The story behind Renren: China’s biggest Facebook-ish social network

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renren.com

Renren, China’s largest Facebook-ish social network (as opposed to the Twitter-ish weibos), has a long and complex history which probably not more than a handful of people have heard about in detail. I was lucky enough to have the chance to meet Zany Zeng, the co-founder of NYSE-listed Renren.com and current co-founder of Youlu, to dig deep and document the story behind Renren.

To understand the full journey, you have to go way back to May 1999 when Chinaren.com was founded – arguably the first college-focused online social network in China, way before even Facebook and Friendster started. Chinaren was founded by Joseph Chen (Renren’s current CEO) along with Yunfan Zhou and Nick Yang (who both eventually co-founded NASDAQ-listed KongZhong). Their first task was to hire someone to build the technical backbone of Chinaren; so they went to Tsinghua University and they found Zeng, who was still an undergraduate.

Zeng ended up hiring more than 60 fellow Tsinghua students to build out the tech team. Just three months away from obtaining his bachelor degree, Zeng chose to drop out of college. His stint at Chinaren was short because the startup was acquired for approximately US $30 million by Sohu after less than two years of operations. Zeng said that Chinaren was fast growing but they didn’t have money to run further, so getting acquired was the only sensible route out. Back then, there were few investors anyway.

His belief that online social networks would one day be a big thing in China saw him join the first Renren as CTO. That’s no typo – and this is the part where it gets confusing. So read on:

Renren 1.0

Renren 1.0 was founded by Anthony Cheng and Michael Robinson in early 1999. They raised US $37 million in funding, listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, reached a market cap exceeding US $1 billion and then, after the dotcom bubble burst just a few weeks later, Renren 1.0 was acquired by a Hong Kong holding company. Renren 1.0 was where Zeng met Richard Robinson where they became close friends and allies (they later co-founded and now run Youlu together focusing on creating mobile apps for business professionals).

After his stint at Renren 1.0, Zeng, together with Joseph Chen, joined forces again and co-founded Oak Pacific Interactive (OPI) in the spring of 2002. Zeng pointed out that the name was chosen because it’s ‘IPO’ spelled backwards. At OPI, Chen and Zeng raised in total US $460 million from big names including Softbank, DCM, and General Atlantic. OPI’s initial business included a number of web sites including one somewhat like Xunlei, a sort of bit-torrent service. But that didn’t turn out well.

Renren 2.0

Zeng purchased the then defunct Renren.com domain name and used it to create Renren 2.0, a Craigslist-like service, in 2006. But that also did not fare too well. The turning point for Renren was in 2006 when OPI acquired Xiaonei.com for a song. Xiaonei.com back then was a popular Facebook clone with a large user-base of college students.

In 2009, the Renren of today was born when the company consolidated Xiaonei with Kaixin.com (who bought the domain earlier) under the Renren.com domain to form a unified social network for China. Around the same period, Kaixin001.com (Kaixin means “happy” in Chinese) was also a competing social network. And a lot of people, even local friends, get confused between Kaixin.com (which now redirects to Renren) and Kaixin001, which is the proper name for the rival.

Kaixin001 actually had the chance to buy the Kaixin.com domain but they somehow, maybe for cost saving reasons, decided not to. So, in the end, Renren bought the domain instead. Of course, Kaixin001 wasn’t too happy about it as it was left behind eventually.

After helping grow OPI to over a 1 000 staff and tens of millions of users, COO Zeng left the company in 2009 at the stage where the company was China’s largest social network. In 2011, Renren.com went public in the US – and now has 45 million monthly active users users according to its most recent announcement.

Zeng has a word of advice for budding entrepreneurs: “find the right market, don’t give up and iterate your way to product/market fit.”

This article by Willis Wee originally appeared on Tech in Asia and was published with their permission.

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