Yaosie in Chinaland Part II (more to come sooner)
A more or less spontaneous update (more to come sooner down the pipeline).
It’s been almost a month since my last post. During the past month my workload suddenly grew geometrically as we started a new investment cycle. So I spent most of my days switching between talking to founders, reading and absorbing information like a sponge, looking into data, pulling my hair trying to understand how things work, and travelling. Whilst I’m still working on my other posts, here’s one spontaneous update I HAVE to write about, coming back from a talk from WeChat’s founding team on innovation and evolution of WeChat payments. In summary, this team awed me with solid engineering mindset (drill down to every possible layer of payments to solve a problem, be it software or hardware), craves for simplicity (how to make a user’s life easier? keep it simple, easy and effective!), fast iteration (get ideas, prototype immediately, and test, test, and test), user mentality (think like a user, find problems, solve them — all the time) and more importantly, extremely hard working and humble.
Earlier this year I came across an article on YC about WeChat — On Growing: 7 Lessons from the Story of WeChat, which also referenced Connie Chan’s classic piece. 6 months later I revisited this article after being exceptionally inspired by the talk and truly echoed with the points mentioned. Whilst I don’t need to repeat them, I want to expand into a few.
For those who want to have a deeper understanding of WeChat as an app, I strongly recommend you read the long article as well as trying out the app. — it is well worth the long read. Otherwise, as a TLDR, the 7 lessons are:
1. Build your own competition
2. Design for groups
3. Extend features from user’s inner desires
4. Big ideas come from solving your own problems
5. Monetise subtly
6. Measure what you value, not what you’re supposed to
7. Don’t play favourites with features.
Story 1: A simple payment flow or nothing
Don’t play favourites, make it simple.
The WeChat team had a goal in 2012: move credit cards to mobile. At the end of 2017, linking cards to mobile phones seem to be a no brainer (the best comparable in terms of linking mechanism to WeChat pay is probably Apple Pay), but back in 2012, online payments were still dominated by the desktop end. Mobile payment was mundane as verifications normally had to go through multiple routes including generating passcodes somewhere else (phone, desktop, or a separate chip).
However, Allen Zhang, the founder of WeChat (and possibly one of the best product managers in the country) was determined to make it completely mobile, simple, with no compromise on security — or else it’s not worth doing. After tons of trials, redesign and further simplification, the team eventually came up with a linking mechanism that was minimal, secure (ditched the complex password for a simple 6-digit pin logic), and completely mobile-based. It was superbly elegant as of 2012, 2 years before Apple Pay was initially released.
Story 2: The highway and the supermarket tests
Big ideas come from solving your own problems. Think like a user, user it like a user, solve it for the user. And be executional, make changes, test fast.
One thing that strikes me the most is that WeChat PMs are testing out their features *all the time*, in everyday life scenarios even outside of work. Thinking and using like a user is not just a job, but a mindset and part of the everyday habits.
A WeChat PM was sitting on a fast moving coach and found that he had to take several tries to top up mobile credit while the coach was running on the high way. Back in the days of 2G, mobile data connection could get patchy when you move fast. Thinking as an engineer, he asked the team that instead of sending payment data packets with the web contents from the front end which required consistent connections, whether it made sense to separate the packets to the lower layers. The advantage of the latter is that as long as you get mobile signal, you can pretty much send and receive (small) packets from your phone.
So as soon as he finished the trip, the team made a fast change and tested it out on the highway, so that as long as you get any reception on your phone, you’re good to make payments from your phone.
Similar story happened while the PM went into a supermarket after work, and found that in the underground supermarkets, connection was not only patchy, but sometimes there wasn’t reception at all. The team then came up with an idea to piggy back on the connection of the POS machines (which are almost always connect to the banks). So instead of sending a payment request from the phone, the POS machine took the request from the phone and sent the transaction message to the bank. The mobile end will be notified with the payment done affirmation later when it gets reconnected. The engineers managed to prototype using a POS machine over lunchtime in the canteen, and made changed on the implementation soon after that.
Story 3: Red Packets gone viral
Extend features from user’s inner desires. Design for groups.
For those who know about the Chinese culture, we have a tradition of giving red packets with wishes of good luck on festive occasions and celebrations (Chinese New Year, weddings, newborns, etc). For workplaces, there’s a popular gamified derivative of red packets — on the first day back to work from Chinese New Year, a small pool of money (usually contributed by the employer) would be randomly allocated into a bunch of red packets, and people coming back to work would pick randomly for good luck (more $$$). People love it usually not just for the money, but mostly for the fun with traditions and the gamification from uncertainty.
As WeChat was already successfully built on group effects, and the red packet was perfectly designated for groups. The team also took inspiration from friends and families that they wished they could send red packages remotely to those who aren’t physically around. The simple feature was hence born and became viral riding on the timing of Chinese New Year, reaching 46 billion transactions in 5 days, becoming an important way of promoting and populating the payment ecosystem in WeChat. And the simplicity and versatility made it one of the most popular features on WeChat payments (mum sent me one for my birthday!).
There are more stories on more complex examples such as QR code design security (which itself is worth an entire post), so I will skip them for now. In all, as a PM at heart, I have been superbly inspired by the WeChat team on their creativity and vision of what makes a good product, and how to make it. They are highly executional, engineering oriented, always put themselves in the users shoes’, drive simplicity and craft elegancy like an art, and of course, always relentlessly iterate to a better version of the product.