| Jiang Xufeng |
HEFEI, Anhui Province (Xinhua) – When he enrolled at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in 1990, Liu Qingfeng’s only expectation was to learn how to repair TVs. He certainly did not expect to become a billionaire executive of a listed company: China’s very own Steve Jobs.
Liu’s company iFLYTEK, China’s equivalent of the voice technology company Nuance, is known for its voice technology products, including Voice Touch, a competitor of Apple’s Siri system.
The app translates Chinese spoken words into text, allowing users to send messages, call friends and post on social media platforms.
Liu’s company holds about a 70 per cent market share in China and is used by Chinese messaging services including Tencent QQ and Sina Weibo, as well having a firm footing in the overseas markets.
“Apple outperforms its peers with touch screen experience. We can be the best in voice technology,” Liu said.
The company’ s combined valuation surpassed 21 billion yuan (3.4 billion US dollars) as of Monday, with Liu holding a 8.72 per cent stake in the firm, trailing its largest shareholder China Mobile, the country’ s top telecommunications operator.
With more than 3,000 employees, the company saw business revenue surpass 1.25 billion yuan and net profit top 279 million yuan in 2013.
Liu’s company has been in the speech technology field for more than a decade. The company released the industry’s first spoken language interpretation system, which aimed to help more people understand China by breaking through the language barrier.
The multilingual intelligent oral language evaluation system developed by the company has been used in the National Putonghua (Mandarin) Proficiency Test and the oral English tests at some Chinese universities.
Liu plays down the fact he shares his birthday with the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, but stressed that he too wanted to play an integral role in the next wave of market demand and innovation.
However, iFLYTEK road to success was beset with twists and turns.
In 1999 when Liu was in his second year of a doctorate degree at USTC, he founded Anhui USTC iFLYTEK Co LTD with five other students and a dozen young men, all of whom were under 30 years old.
The R&D, marketing and other departments squeezed in an old three-room apartment that measured less than 100 square metres. But even from these humble beginnings, they dreamed of establishing a company to rival Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs.
“We put so much effort into our startup, usually working till 3 or 4am., and then having to head to class at 8am. We were sleep deprived but we were never tired. We could not have achieved anything without the support of our university for students wanting to set up businesses,” Liu said in a recent exclusive interview.
“When we first started the company, we did not leave the apartment for a whole week because we were battling a technical problem that needed solving before the deadline. We worked, ate fast food and slept on the floor for the whole week,” recalled Wu Xiaoru, a founding member of the company and iFLYTEK senior vice president.
The year 1999 was difficult for iFLYTEK, as the company was running out of operational budget and had to borrow money just to cover its employees’ salaries.
“By the end of 1999, before we secured our first round of about 30 million yuan in domestic venture capital investment, we were really struggling. The only thing that kept us going was our own confidence in our products,” Liu recalled.
The year 2000 witnessed a change of fortune. Liu and his partners decided to shift iFLYTEK to a customer-oriented company and curtail their tasks.
“We had never done a feasibility report for projects. After this meeting, we began to do so, which meant we could use our energy more efficiently,” Wu recalled.
The products of iFLYTEK gained global recognition and investment from renowned companies including Lenovo and Fosun Group soon flowed in.
In 2008, the company staged its initial public offering (IPO) and floated on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the first college student-initiated business to be listed in China.
Born into a family of modest means in Jing County, in the eastern China province of Anhui, Liu outshone his classmates during high school in mathematics and physics.
His academic achievements saw him enrolling at the renowned USTC at 17, at least one year younger than most of his fellow freshmen.
At the dawn of his career, Liu admitted, he preferred talking to machines than to people.
“I didn’t intend to be a chairman, which I thought lacked creativity” Liu said, “I thought that research, developing algorithms and making real products was innovative. As a scientist, I could go to sleep at midnight and wake up at noon, but you don’t have that freedom as a chairman.”
But the cruelty of the market and low workplace morale taught him that he could not bank on others managing the company’s marketing, finance and operational arms without risking the startup’s prospects. It was then that he took on the chairmanship.
Fifteen years on, and defying all odds, Liu has seen the small startup develop into an industry leader.
Liu loves climbing mountains and he often draws a parallel between the activity and his company’s struggle to get the top.
“We are a good company, but we are not yet great. We are still climbing the mountain. In the Internet era, people only remember first place, not the runner-up,” he said.