SPARK OF THE CORPORATE
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To most laymen, Baidu.com’s, and Robin Li’s, success story is just an off-shoot of the stupendous success of the father of all search engines, Google. But that isn’t true. The idea for something like Baidu.com, or for that matter, even like Google, had been pervading in the mind of Yanhong (yeah, that’s the Chinese first name of Robin Li) ever since he had graduated out of Peking University as Bachelor of Library & Information Science. The fact that his education dealt with a science which hinged so much on search and related activities, led him to pursue his quest for, not just speeding up search, but also making it flexible, efficient, and far more refined than anything else the conventional search mechanism could give.
Even before that now-famous Stanford-grad duo of Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionalized online search, Robin Li had coded the ranking algorithm for a potential search engine after finishing his Masters (SUNY, Buffalo). That it took him a good few years after Google’s success to put forth a similar search engine, is purely a matter of opportunity than anything else. Nonetheless, no one can accuse him of just doing what Google did: because Baidu.com succeeded where Google could not find its feet at all (in China, for whatever reason). That must, perhaps, be one of the reasons that prompted Google to buy a good chunk of Baidu.com’s shares when the company went public. It is a testimony to the fact that Baidu.com is anything but an imitation of Google, else why would it buy a stake in Baidu.com when there are scores of likely pretenders?
Robin Li was born in the city of Yangquan in Shanxi Province, China, where he spent most of his childhood. Both of his parents were factory workers, and he was the fourth of five children the couple had, and the only boy among the five.
Robin had dropped hints of the greater things that he was to achieve later, at a very young age itself. He got admitted into Yangquan First High School by achieving the second highest grades in the entrance exam. Later on, in high school too, Robin was known to have enjoyed computer classes and his enthusiasm for the subject was manifest in the numerous programming contests that he so ardently participated in at that point in time. His latent potential was further proved when he achieved the highest score (among all examinees from Yangquan) in China's National Higher Education Entrance Examination, post which he enrolled at the Peking University and studied information management to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Library & Information Science.
He then went to the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY) in the U.S. to study for a doctoral degree in computer science but he decided to discontinue with the PhD (for reasons only he knows) and, thus, just got his Masters of Science degree (1994).
It was during his time at SUNY that he met and interacted greatly with a research associate (professor) by the name Jonathan Hull, along with whom Robin published an academic paper, “Word Recognition Result Interpretation Using the Vector Space Model for Information Retrieval,” which, in a way, was the precursor to what we have now come to associate with online search for information i.e. the search engine.
While at SUNY, Robin was also inducted into a computer research laboratory (as research associate) funded by the U.S. Postal Service Office, and headed by Prof. Sargur Srihari. It was during this period that Robin seems to have taken a liking to information search on the world-wide-web (internet). He is known to have done all the research for the search engine during this association with the lab. It is believed that since the U.S. Postal Service did not have a research division of its own (back then), it sought the help of the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (headed by Prof. Srihari) in its endeavour to automate the process of reading postal addresses – and that is where all the inspiration for Robin came from.
Despite the fact that he came from a non-traditional background i.e. non-technical (as regards computers) he is known to have adjusted quite well for the work on the project, and drowned himself in the research work for it. So much so that he would write scores of papers and go to conferences to present the same (all of it on his own, without any help or guidance from anyone whatsoever). As mentioned earlier, one of those papers was on search engines.
His career leading up to founding Baidu.com
Shortly after completing his Masters at SUNY, Robin joined the Matsushita Information Technology Laboratory as an intern. Then he worked as a software engineer for IDD Information Services, which was a unit of the Dow Jones and Company, for three years. He developed a program for the online version of the Wall Street Journal. That besides, he also kept working at improving the algorithms for search engines and, finally, by 1996, much before Google started, he had developed the site-scoring algorithm for search engine page-ranking called, ‘Rankdex,’ which was awarded a U.S.Patent, and which he put to use when he launched Baidu.com.
He then joined the California-based internet search-engine company, Infoseek -a pioneer of sorts-, as a staff engineer and worked there for two years (1997 – 1999). He kept working at improvising internet search and one of the other innovations he came out was the picture search function which was used by Go.com.
The advent of Baidu.com
It was the year 2000, and Google (founded in 1998) had already made its mark as the premier search engine of the world (leap-frogging Alta-Vista, GoTo, and Yahoo! which did not employ the ranking that much and, hence, although they were the pioneers of internet search, were left behind).
By the time Robin had made up his mind to turn an entrepreneur (by bringing in venture capitalists to China), Google had well and truly embedded itself in the minds of internet users across the globe -even in his native, China.
A lesser personality would have balked under the effect of this phenomenon (yes… Google was, is, & will remain to be one). More so, when one saw that all of the work that one put in for so many years, although gratifying and yielded some results as well, has been rendered almost nil. It’s like one has tugged and trekked along the marathon only to be beaten to the finish line by a contemporary. Since we’ve already seen how special Robin Li was even as a child, we would not expect him to give in so easily.
He is known to friends and acquaintances as one of the most un-yielding and unrelenting persons that ever was. He simply believed in the fact that no matter what happens and no matter how many obstacles one faced along the way, when one really loves it, then one will never lose the passion.
So, instead of letting himself be dispirited or bogged down, what he did to make up for the lost opportunity (if at all) was to start a Chinese-language (Cantonese / Mandarin) internet search engine along with his friend and compatriot, Eric Xu. This was very smart of him, because when Baidu.com was launched – in 2000- a great chunk of the Chinese population was yet to come to terms completely with the English language (it is only now, after a good 10 years since Baidu.com was launched, that the Chinese have started to look at English as a language that presents them with more business & job avenues – from the ITES sector). And that is where Baidu.com clicked so wonderfully well.
For sure there were other factors too. For one, Google did not have any language option back then, so everything it had to offer was in English, which limited its utility and undermined greatly its importance for the Chinese internet users (information seekers). Only in the latter part of the decade (starting 2004-2005) did Google start adding language options. So, that had open-up a window of opportunity for Robin.
Then, there was another aspect helped propel Baidu.com to the heights that it went on to achieve. It was the fact that Google just would not budge to pressures from the Chinese authorities who wanted to sort of gag it. So, after much squabble and failed negotiations, it decided to pull out of China. That opened the door for Baidu.com to consolidate its position in the Chinese internet search sphere.
Robin became its CEO in January 2004, and the following year, riding on the fact that Baidu.com had become such a success, he proceeded with its IPO. It was listed on the NASDAQ and, by 2007, it was included in the NASDAQ-100. It is believed that Baidu.com got one of the biggest subscriptions for a non-proven IT company in the history of IPOs, which is surprising given the debacle of IT companies in the post-dot.com era.
Today, after just twelve years since its inception, Baidu.com has become the largest Chinese language search engine with over 80% market share by search query, and the second largest independent search engine in the world, and one of the world’s 10 most popular websites. All this has made Robin the 2nd richest person in China (2012 Forbes China Rich List 400) with a wealth estimated to be around $8 Billion.
Being the original that he is, Robin made sure that Baidu.com will never ever be construed as imitating Google. His team kept on innovating and localizing the information keeping in mind the trends elsewhere but customizing them for local needs, like for example it began offering free music downloads via Baidu Ting.
Robin Li is married to Dongmin (Melissa) Ma, whom he had met at a social event of Chinese students in the Greater New York area in 1995. They had dated for 6 months before they wed on October 10 the same year in New Jersey. They have three daughters and a son.
Awards / Honors
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