Pinduoduo CEO Chen Lei On Why It Doesn't Take a Genius To Run the Consumer Internet Giant
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
When Chen Lei strode onstage to receive his gold medal at the 1996 International Olympiad in Informatics, held that year in Veszprem, Hungary, it should be the happiest day of his life.
After all, he had just won top honors at the most prestigious computer science competition in the world for secondary school students. Instead, the teenager from China felt a sense of emptiness precisely because he had trumped many other competitors on the way to the podium.
Chen would go on to study computer science at the prestigious Tsinghua University and obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now 41, Chen was appointed Chairman of Pinduoduo this month, adding to his role as CEO of one of the world’s fastest-growing consumer Internet companies. He replaces founder Colin Huang, who has stepped back from the company to pursue research in the food and life sciences.
Recounting his competition days, Chen said while he appreciated the way the daily practice and contests had honed his logical thinking and ability to stay calm and think clearly under pressure, in the end he decided he did not like zero-sum games.
“Later, when I started a business with my partners, I gradually realized that if you really want to have achievement and at the same time maintain a positive and peaceful mindset, then the choice of the game is very important,” Chen said.
“When we abandon those zero-sum games, when our goal is not to win the competition but to create new models, new markets, and new worlds, that journey brings great joy.”
That attitude may go some way in explaining why there was no office celebration or company memo noting that Pinduoduo had surpassed Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, in the number of paying users as of the end of last year.
Pinduoduo, founded in 2015 by ex-Googler Colin Huang, had taken less than six years to accomplish this unprecedented feat, garnering 788 million annual active users to Alibaba’s 779 million. Instead, the news was met by management and the rank-and-file with a collective shrug.
“If you always want to win, you have to worry about losing at any time. Although it does give the individual the motivation to move forward, the tension and anxiety that follow will inevitably lead to individual discomfort,” Chen said.
“On the contrary, if we have a mentality of ‘if we do this, what different value can we bring to the world’, not only can we work happily during the day, but we can also bring beautiful anticipation of tomorrow into our sleep.”
The tomorrow that Chen anticipates for Pinduoduo is a world where online and offline are fully integrated, which will create new consumer behaviors and “multi-dimensional consumer needs.”
Agriculture is one “obvious” area that holds great potential, Chen said, with rural areas set to benefit from the nationwide 5G network rollout and eradication of extreme poverty. As China’s largest agriculture platform, Pinduoduo’s GMV for agricultural products doubled to more than 270 billion yuan in 2020, connecting 12 million farms directly to consumers via its marketplace.
To fully unleash the potential of the agricultural sector, Pinduoduo will build out an agriculture-focused logistics infrastructure platform that will reduce waste, lower costs and speed up delivery for farm products, Chen said.
The company introduced Duo Duo Grocery, a next-day pickup service, in August 2020 as more consumers took to ordering their food and everyday necessities online. At the recent fourth-quarter results briefing, Chen set the goal for the company to become the world’s largest grocer.
To help increase the resilience of the food supply chain, Pinduoduo will continue to invest in agriculture and food technology, and consider global investment opportunities in areas such as food safety and precision farming.
Chen was Chief Technology Officer of Pinduoduo before he was appointed CEO on July 1, 2020. As a founding team member, he was responsible for building the company’s technology architecture and was closely involved in strategic and operational decisions.
Described by those who know him as soft-spoken, down-to-earth and a good listener, Chen takes the subway to work and does not have his own office, working instead on the open-floor office with other engineers.
Asked about his management style, Chen said that as a corporate leader, his job was to face difficulties and solve problems.
“It’s not important what kind of person the leader is, what’s important is his deeds in leading the company, his overcoming of obstacles, and his innovations,” he said.
The future development of Pinduoduo also “does not need to rely on any one person’s “genius decision-making” but should be driven instead by a motivated team that adheres to the core values of the company, continually attracts outstanding talent and manages uncertainties, he said.
Warren Buffett once famously compared life to a snowball, the punchline being that the “important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill.”
Alluding to the saying, Chen said that Pinduoduo has found the “long hill” in the proliferation of smartphone use and ubiquity of online shopping. There is also plenty of “wet snow” in that consumers now use their phones to do everything from making calls to playing games and buying clothes and groceries on Pinduoduo, he said.
“What’s left is the snowball effect,” Chen said, “Which is to stay on the right path, not to deviate from your core values, remove obstacles that stand in your way and give good ideas the room to flourish.”
“As long as we ensure that every day we work we’re investing in the future, then time will become our friend.”