[WATCH] Ren Zhengfei was a poor but genius inventor who got fired from his second job and started Huawei with just US$3,000

He may be worth US$1.3 billion today, but Huawei’s founder was born poor, and had to eat cheap cereal crops to survive.
  • Huawei’s reclusive founder, Ren Zhengfei, has opened up about how he started the company in a new video series.

  • Ren, the son of teachers, was born poor, ate cheap cereal crops to survive, and lived in a freezing house with cracked walls during his years as an army technician, where he got the nickname “Ren-Tech”.

  • He couldn’t adapt to life outside the army, and got fired from his second job.

  • When he started Huawei several years later, all his early investors pulled out.

  • Watch the full video below.

Little is known about Huawei’s reclusive founder, Ren Zhengfei, but the man himself has now come forward to share the story of how he started the company in a BBC StoryWorks documentary series commissioned by the Chinese giant.

The first video in the series – titled “Who is Huawei? The Startup: The Early Years”, published on Monday (Nov 11) – featured Ren and two of Huawei’s founding employees tracing the business’ early struggles.

Huawei said it would release the second video in the series next week.

Hard childhood in a poor town 

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As a child born in “very small town where people were very poor”, Ren knew “nothing about the outside world”, he said.

“We were a bit better off than our neighbours because my parents were both teachers. By better off, I mean we could add salt when we cooked,” he added during the 5-minute clip.

Ren’s family survived on cheap cereal crops, and he was the only member of the family who got a higher education, attending the Chongqing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture, BBC quoted him as saying in an interview.

Chinese lab was “an oasis in the desert”

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In 1974, Ren became an army lab technician and was stationed in Liaoyang, a rural province in Northeast China with winters so cold that water froze instantly outdoors.

Alongside other soldiers, Ren built a simple house for shelter, but its walls sank and cracked, so icy winds blew in, BBC quoted him as saying.

“Despite these difficult living conditions, our engineering work was actually pretty advanced and highly automated, and we had a rare opportunity to learn. So despite the difficult living conditions, we were very happy. The factory was like an oasis in the desert,” he added in BBC’s interview.

The inventor was always experimenting with the lab’s machinery, and using his math knowledge, created equipment schematics that made national headlines, BBC’s report added.

According to the video, he also managed to build a floating ball standard pressure generator using zero references or blueprints.

Other soldiers eventually gave him the nickname “Ren-Tech”.

Huawei founded in a Shenzhen apartment

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After retiring from the military, Ren found a second job, but got fired because he could not do it well.

“(I) got so used to a planned economy, under which we couldn’t even think of making a penny, (that I) had quite a hard time adapting to the market economy,” he said in the clip.

In 1987, at the age of 44, Ren decided to resell switches made by a Hong Kong-based company out of Shenzhen (then a Special Economic Zone).

Thus – much like another Chinese giant, Alibaba – Huawei was born in a small apartment.

Its initial capital was RMB21,000 (US$3,000).

Ren emphasised that Huawei “didn’t receive a single penny from the Government”, adding that he had initially pooled funds from different people to finance the company, but they all pulled out in the end.

Started making products after supplies cut off

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Despite a rocky start, Huawei managed to do well. But upon seeing its success, the Hong Kong company decided to stop supplying it with switches, Ren said.

This forced him to start manufacturing his own switches in 1990.

“At the time, we had no other options,” the founder said. “We didn’t think about what would happen if we failed.”

Two of Huawei’s early employees, Lyu Ke and Xu Wenwei, also recounted on video their memories of the firm’s “survival years”.

“We were working day and night, and if you felt tired, you just went for a sleep,” said Lyu, now the chairman of Huawei’s corporate advisory committee. “For almost one month, we did not leave the building.”

Xu – now the president of Huawei’s Institute of Strategic Research – recalled how Ren would always carry a large enamel mug when he visited him.

“I still remember the vision he shared with us to become one of the top three industry players,” Xu added. “Back then, because our company was still quite small, we didn’t take it to heart too much.”

The 75-year-old is estimated by Forbes to be worth US$1.3 billion today, and is among the top 300 richest people in China.

Watch the full video here:

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