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Asia Career Conversations: Interview with Liang Jie

Conducted by: Kelly Wong


The Asia Career Conversations series gathers leading industry professionals hailing from all across Asia to bring insight into various career prospects and their thoughts on current developments in the world today.



Biography


Liang Jie is the co-founder of UCWeb, a mobile internet company founded in 2004. It provides products and services including a cross-platform web browser and mobile application software such as mobile games, mobile task managers and mobile communication managers. Its flagship product, UCBrowser, is the 8th most downloaded mobile app of the past decade. It is widely-used particularly in Mainland China and Indonesia, and is notable for its data compression technology, making it popular among users with mobile phones of more limited storage. UCWeb was acquired by Alibaba Group in the largest Chinese internet merger deal in 2014. Liang Jie left UCWeb in 2017 and migrated to Singapore. He now works as a full-time investor.


Figure 1: UCWeb [1]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are his only. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.


On life experience


1. Hi Mr Liang, thanks for joining us today! Hope you’ve been well in Singapore amidst the pandemic. You migrated to Singapore in 2017. How has the experience been?


I migrated to Singapore due to its good living environment and quality of education. My experience in Singapore has been smooth and pleasant so far. Singaporeans are generally nice and helpful to foreigners, which may be partly due to the country’s relaxed living pace, and due to the fact that Singaporeans seem to be well taken care of by the government. The Singaporean government also seems to hold a positive attitude towards China’s economic rise which may be evident from its long-standing and close ties with China. It also effectively promotes Chinese education. For instance, the use of simplified Chinese in Singapore is in line with mainland China, which is beneficial for further co-operations with the country.


I have also met with officials on the Economic Development Board of the Government of Singapore, a statutory board which mainly works on devising and executing strategies aimed at strengthening Singapore’s economic growth and development. This is vastly different from what I experienced in mainland China. Over there, people rarely meet with highly positioned government officials to discuss the future of the country due to its large, hierarchical governmental structure. Distinctively, I feel that the Singaporean government is very committed to working with experts from different sectors to strengthen its economic future and reinforce its position as a global business and financial centre.


2. Singapore is a global hub for innovation and technological development. Why has the country been so successful in that aspect?


To be very honest, initially I lacked optimism about innovation in Singapore due to its small market size, resulting in less financial and labour resources available for technological development.


However, through meeting with Singaporean government officials, I can tell that the government is eager to acquire international talent, through different labour sourcing schemes, which is largely beneficial to its long-term technological development. Further, I think that there will be increasing investment in Singapore as it benefits from the turmoil and socio-political instability in Hong Kong. The removal of special treatment towards Hong Kong by the US would mean that it is treating it the same way as it treats China, such as by applying tariffs and export controls over sensitive technology. Ultimately, this would benefit Singapore as businesses and financial services etc. would relocate to Singapore, which is also a leading global business hub.


Figure 2: Ending of US special treatment for HK [2]


On careers


3. Why and how did you start UCWeb in 2004?


I was inspired by Blackberry, and wanted to develop a browser for phones. My business partner and I quickly recognized that mobile technology was a booming industry and so we started with 2 products: UCMail and UCBrowser, we then realised UCBrowser was used almost 700 times more than UCMail. Thus, we focused on developing UCBrowser singularly. We then expanded the business from just being a browser to a platform with various types of content for users, so we renamed it UCWeb.


4. How did you raise funding for your venture?


My partner and I went to several risk assessment companies, putting forward our proposals to each, eventually one linked us up with interested investors. Back then, there weren’t such things as financial advisors in Mainland China so we worked hard on making our proposal stand out and seem promising.


5. How did you build a successful customer base?


At first, we did some technological projects for businesses but then decided to shift our focus to individual consumers instead.


It was important that we identified what our main target users were - businesses or individual consumers - because that would drive the company into vastly different directions and ways of management.

At that point, through trial-and-error and data analysis, we were able to see what consumers’ preferences were and tailor to their taste. For instance, Guangdong province was a manufacturing area, there were many young factory workers who wanted more convenient entertainment that was easily accessible to them after work. Thus, aside from developing UCBrowser, we started to develop a mobile app platform mainly for providing entertainment and content as well, such as mobile games and literature.


6. How did the company grow? What were some risks and challenges along the way?


There were 3 main aspects to this:


Firstly, challenges to the product. Determining product-market fit was of central significance as we had to make sure that the product was fit to the market’s needs and wants. This could be identified through market data analysis and was a constant challenge as consumers’ needs and desires evolve overtime, thus the product had to be constantly developed and updated to avoid being eliminated from the market.


Secondly, challenges to the market. We had to devise a sustainable and successful marketing engine, so that we could reach more consumers. For instance, we collaborated with other businesses and created a system where we would help each other promote.


Thirdly, challenges to internal management. Our company grew from a few people to having over 3,000 employees. We had to manage strategically by splitting employees into different business units: gaming, literature, search engine, overseas market etc., according to their strengths, to prevent experiencing diseconomies of scale and inefficiency.


7. UCWeb was acquired by Alibaba Group in the largest Chinese Internet merger deal in 2004. How did you come to the decision to allow Alibaba to acquire your company? What were factors you considered?


The main factor taken into consideration was how we could survive sustainably. We decided to merge with Alibaba as developing a browser takes a lot of time, costs and resources, and it would be more efficient for us continue the development of our technological products using Alibaba’s well-developed ecosystem involving rich labour and financial resources.


Figure 3: Alibaba digital media & entertainment group development timeline [3]


8. UCWeb was the 8th most downloaded mobile app in the 2010s globally, what do you think made it so successful?


I think our ability to quickly adjust the product to market needs was a major factor in its success. For instance, on observing the people’s desire for convenient entertainment, we integrated an entertainment element into the product, so that it is not merely a browser but also a content provider for games, news, comics etc.


9. What has been the most important moment in your career so far?


It’s so hard to choose just one! One of the most important ones would be choosing to work in a small software start-up after graduating from university, rather than working in a large corporation. The small start-up definitely gave me more space and opportunity to innovate and put forward my own ideas, whereas I would just be working on other people’s projects and executing ideas that are not my own had I worked in a large company.


Another important moment is probably making the decision to start my own business. Though it was undeniably tough, it allowed me to innovate and make my own decisions. The merger with Alibaba group was also significant as it secured richer resources for my company sustainably.


Finally, the most recent important decision would be leaving Alibaba to become a full-time investor. When I first arrived in Singapore, I had thought of developing a business similar to what I had previously done, but I wanted to try new things. While doing businesses and innovating allowed me to delve deeper into the market, investing gives me a broader market perspective.


10. Career-wise, how would you define success?


“Being happy with your career and driving social development with people of the same values and mission”

On current affairs


11. How do you think COVID-19 has impacted the tech industry?


While the pandemic has not singularly boosted the advancement of technology, it has definitely largely widened market acceptance of technology due to its increased usage.


12. How would you envision the future of the tech industry?


The future of the tech industry will be one full of advancements and opportunities. However, the future will vary for different countries who will be at a dissimilar pace of innovation or working towards a different direction of innovation.


Countries where technological innovation is at a relatively earlier stage may be more focused on developing new modes of innovation, meaning that they will develop new ways of delivering services using existing technologies. For instance, the adoption of communal bikes. While this creates greater convenience for people in their daily life, it is a new mode of innovation, rather than actual new innovation. This mode of innovation will become saturated and so the hard science will have to be developed, which is what is happening in countries like the US, e.g. Space X and DNA technology.


13. In June 2020, the Government of India banned UCBrowser, along with other Chinese apps such as TikTok and WeChat. How has that affected the company?


Figure 4: Banning of UCWeb by the Indian Government [4]

Though I’d left UCWeb by then, I know that overall there were definitely serious implications. For instance, drastic changes in internal management: We closed all offices in India involving over a hundred employees and transferred them to other businesses areas in Alibaba. Thankfully it is a gigantic company and operates a diverse portfolio where more labour could be accommodated.


Our confidence in the Indian government also decreased and the experience deterred us from investing in India again due to its unstable political relations with China. We have also learnt to take political and geographical factors into account when investing overseas, whereas previously we only had to take into account the business environment and market potential of a particular country.


Tips and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs


14. What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?


I would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to consider a few questions before starting a business:

  • What do you like doing?

  • What are you capable of doing?

  • What resources are available?

  • Do you have the ability to organize a team?

These factors are important, though not exclusive, as they help you consider whether the business will be sustainable after starting.


15. What is the most important skill required by a successful entrepreneur?


One of the most important skills is learning skills. Entrepreneurs need to be well-rounded individuals in order to lead a team. From soft to hard skills, you will not know everything from the start, but nothing is impossible if you have the ability to learn, which is the basis of every skill.


16. Do you believe there is a set formula to being a successful entrepreneur?


I do not believe there is a set formula as every industry and business is different, but there are commonalities in successful entrepreneurs, qualities that would be immensely useful for all entrepreneurs. For instance, the ability to recruit the right people and work with different people, as well as good leadership and team-organisational skills. Overall, there isn’t a set checklist or equation to being a successful entrepreneur, there is no hard and fast rule to building a business.


Bibliography


[1] Editorial. (2016, November 30). Digitising Entertainment with UCWeb; the new marketing mantra to engage digital audience. Medianews4u. https://www.medianews4u.com/digitising-entertainment-ucweb-new-marketing-mantra-engage-digital-audience/


[2] BBC News. (2020, July 15). Trump ends preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53412598


[3] Brenan, T. (2017, June 14). Alibaba: From E-commerce to Entertainment. Azilia.

https://www.alizila.com/alibaba-e-commerce-entertainment/


[4] BBC News. (2020, June 29). India bans TikTok, WeChat and dozens more Chinese apps. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53225720



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