“Look Beyond the Content” – An Interview with Kai-Fu Lee

photo Kaifu

Kai-Fu Lee is a Taiwanese IT venture capitalist, writer, micro-blogger, and computer scientist. As the founding president of Google Greater China, previous Vice President of Interactive Media Group at Apple Computers, previous Corporate Vice President (NISD) of Microsoft Corp, and the founder and CEO of China’s Innovation Works, a billion-dollar technology incubator, Kai-Fu is one of the most prominent figures in the Chinese Internet sector.

Last week, I had the great opportunity to interview Kai-Fu and hear his thoughts on the difference between different social media platforms, social media development in China and the world, future trends and his recommendations for young people and business students. See full interview transcript below:

Jennie Kang (“JK”): Good morning Kai-Fu, thank you so much for taking the time. To start off, how many followers do you have on social media?

Kai-Fu: The total number is about 50 million, combining Sina Weibo, Twitter, Facebook and WeChat public accounts.

 JK: You were named Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2013. What influence does that have to your impact?

Kai-Fu: I think that was just an honor – an honor that may have been partly related to having had a strong social presence. I don’t think that honor itself adds more to the presence.

JK: Beside such an incredible web presence, you’re also the CEO of China’s Innovation Works (“IW”). How do you think your web presence impacts your decisions and visions at Innovation Works, and vice versa?

Kai-Fu: I think it’s mostly synergistic. Having a presence helps me articulate messages to the public. So in terms of sourcing pipeline for investment, it’s somewhat helpful. Also, when we have great companies with great products, I can use the social presence to promote it. However, it’s also very important that I am not over promoting it to risk the account becoming a pure advertising vehicle, then the followers will stop following. It’s got to be a very few number of highly useful, valuable services or software that are truly adding value to a large number of the followers – that’s when I will promote it. But when I do, it often has a very positive impact. And of course, Innovation Works being highly followed as a company is also helpful to the social media presence. People who are interested in starting companies in China will have a higher likelihood to follow us on social media. So, it’s mostly synergistic. But clearly, only a modest percentage of content on our social media is about my company and investments.

JK: Besides trying to leverage your own influence on social media, how does IW use social media to add value? Is there any good practice you could share? What are some of the challenges, if any?

Kai-Fu: I think my company, having the benefit of my social media presence to help it, does not do all that much in social media. You see a lot of companies in China try to take its CEO or someone very visible to try to help that person become an influential personality on social media, which helps the company. Because when a company has a very high profile executive, that person is a very valuable asset. Most social media followers prefer to follow individuals than companies. Because with individuals you tend to get an opportunity to live their lives as though you were them. And also, you could see what’s going on in those people’s lives, get to see their personal angle on things, their opinions and thoughts on current events…those are the reasons people follow individuals. Following a company is more challenging, because one expects most of the messages from the company to be commercially related, or with the intent of luring you to like the brand or buy the product. That is something not as well-liked by most people on social media, especially for people in China. For this reason, leveraging the personality is an important first step.

If a company is to do social media, it has to seriously balance its valuable content with commercial-oriented content. In other words, the best type of messages that a company sends out are things that are valuable to the users. Let’s say, if you were a skincare company, you would talk more about talking care of your skin, how to look beautiful and healthier, give lots of hints and tips, and really, just embed your products in the messages. That would work much better than if you were to promote individual products. One very important core principle of social media is that you need to be aware that you exist for your audience, and you need to put their needs first and foremost, above and beyond your corporate needs.

JK: Now let’s dive deeper into the Chinese social media platforms, where you have the largest number of followers. You wrote a book called “Weibo changes everything”, where you mentioned that Sina Weibo, a platform built on very simple technology has brought tremendous changes. Some of its advantages include its ability to reflect a more realistic side of people; the ease of use/low entry barrier and its ability to shine light and gain massive visibility to social causes, etc. Do you think these advantages are sustainable? Also, the Internet has been talking about the decline of Twitter lately. Do you think Weibo is facing the same problem as its western counterpart? What should platforms like Twitter and Weibo do to keep their competitive advantages?

Kai-Fu: Weibo and Twitter are similar in some sense. They are both “one-to-many” social platforms – that is, my followers and I don’t have to follow each other. You follow people one way and you they don’t have to follow you back. Facebook and WeChat are more two-way platforms. I think the two approaches tend to lead to different types of social network. When it’s “two-way” they tend to be between friends, with stronger connection, higher trust on individuals, but messages takes longer to broadcast, because not many people are with that massive number of followers. With the “one-to-many”, it’s actually more like “media” than “social”. Whereas the two-way approach is more like “social” than “media”. With one-way it’s more like news, where the people with massive number of followership have the power to broadcast the content broadly. In terms of the recent decline, I think actually if the “one-to-many” and the “highly-connected” approaches are well-run, they are two different needs. It’s not necessarily so easy for one platform to serve both needs. However, I think Twitter and Sina Weibo didn’t really run their business as effectively as they could. Twitter simply let their technology fall behind with a user experience that is not so great. I always thought their use of strange abbreviations and things like that are really very geeky and not suitable for broad demand. And it took them a long time to embed pictures and videos into it. Vine and Facebook and others got that- not to mention Snapchat. I think Twitter just became a platform that didn’t improve itself, and therefore people drifted to other platforms that were continuously reinventing themselves. In the tech era, it’s really important not to become stale with old technology. People are always drifting and trying new things, so social media platforms have to continue to reinvent themselves.

Sina Weibo actually had a huge position in the beginning before there was WeChat. They had an opportunity to either becoming a phenomenal media or develop into a mutual following space like a social network. They actually tried everything. They did games, virtual merchandise, and tried to do two-way…I think they just tried to do too much at one time. And I think the fact that WeChat moved very quickly with very powerful features on the China side, with Facebook being the same on the US side was really what led to the downfall of Weibo and Twitter.

I think there is an opportunity and product space for the one-to-many media type of social media to prosper. It’s just that Sina Weibo and Twitter both failed when the window of opportunity was upon them. They both didn’t execute well, now that they are facing the consequences. They both still have significant usage, so it’s not over yet. But they are both facing many more challenges due to their inability to move quickly to develop features and keep their users.

JK: To follow that thought, if we compare the Chinese and Western social media landscape, you would find that the Chinese social media landscape is shifting rather rapidly – there was the time when people were all using QQ space, and later there was Renren/Kaixin, and Sina Weibo, but now everybody is on WeChat. Meanwhile, the Western social media landscape seems more stable – Facebook has been doing pretty well since its launch. Besides their failure to continuously reinvent themselves, do you think there is any other reason that could explain this? Will WeChat become the new Facebook of China?

Kai-Fu: WeChat already is the Facebook of China. I think it is more developed for the mobile age. As the mobile age arrived, Facebook’s main challenge has been its web page thinking, which really kept it behind. A number of new technologies, such as WeChat/WhatsApp/Line really have caught Facebook by surprise. They reacted very smartly by buying WhatsApp, which extended the lifetime of their platform. The main pitfall of any technology company is to rest on your laurels. As new technology trend comes, they’re hesitant to catch up the trend as it will cannibalize their leadership in some other space. That was what killed Kodak. With the digital camera – even though they invented it, they wouldn’t put it out. The same thing with Facebook- it has too much invested in the webpage and PC paradigm. When the smart phone came, WeChat actually took a phone-only approach initially. It didn’t even have the backward compatibility for PC and for web pages. That allowed it to move really quickly, catering to only two types of clients: Android and iPhone. WeChat was able to iterate product more quickly, not have to worry about complex situations such as somebody might have two phones. WeChat made it so simple for the user, cutting out edge cases such as nerds who have five or six devices. It just works on one device and it has to be the phone. That was the right away to develop a product. And companies like Facebook and Renren couldn’t really catch up because they had to worry about the interface. This is a trend not just related to social media, as I mentioned with Kodak, IBM, Microsoft, Google…many examples of leaders in a particular era.  As a new technical tidal wave comes, it’s very hard for them to embrace – not because they don’t see it as a tidal wave, but because if they embrace it, they’d have to let go of something they have from the previous tidal wave, of which they rode up and became the leader. That cannibalization is something that is very difficult for a company to accept, and that’s why the giants also have a difficult time remaining to be leaders from era to era. Some exceptions are Apple, which went down and then went back up; Facebook, by buying WhatsApp it extended its life. Google has been able to reinvent a lot of technologies, but that’s the trend overall.

I think WeChat and Facebook are currently very strong. Looking into the future, Twitter and Weibo may be able to come back, if they focus on the media component as their strength, but most likely some new technical tidal wave is likely to come in the next five years or so, it may be the “Internet of things”, with everything connected together; maybe it has to do with a new type of human interface, maybe it’s robotic artificial intelligence…who knows what it is. When the new wave comes, rendering the current wave less relevant, it’s most likely that a new company will become the leader, leaving the likes of Twitter and Facebook behind. It may seem inconceivable to you, but if you look at what happened to Kodak, Microsoft and IBM, you will see that it happens all the time.

JK: Where do you think the industry is going in the next five to ten years?

Kai-Fu: I think there are clearly a few big trends coming: one is the big data, that will allow social media companies to understand much more about its users, monetize them, give them more targeted information and be more helpful to them, introduce them to more proper friends, give them more relevant information…but at the same time, invading their privacy.

We humans don’t just converse in recorded messages and videos. We interact in real world by having each other’s presence. We read and absorb each other’s body languages, so virtual reality potentially promises to make a virtual world that is just as real as the real world. That could potentially take social media to a new level. Once we are wearing wearable devices, and everything becomes smart, such as cars and homes, all those information can be fed into social media and make it smarter. Once it knows where you are, what you are doing, then it’s most likely to give you the information and introduce you to the nearby people in a more relevant way.

JK: Besides the many roles you play, such as venture capitalist, social media influencer, CEO, author, you’re also a father of two millennial daughters. How are you guiding them to use social media? Do you, like other parents, have concerns with the improper use of social media by young people?

Kai-Fu: Regarding my education towards my daughters, they are both adults now, and they will certainly be their own decision maker. I don’t play much of a role in that. When they were younger, I mainly sent them things that I thought would be helpful to them and be of constructive education. I don’t think parents have such strong ability to change or mold the way children absorb information, digest social media or any other information. I think that parents’ responsibility is to make sure that children grow up to be responsible, trustworthy people to the society. I don’t think it’s our role to micro manage what they do or what they read. In terms of social media content, I think just like anything else, there is good content and bad content. Social media on the Internet, just like writings, books and friends, there are good ones and bad ones. Our job as parents is to give them good judgment, not to force feed them. I think the role for any such platforms, social media, books, internet content…I don’t think we can categorically say one type of media is better than another – they merely provide a platform, which has good content and bad content, and any child with a good brain will naturally be attracted to constructive content and get the most value out of it.

JK: Lastly, what advice would you give to college students and young professionals who are interested in social media and digital marketing? 

Kai-Fu: Sure, a couple of suggestions. One is to use social media wisely. Follow people who can give you insights and help move you forward in your thinking. Secondly, look beyond the surface. Don’t just look at the content, think about the structure: the technology waves, how it has come forward and what the future might be; the “one way” versus “two-way” discussion; the China versus US discussion. Lastly, think worldwide. Students in the US tend to think American social media is all there to it, but in fact other countries are developing interesting parallel paradigms, which might give interesting new ideas to entrepreneurship or certainly deeper understanding. For example, WeChat is very different from Facebook, and it’s really important to study that.

Jennie Kang © 2015


  1. Impressive interview, Jennie! he certainly has a very holistic view of social media (which is unsurprising given the amount of experience he’s had with so many different platforms). I like that you touched upon a lot of questions we’ve discussed in class, like how to teach your children how to use social media – and I thought his answer was very poignant. Very much the “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t teach him how to drink” argument. Teach them how social media can be a positive learning experience, and impress upon them the importance of understanding the potential social media can offer, and hope that they’re innate curiosity effects the way that they interact with the site. I thought the message he provides his daughters is very consistent with the message he provides all millennials – one where you should follow people who inspire you and challenge you, and get a more global perspective on the tools that social media offers. Very cool to read, thanks!!!

  2. Hi Jennie, wow, this was a very informative post. I am impressed with Mr. Lee’s experience and his advice. Some of his comments that I found particularly thought provoking had to do with understanding the “waves” of technology. Mr. Lee mentions “it’s most likely that a new company will become the leader, leaving the likes of Twitter and Facebook behind. It may seem inconceivable to you, but if you look at what happened to Kodak, Microsoft and IBM, you will see that it happens all the time.” This comment alone is pretty crazy to think about! We have learned at length about hype cycles and disruptive technologies, and while it may seem unimaginable for long standing, powerful incumbents like Facebook to be completely disrupted, Mr. Fu is pretty convincing when he talks about “new technical tidal waves.” I really enjoyed Mr. Fu’s use of specific company examples in both the US and China to highlight some of his points. His advice on staying global is so important, especially with regards to social, evolving giants in China. Finally, his comments about “Structure” and understanding the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ is so relevant to some of the themes we have discussed in class. Overall, this blog interview provided a comprehensive, real life view of so many critical topics we have discussed this semester.

  3. Very insightful post Jennie! Thank you for taking the time to do this and write it all down to share with us. I have never heard of this man but obviously he is a great in social media right now. There are some great takeaways including: companies must put the customer first with social media by only posting value-add ideas, people would rather follow people instead of companies and Facebook’s lag within the mobile sphere. This last point was particularly interesting, as Mark Zuckerberg talks a great deal about Facebook becoming a home for entrepreneurs. He is all about buying small and large companies to constantly bring in entrepreneurial talent; yet, I think he does not understand his own demise is that he is funneling this talent into his baby, which is the Facebook webpage. It is not only about working hard, it is about working hard in the right way.

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