Wu Xinhong is founder an CEO of Meitu Inc., which (according to the jury of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year China 2017 awards) "changed the way people create and share beauty and made taking selfies a cultural phenomenon through a series of innovative and powerful apps and devices". We sat down with him to discuss the opportunities and challenges for aspiring entrepreneurs in China.
Meitu Inc. was established in 2008. After three years of idea conceptualisation, Meitu launched its first mobile app on 14 February 2011. Since then, riding on the exponential growth of smartphone users in China, Meitu’s suite of apps, which include MeituPic and BeautyPlus, have been activated on more than 1.1 billion unique smartphones. Currently, more than 80% of Meitu’s users come from the Greater China region. However, Mr. Wu believes Meitu’s growth opportunities are still abundant in the global scene. Developing countries such as Indonesia and India are at the top of his list to expand Meitu’s presence as market saturation and intense competition in developed nations limit growth opportunities.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered while building Meitu? How have you tackled them?
Wu Xinhong: “The first major challenge we have encountered was between 2008 and 2010, when Meitu planned to launch the mobile version of MeituPic (called Meitu xiuxiu in China). iPhone 1 was released in 2007. We realised that smartphones were becoming a mega–trend. However, we could not find engineers specialised in iOS and Android development, as Meitu is located in Xiamen, a city with a relatively small talent pool. Therefore, the mobile version of MeituPic has remained an idea for over two years. MeituPic’s first mobile version was officially launched on 14 February 2011, the Valentines’ Day. From idea conceptualisation in 2009 to the official launch in 2011, it took us three years. Luckily, the smartphone has remained a niche market product until 2011.
In 2011, smartphone users grew exponentially. Meitu grabbed and leveraged on this opportunity. Nevertheless, we believe that it could have turned out to be even better if the product had been launched earlier, since optimal user experience could only be achieved through constant product optimisation and upgrade.
The second challenge we face is the current one: migrate the Meitu suite of apps into a platform and materialise the commercialisation of our product chain.”
What makes Meitu stand out from its peers?
“We pay great attention to young users and value their needs and preferences. As students, they think and behave differently from the rest of us who have joined the workforce. Back in 2007, I developed a Martian Translator, many of its users were post 90s who were considered the ‘non–mainstream’ then. In 2008, we launched MeituPic, targeting young users who were born after the 1990s. Today, we see the boom in demand from the post–00 users who are to turn into the mainstream. Therefore, we value their needs and preferences.”
What products has Meitu launched globally? Has Meitu initiated internationalisation procedures?
“We have successfully launched some products globally. BeautyPlus, the global version of BeautyCam (called 美顏相機 in Chinese), is used by over 100 million users globally. India is one of Meitu’s biggest overseas markets. Meitu’s applications are popular among Japanese users too. Step by step, we will launch the global version of all major products. We have set up offices in seven countries and regions outside China, namely Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Japan and the US. The overseas representative offices focus on products localisation and business development.”
What is the key message from your experience that you want to share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
“I would think of two terms which are of crucial importance to me: one is ‘unpredictable’ and the other is ‘anatta’. In an ever–evolving marketplace with ever–changing user demographics, we need to be open–minded and flexible to embrace all the changes. Entrepreneurs need to embrace the changes with a positive mind–set, since changes might be good or bad. When you are running a business, you tend to be self–centred and make decisions by yourself. However, as the company grows, personal influence and energy is not enough to ensure effective communication with each and every person, therefore, there’s a need for decentralisation in order to ensure effective communication within the company. ‘Anatta’, or selfless, can make you see things from others’ perspective, for example, that of the users, colleagues or partners. These two points are really important.
The future development of Meitu cannot solely rely on my own efforts. I need to step back, and transform Meitu into a platform and consequently it would enter into an elevated platform which requires more support. I hope that products can be made efficiently, with each colleague doing their own job. The products are handled by their own project teams.”
Do you feel the current market environment in China is supportive for young entrepreneurs like you?
“A huge opportunity has arisen in China at the moment: the state is encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation. This is an extremely good thing. It has been more than 15 years since I started my own business. We saw unprecedented level of support for innovation from the government. You will find that the entire chain is increasingly improved and becoming more mature, which is a fantastic historical opportunity. China’s Internet industry is booming, which renders a great help to entrepreneurs. In the past, it was pretty difficult for a product to reach out to 1 billion users within a day. However, now with WeChat, good things can go viral instantly. It might be a fun game, or a good film. Good things can become a hit and make headline instantly, which means that in a very mature market, as long as you can come out with a good product, you then have the leverage to quickly reach out to more users in a well–established platform. It’s not like before when products lacked distribution channels.”
What challenges are there in the market?
“At present, some oligarchies have already formed in China. If one has not joined their system, it is very hard to quickly get the needed resources. In China, we have magnates like BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). Their presence is seen in almost every arena. This could turn out to be quite a challenge for start–ups.”
Julius Baer Wealth Report: Asia
This story was first published in the Julius Baer Wealth Report: Asia October 2016 edition.