18 Never Revealed Product Insights from the man behind China’s WeChat

allen zhang, father of china’s massively successful app WeChat

Author’s Note: suitable for anyone interested in product management and China.

These unedited quotes let you pick the brain from one of a kind product genius behind China’s most successful social app — WeChat. The quotes were originally collected by my friend SpaceKid and I translated them into English. Enjoy!

You may have heard of WeChat, the Facebook of China. With 650M MAU as of Nov 2015. WeChat is much more than a SNS, it is a swiss army knife. Think of it as Facebook meets Uber meets Paypal meets Expedia meets Amazon, meets Medium and more. It is the central part of people’s life in China.

You may even have downloaded WeChat as an Airbnb host because it helps you talk to the fast increasing number of guests from China. However, you may not know the man behind WeChat, Allen Zhang, head of internet giant Tencent’s Wechat Business Group (WXG). In China, he is fondly known as 微信之父,the father of WeChat. His name means Little Dragon 张小龙. He single-handedly coded the core of Foxmail overnight, which later got acquired by Tencent and became QQ Mail (the Gmail equivalent of China).

Allen Zhang,originally from Hunan (the spicy province not far from Szechuan), is a man with few words and rumor has that he is still single, stays up till 3–4AM, smokes a lot and enjoys playing golf on weekends. Allen is probably the most low key person on earth — he hardly appears in public (his VIP seat in the front row of Tencent’s annual gala became empty mid-way through) or accepts speech invitation (his first public speech was Jan 2016) — Allen is the most mysterious yet respected man in China.

Allen is also known to be a hard one to work with, and makes all product feature calls, sometimes without reasoning. For example, adding the shaking feature to find friends. He happened to be always the right one . With Tencent’s HQ based in Shenzhen, Allen insisted to have his team based in Guangzhou, even when WeChat grew into a mega business unit within Tencent ( the 2 cities are 30min away by high speed railway.) Who dares to not show up for management team meeting at Tencent? Allen does so and thus Pony Ma had to arrange special pick-up car service to bring Allen to meetings in Shenzhen.

You can imagine — Allen is not active on social media. Upon till today 1/28/2015, there has been no public trace of him. However, my friend Spacekid uncovered 2,359 “tweets” Allen wrote on Fanfou 饭否, the earliest version of Twitter in China (which was replaced eventually by Weibo). Allen Zhang’s ID was @gzallen (Guangzhou Allen) and his first “tweet” was on June 4, 2007, almost 9 years ago.

allen zhang’s fanfou profile page

The 2359 tweets break down to the following categories: product insights, views on Weibo, life observations, and random. Today, I wanted to share the 18 product insights from Allen Zhang, the father of WeChat. From these tweets, we can pick the brain from one of the best product genius of China and what remarkable is that most of these wisdom are from 2010 — truth stands the test of time :)

1. On Simplify:

(1) How many more features can be added until the product becomes garbage ? 
2010–11–27 23:24

(2) The majority of so-called innovation just means complicating an existing problem. 
2011–11–07 03:48

2. On app user vs. developer:

It’s easier to be the user (of a product). it’s hard work to be the maker. Everyday, we need to analyze the dark side of humans to make you feel satisfied, but we can’t explicit. 
2010–11–27 23:18

3. On why a product succeed:

Whether a good product will make it or not cannot be predicted. Truth is that a successful product “happens” to succeed. However, its success is not a result of how lucky the app creator is.

It is that this product can survive and thrive in the Internet ecosystem. It’s similar that we cannot explain why a baby grows up so fast, we cannot know for sure why a mobile product is so successful, even as the product developer, we need to thank God
2010–12–15 16:06

4. On the predictability of a successful product:

A darling product that is predicted to win is destined to fail. The success of a product cannot be predicted. At least, it cannot be predicted by humans, possibly by machines. 
2010–12–15 16:11

5. On WeChat’s killing feature “Drifting Bottle” (to meet new friends):

Note: “Drifting Bottle” is a feature that allows users to send drifting bottles with voice / text messages and the virtual bottles get picked up by another random WeChat user to initiate conversations — it helped WeChat grow in early days.

“Drifting Bottle let me realize the power of “community” : The user behavior was far beyond our expectation. To be honest, I cannot even fully understand. If I have to analyze, the need to confide to someone and seek attention to make new friends is No. 1 reason. 
2010–12–16 01:56

6. On visualizing WeChat’s “adding friend” via shaking :

Imagine this — two trains pass by each other, and at the very moment of crossing path, he and she take out cellphones and wave (which actives the shake function). Then, they have exchanged WeChat ID successfully. That’s our ad right here. 
2011–02–17 00:52

Note: “Shake to add friends” is a key feature on WeChat and brought viral growth in early days of WeChat.

7. On gamification to growth hack:

What makes me feel less accomplished is that when we make a simple game, such as competing who throws a stone farther. It’s guaranteed that this game will get lots of participation, and if we then rank by province, city or county, the game gets viral
2010–12–23 14:

Note: (1) Allen feels less accomplished because this product logic is simple and crude, not challenging.
 (2) this tweet became the logic behind WeRun (a viral feature in WeChat that rank friends by how many steps they walk on daily basis — it is both social and competitive. )

8. On keeping product to its core:

If you ask me what differentiates us (WeChat) from our competitor, I’d say it’s that we don’t have the fluffy, mundane and pretty parts. 
2011–01–02 15:20

Note: here the competitor refers to the many copycats of Kik, Talkbox in China.

9. On the role of a PM:

Mobile product should be user-driven, not PM-driven. The role of a Product Manager is to find the 80/20 sweet spot and activate it. 
2010–12–25 18:14

10. On the future of content:

Media and circulation are replacing content itself, content is downsizing to digestible bits and easier to spread. MP3 is replacing vinyl records, Weibo is replacing books, text messages is replacing mail. I dare to predict that one day even micro bites of content will disappear, and people directly exchange hormones via the web. 
2010–12–27 13:26

11. On his obsession with details:

Every time when I receive a push that says “this action has been completed successfully” or “this message has been sent successfully”, I get paranoid by the word “successfully”. I told my team many times to remove this word, but it still appears. Today, I made a command to permanently remove “successfully” from our product.

Some say I am too particular with words, to an extent of extreme. I defend myself here: “This message has been sent successfully” makes me think that there are messages that were sent out unsuccessfully. (he means that the word “successfully” is redundant)
2011–01–17 15:28

12. On why excessive amount of product ideas exist:

Our heart has 1000 knots, every knot is a product idea. Our relationships have 1 million shades and every relationship is a product idea. I see a future where everyone is making a product with 10 users.

2011–01–18 12:41

13. On China’s copycats of Kik:

In China, very few PM are truly empathetic about their users. Beside copying, their innovation is just in their own head. 
2011–01–17 17:42

14. On the core of the Internet:

The end goal of the Internet is to get rid of the relationship-driven businesses (Guanxi 关系in Chinese)
2011–06–16 19:44

15. On wild product imagination:

If there were a website which claims to have its data center on the moon, server on a satellite, powered by solar and run indefinitely, 100 years with no issues. Therefore, everything you write will be recorded permanently. I wonder how many people will use it. 
2011–01–04 19:31

Note: genius PMs seem to have wild imagination and spend time thinking about scenarios that others don’t dare to do so.

16. On whether bloggers can be good PMs:

Be aware of those blogger type of PMs, because the more time they spend on writing blogs, the less time they focus on the product itself. I thought there would be exceptions, but unfortunately no exception. 
2011–08–08 22:06

17. On how to get more users on a SNS:

How do app users get get friends on the network? It has to be coming from the users’ own hands. Any hack that import contacts by bulk will generate little real result. 
2011–05–18 03:12

Note: Allen means that users are the best evangelists of good products, if they love a product, they proactively spread it. Forceful importing contacts may backfire.

18. On what it is like to run a product:

Be a product creator is like being in a relationship with the users. Otherwise, it’s only a business transaction. Product managers must have big hearts. 
2011–08–26 18:32

The next article will be a collection of Allen Zhang’s views on Weibo (China’s Twitter). I hope you enjoyed Allen’s wisdom.

—If you’d like to repost the translated piece, please kindly contact me first —

You may find me here:

Twitter / Instagram: @chenyuz 
WeChat: applezcy 公众号:苹果姐姐
Email: chenyu.juccce [at] gmail [dot] com

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.