It's a Guy Thing

Where Wild Horses Roam

The Story of Ma Hauteng

For many in the western world, the term Tencent might be a foreign term when it comes to companies, yet Tencent is the largest video game company, one of the world’s most valuable technology companies, one of the world’s largest social media companies and one the world’s largest venture capital firms. And it’s all thanks to a man affectionately known by his peers as Pony Ma, a Chinese internet entrepreneur and one of the most influential people in the world. But where did it all start and how did Tencent become one of the biggest companies in the world?

From Janitor to Juggernaut

Ma Huateng was born in Badagang, Guangdong (now Dongfang City), China, on October 29, 1971, into a humble household. His father, Ma Chenshu, moved to Shenzhen to work as a port manager when Huateng was quite young. Ma completed his remaining schooling from there and found a keen interest in computer technologies. Ma enrolled at Shenzhen University in 1989 where he studied computer science and graduated with a BS degree in 1993. Following his college graduation, Ma started working at a telecommunications company named ‘China Motion Telecom Development as a pager software developer. Although seen as a respectable job, the less than $200 a month he was earning was enough for Ma to resign and look for his fortune elsewhere. He found work again in an R&D department of another internet and telecommunications company for a while, but the nagging feeling that he needed to start his own company kept him up at night. 

After years of toying with the idea of his very own company, Ma and four former classmates co-founded Tencent in 1998 after making some money playing the stock markets. In the beginning, Ma took up various roles, ranging from janitor to website designer in a bid to keep the company alive. Like many in China’s tech industry, Ma was inspired by innovations coming out of Europe and the United States and sought to adapt them to the Chinese market. The company’s first product came after Ma participated in a presentation for ICQ, the world’s first internet instant messaging service, founded in 1996 by an Israeli company. Inspired by the idea, Ma and his team launched in February 1999 a similar software, with a Chinese interface and a slightly different name – OICQ. 

The product quickly became popular and garnered more than a million registered users by the end of 1999, making it one of the largest such services in China. Talking about the founding of Tencent, he told China Daily in a 2009 interview that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” paraphrasing a quote attributed to Isaac Newton and referencing the similarities between ICQ and OICQ. “We knew our product had a future, but at that time we just couldn’t afford it,” Ma remembered. In order to solve the problem, Ma asked for bank loans and even talked about selling the company. 

After AOL (America Online) bought ICQ in 1998, the company filed a lawsuit against Tencent with the National Arbitration Forum in the United States, claiming that QICQ’s domain names and were in violation of ICQ’s intellectual property rights. Tencent lost and had to shut down the websites. In December 2000, in order to stave off other costly lawsuits, Ma changed the name of the software to QQ (with “Q” and “QQ” used to stand for the word “cute”)

Since Tencent’s prized service QICQ was offered free of charge, the company looked to venture capitalists to finance its growing operational costs. In 2000, Ma turned to US investment firm IDC and Hong Kong’s telecom carrier Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW) who bought 40% of Tencent’s shares for $2.2 million. With the pager market declining, Ma improved the messaging platform by allowing QQ users to send messages to mobile handsets. Afterward, 80% of the company’s revenue came from deals struck with telecom operators who agreed to share message fees.

After the AOL lawsuit, Ma Huateng decided to expand the business portfolio of Tencent. In 2003, Tencent released its own portal ( and made forays into the online games market. By 2004, Tencent became the largest Chinese instant messaging service (holding 74% of the market), prompting Ma to list the company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. After the company raised $200 million in June’s IPO, Ma quickly became one of the richest people in China’s telecom industry. In 2004, Tencent launched an online gaming platform and started selling virtual goods to support the games published on that platform (weapons, gaming power), as well as emoticons and ringtones.

The World Conqueror

At Ma’s behest, Tencent launched in 2005 the C2C platform, a direct competitor to e-commerce giant Alibaba. Mimicking Bill Gates’ Microsoft, Ma Huateng created two competing teams of engineers in 2010 and charged them with creating a new product. After two months, one team presented an app for text messaging and group chat – Weixin – which launched in January 2011. In 2015, Weixin (or WeChat in English), is the largest instant messaging platform in the world, used by 48% of all Internet users.

Other diverse services provided by Tencent include web portals, e-commerce, and multiplayer online games. Online games such as Legend of Yulong and Legend of Xuanyuan boosted revenue by more than half, up to US$ 5.1 billion, with a US$ 1.5 billion profit margin. In December 2015, Ma Huateng announced that Tencent will build an “internet hospital” set up in Wuzhen that will provide long-distance diagnoses and medicine delivery.

Because of Tencent’s dominance of the social network and instant messaging markets in China, Ma Huateng’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly come under scrutiny. Speaking of censorship at a tech conference in Singapore, Ma was quoted as saying “Lots of people think they can speak out and that they can be irresponsible. I think that’s wrong… We are a great supporter of the government in terms of the information security. We try to have a better management and control of the internet”.

Time has honored Ma Huateng several times. He was featured on their list of the most influential people in the world in 2007, 2014, and 2018. In 2015, ‘Forbes’ featured him on their list of the most powerful people in the world. ‘Fortune’ has included him on their list of the top businessmen of the world in 2017. In 2018, ‘CEOWORLD Magazine’ honored him with a place on their list of the ‘Most Powerful People in the World.’ He has often been compared with Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in the world. With a net worth of about $51.1 billion, as of March 2018, Ma is the richest man in China and the 14th-richest man in the world. In November 2017, he became the first Chinese businessman to be featured on the Forbes list of the top 10 richest men in the world.