A Stanford Laowai in Beijing: a Conversation with Kai Lukoff

This summer, Kai (FACES '07) had a conversation with Sophy Wang from Beida FACES in Beijing.

This summer, Kai (FACES '07) had a conversation with Sophy Wang from Beida FACES in Beijing.

Other than friendship, I think the most obvious one is that it has changed my life, which is not over-stating, not at all. One of the most dramatic examples for FACES is that I had never been to China before FACES, nor had I ever considered that I would live in China. …… I realized that China is really interesting, I think I can live here for at least a year and finally turn to my five year plan.”

- Kai Lukoff, FACES ’07.


The Interviewee: Kai has been on the inside of China's smartphone revolution for the last five years. He is Director of Internationalization at Wandoujia, a mobile content search engine with over 300 million Android users in China. He’s leading the company’s global expansion, starting in Southeast Asia. As the founder of leading China tech blog, TechRice.com, he analyzes what matters in mobile. Kai is based in Beijing with his ear-to-the-ground, visiting internet cafes and the garages of early-stage Chinese entrepreneurs. His areas of expertise include mobile apps and games, social media, and e-commerce. Kai holds a BA from Stanford University. He first came to China with FACES in 2007 and it changed his life: he’s been living there ever since!

The Interviewer: Yue (Sophy) Wang is an officer of FACES Beida, a Peking University student majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

Prologue: The pleasant and relaxed conversation with Kai was full of laughter: obviously Kai is not a typical geek. He talked about how he has stayed in Beijing for six years partly because of his first trip to China with FACES in 2007. Basing on his work experience at Wandoujia and the tech blog he founded, he provided his insight into the tech industry and compared Zhongguancun with Silicon Valley in terms of talent and eco-systems for technology development.

Kai’s Story with FACES

Sophy: Hi Kai, would you like to introduce yourself to us first?

Kai: I’m from California, grew up in San Francisco, I now find myself in Beijing and have been living in China for the past five years.

S: So about your FACES experience, were there any good memories with particular delegates or speakers? Or any interesting topics?

K: I was a delegate in 2007. When I applied for FACES programme, I was studying political science at Stanford. I had a friend Drew Carmada who was also in FACES and recommended it to me. Most foreign delegates in FACES at that time (and even till today) had very rich Chinese experience, usually had studied Chinese for a number of years and spent time in China. I had not even studied a Chinese word and so that was a quite a different experience for me. A specific thing that I really love about the FACES conference was the crisis simulation we did about Taiwan. We had different people representing the US and Chinese government, and Charles Gu represented the American president. I think it was great to get Chinese think on U.S.’s interests from the perspective of US politicians, and engage Americans to participate and represent the Chinese side, acting as what the Chinese government would act like in different environments. That was a great, memorable experience and I’ve maintained contact with Charles ever since.

S: Great to know. So how have you been getting along with FACES alumni ever since?

K: Most of my FACES friends are not from my class; they are from the wider alumni network. I’ve stayed in touch with FACES as the experience about China and the alumni network are relevant to me. David Wang is my former flat mate; we were very close and we talked very frequently. It is a connection that I would never have had unless he had send out his apartment renting notice to FACES Beijing email list. There are a lot of other people who I knew at Stanford through FACES and more who come through from time to time. I would say they are low-contact friendships, yet that’s kind of a nature of modern age. But you know if you go to New York, Washington or any city, there is probably a group of FACES friends whom you could refer to, have a dinner or drink with and have some tips from them.

S: So besides friendships, what else do you think FACES has given to you?

K: Other than friendship, I think the most obvious one is that it has changed my life, which is not over-stating, not at all. One of the most dramatic examples for FACES is that I had never been to China before FACES, nor had I ever considered that I would live in China. Then after graduation I came out here because I had been to China before through the FACES program in 2007 when the conference was held at Renmin University. I realized that China is really interesting; I think I can live here for at least a year and finally turn to my five-year plan. I think eventually I do want to go back to the Silicon Valley. It is still in the process to be written. 


A Non-typical Geek at Wandoujia

S: As you just mentioned that you might go back to the Silicon Valley, why not directly head there upon graduation? What have made you come to Beijing and stay ever since?

K: The answer is that I wanted to go into foreign policy for a long time, which had been my pre-occupational dream since I was about ten. What I did at my junior year was that I went to DC and interned at the US Department of State in the Bureau of Military Affairs. On paper, it had been my dream internship but actually I discovered that it was not what I wanted to do after graduation. I found the democratic environment stifling and crushing. I did not have a plan B, and then the opportunity rose; I actually got an offer from the Chinese government to study Mandarin in Shanghai. So I went to Shanghai before Beijing and studied at Shanghai Jiaotong University. For every subsequent year I have been like I really like China, I really like what I am doing here, I really like my friends here, why don’t I stay here for another year? And that’s become five. I love my life in Beijing and I really enjoy my role in Wandoujia. So I decided to stay instead.

S: Right, I’m curious to know how your story with Wandoujia happened and evolved because obviously you were not geeky at all and majored in foreign policy. So how did it happen and what do you do at Wandoujia?

K: After I finished my study in Shanghai Jiaotong University, I was looking around for jobs in China that would interest me. I started writing in English for a company first explaining about Chinese Internet in ways that they can understand. Then I started writing my own techblog, Techrice.com. Through that I met a lot more people including Wang Junyu, the co-founder of Wandoujia. At Wandoujia, I’m the Director of Internationalization and responsible for making sure the product is great for users outside China. I started with the Southeast market. It is kind of a crazy scenario that I have never imagined that I will be the employee of a Chinese company, representing a Chinese company flying to Taiwan or Indonesia or other markets to make sure that we build a great product for users in other countries.

S: How’s the internalization project going?

K: So far so good. We now have a team of about 25 working on the international product and we just launched in Thailand and the early users’ feedback on the product was quite promising. The part that I have been fascinated by is around users’ experience and product design and so again, in a way similar to the FACES process; you can say that you really have to make sure you understand the cultural level differences of the local users. My job is to see for these differences when we go to Thailand or other Southeast Asia countries; we just cannot do the exactly same thing that we are doing in China. We obviously have to customize the product to meet the needs of local users.

S: Did your team have any difficulty in customizing your product?

K: Yes, one is that the competition is fiercer. Inside China, the mobile Internet looks completely different from the mobile Internet outside, that is, 99% of the top apps that users use, if you look at the apps on Wandoujia, are Chinese apps. Seldom are foreign apps popular inside China. But if you go to any other country, like Thailand, about 80% of those will be global apps, such as those coming out from the Silicon Valley, Sweden or other places around the world. There are only about 20% of the apps are local Thai apps. So when we are building a platform we have to make sure that we get enough content for local users. That’s quite a challenge.


When Kai Talks about Technology...

S: True, and good luck with that. So about Techrice.com, can you fill us in more?

K: I have passion for writing about and explaining the Chinese Internet to people who are not familiar with it. There is a lot of hunger to the Chinese Internet and there is a lot to understand. The writing about the Chinese Internet actually got a lot better over the past four years or so, however there are still many too simplistic understandings, like Renren is the Facebook in China, which makes people come to China and expect to see everyone using Renren (In reality seldom do Chinese young people use it especially after WeChat came out). It is not really the case. So what I wanted to provide is a deeper insight into what was actually happening around in China in terms of the Internet environment.

S: Cool, and from the insider perspective, what do you think about the future mobile Internet development in China? What will be the trend?

K: I think mobile Internet is evolving in the same way as the PC Internet did in China, but at an accelerating pace. The first Chinese website came out in 1999. What was happening in the Chinese Internet maybe was 5 to 6 years behind the Silicon Valley when they had Yahoo in 1995. I would say China in general maybe just a small step behind the Silicon Valley in terms of the eco-system. But it is uneven, something is further behind and something is further ahead compared to the Silicon Valley. For example, you can book a taxi via WeChat here but you certainly can’t do the same on Whatsapp. That’s coupled with the fact that there is a closer integration between software and mobile phones today. I think there will be a tectonic shift in the whole technology industry to see more Chinese companies like Xiaomi being able to leverage their products on a global scale.

S: As you’ve said, China may be a step forward somewhere but a step behind in other aspects compared to the Silicon Valley. So do you think we can make a comparison of mobile Internet between U.S. and China? For example, comparison about talent, eco-systems as you’ve mentioned? Do you see Zhongguancun outcompete the Silicon Valley someday?

K: I think it is not so much about outcompeting; the bigger story is that technology becomes a much bigger pie for everyone. Currently, China, instead of being a slice of that pie, is completely separate from the rest of the global pie. The recipe for success for Chinese companies is to integrate into the rest of the global eco-system. To some extent, because of the differences in cultural preferences in Chinese Internet, it has evolved into a parallel universe. It is tricky in a way for Chinese companies to get rid of this and jump to the rest of the universe. But that’s the switch if Chinese companies need to be successful in the global Internet market. And to be successful means not to simply sell cheap manufactured devices and goods, but also to be successful on the cultural level. The infrastructure in Silicon Valley is easier and friendlier so you see a lot of young Stanford graduates drop out of university and have their start-up. It is not that difficult for them to raise money and they can easily adopt a bunch of tools like web services so eventually the cost of building a start-up in the United States has fallen dramatically. Even Dropbox was built up on web services. They just focus 100% on product and customers where in China, the infrastructure for entrepreneurs does not even exist. It is very rare to see Chinese entrepreneurs be able to build big companies. To do what Wang Junyu has been able to do was quite remarkable then.

S: Ok, one last question, it may be a digression but, do you think technology plays a positive role in human lives? Does technology actually make us smarter?

K: Generally positive but not without negative aspects. Mobile phones are remarkable technology that is futuristic in a way that people have never anticipated. What would some people in 1950 say if I told them that you will have one day in your pocket a device that has access to all the digital information? But people are using it to watch videos of cats and have arguments with their friends. I think the point is that technology can make positive impact and it’s just that how people use it. They can use it and get phone addicted, for example I see many Chinese looking at their phones during dinner. But we can also use it to do something remarkable, like to connect with people around the world.

S: Right, and this is the end of this interview. Thank you!

K: Thanks!

Alumni Interview Program: In February 2014, we started the Alumni Interview Program. Our Alumni Affairs staff have since conducted ten interviews with alumni in Beijing and the Bay Area. We hope that these interviews will inspire younger generations of FACES alumni to pursue their dreams and make their unique impact on U.S.-China relations.