From left: Feng Zhe, his wife and his cousin, all CEIBS alumni.
By Leina & Zhang Yueting
“Young” is the tag most often attached to Feng Zhe (MBA 2008) when seeing him for the first time; but a look at all that he has accomplished and a conversation with him about the sector he is in – the Internet – soon erases that image.
Feng studied communications engineering at university and after two years at Emerson, he decided to enrol in the CEIBS MBA programme. The then 24 year-old applied for an EU scholarship soon after being admitted. He had a way with words, strong opinions and he impressed the scholarship committee during a series of interviews. He got a half scholarship, €10,000, a great boost to his ego and welcome help in covering a portion of his tuition.
Seven years later, Feng still remembers moments from classroom discussions. “In our first term, I was on the same team with an English classmate who had graduated from Oxford. We would argue for a case for two to three hours, or even longer,” he says. Feng had received awards in national English debate contests while at university, so these discussions were right up his alley. He has a knack for brainstorming, and he quickly learnt how to look at people and issues from others’ – not just his – perspective. “CEIBS did not so much improve any specific one of my abilities as it made up for many of my shortcomings,” he says of his time studying at the Shanghai Campus. “I became a manager, well-rounded in all aspects.” Later, he convinced his then girlfriend – who is now his wife – and his cousin to also do a CEIBS MBA. Now they have joined him as part of the school’s 17,000-plus alumni network.
After his graduation from CEIBS, Feng worked at Nokia for a year, then joined Tencent, one of the big three in China’s Internet industry. He experienced the golden age of China’s mobile Internet industry, and when he returned to CEIBS for his interview with TheLINK, he had recently been made Senior Director for WeChat products, Tencent’s flagship APP doing battle in the fiercely competitive mobile Internet era. There is a well-known comment attributed to the “father” of WeChat Zhang Xiaolong: a product should be developed so that even a dummy could use it. Feng credits the huge “backstage” effort by the entire team for WeChat’s ease of use. “The vision in developing WeChat is to connect everything, linking all people together, people and things, people and enterprises, people and services, and create value out of these links,” he says with a passion that shows that he truly loves his job. Read on for more from his interview with TheLINK, as he looks back at his career and ahead at how China and the EU could boost collaboration in the Internet field.
TheLINK: You were Senior Director of Tencent’s strategic department, and recently you’ve become Senior Director of WeChat products. WeChat has become such an integral part of our daily lives here in China, what’s a day at work like for you?
There are basically two aspects to the work in Tencent’s strategic department: internal and external. Within our company, we are always on the lookout for cutting-edge opportunities that arise as a result of innovation, we take a broad view of the industry’s prospects and there is a certain amount of analysis involved. We help business teams implement some of their strategies, and help departments comb through their annual business plans and goals so they can make strategic decisions for the future. Outside our company, we look at investment opportunities and help facilitate links between our strategic partners in whom we’ve invested, and the corresponding branches of our business.
We are also responsible for exploring new business opportunities. I launched a project myself, which our boss’ approved. In fact he would like me to be directly responsible for the project. So about a month ago, my job expanded to include being Senior Director of WeChat products, to head the technology and product team and we also serve as a mini incubator for brand new businesses within the company.
TheLINK: There’s a theory that in terms of mobile Internet, China is ahead of Europe and America. Do you agree? Do you see any opportunities for potential cooperation between China and the EU?
Early on, our QQ was learning from the most advanced products in the USA, even though sometimes we added a little “micro-innovation” to it. In the mobile Internet era, China has spawned very strong innovation ability in terms of talented individuals, experience and the mechanism itself. China has begun its development of the Internet with some features that are uniquely its own. In addition, the combination of the Internet and many traditional industries like finance, transportation, and service industries such as food & beverage has enabled smoother communication, better experiences and rating systems for these industries and services.
Currently, there are six US companies and four Chinese ones among the World’s Top 10 Internet companies, but no European ones. Nokia had wanted to engage in mobile Internet, and that was supposed to be my area of focus when I worked there early on. But I felt it was somewhat far away from mobile Internet whether in its OS, communications standards, or in its upper-level applications. Nevertheless, Europe has its own resources and opportunities, e.g. now more and more Chinese people travel to Europe, and some of my classmates are developing Internet products for overseas tourism. Moreover, Europe’s industrial manufacturing experiences are good and can be linked with China’s consumers. Now many domestic Internet companies are eager to go beyond national boundaries, like Alibaba and JD, which are both doing overseas e-commerce and logistics. Tencent WeChat also has a lot of WeShops (a kind of online shop provided by WeChat) opened by overseas Chinese (including overseas Chinese students) in Europe. I think China and Europe can have more, and deeper, cooperation in these areas.
TheLINK: Do you think Europe should quicken its steps in Internet development?
I think this has something to do with the characteristics of the industry. China and the US are both huge unified markets, and the rise of China’s Internet industry benefits from the billion+ population of the country. China’s Internet industry has low entry barriers and players usually do not charge users a service fee, so competition is fierce from the start, and if you cannot reach the top, being second place will be miserable. All this nurtures very strong innovation skills and execution ability. In addition, this market has not had overly heavy intervention from administrative forces, and so it is relatively free. Therefore, China is a rich land for the development of the Internet. On the other hand, the EU – which is a vast area – is made up of a number of independent countries, each with its unique culture and language, and some are connected with the US in their shared use of English. Therefore, people in the EU will readily use social media and Internet service from the US. For these reasons, Europe may have difficulty in forming its own giant Internet companies.
TheLINK: Europe seems to have a kind of serenity and beauty that we’ve lost, in terms of the impact the Internet has had on our lives. As someone who is in the Internet field, what are your views on this?
You can miss, or even pursue the feeling of the past, like visiting an old place; but you cannot go back to live there. I think this is normal, but we cannot turn back the clock now.
Everything has its own reason for being. In terms of transmission of information, with the Internet, you can express yourself with text as well as with video and sound, which are richer media formats. The same one minute can transmit information at a far higher rate using the Internet than with books. Seen from the perspective of information production, books are authored by the few with writing abilities, and a book takes a lot of time and energy to produce, which is a high and difficult threshold for many to pass. Finally, when the book comes out, the information contained in it may well be outdated. Now, the Internet makes everyone a creator of information, and things people see are often sifted through and sorted for them by other Internet users. The Internet can select information more quickly, eliminating information disparity between people, and speed up the production and transmission of information.
So why do people still use the Internet despite various doubts and worries? Because mobile Internet itself does have huge advantages and its own solid grounds for existence.
TheLINK: As a CEIBS alumnus in the Internet industry, what are your hopes for CEIBS’ future?
I graduated from CEIBS, I have the “CEIBS blood running in my veins”, so naturally I hope that CEIBS will achieve even more in the future. Secondly, CEIBS is hugely influential in China, and I hope it will enjoy international renown; that more foreigners learn more about the school. Lastly, now there are many opportunities for the combination of education and the Internet. In the past many of the teaching cases in business schools came from the industry 2.0 era, most were about traditional manufacturing industries, with business practices and management experience from US companies. Now, with such rapid development of China’s Internet and so many new opportunities and methods created, we also hope that practices and experience based on China’s own Internet sector could be disseminated through CEIBS. That way, they can serve as guidance not only for domestic companies, but also for overseas ones. We hope the school can transform itself from disseminator of knowledge to the role of leader of business innovation. I think this is also an opportunity that would bring CEIBS to the next level of being a world-class business school. We hope to have more opportunities for collaboration with CEIBS.