Ma huateng? Pony Ma is one of the richest people on the planet. though few in the West have heard of him. He created Tencent, China’s tech colossus and one of the ten largest companies in the world. But few signs in his early years suggest that he would become such a success.

He’s the CEO and co-founder of Tencent – China’s internet colossus.

About 1 billion people use Tencent’s two messaging apps, WeChat and QQ for everything -texting, shopping, playing games, ordering food, taxis, and more.

And that’s just the beginning.

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Based in China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, it has businesses in a vast range of industries like gaming, music, news, video, online publishing, and cloud.

Outside China, it has stakes in Tesla and Snapchat, and financed Hollywood blockbusters.

Presiding over a tech empire so huge, Pony Ma is relatively low-key and stays out of the media.

This is how the shy engineer Ma created one of the most influential tech companies in the world.

If we had to compare him with a western equivalent, Ma’s probably most like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Both were thrust into the spotlight at a relatively young age and have had to adjust their vision, personality, and skillsets drastically via turmoil and crisis at companies that penetrate every aspect of people’s lives.

But few signs in Ma’s early years suggest that the teenager with an obsession in astronomy would become a big fish.

So Pony Ma was known as somewhat of a geek among his classmates.

He had a reputation for hacking into university computers and locking the hard drives.

Even the admins weren’t able to unlock them.

Ma founded Tencent at the age of 27 with three college classmates and a friend.

For their first product, they cloned an Israeli-made instant messaging service and adapted it for the Chinese market.

The free QQ messaging service secured 100,000 users by late 1999, but it also required more money to keep it going.

In 2000, Tencent almost went bankrupt but was able to secure $4 million in funding to keep going.

But then came the dot-com bust and money was hard to get.

So in 2004 Ma decided to list Tencent on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising $180 million.

To be honest, the IPO wasn’t exactly a buzz.

It fell below its issuing price within a month.

But Tencent had an even bigger problem.

It had developed a reputation as the King of knockoffs and it couldn’t shake off the reputation of being a copycat.

At one point, its reputation fell so low.

It was embroiled in a full blown media controversy and peers openly accused and scolded it for violating copyrights.

The real breakthrough for Tencent came in January 2011 with the birth of WeChat.

WeChat was created in just two months. Timing was key.

Ma saw the coming of the mobile internet age.

And WeChat was launched just at the moment when smartphone sales in China took off.

WeChat now has almost 1 billion monthly active users, three times the entire population of the US.

At first, the service only allowed users to send text messages like WhatsApp.

Then it added a voice message function and then its Moments function, a page resembling Facebook’s News Feed,

and evolved into a social media app.

The most important breakthrough for WeChat came in 2014.

That year it introduced a feature that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes filled with money electronically, an age-old custom in China during the holidays and on special occasions.

It became a hit. Users quickly started linking their bank accounts with WeChat’s wallet.

Now WeChat is a force that even shakes traditional banks and finance institutions.

You can pay almost everything through WeChat.

It’s also one of the main reasons that China’s becoming a cashless society.

WeChat is hailed as a unique Chinese innovation, but many dissidents deem it a government surveillance app because it collects a huge amount of data on users.

For the Chinese ruling party, it is both appealing and daunting.

It opens a window to understanding the psyche of the people they rule like never before.

But they’re also wary of a company like Tencent.

That’s why you see constant and regular crackdowns on them.

Tencent has grown into a tech behemoth with a market capitalization of nearly half a trillion US dollars.

With the success of WeChat it was able to change from copycat to innovator.

Pony Ma has stepped out of his shell a lot.

He’s still low-key compared with other Internet founders with flare, but you can also see him becoming a more vocal leader and strategist.

Tencent has broken into markets like South East Asia and India, but it hasn’t cracked the Western markets.

Ma’s ambition to become a global player might still be a tough road to take.

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