Tencent’s open platform is designed to let partners make use of the group’s technologies, support and, crucially, its traffic via its vast user base. The recent Tencent Global Partner Conference brought partners together in Chengdu who spoke about their experiences of Qingteng University, the Shuangbai Project, WeStart incubators and AI Lab.
We spoke to some of them to see how being part of something bigger had helped them as businesses. Of course, the partners at the conference were some of the success stories of the open platform. It was apparent that the facilities offered by Tencent are so comprehensive that some of these businesses simply would not have been able to go it alone, and may not be able to operate independently. Or, indeed, leave the ecosystem.
Zhuli Laiye (助理来也, known as “Laiye” for short with “Assistant Comes Too” its English working title)
A virtual, voice-based assistant not specific to a device. It started out as a fully automated, fully AI system open to any request, but the team soon realized they needed to restrict the tasks available to simpler, discrete errands such as ordering coffee for delivery, arranging meetings and business trips. It differs from the likes of Siri and Cortana in that it actually executes tasks in the real world by buying your plane ticket or flat white. Around 85% of tasks are handled by the AI, with the rest handled by human staff for customers paying for premium accounts who can make more complex requests. The assistant has over 3 million individual users (50 million hoped for by 2020, with the whole country to have an assistant in future), but then runs corporate accounts which have user bases of over 12 million.
The company is part of the first round of Tencent’s AI accelerator plan with help from the AI Lab and RMB 1 million worth of cloud computing and research.
“We could start from the middle level with all our work, rather than from the bottom,” said founder and CEO of Laiye, Wang Guanchun (汪冠春). “For AI and voice recognition you need a lot of data and if it hadn’t been for a big company like Tencent with its capabilities of data collection on its users, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. We could process the end-to-end learning, drilling the AI over time.”
Wang explained how using AI and voice interaction rather than a graphical interface allows for far greater personalization as the AI gets to know the user. The software can be integrated with smart speakers and works within WeChat like in official account enquiries.
One of their biggest clients is a baby milk manufacturer for whom they provide consulting for mothers (no mention of fathers) who have questions about caring for their babies. Laiye worked with the existing knowledge base of the company and converted it into interactive, conversation-based consulting, improving it with the hundreds of millions of questions asked. Other corporate clients include customer service for Hainan Airlines and Citroen.
The company has already received over $10 million in funding, with an initial investment from Zhen Fund and Sequoia Lightspeed, with an A round funding led by Microsoft, which sees conversation as an important strategy. Tencent is not an investor—but might be, added Wang.
Wang said that user data is encrypted and there is “a need to find a balance between privacy and convenience. People find it worth giving up a bit of privacy for better convenience”.
Beijing Lejia Tech Company (北京乐驾科技)
This company has created the CarRobot (车萝卜) smart driving assistant to project navigation onto car windshields meaning no more looking down onto satnavs or phone screens. The heads-up display (HUD) integrates in-car entertainment, takes phone calls, WeChat voice calls and voice messages and is fully controllable through AI-powered voice interaction, with a small Bluetooth remote control clipped to the steering wheel for simple commands such as volume.
The HUD also comes with a camera which monitors the driver. The AI software can detect whether the driver is not concentrating, for example, if looking down at a phone, or is falling asleep, and will issue a warning. The device also integrates with the car’s central control system (OBD) to allow remote control of functions via the accompanying app and to collect data on the vehicle to help with maintenance.
Founded in January 2015 CarRobot launched the first iteration of its device in July 2015 and states it was a world first for full voice control of a HUD.
The company is one of 25 startups in Tencent’s first AI accelerator intake which launched in June 2017, explained head of sales Fu Bin (付斌). As well as the technology development that will come from the six months of mentorship at the AI accelerator, being part of the Open Platform allows full WeChat integration with the device.
The company is now looking to launch in the US via Indiegogo with Twitter and Spotify integration.
YiChe Technology (亿车科技)
YiChe helps people find and pay for parking spaces via its ParkBees (蜜蜂停车) mini program in WeChat and a standalone app. As well as on-street parking, YiChe is taking on the management and refurbishment of parking lots and integrating them in their system. They already have over 1,000 on their books. They are managing more than a million parking spaces with more than 11 million drivers using their system in over 160 cities in mainland China and they’re now expanding to Hong Kong where there are more cars than parking spaces.
YiChe plans to fully automate parking payments via embedding sensors in parking spaces which would detect and use China Mobile’s upcoming 5G network to directly bill car owners. It will also embark on an electric vehicle charging network through its parking spaces.
Founder She Zhideng (佘志登) told reporters at the conference how his company benefited from Tencent. He said he personally benefited greatly by being a student of Tencent’s Qingteng University: “It’s the best incubator in the country, with some really promising CEOs from various industries coming together to form a class, then they find the country’s best lecturers in management, marketing, and then invite successful entrepreneurs to come and share their experiences with us. High-level representatives from Tencent also came to share their knowledge and see if there were opportunities for cooperation”
She Zhideng also explained how being part of the Shuangbai Project (also called TOPIC, a fund that has spent RMB 10 billion supporting startups over the past three years) brought traffic to the company and will be collaborating on Tencent’s smart cities. The company also makes use of Tencent’s WeStart incubators when opening up in new cities in China. The 32nd WeStart incubator had just opened at the time of the conference and the first site outside mainland China was announced: Hong Kong will get its own facility with content-making facilities in May 2018.
She Zhideng said the company does not rely on Tencent’s data or AI, but using Tencent’s services allowed the company to cut its costs. By adopting Tencent’s existing APIs they needed less staff for R&D, reducing their R&D costs by 30%, She estimated. Piggybacking off existing IT and cloud infrastructure let them cut computing costs by 40%. The open platform brought WeChat integration which benefitted the company by acting as a payment provider without having to make separate agreements with multiple banks, and for customer acquisition. The company has QR codes in place at its parking spaces which users scan to activate services. WeChat is the go-to QR scanner for all purposes in China and keeping a user in the WeChat system helps with customer conversions.
In the early stages of starting up, the company wasn’t big enough to have staff for all areas of business but Tencent was there again with provision and recommendation of service partners for HR, accounting, UI design and IP protection.