In the forests of China, tens of thousands of rangers use their phones to take pictures of remote terrain to assess the danger of forest fires. This is new. Previously, they would write down their observations. Some would falsify the data. But what could their bosses do?
The new system is radically cheaper – and the information is self-evidently more robust: the phones record the location along with the images.
China’s Forestry uses software supplied by AsiaInfo to crunch the data. Ten years ago, AsiaInfo was selling huge software deployments to huge tech-savvy corporates.
Now, it’s working with foresters. The arrangement is a perfect example of the normalization of tech and the way that big data is transforming every market vertical.
It also reveals the willingness of AsiaInfo – the company that effectively built the Internet in China – to move with the times. And it’s fair to say this progressive vision is down to one man: CEO Edward Tian.
Tian is now in his second spell in charge of the firm he created in 1993. Having left and lost control of AsiaInfo in 1997, he’s on a mission to reinvent it.
Tian was enticed away by the Chinese government to run the telco China NetCom, which he did very successfully for eight years.
But he never stopped thinking about AsiaInfo, which had become a public company and was – in Tian’s mind – treading water.
He says: “The ownership had become so diversified. The institutional investors and the managers were just looking at the next quarter and their bonuses.
“They never wanted to invest in new ideas. And there was so much money in the bank. They could have invested in Alibaba. They could have invested in Baidu. They had the chance and didn’t.”
What made Tian more determined to regain control was his sense of an imminent next phase for the Internet.
“I saw the rise of Google and Facebook and I sensed a new era coming. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in the public sector. I felt I had a larger mission. An unfinished mission.”
So in 2007 Tian rejoined the AsiaInfo board. He was dismayed by what he saw. “I was so frustrated. I didn’t recognise it any more. I saw an opportunity to take control again. So I raised some money and took the company private again last year.”
Thus began his second spell in charge, and the latest chapter in one of the tech world’s most remarkable stories.
Raised in poverty
Tian Suning was born to a life of relative privilege. His parents were scientists before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and had been transferred to work in the Soviet Union – then an ally of his home country.
But when relations between the superpowers cooled, Tian’s parents were moved back to China. Suddenly, they were an embarrassment to the regime.
They were expelled to the Gansu, a backward province at the edge of China’s far west – hundreds of miles from the capital.
Meanwhile Tian was raised by his strict grandmother in the northeastern industrial city of Shenyang. Throughout this appalling period of Chinese history, poverty and mutual suspicion were rife.
In one incident frequently recalled by Tian, a neighbor saw discarded eggshells and interrogated his grandmother about how she could afford such a delicacy.
But Tian was a fine student and managed to win a place at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. There he learned English from an exiled Briton who had moved to China during the Cultural Revolution.
This was in the early eighties when China began hesitantly opening up to the rest of the world. One incident stuck in Tian’s mind from this time.
He and a friend visited the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel only to be refused entry for not looking affluent enough. Tian resolved to become successful enough to return under different circumstances.
To the prairie
In 1987 Tian caught a break that would change his life: securing a transfer to Texas Tech University. Actually, it was a bit of a shock to him. He arrived at the town of Lubbock with $45 in his pocket expecting the bright lights of big city America. Instead, there was prairie.
So Tian made the prairie his topic of study. dedicating five years to the ecology of Texan bromegrass. In so doing, the young student began to work with computers and the emerging Internet.
Tian was a natural. More than that, he foresaw the transformative potential of the web. “It opened a new world up to me. It was fascinating to me that I could email anyone in the world. The idea was very simple: how can I bring this back home.”
But Tian’s ecological sense still nagged away at him. His parents had studied ecology and Tian also felt duty bound to repay the investment made in him by Texas Tech. For a short while he worked on an environmental project in Washington. It didn’t work out.
Tian went back to the web.
Back to Beijing
AsiaInfo was born in Dallas in 1993, and shortly after moved to Beijing to provide infrastructure and software products for China’s new Internet sector.
It was a remarkable time. China was finally waking up from decades of hibernation. Still, barely anyone knew what the Internet was.
Tian recalls: “My parents were very worried. They didn’t know why I would want to come back. I had lost my resident status, so it was really difficult to start a company. But it’s all about timing.
“We wanted to be a systems integrator. We were working with Cisco and Sun and Sprint, and really we were the only people in the whole of China who knew TCPIP. The country probably had about 2000 internet users then.
“Most of the government didn’t know what the Internet was. I remember showing a minister the technology and how much better it was than telex and fax. But the company grew really fast. The government wanted us to build the internet.”
Within three years, AsiaInfo had 320 employees and revenues of $45 million a year.
Tian freely admits that for all the growth, he had no idea how to be a CEO and learned on the job. One wonders where the impulse came from, given his agrarian upbringing.
He thinks it’s something inherent. “Being an entrepreneur is really about curiosity. I was a scientist, and I think it comes from the same place.”
Despite his lack of training – or maybe because of it – Tian was prepared to innovate. For example, he says AsiaInfo was the first Chinese company to offer bewildered employees stock options.
“At first they were suspicious. But two years later, we were a $4bn company and they were very pleased,” he says.
The stock owning employees benefited, of course, from AsiaInfo’s public flotation in 2007. Tian did not. Six months before the IPO he had been enticed away by the Chinese government to run NetCom.
It has set up the company to stimulate competition in China’s rising telecom sector. Was he coerced? Tian says not. Rather, he insists he felt a degree of patriotic duty – despite his treatment by previous regimes.
He says: “The government was changing and we had a progressive leader who wanted to break the monopoly in Chinese telecoms. In the past they would have found someone inside government to run NetCom, but they wanted an entrepreneur to do it.
My parents urged me to take the job. They were very loyal to China even though they’d been treated very badly. They wanted me to do something for my country, and I felt that too.”
As for AsiaInfo…”I lost a lot of options, but I did pretty well. And there was so little opportunity to spend the money in China anyway.”
Tian was very successful at NetCom, but left in 2006 to create an investment vehicle called CITIC Capital Partners. He also rejoined the board of AsiaInfo.
In May 2013, he led a private investor consortium led by CITIC Capital Partners to take back the company he had started 20 years earlier.
So began the second mission.
Back in charge
Barely more than 18 months into his second tenure, Tian is clearly relishing his work. Though AsiaInfo is a vast and hugely complex enterprise, Tian has a pretty simple vision: he wants to ‘Internetize’ business.
Here’s how he describes it. “The Internet is becoming the platform for business and commerce. It’s going to change the way every business runs, which is a big opportunity for a company like AsiaInfo.
“So we have to change too. We can’t just be a software seller any more, we need to focus on the data. Every business will generate data, so it’s our job to create friendly tools that can explain and visualise it.”
AsiaInfo created the Veris product suite to meet this new market need. It includes billing and customer care systems that now serve nearly a billion subscribers globally.
The firm is already working with banks and insurance companies and – of course – forestry commissions. It recently sealed a partnership with Telenor to bring the same competencies to Europe.
But there’s a vast army of SMEs out there to be targeted too. Not easy for a firm long associated with big contracts and pricey licence fees.
Tian is confident, and says the firm has 200 people dedicated to selling customer relationship management services to SMEs.
“We changed from a systems integrator to a software seller. Now we can transform again into a cloud based company. We have to change our brand. And we can.
“We get compared with other big Chinese companies, but I think we’re a bit different. We were born in America so we have a slightly different outlook and now we have the chance to bring Chinese best practice to the rest of the world.”
To do that, AsiaInfo has to work with partners, such as China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. Their scale helps. “These companies know how to serve modern Shanghai and rural Tibet. If you can do that, you can serve the world,” he says.
Tian’s other mission is to support the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs – to provide the kind of support network he would have liked when he was making it all up 20 years ago.
He has already made more than 70 investments, most of which are in local startups. “We have unique problems because of our scale and only entrepreneurs can solve them,” he explains.
“You have no choice but to bet on the future.”