Zhihu, which is today valued at $1.25bn, publishes online books, many written or edited by its top users and often based on trending topics, and sells podcasts and text explainers. Zhihu Live, a pay-per-view platform for livestreamed talks by celebrities and experts, attracts 4m viewers. In four years, Zhihu has generated 100m registered users and 780m unique monthly visitors, surpassing Quora’s 200m monthly visitors.
The idea for Zhihu came to Zhou Yuan a decade ago when, as an enthusiast of a Chinese blog used by Apple lovers, he believed he could do something similar.
A founder at the now defunct apple4us, which opened up live debate among aficionados, later showed him a US Q&A forum. He was immediately inspired: “Quora felt so inexplicably familiar to me,” Mr Zhou says as he recalls that dinner in 2011 with his friend. “My ideas about creating an apple4us-like product suddenly came back. The dots connected.”
The next day he recruited two of his business partners from Metasearch, a data analytics company and his first dip into entrepreneurship, to build their own version. An executive of a listed Chinese company came on board as an angel investor the same day. The company has raised $87m in three subsequent funding rounds. In January, Zhihu raised a further $100m from investors including Tencent, the internet group, and Sinovation Ventures, the venture capital company co-founded by Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google China executive.
Mr Zhou came of age during the rise of China’s tech titans. NetEase, the Chinese internet company founded in 1997, was popular and instrumental in the formation of start-ups such as the search engine company Baidu and internet company Sina. These businesses inspired Mr Zhou to study computer science and become a software programmer, and later a journalist.
Zhihu rose from the ashes of Mr Zhou’s first company. “I was feeling very sad and lost,” the entrepreneur recalls of 2010 when his company Metasearch failed.
Zhihu’s ambition today is to forge connections between users in an on-demand knowledge marketplace free of intermediaries. Most recently, Zhihu partnered with a recruiting company to assess users’ employability for companies such as ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing and sharing bike start-up Mobike.
“Before you might buy a book but you could not ask questions about it,” he says, as he demonstrates on his iPhone a talk he gave on Zhihu Live, “How to be a game-changer”.
For its first two years, Zhihu selected whom it would invite to use the service. Others could apply and wait to be approved. Many, who were desperate to join, turned to Taobao, an ecommerce site that sold invitation codes from approved individuals for up to Rmb120 ($18).
Meanwhile the Chinese authorities have this year stepped up their policing of content platforms, targeting news apps such as Toutiao and the micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo while shutting down popular social media accounts it deemed “vulgar”. As Zhihu expands, it must balance fostering lively discussion online while keeping China’s cyber space authorities happy.
To identify spam, Zhihu uses Monkey King, an artificial intelligence program named after the protagonist in the Chinese epic fantasy drama Journey to the West. Wall-E, another AI program, finds and deletes defamatory or offensive posts. Meanwhile, a team of editors in Sichuan field user complaints, which have risen tenfold since last year, according to Mr Zhou.
This content management approach has not always been ideal. Users complain that subtle advertising written into blog posts has increased as the site has become more commercial.
Despite the unpredictability of user-generated content — he turns around at one point to write the word “trolls” on the glass behind him to illustrate the shortcomings of the freewheeling American internet — he still believes in a user-driven product.
“In the US, if you publish an essay, many people avoid reading comments because they are full of trolls,” Mr Zhou says. “On the Chinese internet, the comment section is usually the most interesting.”
Mr Zhou’s intuition has paid off. He credits a commitment to Zhihu’s core Q&A function that helped the site survive even as many similar ones failed. However, the pressure to make Zhihu’s knowledge base commercially viable is intensifying. It faces competition from platforms such as the smaller but fast-growing Fenda, where users pay to ask questions, as well as Douban, a social network and online forum.
That does not worry Mr Zhou: “The Chinese internet is really a big market. There is still plenty of experimentation to be done.”