GGV Capital’s Hans Tung and Zara Zhang interview Simon Zhang, (张溪梦), the founder and CEO of GrowingIO, a data analytics startup in China that helps product managers and marketers analyze mobile apps and websites without adding manual tracking codes. GrowingIO now counts over 6000 companies as its customers, including the likes of Didi, Momo, Tujia, and others.
Simon was senior director of business analytics at LinkedIn in its Silicon
Valley headquarters, and before that, worked as a senior manager of site analytics
at eBay. In 2015, he left a decade-long career in Silicon Valley to return to
China and started his current startup, GrowingIO. But prior to all of this,
Simon worked as a brain surgeon in China, and attended medical school in
Tianjin. He also obtained an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. Simon is
also the author of the Chinese book 《首席增长官》 (“Chief Growth Officer”) and is a
thought leader in the field of data-driven growth in China.
Simon discussed how Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley can crack the “bamboo ceiling”, how Chinese-style growth differs from Silicon Valley-style growth, and why “raising too much money” could create challenges for a startup.
Hi everyone. For those in the Bay Area, Hans and I will be hosting a 996 anniversary
party on Saturday, March 9, in San Francisco. The event will take the form of a
China tech trivia night. You will get to test your knowledge of China’s tech
industry by answering trivia questions in teams. The winners will be awarded
attractive prizes, such as a bundle of the books that out past speakers have
recommended on the 996 Podcast. At the event, you also get to meet and hear
from some of our GGV fellows on what they learned during their intensive one-week
program in Beijing.
This anniversary party is open to all
followers of the 996 Podcast and friends in the Bay Area who follow tech in
China. The event will be at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, in SoMa, San
Francisco. The exact location will be included in the confirmation email. You
can sign up for the event by following the link in the show notes or by visiting
996.ggvc.com/sf. It will be a fun
night and I hope to see you there.
We’d also like to thank our sponsor and
partner, OnePiece, for their support for this event. Also, here’s a tip: If you
want to win at this trivia night, I highly recommend re-listening to previous
episodes of the 996 Podcast, since many of the answers to the questions can
actually be found in our show.
Hi there. Welcome to the 996 Podcast brought to you by GGV Capital. On this
show, we interview movers and shakers of China’s tech industry and discuss how
founders from around the world can draw lessons from China’s tech ecosystem. My
name is Hans Tung. I’m a Managing Partner at GGV Capital and I’ve been working
at and investing in startups across the US, China and other emerging markets for
the past 20 years.
My name is Zara Zhang. I’m a marketing manager at GGV Capital and a former
journalist. Why is this show called 996? 996 is the work schedule that many
Chinese founders have organically adopted. That is 09:00 a.m. to 09:00 p.m., six
days a week.
To us, 996 captures the intensity, drive and speed of Chinese internet
companies, which have produced many growth miracles over the last decade.
Also, I highly recommend joining our listeners’ WeChat groups and Slack channel
where you can connect with likeminded people interested in tech in China. We
organize regular offline events across the world for our followers. You can
join these by visiting 996.ggvc.com.
On the show today, we have Simon Zhang or Zhang Ximeng 张溪梦 in Chinese, the founder and CEO of GrowingIO, a data
analytics startup in China that helps product managers and marketers analyze
mobile apps and websites without adding manual tracking codes. GrowingIO now
counts over 6,000 companies as its customers, including the likes of DiDi, Momo,
Tujia and others.
Simon was a Senior Director of Business Analytics at LinkedIn at their Silicon
Valley headquarters, and before that he worked as a Senior Manager of Site
Analytics at eBay. In 2015, he left a decade-long career in Silicon Valley and
returned to China, and started his current startup, GrowingIO. But prior to all
of this, Simon worked as a brain surgeon in China and attended medical school in
Tianjin. He also obtained an MBA from the Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio.
Simon is also the author of a Chinese book, Shouxi Zengzhangguan 首席增长官 Chief Growth Officer, and he’s a thought
leader in the field of data-driven growth in China. Welcome to the show, Simon.
SIMON ZHANG: Thank you for having me here, and thanks,
Simon, you’ve known Hans for a long time. Do you remember how you first met?
Yes, I think I met Simon when he was still at LinkedIn or about to leave
LinkedIn to explore the possibility of building software in China, even though
he has been away for so long. He was figuring out whether he should do a
or something that’s more enterprise-oriented, and the trade up was that in
China back then, consumer startup was the only thing that mattered in the
internet space. There are not a lot of proven enterprise examples that worked
out. Yeah, that’s his area of expertise, so he’s figuring out, should he work
with someone in a consumer startup or start up one with low odds of success, or
bet the farm that that enterprise will be a big trend in China?
That’s exactly right. I remember very clearly when I talk about Hans, he shared
a little bit about the China market and the US market. He said, “If you do a
B2B in China now, I’m not your investor,” and I remember that quote.
HANS TUNG: It’s not easy. It is so not easy.
SIMON ZHANG: It is not. That’s right, yeah.
you started your career as a brain surgeon, at what point did you realize this
may not be what you want to do for the rest of your life, and when did you find
our passion in data?
I think this is almost two questions. The first one, I started my career in
medical university and then joined a cancer hospital. I think after six or nine
months, I figured out that wasn’t exactly what I wanted in my life. And then I
told the chief of the department, “I need to leave,” because being a doctor
actually is very, I would say, serious a career. I needed to leave that space
for someone who really loved the job, but not me just being okay with the job.
And, also, personally, I strongly believe
anyone, everyone needs to enjoy what he or she is doing, so that will motivate
this person to become the best in the field. So, at that moment, I truly think
I didn’t have the passion for being the best doctor in the world, so that’s the
reason I left after I think, roughly speaking, a year without anyone’s notice.
My family figured it out after seeing me staying in the apartment for two
weeks, one week actually. My mom asked me, “Hey, what are you doing here?”
HANS TUNG: Do you have no work? What kind of work did
you do down at the hospital?
SIMON ZHANG: Yeah. Is there no patient? Why are you
ZARA ZHANG: Why data?
Why data? Actually, it’s a link to a computer. It was not about the data. It
was about the computer. When I was very, very young, that was my toy. I really
enjoyed it and starting from a playing video games, I then shifted to computer
games and then shifted to internet, very early stage.
HANS TUNG: This was in the ’80s?
SIMON ZHANG: Nineties, and that used this modem to
connect to the internet.
HANS TUNG: The early-90s.
SIMON ZHANG: Yeah, almost at $2 per hour. That was the
cost. Very early.
HANS TUNG: Yeah, that’s how it was in ’95, ’96.
Yeah, ’96. I felt this was the most powerful thing that ever happened in my
life and I liked it. I enjoyed it and then I wanted to do things in this field.
That was in 1998, 1999.
Yeah, it was right at the beginning, very early tipping point for Chinese internet to
start happening. I remember in ’97 China had less than 10 million internet
users. That’s when Jerry Yang visited China and had a picture taken with Jack
Ma on the on the Great Wall. That was in ’97.
SIMON ZHANG: That’s the very earliest stage.
HANS TUNG: It was like seven million internet users in
China back then.
Yeah, I remember that part, because before it was 386 or 486 computer models,
and that was the first computer I had in my life, and then I decided I needed
to do something in this field.
ZARA ZHANG: And you came to the US in 2002, right?
SIMON ZHANG: Yeah.
ZARA ZHANG: What prompted the move?
Because I was very young, I liked American movies and video games, novels,
books, but a lot of thing I think finally convert into why America is such a
creative country, have so many amazing people, creating so many amazing
stories, movies, products and technologies. I just felt this country must have
some significant difference from what I knew at that moment. I wanted to learn
from them and that motivated me to come to the US at that moment. Yeah, so I
think that was the main reason.
ZARA ZHANG: And how did you find your way into the
field of data analytics?
I think the whole world is a hyper-connected behind the scenes, so because
those personal hobbies, movies, American whatever, and then at that moment I
read a lot of articles about internet, even ecommerce. I felt, this ecommerce
is so fascinating, and it has connected the whole world by using internet, and
then it also can sell things. Actually, I opened my personal video game store
when I was a student. I found this was the best way I could sell things online
and I wanted to learn ecommerce. I wanted to do ecommerce. And that’s a reason
I started doing some research on how to do ecommerce, how to build a website,
because if you want to build an ecommerce, you have to have a database and
connect everything together, and I figured it out. I learned and then I wanted
to do ecommerce. Then, you see, I shifted my focus from just a computer,
internet to e commerce, but for ecommerce I needed to understand data and the
database or everything. So, I learned, yeah, and then I started working on this
HANS TUNG: And that’s how you got involved in eBay.
Yes, because I wanted to do ecommerce. Ecommerce at that moment was eBay.
HANS TUNG: eBay and Amazon. Amazon is in Seattle and
eBay is in Silicon Valley.
SIMON ZHANG: eBay was the largest at that moment.
HANS TUNG: Yes, at that moment it was.
SIMON ZHANG: Yeah, it was, and I joined them. It was
just a personal interest.
ZARA ZHANG: Why did you join LinkedIn after that?
So, that’s another connection, right? Because I think after three years of
working at eBay, I really learned a lot, a lot of amazing people in the
department. They were using data to fully operate the site or the business. And
the manager who recruited me for that eBay position, he told me, “Simon, this
is Silicon Valley. I feel you should go somewhere smaller like a startup.”
HANS TUNG: Right, eBay was already very corporate by
SIMON ZHANG: Right, eBay had I think 10,000 employees or
HANS TUNG: Which was a lot back then.
It was a lot, a lot of people. And his name is Heston. He’s a great guy and he told
me, “Simon, you should go somewhere smaller.” I didn’t understand what he was
talking about. I told him, “Are you kidding me?” I was just getting my
promotions in a month. “I feel I could do a lot of things here.” Anyway, he
said, “No, no, no, no. You didn’t understand what I meant. You should really go
somewhere growing, smaller.” He strongly believed I could do better in a
HANS TUNG: Know more, do more and get promoted faster.
Yeah, and then recommended me to a couple places his friends ran and then I got
a couple of offers, and then finally decided to join LinkedIn.
HANS TUNG: Which was very small back then.
SIMON ZHANG: Very smaller, yeah.
HANS TUNG: How many people were there at LinkedIn?
SIMON ZHANG: It was more than 500, definitely less than
1,000, something like that.
ZARA ZHANG: So, you were there for almost five years.
SIMON ZHANG: Yeah.
And you let them build the analytics team to support the company’s
monetization. Could you talk about why analytics was important to LinkedIn? And
what kind of impact did your team have on the company?
This is I think the greatest question. Firstly, LinkedIn really respected data.
It is it is part of the company strategy or it is part of the company culture.
When I was just joining LinkedIn, I remember very clearly, they said, “Growth
drives data. Data drives money. Money drives growth.” It’s very simple. I still
remember that mode very clearly.
And the second piece is I think LinkedIn
really empowered employees in how to use the data. It’s not telling, Hey,
Simon, you should do this, this and that, right? You just say, Hey, we want to
drive in this type of result and what can you guys can do? And we did a lot of
very creative projects and brought significant growth to LinkedIn. About, I
think, six months ago Reid Hoffman just published a book called —
HANS TUNG: Blitzscaling.
Yeah, Blitzscaling. In that, the
LinkedIn case he used was the project we delivered at LinkedIn that’s the
fundamental internal growth engine to boost the LinkedIn revenue growth, and
it’s called product Merlin. It’s like a magician and we built that product
internally. I think it has increase efficiency by 3–10 times internally.
ZARA ZHANG: Of monetization.
Yeah, of monetization, because salespeople wrote me emails saying, “Hey, I
don’t know who you are. I really don’t know who you are, but I’m very thankful
to you –”
HANS TUNG: Sweet, yeah, not difficult money.
“– because of what you did, making me upgrade my vacation to Hawaii. Because
as a result of your work, I just stay home. Because of your work, my family now
goes to Hawaii. Thank you very much.” And I asked him, “What exactly have I
done for you?” He said, “I used to close one deal per month. Because of the
work that you guys did, I can close three deals in a week. People are chasing
me to sign the contract.” Yeah, it was the moment that made me really super,
super happy, and the whole team happy. I think that’s the ultimate power tool.
So, what was the exact reason that the conversion rate increased? Was it
because of better targeting?
Better targeting. Better product and channel fit. Better messaging. Better
positioning. The most significant part is the automation. A salesperson, first
of all, he wants to talk to Hans, so seriously speaking, he just needs to click
three buttons to generate PowerPoint slides. The slides would talk about Hans, GGV,
why GGV needs LinkedIn, why the LinkedIn product fits the GGV needs, and who
can recommend or liaison between me and Hans, all of that in that PowerPoint.
ZARA ZHANG: A personalized pitch deck.
A personalized pitch deck which really, really boosts the productivity during
the early stage. It used to be two weeks to prepare one, for data analytics to
prepare one, but right now it has become three minutes to prepare one.
HANS TUNG: So, data can be just sucked out of the
database and be put into that very quickly.
Yeah. I remember we did some internal data tracking. We found that there were
500,000 PowerPoint stacks that have been done with it, something like that, a
year, which translates into almost 2,000 data analysts’ work if we do this
manually, and everything is customized for when we’re speaking to our
customers. That’s just the beginning, but also, we have seriously worked,
connected and then fundamentally changed the way LinkedIn scaled and grew, and
it has really made me personally feel proud and happy, because I changed their
lives, made them live better.
So, you were making a great difference inside LinkedIn. Yeah, many people—and I
can relate to this because I’ve worked both in Silicon Valley and China now—have
said that there is a ceiling for Chinese and most Asian employees. India may be
an exception, but most Chinese employees in Silicon Valley tech feel that
there’s a ceiling and it’s hard to move up to leadership roles at VP or higher
levels. So, what kind of examples or lessons both positive and negative did you
learn while working at LinkedIn as one of the top performers?
I will start with the positives. I think I will end with a positive as well,
because everything has two sides to a story. Number one is, I think the company
culture is very important rather than embracing results and performance, and
the leadership team can recognize there are so many great people. You need to
grow them. I think LinkedIn, at least when I was there, was the place to
empower me and give me the opportunity to grow. I think that’s very important
for any employee now living in Silicon Valley to find a growing space. However,
a growing space is not a free ride or a free vehicle to bring you to the next
level. I think, personally speaking, we need to really work hard and deliver
better performance than average.
On the other side, I feel the ceiling, the
ceiling problem. So, after I came back to China, I understood this a little bit
more than when I was there. When I was there, I’d talked about this being just
a communication issue; this is just our Chinese being kind of very siloed, not
united much. Actually, right now I don’t feel that way anymore or I don’t feel
much about that anymore. I feel our Chinese, let’s say, engineers or folks in
Silicon Valley, number one, we need to become a T-shaped leader. I think most
of time you spend too much time on becoming the expert in this field, but we
forget we need to grow our leadership skills.
HANS TUNG: Horizontally.
We need to grow our management skills. We need to grow our business skills. We
need to understand the product, marketing, sales and everything on the customer
and the market. If we don’t have those skills, it’s very hard for a person to
become the leader for the company, but because he or she will not have the
general point of view of how to manage the whole business. I think that’s a
very important learning I have.
The second part is, I feel, if we want to
grow leadership skills, you’re going to grow management skills. Those kinds of
skills are—how do I say it? Maybe that’s not right English term—learnable. We
need to learn that. However, if we only learn from our own experience, we will
become very fixed mindset people. We have to intentionally expand to our unknown
area. That area needs someone really good in this field who coach us, but
sometimes when I think of myself, say, seven or eight years ago, I didn’t have
the awareness that someone could coach me to become better in that field. Then,
when I reached a certain stage, when someone tried to guide me or tell me
something I really did not know, I started refusing the lesson, to listen,
because those signals were not matching with what I understood. So, I think in
this area could be expanded by a much more open-minded mindset. Plus, someone
could guide and mentor this person.
I feel right now in Silicon Valley in our
Chinese community, there are a lot of more experienced executives or
experienced people. If we couldn’t jointly work together, we will end up with
much better results, but not just “Simon explored by himself randomly”. Just
keep learning from practice. Learning from practice without anyone to coach and
guide is kind of —
HANS TUNG: A lot less efficient.
Yeah, exactly, less efficient. I think the last is our education. I’m not blaming our
education system. We weren’t taught much about the methodology of how to learn
but taught too much about how to be right on the final results. So, my feeling
right now, I think there’s some change that has happened significantly in the
past several years. Our Chinese engineers or people who are staying in Silicon
Valley, we need to learn the fundamental methodology, but not just how to get
the results right. So, I think our education system taught too much about the
results, but not teaching us enough how to learn learning.
And, finally, I would say, in the US, we
have to get a green card; we have to get an H1B; we have to get meal tickets
and paychecks. Those kind of limit people’s ambitions and this desire for being
more creative and being more. Actually, right now if I look back, I just had
too many fears.
HANS TUNG: Even in LinkedIn?
SIMON ZHANG: Even in LinkedIn, every day, Oh, I’ll lose
my job; I’ll lose this, and I’ll lose that.
HANS TUNG: Losing your job.
Exactly. However, I strongly believe that the US culture really encourages you
to have your independent thinking, being creative, being customer-centric, for
example, business-oriented. So, it’s okay to speak up. It’s okay to express
yourself clearly and then with guts, and that’s what I learned at LinkedIn
after nine months. It was the largest lesson I learned in my life. We have to
be extremely honest and brutally honest by telling the truth. This, however, I
didn’t want because I was sacred or because of the fear or whatever I had in my
mind that blocked me off being better. That’s just in my personal life. I’m not
saying this should apply to everyone, but I recommend it to others. For
example, I would tell them, Hey, these are the lessons I learned. I don’t hope
you have the same problem, but that’s what I would recommend.
So, when you look at your colleagues of Indian descent over the last two
decades, they have done an amazing job, very admirable.
SIMON ZHANG: Absolutely.
What are the lessons that we can learn from them? Now you see a lot of them who
are senior executives in technology companies and even the academia at Harvard
and other places. It just truly remarkable.
If you look at the top five Fortune 500, especially for tech companies, how
many Indian executives are managing the whole business? I would say,
communication is just a part of it, very shallow and surface. However, I think
deeply culture-wise, they teach business almost across all the levels, and the
second is they teach how people collaborate with others. That very important.
I almost forgot—collaboration is one of the
most important characteristics of a leader. I think Indian employees know how
to collaborate, how to be collaborative with others, how to keep your
independence in thinking but also being able to compromise in the final
solution. Also, they know how to build a network. That’s very important in the
skills, because if you won’t agree on something, you have to a little bit lobby
everywhere underneath and then, finally, now reach an agreement. So, I think I
had a lot of things to learn.
And, also, my feeling is they understand the
ladder a lot better than Chinese employees. Chinese employees sometimes feel if
they work hard enough, people will recognize their —
HANS TUNG: Recognize their hard work.
— yeah, their hard work. Actually, no,
that’s wrong. That’s completely wrong and you do your work. It’s almost like a
product/market fit. You only build a great product with other people. No,
that’s a failure. You have to promote this product in the right channel and
then you need to have this product with the right customer acquisition cost and
their lifetime value. You need to figure out all of this. Then, promoting this
product is part of the job. It’s not just self-promoting.
HANS TUNG: It’s not self-promoting, right.
It’s not just playing politics. No, this is how we make a great idea become
HANS TUNG: And adopted by other people.
Yeah, exactly. So, I would recommend that our Chinese learn that. That’s a very
important and basic skill for anyone who wants to be successful in a company.
Yeah, that’s actually a great lesson not just for our Chinese and folks in
Silicon Valley, but it’s a great lesson for anyone young trying to move up the
corporate ladder and do more, make more impact on life. Part of the reason that
I moved back to the Bay Area in 2014 was because I felt that, like you, I
learned a lot from being on kind of a battlefield in China for eight years, and
you see so much and see that this is actually and I still think that this is
the toughest market in the world to do VC or even build a startup. There are
just so many challenges you have to overcome, which we will get to in a second
later on in the podcast, that if I learn all these lessons, these lessons are actually
not China-specific. They’re great lessons globally and that’s part of the
motivation of doing the 996 Podcast. It was to share these kind of lessons. They
may start in a China context, but the implication, the application is actually
quite global beyond China.
SIMON ZHANG: Totally.
I think another reason for that phenomena is the self-selection bias. A lot of
enterprising Chinese people at Silicon Valley tech companies actually moved back to
China to either join or start companies like you did.
If Simon ends up being a C-level officer at LinkedIn, would he still have come
back to China? Hard to say. Then, this is a part of the challenge that India
has. It’s that you have so many great successful Indian executives in the US.
Would they be able to give that up just to move back to India? If I were
already in the Forbes Midas List five years in a row in the US, would I give it
up to go to China? Not so easy. But the interesting thing is that by doing it
in both places, the things you will learn become quite powerful in a way that
you wouldn’t have if you just stayed in one place.
SIMON ZHANG: That’s exactly
right. That’s almost like the story you shared with me, Hans. Remember you
shared with me that you did a lot of research on Japanese history?
HANS TUNG: Yes.
You learned a lot. My feeling is that—when you told me that story, at that
moment, I connected—if I stay in Silicon Valley for the rest of my career, I
will never learn this new language, even this, what we call Chinese. I am
Chinese. I came back to the China market. I just learned so much. It’s almost
like a new world to me personally. I learned and then, when Hans told me that
story, I reflected, The China market for me is almost like the Japanese market
for Hans. I was learning in China; he really enjoyed learning Japanese history.
I think that taught me how to understand better about our customers, how to
You decided to come back to China four years ago and you decided to take part
in enterprise when it was not clear that if someone who has been away for 10
years could actually build something, an enterprise which is so local, even
more local than the consumer market. Against all odds, yes, you’ve built a
viable business today. What are the some of the challenges that you had to face
and how did you end up solving them one by one? I know you have many lessons,
but you can pick two or three.
SIMON ZHANG: We have too many lessons to derive for
HANS TUNG: Two or three of the most memorable, most
I would say, coming back to China, building a startup, building an enterprise
startup where being a startup person all of this for me was completely new. I
think that the reason we could do this was only because we could hold the
personal view. However, if I look back, I would’ve said I should have a better
understanding of a product/market fit. I should understand during a different
stage what an entrepreneur should do, because this is the first time, I’d built
a startup. So, we made a lot of mistakes.
I think the most important one is focus on the customers
and the market, but not just focus on the technology we had or the technology
dream that we had. Focus on customer and market is the first lesson I would
like to share with any who wants to build a startup in any market.
The second lesson I learned is I received
too early too much money. Seriously, I raised too much money during the Series
A, early stage. That actually clouded a lot of things because we could do
marketing, we can do a lot of things—
HANS TUNG: You
could do many things.
ZHANG: Yes, many things to
boost early growth, however, if I had had less money I would do slightly
HANS TUNG: How
would you do it differently?
ZHANG: We’d focus on no
marketing in the early stage. Completely focus on customers, and make sure our
product filled our customer need in the early stage. Don’t expand too
fast. Control it and make sure
everything becomes smooth, product, deployment, service, customer feedback. All
the loop had been checked, and then expand.
However, when we had more money, it kind of diluted our focus. At that
moment I didn’t even know what was supposed to be the focus.
Even if someone told me, Simon, the product
is the only thing you should care about, because it wasn’t resonating with me
at that moment, I made a lot of mistakes. So, I would like to share this lesson
with other entrepreneurs. They should really focus on customers, or less say
the product, then later expand. Actually, this is a lesson a lot of us in the
Valley share, and a lot of books and articles are being written.
TUNG: But unless you do it once, you don’t
know what is important and what is not, and what’s the weighting of each.
ZARA ZHANG: I think a lot of founders, especially in China, see fund raising as a signal for success. Like, as long as we close a round and the valuation is high, we’re a successful company. But that actually creates a lot of pressure and like you said, can dilute your focus. So, there could be a downside to that as well.
ZHANG: Actually, that’s a
very different type of culture between American startups and here in
China. I think it’s started changing,
TUNG: In the U.S. every press, media expert will
want their founders not to talk about valuation and money raising too much, because
reporters are so jaded, they don’t want to just report on you based on a lot of
money. They really want to know what kind of value are you generating? Or that
it’s not just a me-too company. It’s a lesson that needs to be there not just
in China but also in Latin America, Southeast Asia and India. In emerging
markets it’s very easy for people just to pound on their chests when they’ve
just raised a large round. It takes more maturity or experienced firms like you
to share the lessons.
SIMON ZHANG: I’m
just a little bit bold to share that lesson.
ZHANG: So what
recommendations do you have for Chinese employees at Silicon Valley tech
companies who are interested in coming back to China to maybe found startups?
ZHANG: It’s two different
types of world. It depends on what they really want. I would say here in China
this is a historically important point. People can come back to become someone
memorable in human history. This is the place to nurture the next generation’s
greatest enterprises, globally. So, I would say someone in Silicon Valley,
they’re young, they’re ambitious, they really want to build something creative,
this is the market that can nurture the greatest entrepreneur in the next five
or ten years. This opportunity, really, they should come back to grab it. I
think some of them might have regret. This is a lifetime opportunity for young,
smart, well-educated engineers or Silicon Valley Chinese folks who are thinking
of coming back.
If, say, after they become a VP or some senior
director, or whatever, it’s a golden chance. And also, kids, family, houses,
cars, it’s harder and harder for them to come back. Right now, I think is the
opportunity for them to play in this field. They have nothing to lose. I’m
almost 43 or 45 years old. They are much younger than me. They have nothing to
lose, but a lot to gain. Even the process would be very painful. I would
recommend for them to come back.
That’s the story I told some of the
employees at GrowingIO. I told them this is a lifetime event. From my heart. I’m not cheating them, I’m not
making up some story. This is the place for people to become better. And also,
analyze the environment. Think about the question Hans just asked me. Do other
companies exactly manage—think about it. Do you want to grow in America, or you
want to find somewhere there’s a little less competition? You want to become
the first mover? There are a lot of advantage for Chinese people who stay in
Silicon Valley. They still can come back, I mean here, to China market. I would
ZHANG: I think a lot of
people are trying to figure out the timing issue. How long should I stay in the
U.S. before I come back, because if you stay too short, the premium of what you
can bring back is limited. But if you stay too long, you get settled. And
people are also worried about economic uncertainties facing China right now.
ZHANG: Well, it’s a great
question. Think about if Jack Ma never stayed in Silicon Valley and learned
anything about capital. He’s one of the most successful entrepreneurs—
HANS TUNG: In the world. In history.
ZHANG: Yes, globally. I
would say that’s kind of a thought, from my personal point of view. I would say
timing isn’t the most important. Every excuse will become clear. If one thing
we can prove, then we can learn anything. Of course, not in harming people kind
of things. We can learn everything. Having an environment, having the
requirement to learn is much more efficient than to think about doing
something. I would say this is a battlefield. Learning in the battlefield, can
gain much faster experience. Better skills.
ZARA ZHANG: Just being in that
SIMON ZHANG: Yes. I would say.
TUNG: I think the questions Zara raised are
very legitimate, and we hear them from a lot of folks who listen to 996 or come
SIMON ZHANG: Nine-nine-six.
That’s a great name.
TUNG: I think that we also hear from a lot
of people who made that concession back. First thing you do is not worry about
that you are superior. You cannot think that you know more. You have to be more
humble and learn to fit in here in China more.
So, if that’s the case, it is much harder
for someone to acquire that domain expertise in the U.S. and thinking that’s
worth something when you come back, because most of the time it doesn’t. Even
though there you were an AI or machine learning specialist, if you want to come
back and stay an AI or machine learning specialist, that’s fine. You can
acquire expertise in the U.S. and come back when you have achieved it. But the
chance of you becoming a business leader and doing your startup in China? It’s
not going to be high, because your mentality is already going to be like I’m an
expert, so pay me a premium for being an expert. You choose to come back here
to learn to be a founder and business leader.
So sure, you were an expert in data
analytics, but that alone was not going to be enough to keep you. You had to
become a different person in the last four years in order to build the business
you want today. What made you decide to do that, and what specific lessons did
you have to learn in order to become a T-shaped leader instead of an expert in
data analytics, one of the best in the world?
ZHANG: I learned from
peoples’ criticism. Because when I just came back exactly like Hans just
described, I thought if I was one of the best in that field, then, the parts
that I built would be one of the best in this field. Then the company that I
would build would be the best, right?
HANS TUNG: And the customers
would be so lucky to be able to use your product.
ZHANG: Exactly. And then
lucky to work with me. Oh man, what a horrible person I was. So, I would say,
you know, I learned from crisis, tough times. I think the whole team learned
from that. For example, the T-shape, the number one problem is how to build a
team. We used to be result-oriented. Hey, you need to deliver this, deliver
that. Fundamentally we found this wasn’t working any more, because we needed to
be a team who did things in a consistent way for our customers. Then we needed
to be able to have the collaboration and organization aligned.
I think the hardest lesson I learned was we
really needed to build a great team, a great organization. The CEO is not just
telling people how to build a part, but also understanding the customer,
understanding the people and then build an organization. I began to notice that
it used to be just a lot of terms in my mind, interlinking part of me. However,
like the stuff they build feeds off my knowledge, at the moment I just live
within it. However, right now we need to build that. We made a lot of mistakes.
We found a lot of lessons. Actually,
employees told me hey, Simon, you’re wrong in this, that and that. I thought I
was not wrong, and she was wrong, or he was wrong. But I started trying to
analyze when she told me I was wrong, and I couldn’t understand what she meant
at the moment. Then I asked a little different type of people, and they told me
hmm, I didn’t have that type of problem with her. Only you have that problem
with her. I said okay, let me think about that. The problem was I wasn’t aware
of the problem I had, and that created more problems. Then I had to turn to
So, I think that after coming back to China
I became a little more open. I wish I could be more open for people to give me
feedback, more open-minded, change myself.
Upgrade. I think that’s the largest lesson I learned. I still have a lot
to learn. Really, a lot. The more I understand what I should do, the more I
need to look for feedback and criticism. I think the second part is in
business, there is so much great knowledge generated in history because we have
not recognized the deficiencies of ourselves. We made a lot of calls based on
personal judgement. These aren’t facts.
We have to learn from the facts. We have to
learn from doing. We have to learn from making mistakes. I need to be quick,
and not just keep making the same mistakes for five years. I think that company
would die for sure. We need to learn to fail fast and keep moving.
TUNG: One of my theories is assume that
everybody is similarly smart. To get to the right answer you have to go through
a similar number of mistakes and failures and trials in order to get there. It
could be Chinese versus Indians, Chinese versus Americans. It doesn’t matter,
the race. Everybody is similarly smart, and it takes some number of mistakes to
It used to be that somebody goes through
that process and a second team could copy and clone and take a shortcut and
still get things right. So, you’d focus on the result, get there very quickly,
didn’t have to go through the same number of mistakes. But as more and more
these countries and teams are at the cutting edge of what they do, you still
have to go back and figure out what mistakes you have to make in order to get
the right answers.
Having said that, do you feel that, having
worked in China and the U.S., both places, which market is faster at iterating
and making those mistakes to get to the final answer sooner, quicker?
I think you know my answer. Because I’m in this market. I think Chinese really
learn so fast.
TUNG: A lot of Americans seem to feel like the
Chinese don’t plan, they just shoot first, aim later. The techniques don’t have
the right process. They just break everything and roll the product out before
it’s ready. So, you’re fast, it’s a lot of action, but you’re not very
ZHANG: Think about it this
way. I would have called this creativities. This is innovation, because I think
right now the speed of innovation becomes faster and faster. We cannot just set
up the process before we understand what the customer really needs. So then, we
try fast. I would say that’s part of the innovation. Chinese way, right now,
and of course it’s been boosted a little bit by the funding.
HANS TUNG: And the size of the
market, and so forth.
ZHANG: And size of the
market, yes. However, I think the competition is faster than we are creating
the theories, creating the process, or engineering the whole industrialized
structure. That’s not a fit for this in a fast-changing market. We have to try
and go fast. Of course, there are some fundamental things, for example, your
business model. Your CAC versus LTV. At least the fundamental that the founders
should think about that stuff, otherwise they will step into the pitfalls, the
criticism of Chinese teams from Silicon Valley is there’s no work/life balance.
In Silicon Valley they say you want to be innovating for a long time, therefore
you want to stay creative, stay fresh. Take time off, step back, think about
things, smell the coffee and so forth. And a lot of those are very legitimate
practices. In China, what do you see, and what do you practice? Do you worry
about work/life balance here? When you see teams work 996, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six
days a week, sometimes even seven days a week, how sustainable is that? Can you
be both efficient and hard-driven at the same time, or do you have to choose in
order to stay creative and innovative for a long period of time?
ZHANG: This is a great
question. When I was working in Silicon Valley, I was working very hard,
compared with my colleagues or my peers. I think that was one reason I could
get promoted a little bit faster than normal. After I moved back, I found every
single company in China, almost, from Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, everyone’s
working so hard. For example, recently we heard of some company in Nianhui 年会 , or annual parties, some founders said hey, let’s change to 986 tomorrow, or
something like that. Puts some newsfeed in there recently. My feeling is having
a clear goal, keep delivering, is very important in any market.
If your competitors are doing much more work
than your 955 company, I’d say this company would have lost. Nine to five, for
five days—regular. In the China market you have to work harder than U.S.
company to survive in this market. Even
Alibaba, the building is just a couple of blocks from my office. You can see at
11 or 10 p.m., at night, the whole building lights are still on. That’s peer
pressure, I would say.
However, on the other side, I definitely
think keep a certain level of space where people can have time for deep
thinking, truly focus on work, but not just build on by hours. Because it’s not
by how many hours we work, it’s still how many great parts and results we
deliver. But there should be some balance. Hans, you asked me the question. The
first time I moved back to China, we worked almost 007.
HANS TUNG: All the time, seven days a week.
ZHANG: We went home around
3 a.m., came back around 9 to 10 in the morning. So, we said hey, we just have
office and home, a dorm. The office is a home. So about for almost nine months,
we felt we couldn’t even think. We were too tired. And we had to return to 997,
but the seventh day is a half-day. Still you feel exhausted, and you have to
balance. I wish every company would select that balancing point, but to a
HANS TUNG: So, what is your schedule now?
ZHANG: I recommend some of
the founders, they need to have time off. Because when they go somewhere else,
company is shut down, their thoughts become clearer than before. And also, when
occupied by day to day, it’s very hard to make the right decision. That’s the
recommendation I’ve been given by my friends and my peers, sometimes my advisor
and coach. So, I learned better than before. So, I would say there is a
HANS TUNG: So, when you’re not on a break, what is the
ZHANG: Still 996 is very
normal. I think most of the times I go to the office a little bit on Sunday,
when it’s quieter.
HANS TUNG: Right. So, you can
ZHANG: I can think a little
bit. And I can learn a little bit. That’s not the right habit, maybe, but
recently I started managing that a little better because of the story you
shared with me. You know, the Japanese story? I think I need to learn a little
bit harder from what other people speak. Because I’m always occupied by myself,
by my old habit, which means I don’t change.
TUNG: I’m always fascinated by Japanese history how
some of them could achieve Zen and be able to think, reflect, and still be able
to act aggressively and quickly as needed. So, how can you do both well? To me,
there was never a question you have to choose to be efficient and work 955, or
you work 996, 997 and you’re not efficient. I don’t see that you have to
choose. I think there’s a way to do both, and that’s a higher form of working,
and whoever can do that will be the most effective.
ZHANG: I wanted to shift
the topic to growth. You wrote a book called 《首席增长官》Chief Growth Officer.
many Chinese people, it was their first exposure to the concept of data driven
growth. At that time, growth as a term was already frequently heard in the
Valley, but still relatively novel in China. So, what do you think are the
differences between Chinese style growth and Silicon Valley style growth?
SIMON ZHANG: I think Chinese version of growth is more like the numbers, you know numbers of users, number of GMV or number of… I think Silicon Valley growth means you use science, you use data to grow efficiently, and then you manage your product life cycle smartly. First you focus on maybe your MVP or prototype, and then you become a part of market, at fifth stage you fund retention, at that stage you should not pour a lot of money to boost the number of growth. And after that you figure out a channel fit and then you accelerate your growth. Those are almost exactly what LinkedIn did in the past 15 years, right? Stage by stage. However, in China, like the question Hans asked me, the market changes so drastically and so quickly, people do not have time to do this in so classic way. I would say Chinese market focuses on dominating the market by using whatever it takes, then become a monopoly, and then you set up the price, and then you set up the business model, you set up the CAC and whatever. Actually, it’s built a lot of great companies. At least some. But recently, I think it’s started changing.
TUNG: Because the market as a whole is not
expanding that much anymore. So, you have to be a lot more efficient in order
ZHANG: Be efficient to
survive. And have the right business model, and then to grow naturally or
normally. I would say there’s a changing underneath with the economy,
everything, the market dynamic is changing. I would not say which one is right,
which one is wrong. But I’m just saying right now, it’s time for many, many
companies to learn how to run business efficiently. This is a fundamental and
can build the long-lasting enterprises in the future. The future is not just
two years old, your IPO, done. No,
actually, to build a great company, should have a lot of patience and
dedication, it’s a long-term journey. Then I would say the relative theory,
part of the tooling we brought to the market, I hope could help a lot of
companies and entrepreneurs become long-lasting success.
ZARA ZHANG: It sounds like that bodes well for enterprise SaaS as a sector in China.
ZHANG: Yes. And both the 2C and the 2B companies. But
still in the market, there are some companies that are boosted by funding,
right? As the business model. I would say being creative is always right. Being
fast. It doesn’t matter if in the mature market or in a fast-growing market,
being fast is the key. It doesn’t matter where we are, either U.S. or here. Our
being fast doesn’t mean being short, short life cycle or short lifetime. Being
fast means everything we need to be doing is fast, dominant.
TUNG: And this is not a popular thinking in
Silicon Valley. You don’t hear groups saying we’ve got to move fast, we’ve got
to move fast. Everybody favors being more methodical, think it through, plan.
But if somehow you could do both, and you learn how to think on your feet, it
actually becomes a great advantage, because you know other people are going to
be slow. So, if you can move fast and think at the same time, you see everyone
else stop moving. It’s actually good.
SIMON ZHANG: I learn, I learn
from Hans now.
ZHANG: I think Chinese
founders often have a warlike mentality. Like no matter just grab the land
share first, and then figure out what to do later.
TUNG: I think over time, you have to be
able to do both. So, you learn how to plan, but you learn how to plan while
you’re on the go. That’s how you can be staying one step ahead of your peers or
competition. So, it’s fascinating. And you nailed it. How you learn is very
important. I think one of the things that I picked up as a trait of a lot of great founders, they figure out how to learn faster,
quicker than their competitor, and that’s how they stay ahead.
ZHANG: We’re still on the
journey of learning how to learn. But it’s fascinating, it’s great. You changed
a lot your mindsets
ZHANG: Moving on to the
quick five questions. Who is the entrepreneur you admire the most, and why?
learned a lot from different type of entrepreneurs. I would say that Ed
Catmull, who built Pixar, he has so much insight as how to build a creative
culture, how to learn fast, how to become eco-right within the company. I
admire him a lot. I read a book, actually the book was recommended by the CEO
from Pablo. I asked him, “Hey, what can
I learn? Any books you can recommend to me?” He said, “Simon, you can read that
Creativity, Inc. A couple of years ago, I read the book. I
learned a lot. It’s fascinating. I met him about two weeks ago here in China.
He presented at Jike Gongyuan 极客公园 or Geek Park. He shared a little bit and I admire him quite a lot. Had a
dream of building something really unbelievable and then delivered it. Figured
out that building a dream is not the key. Deliver the key of building dreams,
and it’s just fascinating the mindsight, the methodology, also another culture.
Everything. I like him quite a lot.
ZARA ZHANG: What’s something you
read recently that you recommend?
ZHANG: I would recommend a
lot of very old books. I have one book I like to recommend to anyone to read. I
think it’s called The Discipline of
Market Leaders. It was a funny story. Let me share a little bit. I bought
the book last year in summer from Amazon, and it shipped to my friend who lives
in Silicon Valley. I bought some books and he always brought them back. And
then he brought it back to me at the end of the year, almost November. I read
it, think oh, this is great. A lot of models, talking about product, service,
and efficiency. All different type of business models. The funny part is that in the book, I saw a
note from the seller. The seller said “Hey, the books I’m selling are always
five to 20 years old. Congratulations. You bought the oldest book ever on my
shelf. This book was 24 years old.” It was new, not read. The book talked about
how to become a market leader. The focus, you know. You either want to focus on
product, focus on service, or focus on efficiency. Those business models have
been analyzed and become a theory 25 or almost 30 years ago. To me it was brand
new information. I learned a lot. A lot of questions I had three years ago when
I was building the company, those answers were available.
HANS TUNG: That is a very good
SIMON ZHANG: It was a new old
TUNG: But it talks about you cannot optimize
every single factor. You had to choose one, and you had to figure out the one
that you choose, whether it fits your industry and your personality or not.
ZHANG: Narrow the market,
whatever. However, that’s resonant with
the growth theories, quite well, you know, focus. Typically, entrepreneurs or
founders that try to grab a large market, do everything simultaneously for
whatever reason—but I just feel the book was very good. I really recommend it.
ZARA ZHANG: What do you do for fun?
HANS TUNG: Do you have time for
ZHANG: Go to work. That’s
the fun for me. Seriously. I think that’s the fun part. It motivates me to go
to work every day. Even if it was tougher yesterday than today. Anyway, besides
work, I like to play video games. I used to be a very good video game player.
Recently, I’ll play video games with my son. He’s better than me. Sometimes I
learn from him. He learns more quickly than me.
ZARA ZHANG: That’s all we have
HANS TUNG: Thank you very much.
SIMON ZHANG: Thank you for the
invitation. It’s been a pleasure.
If you have any feedback on this podcast or
would like to recommend a guest, please email us at 996@GGVC.com.