Ma Huateng, nicknamed Pony because his last name translates into English as “horse”, is the multibillionaire behind tech giant Tencent. In contrast with outspoken rival Jack Ma (no relation) of Alibaba, Pony Ma seems intent on avoiding the limelight. Little is known about his personal life, despite his status as one of China’s richest people.
Tencent’s killer product is the all-in-one messenger WeChat: An app that somehow combines WhatsApp, Facebook, Venmo, Tinder, Spotify, Amazon and much more in one unique blend. It has around a billion users, with the vast majority of them being in China.
Ma was born in 1971 in Shantou, to the east of Shenzhen in Guangdong province. Less than a decade later, the city was designated as a special economic zone by Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping. Designed to spur foreign investment in China, it gave the residents of a once-sleepy fishing village a rare window into the rest of the world.
In 1993, Ma graduated from Shenzhen University with a degree in computer science. After working briefly in the pager business, he and a few friends decided to build their own business, founding Tencent in 1998. Their first product was QQ, a desktop chat service that was largely a knock-off of successful overseas services like Israel’s ICQ or AIM from the United States. It took off quickly and made Tencent the largest instant messaging service provider in China.
In 2010, searching for a new messaging service for smartphones, Ma assigned two competing teams to work on a solution. The winners came up with what is now WeChat. The app launched at the start of 2011 and reached 100 million users the next year, quickly overshadowing its predecessor QQ. (QQ still exists today, targeting a younger audience.)
At the same time, Ma has led Tencent’s foray into the gaming business. Since 2015, its top title Honor of Kings has become China’s highest-grossing mobile game. The company has also made aggressive purchases overseas, buying major chunks of America’s Riot Games and Finland’s Supercell. As a result, global hits such as League of Legends and Clash of Clans are now under the umbrella of Tencent’s gaming empire.
A CAREFUL DANCE
Despite the incredible growth of his business, Ma rarely speaks in public -- and when he does, he seems to follow the party line. At China’s World Internet Conference in 2017, he spoke about the importance of regulating content on social media to fight fake news. Those words coming from the head of China’s biggest social media and messaging service must have been music to the ears of authorities in Beijing.
Tencent is also quick to address any government concerns over its products. When a state-run newspaper commentary branded Tencent’s hit game Honor of Kings as “poison” and “drugs” for youngsters, the company immediately limited game time for teenagers to two hours and banned children from logging in after 9pm.