By Li Xiang
Published: 2008-03-13

From Observer, page 47, issue no. 58, Mar 10th, 2008
Translated by Zuo Maohong
Original article:[Chinese]

"The days were not many after that when he sat at table with the scientific men and ship's officers. He gloated over the spectacle of so much food, watching it anxiously as it went into the mouths of others. With the disappearance of each mouthful an expression of deep regret came into his eyes. He was quite sane, yet he hated those men at meal-time. He was haunted by fear that the food would not last. He inquired of the cook, the cabin-boy, the captain, concerning the food stores. They reassured him countless times; but he could not believe them, and pried cunningly about the lazarette to see with his own eyes… 

But they privily examined his bunk. It was lined with hardtack; the mattress was stuffed with hardtack; every nook and cranny was filled with hardtack. Yet he was sane. He was taking precautions against another possible famine - that was all." – Jack London: Love of Life 

Though it was getting dark; we held back from turning on the lights and instead let a gleaming computer screen nearby illuminate the room. A moment before, Zhu Min had shown us on the computer a PowerPoint presentation that he used for lectures on venture investment. We then proceeded to casual conversations, and he tried to recall from memory a passage from Jack London's Love of Life, and though he had forgotten the exact wording, nevertheless, he recounted the story in his own words. 

A year ago, the name Zhu Min did not ring a bell among the Chinese business community. In March 2007, however, he gained overnight fame when his web conferencing company WebEx was acquired at 3.2 billion dollars by Cisco, the world's leading network equipment and solutions provider. When the news broke, Chinese business journalists scrambled to find out "who is Zhu Min" and endless phone calls jammed the line at WebEx's Hangzhou office in southern China. 

What did 3.2 billion dollars represent? By comparison, Lenovo's acquisition of IBM's PC business only cost 1.75 billion dollars, and Google offered YouTube 1.6 billion dollars for a buyout.  

Probably too impressed by the Google's acquisition that took place around the same time, Chinese business journalists, including myself, initially mistook Zhu as another of ethnic Chinese diaspora that had done well in Silicon Valley, such as Chen Shijun, one of YouTube's co-founders.  

Only when more details about Zhu emerged later that we realized he was of another league, and he was truly a legend. When the Cisco's acquisition took place, Zhu was already 59, but as he had always done in the past, he was ready to move on to another adventure.  

Zhu likened himself to a car racer, someone who refused to slowdown even when taking a corner, as every second mattered; he added, by decelerating, a racer could be overtaken and fallen behind. 

Zhu's life was indeed full of twists and turns. In his early years, he had joined the little red army tide that swept across China; later, he responded to the Chinese government's call for young intellectuals to serve in the remote countryside and lived like the peasants, working the farms; eventually, he worked in the factory and rose up the rank to become the chief.  

Comparing Zhu's chaotic early years with Chen, who established YouTube at 26, one could understand his desire to make up for lost time.

Zhu recalled the wage he used to earn in the countryside, between 60 and 100 yuan a month, saying that was then considered a lot and made him "just as famous as any CEO of a big corporation today".    

After three years in the countryside, he returned to the city to start afresh – as a construction worker – and re-take the university entrance examination, after which he subsequently enrolled in Zhejiang University. "I left my two kids at home and attended university with a 20-yuan allowance from the government. I was very poor then," he recalled. 

To save money, during his trips home he opted for the cheapest train ticket--the convertible coach sheltered by an awning--just to save 1.5 yuan. He recalled that in the winter, as the train pulled into Cixi (another hour away from Zhu's home), "most of the commuters would have alighted by then, making the coach emptier and colder. I would run back and forth in the coach like a lunatic to warm myself. Despite that, I was like an icicle by the time the train arrived in Ningbo." 

By the time Zhu applied for advance his studies at Stanford University in 1984, he was 36. When in the US, he honed his survival instinct, courage and wit further in an alien environment. Once, in the campus, he saw a job advertisement at IBM for a programmer. Two contradictory thoughts struck him - the good news was that few had taken the contact number printed on shredded ends of the advertisement poster, that indicated fewer competitors; but the bad news was that he was ignorant of computer programming. Nevertheless, he took the number and gave it a shot, and got the job.     

He had also tried building houses by himself and selling them. Facing the pressure of living, he thought of three options: continue to build houses; work in a consulting company; or start his own company.  

"The last choice was the hardest to accomplish—while the first two choices, I had already tried by then—so I went for the toughest one," Zhu recalled.  

As a starter in business, Zhu didn't intend to go head-to-head against the most powerful competitors. The core technology of the two companies he started, long distance interactive conferencing, was also an area IBM and Microsoft were working in. "I was terrified when I learnt about this. It was 1991 when I first developed interactive conferencing and brought my products to an exposition, but at the exposition, I found such products by IBM everywhere. There was a demonstration of two guys conducting the conference, one in Chicago, the other in Dallas. Seeing that, I told myself--you are dead meat."  

"Later, all the big names in the industry tried their hands at the technology – Intel, IBM and Microsoft, you name it," Zhu said, adding, "everybody tried, and they came and went, but nothing really new was developed."    

In 2003, Zhu persuaded New Enterprise Associates (NEA), a leading US-based venture capital firm, to invest in a Shanghai-based company called Zhanxun Technology, and thus becoming an investing partner of NEA. In the following years, he was drawn in by the Chinese market, which finally drove him to convince his partners to sell WebEx and come back to China.  

"When we first got in touch with Cisco, they didn't believe we would consider selling WebEx, and they didn't hesitate too much over the price quoted," he explained.  

Zhu played the game as many in the Silicon Valley had done – started a company, sold it, obtained capital, and started a new one. Later, he earned the tag as "Zhu Min starts a company just to sell it". He said laughingly, "I have said so on purpose [to change the traditional Chinese mentality], because most Chinese still think that running a company is like raising a son, claiming ownership forever."    

Rich in experience and familiar with the Silicon Valley operations, Zhu has turned to helping other Chinese starters to grow their businesses. Considering the various transformations he had been through in the past, the new one on the list – from entrepreneur to venture investor – was not too difficult.   

In his sparsely-furnished office in Hangzhou, he spoke louder as the day grew darker. He was quoting Jack London to illustrate his hunger for opportunities. He considered every opportunity as food during bad harvests. Like characters in the stories of Jack London and Ayn Rand, he was tough, intelligent, and had overcome difficulties with courage and wit time and again.  

The only thing that made Zhu felt his age was that he no longer had the strength to attend meetings immediately after a long-haul flight. Yet he still hadn't learned how to control his voice, the voice that once annoyed his co-worker in the next room, who often told him: "Min, I appreciate your passion, but your voice really bothers me."  

If Zhu's business was a bunk bed, one would most probably find it also lined and filled with hardtack. For those who had never experienced severe shortages, Zhu's hunger for opportunities could be hard to digest. 

"I kept jumping from one industry to another. Finance, education, health… They say I'm a lunatic, but I think I'm quite sane," Zhu said.