Screenshot of Foxmail

From Foxmail to the super app — Old China Tech 2

Wenbin Fang
Oct 15 · 5 min read

Foxmail was a very popular Chinese Email client on Windows. It was the biggest Microsoft Outlook competitor in China.

A young programmer, Zhang Xiaolong, singlehandedly built and launched Foxmail in early 1997, when he was 28. He then slowly built a small team. A few years later, Foxmail accumulated ~4 million active users.

In 1997, Zhang Xiaolong was already a celebrity in China’s IT industry. A young journalist Li Xueling wrote, “In 1997, if you were on Huangzhuang road (a street in Beijing) and yelled — ‘I am Zhang Xiaolong’, tons of people would come to ask for your signature.” A few years later, this journalist (now better known as David Li) founded a live streaming company called YY, which is a public company in Nasdaq.

In the summer of 1998, the 29-year old Kingsoft interim CEO, Lei Jun, wanted to buy Foxmail for ~$20k. Kingsoft was the biggest software company in China back then. You may come across the name “Lei Jun” on some smart phone related media articles… Well, a few years later, Lei Jun founded Xiaomi… Back to the story — Zhang Xiaolong agreed to sell Foxmail for ~$20k, because he actually needed the money. However, the deal didn’t get through. I heard two versions of the story: 1. Lei Jun was distracted by a Biz partnership thing with Lenovo, so he forgot to close the deal with Foxmail :) 2. Lei Jun asked one of his engineers to do due diligence and this engineer said “I can build a Foxmail clone in 2 months” (sounds like Hacker News tone…).

In 2000, after the Internet bubble burst, Foxmail was sold to a company (whose name is unimportant to our story :) for ~$1.7 million. Around 2005, that company was acquired by Tencent. So, Zhang Xiaolong & Foxmail went to Tencent.

About the name “Foxmail” — Zhang Xiaolong is a big fan of Jin Yong’s Wuxia novels, just like Jack Ma and many other Chinese IT people. Jin Yong passed away last year, and Zhang Xiaolong posted on hist WeChat’s feed: when he was developing this email client, he saw the book “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” (笑傲江湖) on his desk. The protagonist of this book is Linghu Chong (令狐冲), where the Chinese character “狐” means “Fox”. Thus, Foxmail.

In 2005, Tencent appointed Zhang Xiaolong to lead the QQMail project, which is the competitor to Gmail & Hotmail in China. That was an interesting time in China’s internet industry: Alibaba was fighting eBay; Baidu was fighting Google; Tencent was fighting Microsoft (QQ vs MSN messenger; QZone vs MSN Space; QQMail vs hotmail). At this point, Zhang Xiaolong became a product manager. The first two years of his PM gig didn’t go well. QQMail was feature creep. Later, they simplified QQMail a lot and it became a much better & popular web email among young Chinese internet users.

In 2010, the 41-year old Zhang Xiaolong came across a Canadian messaging app Kik. He wrote a very long email to Tencent CEO Pony Ma and proposed a new mobile messaging app project in Tencent. Pony Ma replied with four Chinese characters: “马上就做” (Do it now). Ironically, Kik shut down its messenger app recently…

Mid Nov 2010, Zhang Xiaolong led a 10-person team to start working on this new mobile messaging app: 2 iOS dev, 3 android dev, 1 Symbian dev, 1 UI, and 2 backend dev…

Jan 21, 2011, they launched WeChat 1.0 with just the plain text messaging feature. So, they allocated 10-people to build and launch bare-bone WeChat 1.0 in ~2 months.

In the first few months, WeChat got a few thousands new users per day, which was pretty bad for Tencent.

Around May, 2011, they added the voice messaging feature to WeChat. The WeChat team was under a lot of pressure back then. Like many great products from big companies, they had to fight civil war first… There was already QQ Mobile in Tencent, why WeChat needed to exist in the first place? If things didn’t go well, the WeChat project may be shut down as early as August, 2011. Luckily, this new voice messaging feature took off…

The rest is history. WeChat is still here, with more than 1.1B MAU.

Nowadays, Zhang Xiaolong is like Steve Jobs in China. He does 4-hour long keynote speech on the annual WeChat conference. You can read the English translation here https://www.chinainternetwatch.com/29053/wechat-stories-allen-zhang/ Of course, 4-hour keynote speech is nothing compared to his 8-hour internal presentation on WeChat inside the company :)

Zhang Xiaolong is better known as Allen Zhang outside China. I still don’t know why executives in Tencent all have English names (e.g., Tencent CEO Ma Huateng is known as Pony Ma), which is more like nickname as I don’t think they can put English names on their Chinese ID card…

If you launch a new app in the App Store, and you see a username Allen from an IP of Guangzhou, China, then it’s probably the father of WeChat trying out your app :)

Zhang Xiaolong is an introvert. He doesn’t like socializing with others in real life. He even finds excuses not to attend executive meetings in Tencent from time to time, e.g., I couldn’t get up, traffic is bad… But introverts build the best communication/social products in the world (like who?).

From the most popular desktop email client in China (Foxmail), to the biggest Chinese web email (QQMail), to the dominant Chinese super app (WeChat), what a track record!


Wenbin Fang

Written by

Founder and CEO of ListenNotes.com

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