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China technology

Wang Xing: the graduate school dropout behind China’s Meituan Dianping meal-delivery empire

Despite a series of early setbacks, internet entrepreneur Wang Xing has managed to build what is now considered as China’s leading on-demand services platform – Meituan Dianping

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 6:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 6:40am

Wang Xing, the co-founder of Meituan Dianping, credits the success of Facebook in the US more than a decade ago for inspiring him to drop out of graduate school and become an entrepreneur, which put him on a winding path to create China’s leading e-commerce platform for services.

Meituan, which raised US$4.2 billion in Hong Kong’s second-biggest tech-related initial public offering this year, has lifted Wang’s net worth to US$5.3 billion as of Thursday based on his 11 per cent stake in the company, some 14 years after abandoning his pursuit of a PhD in computer engineering at the University of Delaware, where he studied from 2001 to 2004.

While that IPO has made Wang one of China’s newly minted tech billionaires, the journey is said to have been long and hard for Meituan’s 39-year-old chairman and chief executive and his colleagues, according to a recent report by the South China Morning Post.

A Meituan spokeswoman did not reply to requests made weeks ago for an interview with Wang.

His father, Wang Miao, was a successful businessman who owned a cement factory in the city of Longyan in the southwestern province of Fujian. A wealthy upbringing, however, had no bearing in the younger Wang’s drive to succeed, according to his father in an interview several years ago with Chinese business magazine Caijing.

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“Wang Xing’s choice to start a company on his own was definitely not for the money,” his father said. “He is earnest and dedicated. I hope he can do something that will benefit society.”

When he returned to Beijing in 2004, Wang rented a flat near his alma mater, Tsinghua University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering in 2001.

His initial social network projects did not take off. These included Duoduoyou, which means “many friends”, and Youzitu that targeted overseas Chinese students.

The third time looked like the charm for Wang when real-name social network Xiaonei, which translates to “within the campus,” went live in 2005. It swiftly accumulated tens of thousands of users in a short period, echoing Facebook’s strong early adoption at Harvard University and other campuses in the US.

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But as an inexperienced entrepreneur, Wang encountered funding problems. That led him to sell Xiaonei to Chen Yizhou, the chairman of internet company China InterActive Corp, for US$2 million a year later.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end,” Wang wrote in his blog at the time, with a nod to the late British prime minister Winston Churchill. “But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Xiaonei was renamed by its owner to Renren, which means “everyone” in Chinese. Renren, which was widely considered as the Facebook of China, raised US$740 million when its was listed on Nasdaq in 2011.

Wang pushed forward with another social network project that was inspired by the success of microblog Twitter in 2006. The following year, Wang launched his Twitter-like social network called Fanfou, which translates to “have you eaten”.

Within two years, Fanfou had accumulated millions of users. The government, however, ordered the shutdown of Fanfou in 2009 in light of posts on the microblog that discussed the series of violent riots over several days in Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in northwestern China.

Several months after Fanfou’s shutdown, Chinese online media company Sina Corp launched another Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo. Alibaba Group Holding, the parent company of the Post, owns 32 per cent of the popular Chinese microblog, which was listed on Nasdaq in 2014.

Fanfou was subsequently opened, but has suspended new user registrations. Wang remains a heavy blogger on Fanfou, having written more than 13,000 posts. It is a platform where his reflections swing from philosophical to humorous.

“You’ll have all the questions when you think about something, but you’ll get the answer when you do it,” Wang said in one post. In another post, he wrote: “I should take a laptop for meetings. I’ll open it and place it in the front, so as to add supplementary lighting for my face.”

One time he wrote a New Year’s resolution on Fanfou. “I need to gain one skill this year – not be to recognised as a housing agent when I wear a black suit.”

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Wang continued developing projects, despite his initial setbacks. He introduced group-buying platform Meituan in 2010 amid the success of Groupon in the US. Backed by internet giant Tencent Holdings, it has expanded to become China’s biggest platform for on-demand services, including food delivery, after a merger with Dianping, which started out as a Yelp-like restaurant review site.

The Beijing-based company represents the growth of what is called in industry parlance the online-to-offline, or O2O, market in China, where it connects consumers with merchants through its app and helps dispatch the order with an army of delivery men and women. Meituan operates in 2,800 cities and counties in China and competes primarily with Alibaba’s in on-demand delivery and in hotel bookings.

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Wang, called by Meituan staff as “Big Brother Xing”, has built the company that now runs the world’s largest food-delivery service with his wife, Guo Wanhuai, and old Tsinghua roommate Wang Huiwen by his side since the development of Xiaonei, according to several Meituan employees interviewed by the Post. They said Wang and Guo’s desks are arranged side-by-side at Meituan’s open space-designed headquarters in Beijing.

At the company’s IPO roadshow in Hong Kong earlier this month, a black suit-clad Wang confidently told investors that Meituan “will be an indispensable part of Chinese people’s lives and it’ll help Chinese eat better and live better”.