Shenzhen earlier than in other cities.

I was very interested in the software developed by students who graduated earlier. I would look at how much income their project would generate and what were their needs. I was thinking hard whether I should start my own business. It was very tough. In Beijing, there was Zhongguancun. In Shenzhen, we had Huaqiangbei.

I later found that those working in Huaqiangbei did not know the industry well. Some of them may only have primary or middle school education, but had rich market experience. They did even better than us. Since we could compete with them, we decided to work in a company first, before starting our own business.

Around that time, I came across a former classmate, who was working at China’s largest private telecommunications company making beepers. They were doing a project and needed someone with good knowledge of C language. I got the internship with that company. It was 3 months before I graduated and I worked there for almost six years.

With that, I entered the BP sector. As you may know, we at Tencent started making Internet beepers, which has something to do with my background in computers and telecommunications.
Qian Yingyi: You wrote the programs?

Pony Ma: This is an area that needs knowledge of computers and telecommunications. At that time, there were few people who knew both. I was one of those who could do both, which turned out to be a favorable condition for us to start our own business.