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The U.S.-Trained Coder Is Helping NetEase Find a New Life Beyond Games

Zheping Huang

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For decades, NetEase Inc. has been the perennial runner-up to the likes of Tencent Holdings Ltd. in China’s evolving internet landscape. Now it’s betting on a bookish computer scientist to catapult it to the top of the class in the nation’s $36 billion online education market.

Zhou Feng, chief executive officer of NetEase Youdao, is charged with helping NetEase escape from under Tencent’s enormous shadow and find life beyond video games. The U.S.-trained software coder handpicked by billionaire founder William Ding Lei is creating an all-in-one learning platform to tap the lucrative space where education and technology overlap. To bankroll that expansion, the company could float Youdao, last valued at $1.1 billion, as soon as this year.

Zhou is counting on a decades-old custom. Every summer, millions of Chinese high school students sit through a grueling two-day college entrance exam, or gaokao, that helps determine the course of their lives. That’s why China’s tiger moms and dads have long sent their kids from as early as kindergarten age to private tutoring classes for English, math and sciences.

Intense competition has fueled an education boom, particularly targeting the K-12 group that includes students from kindergarten through high school, creating a coterie of multi-billion-dollar corporations. Leading players like New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc. and TAL Education Group that still rely mainly on in-class teaching have gone public in the U.S. and seen their shares soar. Online startups such as the Tencent-backed VIPKid are still trying to convince parents that digital instruction can be as good, if not better than brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Through combining content with the latest technology, Zhou sees a business chance for Youdao, whose name loosely translates to “there’s a way”. Courses can be taught through high-speed live-streaming, enabling smooth communication between teacher and student. Artificial intelligence-powered “tutors” can grade homework and use data to evaluate student test results, he said.

“That’s what we have always been good at,” said Zhou, 40, a University of California at Berkeley alumnus with a penchant for blending English words into conversations. “Almost every industry in China has been transformed by the internet, but that’s not yet the case for education.”

Revenue for China’s online education market is estimated to have reached around 252 billion yuan ($35.7 billion) in 2018, and is expected to more than double in 2022, with 264 million paying users, according to iResearch.

But there’s yet to be a clear winner -- even for top tuition providers like New Oriental, its digital arm Koolearn in 2017 only accounted for less than 1% of the total revenue in the local online teaching market, according to Frost & Sullivan data cited in its prospectus. What sets Youdao apart is its exclusive focus on online and its expansion into education-related hardware. It has launched a slew of products from apps for note-taking and children’s stories to smart devices like a 799 yuan electronic dictionary pen, which allows students to scan printed text and translate it instantaneously.

“NetEase’s technology support and the company’s online DNA and roots should make its products more sophisticated than traditional education providers,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Vey-Sern Ling. Still, not having physical classrooms means it could be difficult for Youdao to expand beyond structured, standardized learning or test prep, he said.

NetEase could do with a win. Founder and CEO Ding has a master plan for China’s second largest game developer to delve into three sectors including e-commerce, music streaming and online education, but the result is best described as mixed. Its music arm has grappled with rising content costs, as it has to sublicense a large chunk of songs from its much bigger rival, Tencent Music Entertainment Group. Although e-commerce has grown to become NetEase’s largest division after gaming in terms of revenue, it sold its popular import platform Kaola to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in a $2 billion deal.

That magnifies the importance of Youdao and its leader, with whom Ding shares a long history. Back in 2004, when Zhou was pursuing his doctorate degree in computer science, NetEase’s CEO came across his paper on filtering junk emails, and, ironically, shot him a message that was mistaken as spam. It had no body text but just a subject line: “I’m Ding Lei, I have a technical question for you.”

The two eventually got in touch via phone calls, and Zhou worked part-time for NetEase for three years. After earning his doctorate in 2007, he officially joined the company as lead architect for Youdao in Beijing, which at the time was trying to morph from a digital dictionary into a web search engine. To challenge the local leader Baidu Inc., Youdao’s approach was to operate a slew of vertical search services at one time, in everything from news to blogs to maps.

Those efforts failed, and in 2012 Zhou decided to close the search operation. “That was when we hit our lowest point,” he said. Zhou shifted the 400-person team to develop learning apps instead.

Youdao’s revenue rose 60% in 2018 from a year earlier, while sales for K-12 courses increased three-fold in the same period, he said. Online courses have surpassed advertising as Youdao’s largest income stream, Zhou said.

Now of the nearly 2,000 employees Zhou oversees at Youdao, half are teachers and other staffers dedicated to building up its online class portfolio. “Learning is much more difficult than playing video games,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at zhuang245@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Colum Murphy

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