An INSEAD alum who made it big in online content in China has found enormous opportunities offline. Ironically, the same principles apply.
It’s not every day one meets a novelist, screenwriter and playwright who also started and ran a giant online video sharing website that became a global success story. After leaving INSEAD in 2002, Gary Wang founded Tudou in China. Having retired from his first venture, Wang now has his sights set on animated film, taking on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks.
Sitting down with INSEAD Knowledge on the sidelines of a visit to the school’s Asia campus to address incoming MBA students, Wang epitomises the entrepreneur: jeans and a shirt, curious and questioning, clutching nothing but an iPad mini.
“Tudou came at just the right time, in the right industry and at the right industry juncture. It had a much greater impact than some other ideas so I think it was survival of the fittest,” he said.
Founded in 2005, Tudou became China’s answer to YouTube, but it was also filling a gaping hole in the country’s content market left by its tightly regulated television and entertainment industry. Wang wanted to bridge the gap between those who had creative ideas and talent, but couldn’t get their content to market. User Generated Content (UGC) soon evolved into premium and paid content and in-house developed titles.
During his 7-year stewardship of this dynamic company, he oversaw a complete, fast-forward corporate evolution. From start-up, to a listing on the NASDAQ and eventually to a merger with Youku, the company’s biggest rival.
“That period, that kind of experience is extremely helpful to me to be able to look at Light Chaser Animation Studios, the company that I’m now working on,” said Wang. “When you’re doing something for the first time, it’s difficult to make a judgment, a priority on what’s truly important. We often got misled into numbers and financial performance, but having been through Tudou, I realise how important, how crucial culture and mission are.”
Wang says that he’s spending a tremendous amount of time aligning employees on culture and mission as well as listening to their expectations for the company. Now that Light Chaser Animation Studios has gathered 20 employees and is growing fast, Wang is conscious of instilling a common vision, not just his own. “It’s not just my vision alone, it’s all of us, so I think that’s the single most important lesson I have learned from Tudou,” he says.
Light Chaser Animation is also diverse. A few team members have been cherry-picked from Dreamworks and Pixar in Hollywood and brought into China, while it has a local team in both the U.S. and China. But challenges abound.
“We are very surprised by the level of talent we can find in China. But they have never had the kind of experience to work with colleagues as talented as they are,” said Wang. The 40-50 year-old managers from the U.S. mix with the 20-somethings in Beijing with “good results” Wang says, but there is a missing middle ground in their 30s who know the processes to follow. The level of excitement at the firm, however, is keeping everyone focused and learning.
Content is king
Wang is also learning the ropes of offline content. Sitting at the crossroads of technology and the arts is where he belongs, he says and the offline world still has room to grow. Light Chaser Animation Studios will distribute its content primarily through traditional channels in a market with 15,000 movie screens, 10 being added daily. This compares with 40,000 in the U.S., but China is growing fast.
“We will still need to have audiences going to movie theatres where they can pay for the tickets and go and see the movie and that’s going to be the majority of our revenue for the foreseeable five years,” he says.
“We came from the Internet world and it’s our second nature to do everything by the way of the Internet, being open, sharing things, making sure people can see the same things we see, getting information in and out and where we can get feedback and do fast iterations, so we are very much used to all these kind of things and it’s not done in traditional animation.”
Enough for everyone
According to Wang, there is enough demand from multiple channels to continue to sustain all kinds of content. “I think it’s pretty obvious now that there is going to be UGC, professionally-generated content or even premium content, things that you would spend tens of millions of dollars to create and they are all going to have their long life ahead. Just like me, after doing UGC, I am now working at the highest and most expensive type of content which is animated film, so I think this is all mixed up and it’s very interesting.”
The creative industry is challenging, but as Wang points out, there are many opportunities for growth and like all great entrepreneurs; he’s spotted a gap in the market that he intends to fill. With Tudou, the gap was left by a tightly regulated media market. With Light Chaser Animation, it’s the lack of quality, domestically-produced animated content in China. In a movie market that is expected to overtake that of the U.S. by 2020, it’s no wonder that Wang is embarking on another adventure.