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Robin Li: China's Tech Titan Always Ready To Pivot

The 45-year-old founder of Baidu, dubbed the "Google of China," says technology offers great opportunity for success – but also means failure can arrive at any moment.

Eye on the prize
Eye on the prize
Yang Yang

BEIJING — As Robin Li was delivering his 2013 keynote address, “Believe in the Power of Technology,” at Baidu’s annual meeting, the market was busy questioning the Chinese tech giant for having shifted too slow to mobile.

But one year later, the largest Chinese search engine, sometimes called the “Google of China,” appears back in its dominant perch within China’s digital sector.

Zhang Xi, an analyst at iResearch Consulting, notes that the company’s rapid expansion into the smartphone and tablet computing business has helped drive up Baidu’s share price by 69% over the past six months.

Though he is only 45, Robin Li is widely considered the captain of China’s IT industry, known for his fierce pragmatism. He has also recently taken the place of Wang Jianlin, China’s biggest real estate tycoon, as the richest man in the world’s second-largest economy.

Still, despite the apparent golden touch, Li says that ever since he first began to build Baidu, nearly 14 years ago, he has run into more obstacles than he could have ever imagined. “Once every few months or so, I get the feeling that I can’t go on anymore, that we can’t make it this time — that the company is going to die.”

With the surge to mobile, Baidu was back at another make-or-break crossroads — and again Li chose to attack the new trend head-on.

Buying spree

Over the last year, aiming to expand its presence in mobile Internet, Baidu snapped up several large platforms, one after another, including 91 Wireless, Web-Soft Limited, Nuomi.com, a group-buying site, and PPS, a web video business. Meanwhile, aware of the importance of R&D, it established an Institute of Deep Learning (IDL) and set up an IDL laboratory in Silicon Valley, aiming to attract and promote the best Chinese tech talent in a prospective study of artificial intelligence.

Still going on the offensive doesn’t mean acting recklessly. Li’s core strategy is to purchase or invest in platforms with solid mobile web access and channel capacity so that he possesses a mixed product offering of mobile devices as well as continuing to deepen the search for technologies in areas such as apps, voice, videos and location-based services.

As of the end of 2013, 14 different models of Baidu’s mobile products were in the hands and pockets of more than 100 million users, while the company’s mobile browser users topped 400 million.

While Tencent, another Chinese web portal giant, is more focused on platforms like WeChat, a mobile text and voice messaging service, Baidu is evenly spread across different forms of products and has built four market entrances for itself in mobile search, application distribution, location-based and mobile video.

“We are in an era of globalization, and in the most unpredictable industry,” Li explains. “Technology is always changing, there’s a relentless flow of capital, and volatile consumers face so many different choices. So a young firm such as ours has to act like it is treading on ice all the time.”

Young energy

Li believes that in the field of science and technology, and in particular in the Internet business, innovation often rises directly from the youngest in the room. He himself developed Baidu Tieba, China’s largest communication platform, a decade ago at an age he considers already in his golden years.

Last July, Li promoted 29-year-old Li Mingyuan to be Baidu’s vice president. “I’m convinced that for a manager the most important thing is to think seriously about how to make use of people. We recruit a lot of excellent graduates with particularly great potential every year,” he says. “How to identify these people and give them the fastest and easiest ladder to climb is what I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the past two years.”

Indeed, managing growth is a key to a company, which over the past three years has seen its mobile search traffic increase 16-fold.

At the firm’s last annual event, Baidu World, it unveiled Light App to developers. Light App is a new distribution platform for apps that will allow end users to use apps without downloading them. While app developers enjoy access to an open platform and gain a large number of users, they are also providing a better user experience with Baidu’s strong technical support.

The importance that Li attaches to youth is also reflected in Baidu’s acquisitions. Last year the company paid $1.9 billion for 91 Assistant, a web app originally bought by 91 Wireless for only 100,000 RMB ($16,000) in 2007. The startup dream is very much alive in China.

When asked what he might change if he were to starting his career all over again, Li said, “I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to Wall Street (He worked as a software developer for a division of Dow Jones & Company) but rather to Silicon Valley.”

He said at that time, in 1994, he didn’t understand what was really happening in Silicon Valley, where he saw hardworking engineers with relatively modest incomes. “Wall Street seemed to be so mysterious to me with all its pomp, beautiful cars and luxury food.”

Li feels lucky to have realized early enough what he could do. “To depend on my own skills and change the world,” he said. “I can do work with the aim of making as many people as possible benefit from it. That is what can never be understood on Wall Street.”

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