InnovFest 2013 by National University of Singapore, Keynote Speech

Thank you. As someone who was fond of skipping schools rather than attending ones, I have usually been quite reluctant to come to speak at events organized by universities, especially such a fine university as yours, for fear that I might be setting a bad example.

Several days ago I turned 40. When I was very young, I always thought that old people, such as anyone above age 18, would be such a bore and pretty close to death and oblivion. So, at each of the birthdays after 18, I have been quite pleasantly surprised to feel just fine and lively, and life has seemed to stay rough and interesting. A couple days ago, I saw a piece of Weibo on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, that the United Nations has just designated anyone under the age of 44 as “Youth”. What a relief. I am still a Youth. Officially. By the United Nations! Even though, for all I know, it might just be another one of those make-believe stories circulating on Sina Weibo, it is nice to be reborn a youth again at 40.

So, rather as an old man, I come here, youth to youth, to share with you a couple stories.

The first story is about anger.

My father was born in Singapore, before Singapore was a nation. My grandfather came to Singapore in the early 1900s and settled his family here. The family lore goes that my grandfather served as the only Chinese officer in the colonial police force, and on the side he smuggled in people from his ancestral village. Human trafficking, you might call it, but I suppose a benevolent type. He died suddenly and mysteriously when he was still in the early 30s. During the War, my grandmother took the whole family back to the home village in Fuzhou, Mainland China, escaping from the Japanese. Along the way, she lost all her possessions, and was forced to give away two of her children. She did not really escape from the Japanese, and then was stuck in China till she passed away, experiencing all the turbulent years in great hardship. I remember my grandmother: very old, still beautiful, smart, and full of deep-burning anger.

My father grew up in mainland. He did quite all right and became a well-respected doctor. But growing up, I remember him too as being full of anger, the anger about lost opportunities, lost freedom. He dreamed of traveling the world and exploring mountains and swimming in the Colorado River, but his only memorable swim was the one when he had to swim across a river to escape from a group of rival Red Guards. He is now almost 80, could only walk with difficulty, and could not swim anymore when at last he saw the Colorado River.

So, anger was among my very early memories, and I grew up full of anger myself. You could not tell, if you knew me then, that such a young kid could harbor such a deep pool of anger in him. How I was in rage about school and the teachings and all the surroundings. That anger propelled me through all those years, leaving China, reaching America, leaving America, reaching France, leaving France, reaching China again, starting up things, failing, starting up again.

Nonetheless, I had the opportunity of exploring that my father never did have. I am still very much alive at the age when my grandfather was long dead.

Rather than a caged beast constantly clawing at the heart, for me, anger became a relentless propulsion force. Angry that so much talent got wasted away, never being able to have their works shown to broad audience, and so many people being captive to mind-numbing programs on TV, I started Tudou 8 years ago. To innovate, to start up a company, to overcome all the inevitable obstacles, to fall and get up and continue to run and charge, it is very hard, for anyone. Anger gave me that initial drive and sustained me through the early years.

For the entrepreneurs-to-be among the audience, I hope you will find your own kick-start force. And I hope that you have the good fortune of having a kind that is happier and yet still potent.

The second story I would like to share with you is about timing.

I have sometimes been asked when it is a good timing to start a company. During school? Right after school? Work for a couple years? Work for many years? When the market is up? When the market is busted? When the technology is super early, way early, somewhat early, or just about right early?

When I started Tudou in early 2005, by most standards, it was a pretty bad timing. We were there first, before Youtube, so there was no American comparables yet. The Chinese Internet industry was still suffering and digesting all the excesses from the Internet bubble years. Very little new venture money. The Chinese economy was right in the middle of the Golden Five years, so the real money and real careers were made in the booming traditional industries. Very hard to find like-minded talents. So for a while, Tudou did not have a lucky start. We managed to raise half million US dollars, and had to give up 30% of the company. I thought we got a sweet deal.

But then the Internet industry started to boom. Venture money started rushing back in by late 2005, initially very tentative but then rapidly becoming a torrent. Barely 6 Months after we raised the first round, the valuation for Tudou went up 20 times, and went on multiplying from there. The broadband Internet expansion allowed video viewing to rapidly become a major activity online. Users were growing 5 to 10 times a month. What a good timing, after all, to start Tudou just a bit earlier and had the runway to build up a name and viewership to benefit from the new boom.

And then, inevitably, the cycle turned. The financial crisis, the tightening control of Internet video, the boom and bust of the Chinese Internet stocks. Good timing. Bad timing. Really good timing. Now you have a terrible timing, so sorry. The word got tossed around and turned dizzily so many times as if it were an acrobat.

There is no such thing as a good timing or a bad timing, for a young start-up. Tens of thousands of economists slave away on macro trends and micro movements. Millions of stock traders all wish to catch just that right timing to buy or dump that one stock or one index fund. As an old Hollywood Mogul once said, “nobody knows anything.” Time, like God, moves in mysterious ways. Timing is unknowable.

If you have that bug that keeps you up at night, causes you to put your fork into your drink glass rather than your plate, talk like an excited parrot to anyone who cares to listen to your idea, or you have so long kept that secret idea and you cannot hold it secret anymore, it is the right timing.

Timing comes from your own heart.

So, these are my two stories.

Unlike 20 years ago, when I was young, and when I was angry, so called 愤青, the Angry Youth, now I am no longer that angry, and no matter how much I or the United Nations would like to think so, I am no longer young. Confucius said, “四十不惑.” “At forty, I had no doubts.” Perhaps.

I like more another well-known quote of his, though. When Confucius asked his disciples to state their goals, he admired the most Zeng Dian’s reply, “the last month of spring, with the dress of the season all complete, along with five or six young men who have assumed the cap, and six or seven boys, I would wash in the river I, enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and return home singing.” I don’t think there is much deep philosophy here. Being an old man, Confusius admired Zeng Dian’s youth and freshness.

About 6 weeks ago, I started a new venture, an animated movie studio. The plan is to make high quality animated movies for families, primarily for the Chinese-speaking world. Starting up something new, the way things get built, finished and perhaps eventually destroyed, built anew, it is a timeless way of staying young and fresh.

So, for those of you who are embarking on a long journey of creation, I hope you stay young and fresh for a very long time.

Thank you.