When pigs fly: Baidu founder on building the next big thing

Ming Lei might not be a household name in China, but a company he co-founded is one of the Big Three of Chinese internet companies.

minglei2 280Lei led the engineering team that built Baidu, now the largest Chinese search engine. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, known collectively as BAT, dominate the search and e-commerce businesses in China.

Lei is now CEO at Kuwo – a leading online digital music company in China he founded that has more than 200 million active users.

Lei came to NUS Business School to share his entrepreneurial experiences and give aspiring entrepreneurs insight into how they, too, could build a mobile internet consumer business with over 200 million users.

Put simply, Lei says, it comes down to three things:

  • Find the right opportunity.
  • Find the right market.
  • And find the right direction.

The thing that is hard is basically finding the entry point, the critical demand

Ming Lei
CoFounder, Baidu.com

Then you’ll be well positioned to succeed. He referred to a well-known Chinese aphorism that says when the typhoon comes, even the pig can fly.

But of course it’s not entirely that simple.

“The thing that is hard is basically finding the entry point, the critical demand. If you find it, boom. People will say, ‘Whoa, you did great things!’ Then you will grow very fast. But it’s not so easy,” he said in an interview with Think Business.

For entrepreneurs working on their first launch, Lei said the product does not have to be perfect – but it does have to be really good and better than anything else out there. That’s what happened at Baidu.

baidukuwo“In Baidu, the first day we didn’t make the search engine perfect. We couldn’t,” he told the audience of would-be entrepreneurs at NUS. “The first feature we really cared about is ‘fast.’ ”

At the time search engine response times were around 1.25 seconds. Baidu trimmed that to less than one second and he said people liked it. “Speed is important.”

But knowing that competitors would soon catch up, Baidu turned its attention to having more content, returning nearly twice as many results as other search engines in China. Then, in a never-ending effort to stay a step ahead, they then started focusing on rank – making sure the results were accurate.

Quick, complete and accurate results made it more likely that users in China who tried Baidu once would return. And in a country with more than 600 million internet users[Office1]  that’s a market worth paying attention to.

“Focus, focus, focus,” said Lei, quoting Baidu CEO Robin Li, who he worked with and still counts as a very good friend.

“If you really want to get a big user base you should differentiate yourself from your competitors. You should make something different, much better than your competitors,” Lei said.

While it’s exciting to think about being an entrepreneur, Lei cautions that you should be honest about your own risk tolerance, and accept that all the hard work might not pay off. In fact he says about 80 percent of startups do not succeed.

Personally, he was willing to take the risk. Though he’s “an engineer at heart,” he still wanted to start his own company. That’s why he jumped in at Baidu at an early stage.

For those who are more risk averse, there are other ways to follow the entrepreneurial dreams such as joining a startup that’s already secured funding, or joining an innovation team at a big corporation that’s focused on the future.

minglei280Lei has his own ideas about where “the future” lies. In the near term, he sees the hot industries as anything in the mobile space, o2o (online-to-offline, i.e. getting online shoppers into real stores), IoT (Internet of Things), smart devices, big data, online finance, online education and online health.

These things, he says, are happening now and will be big in the future.

Further out, technologies that are at the “super early” stage include machine learning and virtual reality.

While he encourages entrepreneurs to look to these exciting futures, he also says look at yourself – ask yourself, are you good at that?

“Some opportunities are great, but they’re great for other people, not you.”

But if the answer is yes, then jump in.

Keep an eye out for the typhoon.

And then get ready to see pigs fly.

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