11 fascinating product insights from the “father” of China’s WeChat

Chenyu Zheng

Allen Zhang, “father” of China’s massively successful app WeChat
Allen Zhang, “father” of China’s No.1 SNS app WeChat

You may have heard of WeChat, the Facebook of China. With 650 million monthly active users as of November 2015 it is a hugely successful social networking service, but it’s much more than just that. It’s really the swiss army knife of mobile apps. Think of it as Facebook meets Uber meets Paypal meets Expedia meets Amazon meets Medium and more. It is a central part of people’s lives in China. You may even have downloaded WeChat as an Airbnb host, because it helps you talk to the fast increasing numbers of guests coming from China.

Despite its popularity and prominence in the world of mobile apps, you may not know about the man behind WeChat, Allen Zhang, head of internet giant Tencent’s Wechat Business Group (WXG). In China, he is fondly referred to as the father of WeChat. His Chinese name means Little Dragon, which is reflected in one of his early career triumphs when he single-handedly coded the core of Foxmail overnight, which later got acquired by Tencent and became QQ Mail (the equivalent of Gmail in China).

Originally from Hunan (a Chinese province as renowned for spice), rumours abound about Zhang including that he is a man of few words, a bachelor, a night owl, a heavy smoker and an avid golfer. Zhang has all the appearances of one of the most low key people on earth. He hardly ever appears in public and his VIP seat in the front row of Tencent’s annual gala became empty mid-way through the event. He also rarely accepts speech invitations, giving his first public speech in just January 2016. Zhang may be the most mysterious yet respected techie in China.

Zhang is also known to be hard to work with, making all product feature calls sometimes without reason. For example, adding WeChat’s friend-finding shaking feature. Even when WeChat grew into a mega business unit within Shenzhen-based Tencent, Zhang insisted on keeping his team based in Guangzhou. Who would dare to skip a management team meeting at Tencent? CEO Pony Ma had to arrange a special pick-up car service to bring Zhang to meetings in Shenzhen. So far, the calls he’s made continue to pay off for the app’s success.

You can imagine — Zhang is not active on social media. There’s been virtually no public trace of him; however, my Chinese colleague SpaceKid recently uncovered 2,359 “tweets” Allen Zhang wrote on Fanfou, the earliest version of Twitter in China (which was replaced eventually by Weibo). Zhang’s ID was @gzallen (Guangzhou Allen) and his first “tweet” was on June 4, 2007, almost 9 years ago.

Allen Zhang’s Fanfou profile page
Allen Zhang’s Fanfou profile page

The 2,359 tweets break down into the following categories: product insights, views on Weibo, life observations and random thoughts. What follows are 11 product insights from Allen Zhang, the father of WeChat. From these tweets, we can pick the brain of one of China’s ultimate product geniuses and see how his remarkable wisdom and truths, tweeted in 2010, have stood the test of time 🙂

1. On Simplicity:

(1) How many more features can be added until a product becomes garbage? 2010–11–27 23:24

(2) The majority of so-called innovation just means complicating an existing problem. 2011–11–07 03:48

2. On app users vs. developers:

It’s easier to be the user (of a product). It’s hard work to be the maker. Everyday, we need to analyze the dark side of humans to make you feel satisfied, but we can’t be explicit. 2010–11–27 23:18

3. On why a product succeeds:

Whether a good product will make it or not cannot be predicted. The truth is that a successful product “happens” to succeed. However, its success is not a result of how lucky the app creator is.

It is that this product can survive and thrive in the Internet ecosystem. It’s similar that we cannot explain why a baby grows up so fast, we cannot know for sure why a mobile product is so successful. Even as the product developer, we need to thank God. 2010–12–15 16:06

4. On the predictability of a successful product:

A darling product that is predicted to win is destined to fail. The success of a product cannot be predicted. At least, it cannot be predicted by humans, possibly by machines. 2010–12–15 16:11

5. On WeChat’s killing the “Drifting Bottle” feature (to meet new friends):

Note: “Drifting Bottle” is a feature that allows users to send virtual drifting bottles with voice / text messages attached. The virtual bottles get picked up by another random WeChat user to initiate conversations — it helped WeChat grow in its early days.

“Drifting Bottle” let me realize the power of “community”: user behavior was far beyond our expectations. To be honest, I cannot even fully understand it. If I have to analyze it, the need to confide in someone and seek attention to make new friends is the no. 1 reason. 2010–12–16 01:56

6. On visualizing WeChat’s “shake to add friends” feature:

Imagine this — two trains pass by each other, and at the very moment they cross paths, he and she take out cellphones and wave (which activates the shake function). Then, they have exchanged WeChat IDs successfully. That’s our ad right there. 2011–02–17 00:52

Note: “Shake to add friends” is a key feature on WeChat and brought viral growth in the early days of the app.

7. On gamification to growth hack:

What makes me feel less accomplished is when we make a simple game, like a stone throwing competition game. It’s guaranteed that this game will see lots of participation. If we then post competitive rankings by province, city or county, the game goes viral. 2010–12–23 14

Note: (1) Zhang feels less accomplished because this product logic is simple and crude, not challenging.
(2) this tweet became the logic behind WeRun (a viral feature in WeChat that ranks friends by how many steps they walk on a daily basis — it is both social and competitive.)

8. On the future of content:

Media and circulation are replacing content itself. Content is downsizing to digestible bits that are easier to spread. MP3s are replacing vinyl records, Weibo is replacing books, text messages are replacing mail. I dare to predict that one day even micro bites of content will disappear, and people will directly exchange hormones via the web. 2010–12–27 13:26

9. On his obsession with details:

Every time I receive a push that says “this action has been completed successfully” or “this message has been sent successfully”, I get paranoid by the word “successfully”. I told my team many times to remove this word, but it still appears. Today, I made a command to permanently remove “successfully” from our product.
Some say I am too particular with words, to the extent of the extreme. I defend myself here: “This message has been sent successfully” makes me think that there are messages that were sent out unsuccessfully. 2011–01–17 15:28

10. On the core of the Internet:

The end goal of the Internet is to get rid of the relationship-driven businesses (Guanxi in Chinese) 2011–06–16 19:44

11. On whether bloggers can be good product managers:

Be aware of blogger-type PMs because the more time they spend writing blogs, the less time they focus on the product itself. I thought there would be exceptions, but unfortunately there are no exceptions. 2011–08–08 22:06

I hope you enjoy Allen Zhang’s wisdom as much as I do!

(The quotes were originally collected by SpaceKid. Chenyu Zheng translated them into English.)

Chenyu Zheng is a guest writer at AllChinaTech. Chenyu is a foodie, visual storyteller and a public speaker. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in Economics and Environmental Studies in 2012. She now works at the social media team at Whisper HQ in Venice Beach, LA and strives to be versatile in both US and China social media marketing. Follow her on twitter @chenyuz.

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