Changing faces: Li Tao aims bigger with Apus Group following Qihoo success
He's one year shy of 40, but LI TAO has already played a pivotal role in shaping a company that boasts more than a billion users of its products - Qihoo 360 Technology.
As a vice-president of the Chinese internet giant, Li focused on overseas expansion but left last year to launch his own start-up - the Apus Group -focused on creating applications for the Android platform. He's already attracted US$100 million in financial backing, but as he tells the Post's WU NAN, he's only getting started.
Why did you decide to found the company?
In the next 10 to 20 years, the global economy will be driven by the hi-tech industry. China and the US will dominate the marketplace, but emerging markets will also be important players. Over the past 30 years most hi-tech patents were from the US and Europe, but in the next 30 years the US and China will be the global leaders, but with different roles. The United States will continue to lead technological innovation, while more business models will emerge in China, where there will be the most tech manufacturing. Right now, half of the world's population use smartphones. Only one billion can afford an iPhone. There's a gap to be filled in which two billion people might choose to use an Android smartphone. That's where we see our opportunities as we need to serve Android smartphone users. We understand that the American business culture tends to make standardised products instead of customising them for foreign users' special needs. That's where we can serve global customers and meet their demands - from a different culture, language and way of thinking.
What did your time at Qihoo 360 teach you?
Within a few years, I had helped the 360 Mobile Security and 360 Mobile Assistant products attract one billion users. In April, 2013, I focused on building the Brazilian branch of Qihoo, and I met a lot of challenges because it is a complicated system within a big company like that. Many Chinese enterprises have had problems when going abroad because there were so many conflicting opinions inside their companies. I have seen the enormous markets overseas. The question is: how to pursue them? One personal observation I had in Brazil inspired me. I stayed in a local hotel in October, 2013 and met a bellhop. At that time he was using a basic phone. But last March, I went there and he had already bought a smartphone. Change in Brazil comes so fast you just have to grab the opportunities.
Why would you rather focus on foreign markets than the domestic one?
The domestic market is like a red hot sea. It is too competitive. Foreign markets, though, are a vast blue ocean. China will no doubt become the largest digital product manufacturer to serve the global market in the future. Before Chinese giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent rose in 2004, large US and European companies dominated the Chinese market. The Chinese internet industry later blossomed. Among the 1.4 billion in China's population, 800 million were using the internet by last year. The number of mobile internet users is still growing, but overall the market for smartphone users is getting saturated. That's why we need to go abroad. It is a new trend that has emerged for Chinese internet companies since late last year.
How has APUS attracted so many users so quickly?
We understand what Android smartphone users need exactly. The development of the hardware and software is much faster than for Apple's iPhone, but Android's user experience is not as good as the iPhone. The Android system operates very slowly; it crashes often and its user interface is very complicated. Most Chinese companies including Qihoo 360 and Cheetah Mobile are offering similar Android solutions by adding patches when the system encounters problems. It's like when glass is broken and even if you try to glue it back together, it's still broken. We adopt a totally different strategy by redesigning the operating system. Based on users' needs, we launched several functions including a launcher, booster, cleaner, search and smart folder. We try to make them as simple and fast as possible for different Android smartphones. Because Android smartphones with 256MB of RAM are a lot cheaper, many people are still using them. Many Android apps are too large for such models. At Apus, we believe that everyone has an equal right to get access to smart devices just as they breathe air for free. Our goal is to ensure everyone can use our services.
APUS Group is involved in a legal dispute with Cheetah Mobile over allegations of copyright infringement and defamation and libel. How should Chinese companies compete with each other when heading overseas?
Cheetah has attempted to intimidate us in a PR war by using baseless legal threats. We're an innovative start-up and looking forward to our mission to deliver the best user experience for a global audience. The last thing we want is to engage in a war of hollow words. However, we will consider defending our legitimate interests through the proper legal channels. Today, we live in a critical era with the spotlight on China's internet industry as it expands overseas. I believe it's in the best interest of today's Chinese internet companies, regardless of size or scope, to support one another in the development of the best global products and services that will shed a positive light on our competitiveness around the world.