Few mobile app companies have seen faster or more mysterious growth than China-based Apus Group.
The company’s “launcher” app for Android phones allows people to customize their phones and search for apps. It received a million users within the first week of its launch last July and had more than 80 million monthly active users as of mid-January. Last month Apus raised a $100 million series B round from U.S.-based Redpoint Ventures as well as Chinese venture capitalists.
Mobile industry executives say such growth is nearly unprecedented and would have required lots of marketing dollars to pay for app install ads. Its CEO, Tao Li, rejects the notion that Apus (pronounced “ei-pes”) paid to acquire its users.
Mr. Li, who is 38, started off in sales and marketing at a state-owned telecom equipment maker in 1998 before moving to the Internet sector a year later. He first worked at 3721.com, which offered a plug-in for Web browsers to help Chinese speakers search for information using Chinese-language characters. Mr. Li focused on marketing and building sales channels for the service, which was acquired by Yahoo in 2003.
He then worked on several startups, including a navigation app called Mapbar.com. In 2009 he reunited with some of his 3721.com colleagues at Qihoo, which they had founded in 2005. He became a top executive there, helping to launch and develop some of Qihoo’s biggest mobile products, including its mobile security app and app store, which have hundreds of millions of active users. (For more on Qihoo and its global ambitions, see this article.)
He left the company last year. The reason, according to numerous Chinese Internet executives, related to a strategy disagreement between Mr. Li and Qihoo CEO Hongyi Zhou. Mr. Li says he simply wanted to pursue a “big opportunity” and he finally felt ready to start his own company, which is named after a fast bird that’s also called a “swift.”
Mr. Li, who visited Silicon Valley last week (the company is looking to open a U.S. office), sat down with The Information—and later responded to emailed follow-up questions—for a wide-ranging conversation about how Apus grew so quickly, how its philosophy resembles Apple’s and why China won’t displace the U.S. in terms of innovation. Edited and translated excerpts below.