Robin Li, founder and CEO of China's largest search engine, Baidu, speaks at a conference. [China Daily]
Cheering fans held up signs with Robin Li's name in neon lights when the entrepreneurial dynamo gave his keynote speech to a full house at the Baidu Innovation Conference 2009.
His larger-than-life image was complemented by the 6-m-tall, 50-m-wide screen in front of which the founder and CEO of China's largest search engine, Baidu, stood to address the crowd.
Many view Li as more of a pop star figure than a businessman. Admiring crowds flock to the handsome, rich and talented guru whenever he appears in public.
From the stage, Li announced his latest concept for the future search engine - box computing, which could answer any given query.
"In the future, when users turn on their computers, a box will show up on the screen," he explains.
"All the users need to do is to key in their needs in their own language, and the desired answers will turn up."
He envisions a future in which users won't need to learn new operating systems or computer jargon.
"The box computing concept aims to simplify the users' experience. But then, of course, it will take more complicated technology to prop this up," he says.
Li had known from an early age that he harbored a passion for searching.
Born in 1968 in Yangquan, Shanxi province, Li was the fourth of five children and the only son in his family. Having always looked up to his third elder sister as a role model, Li followed in her footsteps and went to Peking University, where he received a bachelor's of science in information management in 1991.
He went on to study in the United States - again like his sister - earning his master's degree in computer science from the State University of New York in Buffalo.
After graduating in 1994, he worked for Dow Jones in New Jersey and then at Infoseek in Silicon Valley. He designed a real-time information system that has been used for many Wall Street firms' websites, including the Wall Street Journal's online version.
Li spent much of his time trying to solve one of the Internet industry's earliest problems - sorting information.
He made a breakthrough in 1996, developing a search mechanism he called "link analysis", which involved ranking the popularity of a website based on how many other sites had linked to it.
Li said he had wanted to use technology to change people's lives ever since he was an engineer in the Silicon Valley. He then believed that search engines would be the next big thing.
When Infoseek shifted its focus from searches to content in 1999, Li decided to form his own Internet company.
"I am a very dedicated person," he says.
"Once I've made up my mind about something, I will not change. I will keep doing it until it's better and better."
The name "Baidu" comes from an 800-year-old Chinese poem depicting one man's passionate search for his lover from among a festive crowd.
Baidu started out by providing search services to other Chinese portals before developing its own stand-alone search engine. Some members of Baidu's board of directors opposed the shift, but Li was steadfast.
"It was a significant move for Baidu to change in 2001 from a search service provider for portals to a search engine facing direct-end users," Li says.
Founded at a time when China's dotcom bubble was about to burst, Baidu's survival seemed uncertain.
"I realized we must give up unrealistic fantasies and make a change," Li says.
Baidu became a legend when it went public in August 2005 at $27 per share. When trading ended that day, shares of Baidu closed at $122.54, up 354.85 percent - the best performance for a foreign company listed on NASDAQ since the dotcom peak in 2000.
All of a sudden, Baidu became a $4-billion company, and Li personally held stocks worth more than $900 million.
"It was a branding event for me. More people got to know that Baidu is the biggest search engine in China and that we understand better how to search in Chinese," Li recalls.
"I want Baidu to bring information closer to people, be they professors, farmers or the disabled. I hope Baidu could affect the lives of more people and change the world."
According to Chinese research firm iResearch, Baidu has continued leading the market with a solid 73 percent share, far ahead of its closest rival, Google China, which has claimed 22 percent of the market.
But Li's ambitions didn't stop there. In January 2008, Baidu launched its Japanese-language service, its first move outside of China.
"When a company develops to a certain level, going international is a must. If we hadn't reached out, we would lose our domestic market sooner or later," Li says.
But some critics accuse Baidu of losing its focus and competitive edge, pointing out its international expansion was virtually handing the Chinese market to its competitor, Google, which has secured at least 338 million Internet users in China, more than in any other country.
Last year, Baidu was criticized on China's Central Television for carrying ads for unlicensed medical providers. The company's business model allowed advertisers to bid for ad space and then pay Baidu every time a customer clicked on an ad. Small and medium-sized companies loved it.
Baidu was also decried for not clearly differentiating ads from search results, for offering links to pirated music files and for censorship.
But Baidu is striving to face up to its challenges. Its new online marketing service Phoenix Nest was launched in April to distinguish commercial information from general search results.
"A man has only 24 hours a day, and he must use all of this time to do what he likes," Li says.
He believes China's Internet search market is still in its early stages.
"(So) there is still a lot of room for Baidu to grow," he says.