The Wall Street Journal, with others following in quick succession, reported earlier today that Kai-Fu Lee, president of Google Inc.’s China operations, is resigning from the company after struggling unsuccessfully to get Google to the top of the search mountain in China.
Although Google is the web-search leader in most geographic markets, it ranks a distant second to Baidu in China. In 2005, Google plucked Kai-Fu Lee from Microsoft to head its Chinese operations. His mandate was to take Google to the top of the Chinese search charts. Although he had some success in helping Google close ground and establish improved relations with the Chinese authorities, he probably didn’t achieve as much as he or Google anticipated.
When Google extracted Kai-Fu Lee from Microsoft, litigious animosity ensued, with Microsoft filing suit, Google parrying the thrust, and the two companies eventually coming to a settlement, terms of which were not disclosed.
Many believe that Kai-Fu Lee’s defection from Microsoft was the trigger for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s chair-throwing meltdown. That’s not true, though the tantrum came to light as a result of the legal fracas between Google and Microsoft. In actuality, Ballmer went into his splenetic, furniture-vandalizing frenzy when Mark Lucovsky, then a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, informed Ballmer that he was leaving Microsoft for Google.
In addition to throwing a chair, Ballmer vented his anger at Google in a potty-mouthed, gangster-movie rant worthy of Martin Scorsese treatment:
“Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy. I’m going to fucking bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” ….
How does one kill a company, exactly? Ballmer might want to ask the Nortel board of directors for advice on that one, but I digress and need desperately to get back on track.
So, now that Kai-Fu Lee is leaving Google, it’s logical and reasonable to wonder why he’s leaving and where he’s going.
Lee answered the first question, regarding why he’s leaving Google, as follows:
“With a very strong leadership team in place, it seemed a very good moment for me to move to the next chapter in my career.”
Okay, taken at face value, that indicates his motivation had more to do with the appeal of his next venture than with any problems Google might be experiencing. So, what’s that next venture?
Those who had been briefed on Lee’s next move disclosed that he would be running a venture capital firm that would invest in startup companies launched by Chinese entrepreneurs. That seems to have been confirmed in subsequent reports.
I can understand the move. It’s probably an aspiration that Lee has nurtured for some time, waiting for the right opportunity to pursue it. The timing is right, especially now that the Chinese government is fully committed to growing a consumer economy that will lessen its dependence on tapped-out American consumers.
There’s no doubt the Chinese authorities will be more supportive of Lee’s new venture than of his role leading Google’s China operation.