This article first appeared on Heniu Business. Oasis is authorized to translate and publish its contents. This translation was done by Yuqian Shi.
After dropping out of Tsinghua University during his PhD studies, Su Hua worked as a software engineer at Google and Baidu before establishing Kuaishou, a Chinese mobile app that grew from a GIF-sharing tool to a complex online ecosystem that is the biggest rival to Douyin, the Chinese sibling of TikTok.
Su, who comes from a poor village in Hunan province, has an estimated net worth of nearly USD 20 billion after Kuaishou’s IPO in February this year.
This is a commendable milestone for Kuaishou, which still has a long way to go. At the same time, it is a major achievement for Su, who used to solve problems using code, but now applies those skills to business settings.
This article is a compilation of snippets from Su’s recent interviews and speeches on his life experiences, business practices, decision-making processes, and advice to young entrepreneurs.
A humble beginning
I was born in a small village in China’s Hunan province, a remote place with a beautiful landscape. There was no electricity in the village in my childhood, so we couldn’t do anything after dusk.
Our family moved to the county town so that I could attend school. In that small county, the most notable people besides the county head were the students who were admitted to Tsinghua university and Peking University each year. Every July, a list of students who have been admitted to these universities was posted at the entrance of the only cinema in the county.
I find gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination, to be a valuable testing system. It gives everyone the opportunity to change their life trajectories through hard work, thereby enhancing social mobility. It was the only means for me, a young boy from a remote and poor village in China, to get into Tsinghua University.
When I first started university, a professor told us that a senior was offered a job that paid RMB 100,000 per year, which I found impressive at that time. Then, I went for an interview with Google and received an offer that was 50% higher than that. A year later, I was thrilled to receive Google’s share options.
I lived in Silicon Valley for over a year, working for Google. In the second month of the 2008 financial crisis, I left Google to start my own business, hoping to see how I could contribute to society and what experience I could gain by starting a company. However, it failed badly within a year or so.
I joined Baidu the next year, where I worked on various interesting projects. When developing the “Phoenix Nest,” Baidu’s advertising system, I realized how powerful my skill sets in AI, parallel computing, and data analysis could be.
Help others instead of ourselves
Even though I had achieved career advancement, received good pay raises, started a family, and bought a house, I still felt unfulfilled until I realized that instead of finding ways to benefit myself, it would be more meaningful to focus on how to benefit others.
Altruism is not simply about helping someone achieve something. It is also a process of gradual exploration. When I worked at Google, the mindset was that I could personally help everyone. As an engineer, I’ve been approached by many teams to help them with web servers, machine learning systems, and massively parallel computing. I seemed to be like a firefighter, going around helping people put out fires, but in reality I frequently got distracted from my main duty. So when it was time for my year-end evaluation, I couldn’t be promoted.
I started a company again after my time at Baidu. Our small team was like a third-party service provider, going around solving technological problems, helping as many people as we could, but then we realized it wasn’t truly helpful.
I realized that altruism should not simply build upon the power of our skills, but the power of systems and social values.
It’s not about measuring others individually from our own point of view, but to understand them as a whole: what are their common pain points? What are the causes of this unhappiness? We should be able to find the greatest common factor that improves happiness for all.
I have since concluded that resource distribution is a major determinant of the happiness of the people. There’s a concept called the Matthew Effect, which says that there are few people at the top of society with a large proportion of the resources, while the amount left over for everyone else at the bottom is far less.
Therefore, it is important that in the distribution of resources, we avoid unnecessary intervention and make rules that are acceptable and fair for everyone.
Dare to fail repeatedly
We have to make many choices in life. When faced with critical decisions, I have a few principles that guide my choices.
Altruism is the first and foremost principle—to gain happiness from benefiting others.
The second principle is the well-known “first principles thinking.” I prefer not to make hasty decisions. I prefer to have a thorough understanding of a matter before coming to a decision.
The third principle is about balancing long-term and short-term interests, which I believe should always be taken seriously. Kuaishou started as a tool, then pivoted to a community, and is now evolving into a comprehensive ecosystem. As it gets involved in a broader range of fields, figuring out how to best balance the interests of different businesses becomes increasingly important.
The importance of having these principles is usually revealed when conflicts arise. Deep down, I am still an engineer who tends to solve problems systematically. When I was a programmer, all I had to solve were code-related problems. Now, as a CEO, I have to think about social problems, figuring out where society can improve and how to address social issues with technology, business tactics, and systematic thinking.
After starting a new business three times and establishing 33 projects, I have learned which traits and skills an entrepreneur should have.
The most important thing is to be brave enough to fail repeatedly. Once you conquer your fear of failure and take the first step, you will start to appreciate the joy of being an entrepreneur, exploring the unknown, and tackling social issues.
Here is some advice for new entrepreneurs. First of all, study the industry thoroughly. For example, learn from domestic and foreign peers and industry giants by using their products. Next, do not repeat what they have done. Instead, do something so challenging that they are reluctant to do the same thing. Finally, if you fail, try again in a different way.