Date
25 July 2017
Tencent's Pony Ma speaks at the Dreamcatchers Forum at the Hong Kong University on May 31. The audience received some useful tips on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Photo: Nandu
Tencent's Pony Ma speaks at the Dreamcatchers Forum at the Hong Kong University on May 31. The audience received some useful tips on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Photo: Nandu

When Pony Ma pretended to be a woman

How far will you go to achieve your mission?

For Pony Ma of Tencent, it can mean even pretending to be a lady in an online chat room.

At the Dreamcatchers entrepreneurship forum organized by the University of Hong Kong on Sunday, Ma confessed that he once assumed false identities and chatted with netizens he did not know.

“I had no other way because we were only a small company,” said Ma, recalling the time he was an engineer for a project where he was required to ramp up 30,000 users in a short time.

While people were attracted to the platform, Ma found that dialogue was lacking among the users. That was when he decided to use fake identities and prod the users into discussions.

“Sometimes I needed to put on a photo of a lady to make sure we had a hot [online] community,” said Ma, drawing a burst of laughter from the thousand-odd attendees at the HKU event.

The incident was just a light-hearted reminder of the many unconventional steps that Ma took as he went through an arduous journey as a software engineer and a product manager in his early days in Shenzhen.

Now, of course, everyone is aware of what he has achieved over the years with Tencent. 

With killer apps, games and Wechat, what began as a tiny startup has evolved into an internet giant that is able to hold its own against the likes of Alibaba, Facebook or Google.

Given Tencent’s massive size — it is the third largest listed firm in Hong Kong in terms of market capitalization – Ma has instituted a big change in his company, moving from building platforms to creating industry ecology.

“We only do what we can. Other matters we leave it to others as much as possible,” said Ma.

“The biggest problem is we need entrepreneurship no matter how big we are. We should not leave business to those who have all their wealth tied inside, but rather we should let our staff fight their lives outside.”

Tencent, according to Ma, has been spending half its time in striking alliances with enterprises that have the potential to compete for next generation dominance.

In the process, the company has made some big mistakes.

Ma said his firm was among the early investors in Snapchat. But his lieutenants failed to gauge how big the video messaging firm would become.

A company visit led Ma’s staff to believe that Snapchat was a small and vulnerable company whose office was built on a shore and whose facade could be broken with a single stone.

Such wrong thinking led Ma’s team to miss out on a US$20 million financing. If they had made that investment, it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars now, Ma noted.

“We did not do anything wrong, but we were just too old,” said the Internet tycoon.

Ma, meanwhile, has rejected the notion of dramatic rivalry between himself and Alibaba group founder Jack Ma.

“In fact we have a good relationship,” the Tencent chief said of his peer. “We made co-investment in at least five companies such as Huayi Brothers.” 

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BK/JP/RC

EJ Insight writer

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