'We sat for 20 minutes … and got 1.5m yuan': Victor Zhou, creator of zhihu.com, on his path to success
Creator of question-and-answer website Zhihu reveals path to success
It took a few false starts before Victor Zhou, 34, discovered the idea that made him famous. After studying computer science at university, Zhou worked to build databases and websites but grew frustrated and switched to reporting for an IT magazine, which allowed him to meet entrepreneurs leading the internet revolution. But being so close to the action also proved frustrating. He had been intrigued by websites like Quora, where users pose and answer questions, and hatched an idea for a similar site in Chinese that aroused the interest of an investor. In 2011, he and his partners launched Zhihu.com which now has more than 50 million monthly active users.
Did you always know you would run your own businesses?
Fourteen years ago, I was at university studying computer science and I did have the thought. I remember reading an article in an American magazine on how a programmer wrote a piece of software that burned mp3 files onto a regular compact disc, and he made tens of thousands of US dollars a month, quickly allowing him to buy a BMW. So I realised coding and product design could actually be a really cool dream. Most computer science undergraduates were interested in playing games and watching pointless online videos at the time. I tried my hand at a Microsoft developer network and got to meet a few skilled programmers. We worked together to build a website for the university faculty, and also put out adverts for our service to help other students build their own computers. We spent 15 days building the website, and also sold 14 computers. My heart still gets excited every time I think about that time.
You were a reporter at one time. How did that come about?
I was bored with my job as a programmer with a Canadian research and development centre based in Shanghai in 2004. The next year I was at home flipping through a copy of an IT magazine, which predicted several disruptive technologies which would bring about commercial revolutions. I was enthralled. Just as I felt I was getting further away from my initial dream, this article pulled me back again. So I quit my job, and went to Beijing.
So why did you leave journalism?
After about two years I realised the job wasn't what I wanted. One reason was that I could discover, interview, write and publish, but I could never test the subject matter - I wasn't the person making things happen.
How did the idea for Zhihu.com emerge?
I was struck by a new product at the time called Quora. The way it created and disseminated information through questions and answers was innovative. A partner of mine asked me one day: "If we had the funds, could you build a team and make this product?" I said yes. Shortly afterwards, the partner called and said he had been in contact with an angel investor, and we had to put together a business plan that afternoon, so we could meet the investor at 9pm. We sat down for just 20 minutes, and were told we got the funding. We received 1.5 million yuan in investment the next day.
How did it go at the start?
Zhihu began as a closed platform which allowed only those who were invited to ask or answer questions, and more than 8,000 questions were raised in the first 40 days of our trial run. Several months into our formal launch the demand was still very strong. Some were even selling their place on our website through Taobao for 120 yuan each, and they were snapped up. People on the site began to urge us to seize the frenzy and open the platform to the public, but we realised there were some problems. Some users were not friendly, others gave nonsense replies. I thought Zhihu needed to build enough good users before the time was ripe for an open platform. We opened the platform up in March last year, and the number of registered users soared from 400,000 to four million, and monthly active users jumped from two million to 35 million. We now have close to seven million registered users, and more than 50 million monthly active users.
What is the state of entrepreneurship among the young in China?
The drive of young people to run their own business is remarkable. In cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Chengdu , start-up hangouts are sprouting up. They look like regular coffee shops but they provide the entire gamut of services for new businesses, like loans, incubators, legal consultancy, hiring services, design, public relations and publishing. I remember our company used to hang a pirate flag over our cubicles because we were inspired by Steve Jobs, who did the same thing after returning to Apple, telling his team: "It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." In the same way, we wanted to do away with the fixed boundaries and think using the most extreme perspective.