Using AI-powered simultaneous translation, Dr. Charles Chen Yidan, co-founder of Tencent and a CIS Governor, candidly shared his personal story with the graduating Class of 2018.
Dear CIS students, distinguished parents and teachers, my fellow governors,
Today, I feel extremely happy. I am greatly honored to be your commencement speaker, and like so many of you, I am deeply proud as a father. My son Simon is among the class of graduates here today. Like all parents, I am witnessing my child's next step. From crying babies to teenagers taller than us, from diapers to diplomas, we have nurtured their growth. Please join me in a round of applause, for both our children and ourselves.
As a school governor, I know very well that this class of graduates endured a daunting year of leadership transition. Yet the school has continued to achieve sound and steady development. Led by the Interim Head of School, the leadership team and CIS faculty have done a remarkable job. Let us show our gratitude for the teachers and their outstanding efforts with another round of applause.
Today, I will make my speech in Chinese, my mother tongue. This should not pose a problem for CIS graduates, with their bilingual education. However, for the benefit of non-Chinese-speaking parents and teachers, I have also arranged for simultaneous translation into English using AI-powered "Tencent Simultaneous Interpretation", developed by Tencent "Wechat iHearing" and "Mr. Translator".
When it comes to my work as a governor, my English is not that fluent, so before each board meeting, it takes considerable time for me to translate the meeting materials into Chinese and prepare what I want to say in English. This is no easy task for a new governor. Fortunately, my fellow governors with their wholehearted devotion to CIS have been a positive influence and I've been moved by their kind consideration in helping me. It has been incredibly motivational to work with my fellow governors -- so busy with their own work yet still so willing to make their collective contribution to our children and to the school community.
I became a CIS governor because my wife encouraged me to. She said, that now that you are devoting yourself to the public good and to education, loving people near to you can also be a good deed. You can do something for the people nearest to you.
Her words immediately took me back twenty years, to the time in 1998 when my college classmates and I founded Tencent. My wife and I were newly married. The Internet industry was uncharted territory. The future was unknowable. Giving up a stable job with the civil service to start a business would mean a lot of uncertainty in our lives, yet my wife encouraged me all the same:
She said, "It's okay. I still have a salary."
Twenty years ago, the Asian financial crisis had thrown everything into turmoil. For a newly formed small company like ours, with a registered capital of only CNY 500,000, our daily struggle was to start up and survive.
Now when we talk about pagers, it's like talking about something from the age of dinosaurs – a once-flourishing species now completely wiped out. At the time, paging was one of the most profitable industries, and the Internet was just emerging. Our company's entrepreneurial idea was to combine the two industries and use the Internet, instead of traditional paging centers, to send and receive paging messages. We developed an online paging system and sold it to well-funded paging stations.
In the beginning, our business model was to sell software systems and solutions. We had customers across the country, in Shenzhen, Beijing and even Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province. Thanks to their orders, our small team gradually found its footing. However, what we did not realize was that we were standing on a sinking ship. At first, we had big orders worth CNY 500,000, then one year later, things took a sudden turn for the worse: With the advent of mobile phones, the profits of paging centers across the country plummeted, and one by one, they started to close down. The market was stagnant. It was increasingly difficult for us to get orders, and our engineering fees also dropped from CNY 500,000 to CNY 100,000, to CNY 50,000. Finally, we stopped charging for engineering and just tried to collect some modest service and maintenance fees. But things still weren't good.
We soon realized we were in the wrong industry. We had to jump ship if we wanted to survive. Back then, our daily working capital was extremely tight. Our biggest monthly expenses were office rent and salaries. Without income, our days were numbered. To save money, my co-founders and I decided that the first thing to do was to cut our own salaries down to 2,000 yuan per month, so that we could keep paying our staff their salaries of 5,000 yuan of month. At the same time, we began to provide Internet technology solutions other than Internet paging. Order by order, we did anything to keep up a tiny income stream. We even did basic web design for companies – anything that would bring in a little income.
Even during these extremely hard times, we maintained a calm and positive outlook. The critical piece was that our families gave us a lot of support. We weren't under pressure to feed our families through this business. We were starting this company simply because it brought us happiness.
Among our products was an Internet instant messaging technology solution called "OICQ", later renamed "QQ". It was a technical solution we developed for a tender bid. However, during the bidding and negotiating process, we started to operate QICQ, and users kept increasing. We were still negotiating a price with the buyer and could not seal the deal. At the same time, with more and more users, we needed more money to purchase servers. At the time, venture capital was still new in China. Outside of China, instant messaging software ICQ was receiving a valuation based on its number of users. Could our instant messaging software get a VC valuation on the same basis?
Long story short, people did see investment potential in us. But still that didn't mean that on a cash flow basis, we could hold out operationally. Nervously, we founders braced ourselves and upped our company capital to CNY 1 million, trying to hold out until the first round of VC investment was completed.
QQ was growing faster and faster, but the cost of servers and R&D was also increasing by leaps and bounds. It was easy to predict that the first round of VC funding would soon be used up. This was all happening at the same that the Internet bubble burst in 2000. A small number of Internet companies were lucky enough to be acquired just in time, but many start-ups closed down.
Even during this dark and stressful period, we kept our cool and just focused on attracting new investment and developing our business model. We were never desperate. We just kept diligently plugging away, carefully testing and retesting every project.
A good attitude and good partners got us through that difficult stage. We began to turn a profit, we got new strategic investors, and in 2004 after being profitable three years in a row, we met the requirements to be listed on the Hong Kong Main Board.....
What came next is I believe a familiar story that many people have seen, from QQ, online platforms, WeChat, to the Internet-plus...... From the outside, the past 20 years of Tencent history may look unstoppable and inevitable. Only those of us on the inside fully know the hard times of an entrepreneur. Science and technology develop at such an alarmingly fast rate, one misstep and we could fall off the rails. Every step of the way is like walking on thin ice.
The most beautiful thing about running a business is that you can witness your products and services seamlessly integrate into people's lives, just as long ago water and electricity did. We have changed society's patterns, and now, through Internet philanthropy, are using science and technology to help even more people. We worked incredibly hard, and during those beautiful years of our youth, had the chance to work with amazing people to do what we loved most. We have been fortunate to ride this great wave of the Internet's development.
Dear students, you are standing on the threshold of university. Twenty-nine years ago, I was a freshman in the Department of Chemistry of Shenzhen University. I studied chemistry not because I liked all those tubes and flasks in the lab, but because I failed the Chinese essay portion of the college entrance examination, leaving me no other choice. When I received my offer, I was devastated.
All of you here are excellent students, so you may never know my feelings of disappointment back then....By the way, let me ask: when was the last time any of you felt hungry....truly famished? If there is anyone here who has had the experience of feeling hungry, but unable to find anything to eat, please raise your hand.
Whether we're talking about disappointment or hunger, these are all negative experiences in our lives. I am not suggesting you should seek out experiences of discomfort. Rather, it's an unavoidable fact of life that we will face dark hours in our lives. In those bleak moments, if you approach things with a willing attitude, you will know how to face things, and it will be that much easier for you to make the right choice.
After I entered the department of chemistry, I quickly adjusted my attitude and decided to spend more time on student service programs. Then fate rewarded me with an amazing surprise: through these programs, I met my girlfriend, the love of my life, who later became both my wife and Simon's mother.
One year ago, Simon and I went to the US to visit potential universities and colleges for him. I followed along behind him, carrying our heavy suitcases. However, Simon didn't seem appreciative. He didn't say much, didn't eat much, just buried himself in playing games on his mobile phone. I was so miserable and unhappy that every night I would WeChat video call my wife to ask for advice. With a few comforting words, I'd pick up again the next day, carrying our heavy luggage and following Simon on his journey.
I hope Simon doesn't mind my telling these anecdotes. To be honest, I am grateful for that unforgettable school trip. You were learning to adjust at your own pace, while we as parents were growing along with you. Companionship is the best form of education. Just like that, father and son, the two of us strolling down the road. I think these kinds of experience are life's best moments.
Nurturing children is a matter of being with them day in and day out, over countless breakfasts and dinners. Better that we slow down, put aside our own anxieties and utilitarian motives, and simply savor all the seemingly meaningless little moments.
Being a student who failed the college entrance examination but thus met the love of his life; being an entrepreneur who battled with his partners in the Internet jungle; being a school governor who speaks broken English yet feels cheerful at heart; being a father who follows behind his son carrying heavy suitcase.....all of these are the unique experiences of life, and this is the story I want to tell today.
Life is an experience. From the time we're born until the time we die, life is the accumulation of varied experiences. You can't really know what love or entrepreneurship feels like unless you've actually experienced it. How big your company is, how much money you have, and how successful you are...these are how the world sees you. But I believe that what really matters is your own inner experience -- all that you feel, all that you come to realize, all that you create in your life depends on this.
The wonderful surprises and high moments of life, like today's graduation ceremony, are fleeting. Life is a long journey, full of twists and turns and uncertainty. It requires a long view and endurance, and cannot be accomplished without a positive outlook and loyal friends. For all of you here today, you might find yourselves from time to time in competition with each other, but to a much greater extent, you are friends first and foremost, and quite likely, you will find that you become good partners on the road ahead.
Once again, congratulations! As you graduate from high school, you are about to embark on your wondrous college years, full of bright possibilities. No matter how fast technology develops or how powerful it becomes, it cannot replace your own unique life experiences. So, embrace your experiences with an open heart and mind, and let in all the amazing new things that will help you discover who you really are and what you are truly capable of. See the world, meet more people, get to know more about this thing called life.
Life is an experience. Cherish it with a positive attitude and good partners.