Charles Zhang had a technological epiphany when he arrived at MIT in the late ’80s as a physics PhD student. “I found the wonderland of computers,” he recalled when he spoke to an MIT audience last fall. “Checking e-mails, chatting, talking with colleagues with Unix commands on the campus network … I decided that I wanted to start a China-related Internet company.”
In terms of ambition and technical competence, Zhang was prepared. He had loved physics and math as a high-school student in central China, consistently spending more than 10 hours each day preparing for college entrance exams. That studying paid off—he attended Tsinghua University, and his score on the annual China-U.S. Physics Examination won him one of only 100 spots to study in America.
By 1994 Zhang had completed his PhD and was a physics postdoc, working to foster U.S.-China relations through MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program, when he met Harvard MBA student Gary Muller. Muller wanted Zhang to head up the Chinese operations of his recently launched Internet company, which delivered financial data to international subscribers.
“I told Muller, ‘Fine, I will help you for a year in China and then I may start my own company,’” says Zhang.
Within seven months, he had Muller’s Chinese database online and was back in the States drumming up investors for the project he had in mind—a Chinese-language search engine and portal. With initial financial support from MIT professors Nicholas Negroponte ‘66, MArch ‘66, and Edward Roberts ‘57, SM ‘58, SM ‘60, PhD ‘62, Zhang returned to China and feverishly worked to start Internet Technologies China, which he renamed Sohoo (“So” means search in Chinese, and “hoo” was a play on Yahoo). He later respelled it Sohu to avoid conflicts with a competing domain-name owner.
“For the first few years,” says Zhang, “I worked extremely hard and ran Sohu like a presidential campaign operation. Marketing and brand building has always been Sohu.com’s unmatched competitive advantage.”
Fifteen years later, Sohu.com and its affiliate sites—including a lucrative gaming division—attract nearly 50 million unique visitors per day. The site hosts local and foreign news, stories about Chinese life, interactive discussion networks, and bulletin boards. Formidable challenges still lie ahead. In China, Zhang says, it’s easy for ideas and employees to be poached, and the pressure to be on the next big Internet trend is relentless.
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