Colin Huang is the founder of Pinduoduo, China’s largest e-commerce platform by users. When he launched the company in 2015, many did not expect that any company could be successful in a sector monopolized by Alibaba and JD.com. However, Colin Huang was able to find a niche in the market, developing the company into a unicorn worth USD $94 billion in 2021, with 869 million users in March 2022. He is a graduate of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business’ Chuang Chuang Community Program, a start-up incubation program run jointly by CKGSB and Tencent.
In this new alumni series, we track down CKGSB’s most influential graduates, many of whom have gone on to lead unicorn companies – privately held companies valued at $1 billion USD or more. According to CB Insights – a global platform which provides authoritative and up-to-date information on the world’s billion-dollar private companies – China has created a total of 217 unicorn companies between 2017 to 2021. Thirty-nine (or 18%) of these companies are run by CKGSB alumni, including 35 companies where CKGSB alumni are founders or co-founders, and 4 companies where they serve as the chairman, CEO or president.
As China’s leading business school, it’s not surprising that CKGSB has been able to produce so many business leaders playing a pivotal role in China’s economic development. More than 18,000 successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and executives of multinational corporations have chosen to study at CKGSB for the original China insights, world-class faculty and peer-to-peer learning with China’s movers-and-shakers. More than half of CKGSB’s alumni are at the CEO or Chairman level and, collectively, lead one-fourth of China’s most valuable brands.
Born on the outskirts of Hangzhou to factory workers, Colin was from a humble background. After studying computer science at both Zhejiang University for his Bachelor’s and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his Masters, he was amongst the pool of candidates working for the up-and-coming companies in the United States. After completing an internship at Microsoft, he secured a job as a software engineer at Google – still a relatively unknown company in 2004.
He later returned to China to set up Google’s base there. However, Google failed to be successful. He left in 2007 to launch a series of start-ups: the e-commerce website Ouku, which he sold for USD $2.2 million in 2010, Lequee, which helped market foreign brands on China’s e-commerce platforms, and the gaming company, Xumeng.
Colin was contemplating his next move – he recognized three aspects of e-commerce which Alibaba and JD.com had yet to take advantage of. Firstly, they lacked direct contact with suppliers; secondly, e-commerce had jettisoned the communal experience inherent to offline shopping; and thirdly, companies had not fully leveraged Tencent’s Wechat platform.
In 2015, Huang initially sought to solve these problems in the agricultural sector by providing a platform for farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers via a consumer to manufacturer (C2M) model. He created a “social e-commerce platform” which incentivizes customers to make large orders in groups with friends and neighbors using discounts and rewards. It became known as “team purchasing” – a model which benefits both customers, due to large discounts, and sellers, who gain from greater economies of scale and market insight. In 2017, Pinduoduo branched out from agricultural products, selling everything from clothing, household items, electronics to fresh produce.
With merchants all over China, Colin Huang has been hugely influential by increasing the purchasing power of residents in third-tier regions or below, which make up 58% of its users. Its large discounts have given the less wealthy access to a wide range of products.
Colin Huang has also played a key role in the digitalization of China’s agricultural sector. Particularly through subsidies, Pinduoduo has encouraged farmers to upgrade their digital skills and sell their produce online – in 2019 Huang set up the Duoduo initiative to equip farmers with skills in sales, finance, and marketing.
In March 2021, Colin Huang stepped down from his position as Chairman of Pinduoduo, donating 2.4% of his shares (USD $100 million) to charitable foundations which support social responsibility and research into the life sciences. In summary, Collin Huang has had a huge influence on e-commerce in China, pioneering the C2M and team purchase models, as well as upscaling the digitalization of agriculture and the provision of cheaper products across China.