Boss of leading search engine believes artificial intelligence will usher in a new phase of growth for the company
(LI NA / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Work like an employee and think like a boss — this business philosophy of Wang Xiaochuan, CEO and board member of Sogou, China’s second-largest search engine, has served him well.
Back in 2003, Sogou, which literally translates to “search dog”, was an in-house incubator project of top internet firm Sohu.com. Wang was appointed technology director to lead and build the startup from scratch, with the aim to create a new search engine brand to rival China’s dominant Baidu.
“When Zhang Chaoyang (Charles Zhang, CEO of Sohu) raised this idea with me, I thought I was capable of it, so I took up his offer,” said Wang.
Backed by Sohu and Tencent, Beijing-based Sogou celebrated its listing on the New York Stock Exchange in November. The company is China’s fourth-largest internet company — after industry giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu — based on monthly active users, according to market consultancy iResearch.
Sogou Input Method, now the largest Chinese-language input software for both mobile and PC, ranks sixth among the top 500 apps in China, according to iResearch data from June. In the same month, the number of monthly unique visitors exceeded 540 million, ranking first among all utility apps.
With a solid user and data base, Wang expects Sogou to enter a new phase of growth by developing artificial intelligence (AI). Early this year, the company launched the AI-powered Smart Recording Translator and a portable travel translator. In the first round of sales, the latter sold out in less than 10 days on e-commerce platform JD.com, with total sales exceeding 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million).
Wang, a graduate of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, demonstrated his talent at a young age. As a student at the renowned Chengdu
No 7 High School in Southwest China’s Sichuan province, Wang won gold at the 8th International Olympiad in Informatics, the biggest international programming competition for secondary school students.
In 1999, majoring in computer science and technology, Wang as part-time technical manager helped create the online alumni directory of ChinaRen.com. A year later, the company was acquired by Sohu, foreshadowing Wang’s leadership at Sogou.
However, upon graduation, Wang declined to join Sohu full-time, and remained working part-time so he could pursue his master’s degree at Tsinghua.
“I was planning to go overseas as well, but I had already put in a lot of effort at Sohu … so eventually I decided to stay (at Sohu and in China).”
Tsinghua is the world’s No 1 university for computer science, according to the 2018 Best Global Universities list by education rankings specialist US News & World Report.
At the Institute of High Performance Computing in Tsinghua’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, research in weather forecasting is considered a common and traditional approach.
But noticing cutting-edge research programs like the Human Genome Project — a global research effort to identify genes and chemical bases in human DNA — Wang chose to focus on bioinformatics.
“This experience has opened a gate for me to genetics,” he said.
Biology, fundamental physics, and brain science and cognition, are the three subjects that Wang is most interested in.
“These three subjects answer an ultimate philosophy question of human beings — where did we come from and where are we heading to?” he said. “It will help us understand the basics of our society and we can make good use of it in doing a lot of things.
“For example, when developing translation technology, (we need to understand that) translation stands for a new level of human civilization, as it connects people of different races and people who speak different languages.”
Wang said there are many commonalities between science and corporate governance. Like any living creature, a company will also go through birth, pain, aging and death. Therefore, keeping it healthy and vigorous can be similar to taking care of life.
In 2003, with a limited budget, he recruited a group of Tsinghua students to form a part-time research and development team and launched the Sogou search engine in less than a year, generating “a new technical gene” within the company.
In 2006 the company’s star product, the Sogou Input Method, was launched. By providing a word association function based on the huge lexicon from search records, the software soon dominated the Chinese market.
But 2008 was a tough year for Wang. Seeing its core business — the search engine — remain low in market share, he came up with an idea called the “three-stage rocket”, which guides users to the browser via the input method first, then boosts the search engine traffic via the browser.
The idea was rejected by Sohu, and Wang almost lost his leadership at Sogou.
Though he eventually made his strategy a reality and proved himself, the computing elite said being denied had surprised him and that he could not accept it. Wang then realized that to better manage Sogou, he needed to focus on a wide range of areas rather than just technology.
In 2010, after receiving investment from Alibaba and private equity firm Yunfeng Capital (backed by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma), Sogou separated from Sohu to become a fully independent company. Wang then stepped up as CEO.
“It was a big challenge but also a critical moment for me (when my idea was denied),” said Wang. “But it made me understand that you may feel isolated a lot of the time. It is normal that your ideas will be denied by others — because if everybody understands it, it might not be the best idea.”
He also pays a lot of attention to building relationships with staff, senior management and industry peers. “You have to put in more emotion (when interacting with people), so that more people will support you when you are in times of trouble.”
AI offers real advantages to search engine companies, providing users with the desired results through calculation and analysis.
During the RISE conference in Hong Kong in July, Wang said Sogou plans to release four new hardware devices by the end of 2018, all focusing on voice recognition. “Sogou already has enormous application scenarios for AI … and has accumulated a lot of know-how in this field,” he said.
In June, Sogou Mobile Keyboard received around 300 million voice inputs on average per day, remaining China’s largest voice mobile application, according to Sogou’s second-quarter 2018 results.
Since 2016, Sogou has partnered with Tsinghua University to establish the Tiangong Research Institute for Intelligent Computing, which is dedicated to joint research and development in AI.
Wang said there are some bubbles in China’s AI industry today. Some companies have technology but lack scenarios and data, while others may be in the opposite situation.
“We still have goals for the search engine. It is the only search engine that can search WeChat content and browse English search results in Chinese. We will also focus on question and answer services, especially in the healthcare sector,” said Wang.
Sogou receives around 30 million searches for medical-related content per day, and Wang said it is key for internet firms to provide healthcare-related search services in a responsible and authoritative way.
Delighted to see Sogou’s diverse development, Wang pointed to new challenges.
“The main difficulty is that there is not enough time, because I need to stay and lead the right direction of the technology, as well as keeping an eye on our team,” said Wang.
“(If I am under pressure) I work harder. And if the result is not as expected, I am answerable to myself.”
CEO and board member, Sogou
2010: Executive MBA, School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University
2003: Master’s degree in Computer Science and Technology, Institute of High Performance Computing, Tsinghua University
2000: Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Technology, Tsinghua University
2010-present: CEO and board member, Sogou
2009-10: Chief technology officer, Sohu
2006-08: Senior vice-president, Sohu, launched Sogou Explorer
2005-06: Vice-president, Sohu, launched Sogou Input Method
2003-04: Technology director, Sohu, launched Sogou Search
2018: Chinese Youth May Fourth Medal, Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China and the All-China Youth Federation
2016: Computer Entrepreneur Award, China Computer Federation
2014: Emerging Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young China
1996: Gold medal at the 8th International Olympiad in Informatics
How do you stay updated on the latest trends?
I have this hobby, or compulsion, to (force myself to) continue learning. For example, I have explored programming and algorithms when we started to do artificial intelligence and deep learning.
What is your biggest advantage?
My advantage is my constant pursuit of technology, my sensitivity and curiosity toward it. But it is in the areas of management and marketing that I need to focus on enhancement. The key to improvement is to complain less, do more self-examination and try to better understand others.
What have you been reading lately?
I recently read a book called The Rudiments of Conversation Analysis. I found there are many different structures in dialogues — so how can we ease the way we deliver and acquire information? Besides voice and semantics, dialogue is also a very interesting thing (to study). I even bought this book for all five people in our core management team.
Year of birth: 1978