So I read this blog post by Mark Zuckerberg (he is CEO of Facebook in case you have not heard of him) and in this blog post he laid out what he believes is the future of the company: A privacy-oriented person-to-person social network. Facebook is going to transition from being the open social network we are familiar with it being to a private communications channel between people and a central platform for their entire lives.
A Messaging-First, Privacy-First Facebook
This is a controversial decision. In order to achieve this, Mark is going to knit together the Facebook Family of Apps — Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp — into one a single monolith. I presume that the apps themselves are going to be separate on the surface but under the hood, all the data is going to be shared amongst a single master account. It shifts the balance of power within the company. Several important, well-respected employees like Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer and Facebook employee for over a decade, are leaving as a result. So this is something Mark is dead serious about.
More than a few people have drawn connections between Mark’s new plan and WeChat — the Chinese super-app owned by Tencent. Tencent is Asia’s biggest company because of the central place WeChat takes in people’s lives. People have become increasingly aware of how big of a deal this little app is and how valuable that makes it to investors and industry visionaries. So then I thought it might be worth asking:
How did WeChat become WeChat?
The Chinese internet technology landscape is famous for its brutal, utterly brutal competition. People work 6 days a week from 9 AM to 9 PM — the famous 996. WeChat emerged as the victor of this Battle Royale after four epic years. Let us start from the beginning.
How WeChat Began
By 2010, Tencent was already a moderate success. It had gone public in Hong Kong and owned a desktop messenger service called QQ.
Weixin began with an idea that Zhang Xiaolong (Allen), a senior product manager with a love for Michael Jackson songs, had and shared with Tencent founder and CEO Pony Ma. Zhang developed a product called Foxmail in 1997 which Tencent then acquired and transitioned into something called QQMail. But now Zhang had a new idea.
The idea was this: The iPhone 5 was great but it could not let you call people through the internet like the 3G-connected iPad did. If there could be an app that lets you text people like Kik does, call people like Google Voice does, and video chat people like FaceTime does that would be nice. People could save money on phone bills. Pony Ma agreed and Weixin began the next day. It launched after just two months on three mobile platforms — iPhone, Android, and Symbian.
Crucial Factors Leading to WeChat’s Rise
Features Features Features
WeChat’s schtick when it first came out had was like WhatsApp’s: “Free SMS and you can send photos”.
Because Tencent also made QQ and QQ users can port their QQ account to WeChat, it gave a quick starting boost to the WeChat product and the app had 4–5 million users by May 2011–5 months after it started. Nice, but this was not going to win the market.
By then it became clear that WeChat’s “Free SMS” schtick was not enough to compete. People started to copy the schtick and the mobile operators had responded with cheaper text messages plans. They had to do something else. So the WeChat team iterated and released feature after feature after feature. These include voice chat, People Nearby, Shake (you shake your phone and it matches you with people shaking the phone at the same time), official accounts, the Moments social feed, and eventually mini-programs.
The WeChat team ruthlessly focused on copping every feature that might even have a few users. Zhang Xiaolong did not really care about accusations of “copying”: “When they attempt to cover up their mediocre performance and refuse innovative ideas by accusing us of plagiarism, they are falling further behind.”
Brutally Fast Product Updates
The last part of the quote makes it clear another crucial point of what helped WeChat win the Chinese market: Speed. In the crucial first year after WeChat came out, the team released a new version with a new feature in it pretty much once a week. Shake, People Nearby, and voice chats all came out within the span of 6 months. Moments and video chat came within the 6 months after that. They had a version 4.0 within 2 years of their launch.
Zhang Xiaolong said in a profile that in the creation of WeChat, he did not have an overarching master plan for features. They did not plan the next year or even half-year of updates. He only focused on fulfilling the needs of the end user as well as getting the next update to come out as soon as possible.
The small WeChat team — which had started out as 10 people — is now structured in a cell-structure with small teams led by project managers given lots of autonomy. These teams are empowered to push changes to the overall WeChat product without gatekeepers or assembly lines. Supercell, makers of Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, is set up in a similar way.
This speed overwhelmed those even in the famously hardcore Chinese internet space. The CEO of Xiaomi himself would later publicly say on Weibo that while MiTalk moved fast, it could not keep up with WeChat’s own iteration speed — citing the lack of good engineering talent for their own shortcomings.
The Point of Protectionism
I am sure by now many people are now thinking: “WeChat won because the government helped it win. The Chinese government banned all the foreign competitors from China.” In some ways this is right — China does favor native Chinese messenger providers.
Yet at the same time, I feel like this line of reasoning downplays the efforts of the WeChat team. At WeChat’s launch, they were just one of many different companies with messenger apps in the marketplace. They beat Xiaomi, now one of the biggest cellphone makers on the planet. Yes, WhatsApp, Kik, and other providers did end up finding themselves behind the Great Firewall — but in many cases not before WeChat had already established broad dominance over the field.
WeChat in the end out-engineered, out-released and out-featured their competitors to come out as top dog. I wonder if Facebook can do the same as it moves to take on aspects of WeChat for its future.
Originally published at sinospheres.com on March 18, 2019.