September 20, 2013 7:09 am

Ping-pong with the FT: Yu Yongfu

Ping-pong is a serious business in China. The head of one of China’s most successful start-ups proves his game is as smart and fast as his mobile browser
Yu Yongfu playing ping-pong at his Beijing office©Adam Dean

Yu Yongfu at his Beijing office

On hearing that the 36-year-old head of one of China’s most successful internet companies is passionate about ping-pong, and plays it most days with his predominantly twentysomething colleagues, it’s hard not to think, “What a cliché”.

Arriving at UCWeb’s Beijing office in Haidian, the city’s university and high-tech district, I expect to find the usual array of romper rooms, video-game consoles and other paraphernalia that populate so many Silicon Valley-inspired start-ups.

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Instead, I find the developer of China and India’s most popular mobile browser on the 16th floor of a nondescript office block. The atmosphere is more colourful than contrived. Dozens of toy squirrels, the company’s mascot, populate its reception area. The walls are decorated with posters made from headshots of UCWeb’s employees, who have grown in number from 12 to 1,700 over the past decade, and pictures taken from its annual staff party. The latter include shots of Yu Yongfu, chairman and chief executive, dressed as Super Mario.

As we warm up, Yu explains that he likes ping-pong for the same reason he likes squirrels. Squirrels are fast and nimble, while ping-pong requires speed and intelligence. These are qualities he thinks about often as he tries to make sure his company expands without becoming hierarchical and bureaucratic, thus killing its innovative culture.

UCWeb also has a strong and growing presence in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Brazil. The company’s mobile browser is particularly popular in developing markets because of its compression technology, which can reduce users’ data costs and improve their download times.

With 400 million users worldwide, Yu makes a plausible case that he is presiding over China’s leading consumer brand, even if it is one that most people in Europe and the US have never heard of. UCWeb’s browser can be freely downloaded, with the company making money through advertising and games.

“We started as a Chinese company, became an Asian company and are now a developing markets company,” he says. “The next stage will be to go to Europe and North America. But our centre of gravity is really in the developing world. That is where our products and technology are most competitive.”

I know I am in trouble the second Yu picks up his paddle. He holds it pointing downwards, pinching the handle between thumb and forefinger. It is the grip of a professional player.

UCWeb mascot

400m – The number of consumers worldwide using UCWeb’s UC mobile browser

I hold mine like a child holds a tennis racquet. While my opponent merely flicks his wrist to great effect, I sweep my rigid forearm in great arcs, propelling the ball either into the net or off the table. Like most Americans, I grew up thinking of ping-pong as a kind of picnic recreational activity that you played lazily at family gatherings, rather than as the serious sport it is in Asia. I am about to pay dearly for my childhood arrogance.

I lose the first seven points and consider it a moral victory to take four of the next eight, resulting in a bad but not totally hopeless 11-4 defeat. The next game is even worse. I give up nine straight points, most of them unforced errors, before capitulating 11-2.

I surrender my paddle to Chen Ji, a manager in UCWeb’s communications department, and take a seat on the sofa as he warms up with his boss, although he is not allowed to address Yu as such. UCWeb’s chairman insists that his colleagues call him either by his first name or the title “class monitor”.

“UCWeb’s culture is a university culture,” Yu explains. “In university you don’t have to concern yourself with too many financial problems, competition or politics. Relationships with other students are relatively simple, everybody studies and plays together.”

Chinese university students also play a lot of ping-pong. As Yu and Chen start playing in earnest, it is obvious that UCWeb’s head boy had been taking it easy on me.

Yu Yongfu at his desk©Adam Dean

Yu was born in Inner Mongolia, where his parents had been “sent down” during the cultural revolution. They were able to return to their home, the coastal city of Tianjin, in 1980 when their son was four years old. After attending Tianjin’s Nankai University, where he studied management and computer programming, Yu worked first for a securities company in the southern city of Shenzhen, then as a venture capitalist.

UCWeb’s two founders, He Xiaopeng and Liang Jie, hired Yu as their chairman and chief executive seven years ago. Neither founder relished the prospect of managing a fast-growing company, preferring to stay focused on research and product development. Yu gratefully traded in his suits for his now trademark polo shirts, jeans and loafers. “The last time I wore a suit was in May, at an internet conference,” he says. Other investors in UCWeb include Lei Jun, whose own company manufactures the popular Xiaomi smartphone, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

Yu defeats Chen and I again venture lamely into battle. I am dispatched easily twice more: 11-2, 11-2. It is so desperate that Yu starts to encourage me with utterances such as “Hao Qiu!” (“Good ball!”) when I make a passable return, and blurts out “Oh, sorry” when one of his shots glances the top of the net and dribbles on to my side of the table for yet another point.

When I joke that my paddle must be broken, the irony is lost on Yu and his colleagues. They seem embarrassed by my remark, as if they have failed me in their duty as hosts, and scramble to find me another one.

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