Pony Ma used to dream of being an astronomer when he was a child. Instead, he went into cyberspace and became a master of China’s online universe after creating the world’s sixth-biggest technology company, Tencent.
With a panache for avoiding the spotlight, the 46-year-old is the complete opposite of his namesake and rival, Jack Ma, the gregarious founder of Alibaba. They only thing they have in common is that they are both dreamers.
“When I was little, I wanted to be an astronomer, but that didn’t happen,” he was quoted as saying in the Chinese-language media. “Now, I wake up each morning, and I worry that I don’t understand future mainstream habits.”
So far, his judgment has been tinged with clairvoyant clarity. In Tencent, he has built not just a company but an all-consuming corporate conglomerate, which generated US$23 billion in revenue last year.
Since it was founded in 1998, the group has morphed into China’s version of Facebook, Apple Pay and Twitter rolled into one, with massive gaming and entertainment divisions at the heart of its operations.
All this is underpinned by WeChat, a social media and payment app, which has nearly one billion monthly users. On average, they spend one and half hours each day on this hybrid Facebook and Twitter application.
Numbers like these helped boost third-quarter sales last year by 61% to 65.2 billion yuan ($9.8 billion), fueled by advertising and the hit online game Honor of Kings.
They have also turned Tencent into the first Asian company to be valued at more than $500 billion, joining an “exclusive club” of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google’s Alphabet.
But while the organization is high-profile, Ma has made an art of disappearing under the radar of publicity, even though he is worth $47.6 billion, according to Forbes.
“He is a typical Teochew man,” a Tencent employee told the Nikkei Asian Review, referring to his “boss’” birthplace in Shantou on the eastern coast of southern Guangdong province. “He keeps his passion inside and does not show his feelings openly.”
After spending his childhood in Hainan province, Ma moved with his family to Shenzhen when he was a teenager and majored in computer science at Shenzhen University in the early 1990s.
By 1998, he had set up what would become a business empire with four university friends and clinched his first major deal after Tencent rolled out the instant messaging service known as QQ.
It was while working on the project that he met his future wife, Wang Danting. “I met her through QQ but she didn’t know who I was,” Ma recalled. “I only told her I was an engineer at the time.”
QQ became an instant hit and by 2002 it had 100 million registered users. Today, that figure has mushroomed to 843 million.
All of a sudden, the Ma legend was starting to take shape with the company quickly developing from a precocious child to a boisterous adolescent before turning into an industrial giant.
In 2004, the tech firm was listed in Hong Kong and since then its stock has jumped by more than 2,600%.
Of course, along with the other BAT companies of Baidu and Alibaba, Tencent has had one lucky break, a lack of serious overseas competition in its domestic market.
Facebook, Google and Twitter are blocked in China, while Netflix has just broken into the market. The FAANG group of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google would love nothing more than to dine on BAT. But they might be in for a long wait.
“Look at Microsoft, Google and Facebook,” Ma has been quoted as saying on social media. “They have all entered many sectors, and actually, in many of those sectors, they weren’t as early as Tencent.”
A key area of his digital dynasty is a vast online databank, reported to be the largest in the world, and mined through WeChat. One critic of Ma’s cozy relationship with Beijing, the dissident Hu Jia, has called it “the monitoring weapon in your pocket”, the Financial Times reported last month.
A member of the National People’s Congress, the Tencent chairman and CEO is not one to stray into murky political waters and is always on message with China’s Communist Party.
“Follow our Party . . . Start your business” he has advocated. “[But] there should be order, if the development of the cyber world is to be sustainable.”
These are phrases which would have delighted President Xi Jinping and China’s State Council.
Still, there is no denying Ma’s business acumen. Colleagues say he is tough and can be ruthless when it comes to key decisions. Internally, he has put together teams to work against each other on the same project.
This was how WeChat was created, company insiders have revealed. Yet Ma is also willing to roll up his sleeves and spend hours “writing lines of code”, according to the FT.
“At Tencent, we are still chasing our IT, our science,” he has said. “We are still striving to create something cool, trying to create things we couldn’t even imagine without our new technologies. I am still clinging to this enthusiasm.”
As the group expands, so does Ma’s ambition to turn it into a global powerhouse with Southeast Asia seen as a key battleground with Alibaba and the posse of technology blue-chips from the United States.
Tencent has already been granted an e-payment license in Malaysia for local transactions, which will increase WeChat Pay’s foreign footprint. Other deals in the region are believed to be in the pipeline, company insiders have pointed out.
Continuous growth is also part of Ma’s elaborate plan. “The leader of the market today may not necessarily be the leader tomorrow,” he has said on social media. “You need to have extraordinary wisdom to be the forerunner.”
Indeed, “wisdom” is the name of Ma’s game, which he plays with consummate ease, without creating a ripple of publicity.