The Art of Being a Startup Founder

By Fu Sheng, Chairman and CEO, Cheetah Mobile

Translated by Hans Tung, Managing Partner at GGV Capital

What’s the most difficult part of starting a company? In my opinion, it’s the abundance of freedom. Because you are able to do whatever you want, it is too easy to become direction-less, and waste precious time and resources on unimportant work.

A good entrepreneur is able to turn a highly open problem into a highly specific goal. When we start a company, we often think that “I want to change the world”, or “I want to work as hard as I can.” That’s how I used to encourage myself. But working hard is an attitude, not a goal. It is dangerous to mistake an attitude for a goal.

The key is to apply your attitude to a very specific goal. The more specific, the better. Ideally, it should be quantifiable.

When Didi first launched car-pooling, it proposed a highly specific internal goal: enable users to get a ride in 5 minutes or less. In Xiaomi’s early days, Lei Jun had a clear goal of selling a finite number of phones a year, starting at 10 million which eventually turned into 100 million. For Cheetah Mobile’s Clean Master app, our stated goal was to reduce the amount of time it takes to scan virus on a phone from 20 seconds to 10 seconds. To use an example from the US, Domino’s has a clear goal of delivering a pizza in 30 minutes or less.

This way, running a startup is becomes as scientific as solving a math problem. It sounds less grandiose. But at least now the problem is solvable.

What is a good goal? First and foremost, it should be simple. If you can’t describe your startup idea in one sentence, that is a red flag. Whenever my team members propose complicated goals, I would tell them that they have violated the principle of simplicity. “But this is a complicated issue at heart,” they will retort. I will then reply: “No matter how complicated it is, can it be more complicated than the problem of running China? Deng Xiaoping was able to distill the goal of running China with three words: Raising the GDP.”

Without a simple goal, you lose focus. It looks like you are doing everything, but nothing you are doing is important. Focusing is key because startups have extremely limited resources.

That brings me to the second characteristic of a good goal: focus. At Cheetah Mobile, I made the decision to put a vast amount of resource—200 people—into doing one thing really well: Clean Master, a cleaning software for Android phones. No other company will devote this amount of resources to such a highly specific problem. Because we were more focused, we were able to win the market. Focus became our real moat.

The third characteristic of a good goal is that it should be informed by empirical evidence, not driven by our preconceptions and biases. We must prove hypotheses with facts, not with intuition or guesswork. In today’s fast-changing world, being able to change our mind and adjust to new realities is key. The faster you make mistakes, the more you iterate, the better you will become.

The first step of starting a company is to make a quantifiable bet. At least 95% of the success of a company depends on the accuracy of the leader’s direction. Years ago, when I first saw that multiple apps made by Chinese teams were topping the app store rankings in the US, I knew that we had entered the age for Chinese apps to go global. When Masayoshi Son invested in Alibaba, he made the huge bet that e-commerce will take off in China. That prediction turned him into the richest person in Japan when Alibaba went public.

The second step is to find a definable problem to solve. You can’t cast a wide net and try to do everything at once. Instead, try to be No. 1 in a seemingly narrow field, and the possibilities will be endless. How do you find that entry point? By repeatedly trying and making mistakes, constantly talking to users and adapting your product. Once you find it, give it your absolute best.

Apple’s former CEO, John Sculley, has said that the most important thing he learned from Steve Jobs was a habit called “zooming.” First Jobs would “zoom out” to look at the big picture from a strategic standpoint. Then he would “zoom in” and look at the nuts and bolts of executing the idea. Some people are good at zooming out; others are good at zooming in. Very few people are good at both.

Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, has said that “No amount of doing can compensate for the lack of thinking.” The art of management lies in being able to toggle effortlessly between zooming in and zooming out, thinking and doing.

About the author:
Fu Sheng is the Chairman and CEO of Cheetah Mobile. Under his leadership, Cheetah Mobile became one of the first Chinese internet companies to successfully expand overseas. The Company has attracted approximately 600 million global MAUs in more than 200 countries and regions, of which approximately 77% are located in Europe and the U.S. The company produces a suite of utility applications, including Clean Master, the #1 Android phone optimization software in the world. In addition to utility applications, Cheetah Mobile also owns social live broadcasting app and popular casual games such as Piano Tiles 2, Rolling Sky and Mr. Fu previously worked at Qihoo 360 as General Manager of the software group for five years.

I co-host a podcast, “996”, where we interview influential figures in US-China cross-border tech. Listen now on iTunesOvercast, SoundCloud, or search “996” in any podcast app.

I also run a weekly email newsletter on tech trends in China. Subscribe at