Ordinary people, extraordinary life (Part IV): Hu Sen

(Video and text) With the advent of the Internet age, new opportunities opened up in the tech field for those daring enough to seize them. This is the story of one who made that decision.
Hu Sen wanted to study and be a researcher or university professor, and had no intention of starting a business. In the end, he left Yale and became an entrepreneur. (Photo: Lim Zhan Ting)
Hu Sen wanted to study and be a researcher or university professor, and had no intention of starting a business. In the end, he left Yale and became an entrepreneur. (Photo: Lim Zhan Ting)

From 1949 to 2019, China underwent a tremendous transformation. The historical events of the past 70 years have left no Chinese person untouched. The ups and downs of lives that are easily overlooked can serve as leads for fleshing out a broader narrative – one that runs from the establishment of the PRC through the Chinese economic reform and on to the new era beyond.

Looking back on the past, these people were the witnesses of history who experienced it firsthand. Looking ahead, they are the ones who drive and create the future.

Here are the stories of five ordinary Chinese as a retrospective survey of the last seven decades of change – the greater story of China as told by individuals amongst generations of its people.

Hu Sen: Why I abandoned Yale and the USA

As I push open the door to MetaApp, a Chinese gaming platform, I wonder if I have walked into an all-night Internet cafe by mistake. 

Occupying a 600-square-meter open office space in Beijing’s Guochuang Industrial Park, the MetaApp office is full of young people in their early 20s, many with messy hair, neck pillows, and tired faces. I notice a treadmill, two folding beds, lots of snacks, and a refrigerator filled with drinks. 

The founder and CEO of MetaApp, Hu Sen, explains that most of his employees are ’90s kids, many even born in the late 1990s. This lot works hard, which makes it important for the company to look after their welfare. 

Hu Sen, 32, is neither a scion (fu’erdai, 富二代), nor from a family of officials (guanerdai, 官二代). He started from scratch in the tech field, doing everything from providing technical solutions for video websites to developing live Internet products, to operating gaming platforms. Through three startups, Hu Sen has not only achieved personal financial freedom, but has also created more than 100 jobs. He modestly attributes his achievements to timing and luck.

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Hu Sen on his first day of primary school in 1993. (Photo: Hu Sen)

The huge domestic market was right in front of us

Hu Sen says the turning point for him came when he left Yale University to go home and start a business. 

With the 2009 financial crisis, many American universities slashed budgets for scholarships for international students. As the top student in computer science at the China University of Science and Technology, Hu Sen was awarded a full scholarship to Yale.

The GRE, also known as the "Red Treasure Book", was the must-have vocabulary textbook for university students 20 years ago. Hu Sen remembers carrying it around in the China University of Science and Technology. “It carried my youth and my dreams.”

“I could either go abroad or start work within the system,” he says. “Before going to Yale, I never wanted to start a business. I just wanted to study hard to become a researcher or a university professor.” 

Laughing at his own idealism, he says, “My dream was to earn 3,000 RMB a month (equivalent to less than $600 SGD). A hundred yuan a day would suffice.” 

Focused as he was on that goal, he missed the feelers that Chinese telecom giant Huawei put out at the time. “As I neared graduation, Huawei went from dorm to dorm handing out snacks, persuading everyone to submit a resume.” After a pause, he adds, “That shows how students are disconnected from society.” Huawei’s phones had started to enter the global market in 2009. 

But Yale changed his mind. In 2010, while reading a blog, Hu Sen discovered that server bandwidth costs for Chinese video websites were higher than their ratio of the operating expenses for American video website operators, resulting in huge losses for operators in China. 

“This huge domestic market demand was right in front of us. All we needed was the technical solutions.” Just thinking of leaving his studies, Hu Sen could not eat or sleep for days. “It was hard to give up Yale.” 

Hu Sen is not just being modest. In 2010, things were not looking good for China’s Internet entrepreneurs. Giants such as Alibaba and Tencent did not even crack the list of China’s top 500 enterprises and private businesses. And in the McCoth employment report, video-related animation, computer technology, and other related professions were listed as red card lines, the lowest category on the list.

I am a top young entrepreneur

Hu Sen’s family and friends could not understand why he would give up a safe path and bright future to start a business. His parents were particularly worried. “My parents assumed that I had become frustrated studying abroad, and that I was just too embarrassed to tell them.”

A "one-child" certificate stating that Hu Sen is an only child. In January 1987, his parents applied for the one-child certificate, representing a commitment to the state not to have more children, and received a monthly subsidy of five yuan (about $1) from the state until he was 14 years old. The one-child certificate became obsolete with the implementation of the second child policy in 2016. (Photo: Hu Sen)

In the end, the desire for success and wealth was too much to resist. Hu Sen and his roommate, formerly from Tsinghua University, decided to leave school and start their own business. He admits, “The first time you start a business, you don’t have much confidence. You’ve chosen to leave school because you want a way out, and you also have to convince your parents of your decision.”

“As you earn more, each time you start another business, your tolerance for failure is higher, you become bolder, and you have the courage to take on new challenges.”

Back in China in May 2011, Hu Sen and his business partner set up Yancheng Interactive Network Technology Co. Ltd. in Qingdao, Shandong Province. He saved more than US$100 million (S$138 million) in bandwidth costs each year for users of Youku, Sohu, Tencent, and other systems, earning him his first fortune. A year later, at age 25, Hu Sen and his team developed Fengyun Zhibo to earn IDG’s first round of financing of US$2 million, followed by Morningside Venture Capital’s $10 million in Series B Financing.

“As you earn more, each time you start another business, your tolerance for failure is higher, you become bolder, and you have the courage to take on new challenges,” observes Hu Sen. 

In 2012, China’s tide of entrepreneurship began to surge. The emergence of China’s domestic smartphones, led by Xiaomi, opened up a technological space for entrepreneurship. In the post-BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) era, Didi and Toutiao, two parts of the trio TMD (Toutiao, Meituan, and Didi Chuxing), were successfully established.

Along with the increase in Internet companies, today there are millions of Chinese graduates, mainly born in the ’90s, entering the job market. These Internet natives not only fill Internet-related jobs, but are also the leading consumers of Internet products. The Chinese Internet industry is buzzing with this new army of Internet users. 

In 2014, the Chinese government leveraged this momentum to set off a nationwide upsurge in Internet entrepreneurship. At the opening of the 2014 Davos Forum, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed a new wave of “mass entrepreneurship” and “grassroots entrepreneurship” on 9.6 million square kilometers of land, with the central government publishing at least 22 documents in support of entrepreneurship between May 2013 and 2015. 

While it may be said that China’s first generation of Internet entrepreneurs - those born in the ’60s and ’70s - did not exactly make waves, they at least provided a good base for learning. It was the creatives born in the ’80s who grew up with the Internet, who came up with a gamut of Internet applications that took the world by storm. 

China’s largest original sports live broadcasting platform Zhangyu TV, founded by Hu Sen and his partners in January 2016, was acquired by Le Shi Sports for RMB 300 million (approximately S$58 million). That same year, Forbes named Hu Sen one of Asia’s top 30 entrepreneurs under the age of 30. 

Asked how he views the ’80s generation, Hu Sen smiles and offers, “The Beat Generation? Selfish? Individualistic?”

“If you are selfish and lack accountability, you’ll fail big time, and it’s the consumers and society who get stuck with the bill.”

Hu Sen sums up his entrepreneurial experience as “doing one’s duty” and “being accountable”. To him, “doing one’s duty” means letting go of unrealistic ideas, being responsible to shareholders and employees, creating value for society, and solving social problems; “being accountable” means accounting for business cost and achieving set goals. 

For Hu Sen, selfish entrepreneurs who hold on to gains do not deserve to be entrepreneurs. “If you are selfish and lack accountability, you’ll fail big time, and it’s the consumers and society who get stuck with the bill.”

The walls of Hu Sen’s company are plastered with inspirational mottos: “Delay Gratification” and “We have no fear of hard work, we are fearful of no harvest ” are just two examples. He explains that this is meant to motivate his employees and also to remind himself. “As we accumulate wealth and expand the business, we have to remind ourselves to stand against the pressure of entrepreneurship and take on the loneliness and struggles that come with it.”

It’s an exciting and cruel age

Like many of his peers, Hu Sen is confident about the future of China’s Internet. He notes that industry elites need to come together to build a strong business model for Chinese Internet products, especially for China-made games that go into overseas markets. He believes that with the wave of 5G mobile Internet entrepreneurship, other giants like BAT will emerge, but with “different paths and different modes” to break into the global market. 

However, he is concerned about the cutthroat competition in the Internet sector. “This cutthroat competition is why China is producing so many high-quality Internet products. But then all of the brightest minds in China are congregating in the Internet industry. And if the industry is too crowded, it’s not conducive to its long-term development.”

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Hu Sen is concerned with employee incomes today, but is confident about the future of China's Internet. (Photo: Lim Zhan Ting)

He observes with concern, “Employees have a good income now. Some earn as much as 500,000 or 1 million RMB a year, but they put in at least 300 hours per month. What will happen to them in the future if they continue to do so?”

He says that although his parents’ generation did not earn a lot, they had medical care and public housing, and they did not have to worry about education costs for their children. “They had no worries about the future,” he says. Now, though employee incomes are good, the added pressure to buy a house, pressure from work, and the pressure of paying for medical care and children’s education expenses are “bottomless pits,” leaving people without a sense of security. 

He says, “We all agree that the future will be better, and we are not afraid to work hard, but we need a sense of security.”  He adds more seriously, “There should be more social dividends as a safety net for Internet entrepreneurs.” These social dividends include better social security, such as medical care, education, and housing. 

After China’s National Day, Hu Sen and his team will move into a new 2,000-square-metre office, a space three times larger than their current quarters. From the time he left school in 2011, his business has grown to the point that he now employs more than 100 people. This ’80s kid has come to know the “wave”, where those with skills stay afloat, and is now full of hope for the new wave of Internet entrepreneurship in the 5G era. “Since society has put us in charge, we cannot shy away. We have to be prepared.”