From a rundown business office tower in downtown Shanghai, wedding day attire are sold to the US, wristwatches are shipped to France and low cost trainers are despatched to buyers in the Uk.

Dozens of sites and applications work from the 23-floor Greenland enterprise developing, where staff members sit in workplaces that are totally unmarked, aside from the words and phrases “Self Confidence” pasted to their glass doors.

One particular gentleman is guiding all these ventures, 40-calendar year-old Colin Zheng Huang, the billionaire founder, chairman and controlling shareholder of one particular of this year’s largest sensations, the on the internet browsing application Pinduoduo, whose shares have risen by 261 for each cent since January.

But together with Pinduoduo, which is now well worth $170bn, Mr Huang has set up a vast community of other ecommerce and gaming groups in Shanghai jointly with a restricted-knit team of colleagues, earning him the city’s undisputed world-wide-web king.

Some of these ventures are much more famed outside the house China than Pinduoduo. 1 of the apps, Vova, is just one of Europe’s most common on the web buying providers, rating in the top rated 10 searching applications in France and Italy this earlier quarter, in accordance to Sensor Tower.

Top shopping apps downloaded in France and Italy

The hub of ecommerce and gaming organizations at the Greenland constructing offered early workforce for Pinduoduo, and helped the breakout enterprise with its revenue and marketing and advertising.

Pinduoduo earlier advised traders that Mr Huang started, or was connected to, some of the organizations, but in records registered with Chinese regulators they ended up owned by his associates.

Recognized as baishoutao, or “white gloves”, it is not uncommon for wealthy Chinese to question good friends or relations to maintain their shares in companies to reduce their individual danger and shield their holdings from community scrutiny.

Mr Huang has only once in a while held shares in his very own title in China. Even at Pinduoduo, he signed above all his shares in its Chinese business in advance of the company’s 2018 preliminary general public presenting to Chen Lei, Pinduoduo’s main executive, who he analyzed with at the College of Wisconsin-Madison.

Colin Huang was a student in the US with Chen Lei, Pinduoduo’s main government © Imgine China/Alamy

1 apparent stand-in shareholder, a 69-12 months-previous girl from a rural area of interior China regarded for its Goji berries, held a 90 for every cent stake in various of the businesses until the Monetary Occasions questioned about her identity.

Pinduoduo has informed traders in its Nasdaq-listed shares small about the website of businesses. Alternatively it calls Mr Huang a “serial entrepreneur” and says he launched “Xinyoudi Studio” in 2011. No business with that name has at any time existed, whilst was when registered.

Chinese media have described Mr Huang as mysterious. It is not even acknowledged if he is married. The secrecy extends to Pinduoduo, where employees use nicknames and two former employees said it was scarce to know their colleagues’ genuine names. 

Pinduoduo did not answer to a list of inquiries for remark.

Unmarked offices inside the Greenland building
Unmarked places of work within the Greenland developing in Shanghai, where Pinduoduo employees use nicknames © Ryan McMorrow

Mr Huang was born in Hangzhou, the hometown of on the net purchasing large Alibaba. Equally of his mother and father were factory personnel and he examined pc science at Zhejiang College right before heading to the US in 2002.

He joined Google and worked at Google China just before placing out on his personal, in the pursuit of both of those “making money” and “making me a small little bit cooler”.

Cashing in his Google inventory, he started Ouku, a customer electronics website and bought it for $2.2m in 2010. His next undertaking, Leqee, was already underneath way, with Mr Chen and an Ouku intern registering the corporation with authorities in 2009 as its founding shareholders. Pinduoduo later advised venture capitalists that Mr Huang “successfully founded” Leqee in 2009, according to paperwork viewed by the FT. 

Leqee served huge models run their outlets on China’s most significant internet buying platforms, Alibaba and It also turned an casual holding team for the succession of new businesses set up in the Greenland building.

Two a long time afterwards, the team set up one more venture, Lebbay, which was once again owned on paper by Mr Chen and the now previous intern. Making use of the competencies Mr Huang learned at Google, Lebbay designed a collection of on the web shopping sites that aimed to get to the best of the lookup rankings for their choices.

“Building a person web site only can take a week,” claimed a previous supervisor, noting the websites’ funnelled orders into the identical again end system for fulfilment. Mr Chen experienced operate the operation, reporting to Mr Huang, the staff stated. 

Another rewarding foray commenced lifestyle a number of flooring earlier mentioned Lebbay. Below the name Shanghai Xunmeng, Mr Huang’s group made on-line game titles such as Joyspade Texas Holdem Poker, targeting south-east Asian gamblers, and Ladies X Battle, in which gamers gather an army of girlfriends to fight for them. 

Mafia City, one of the hit games, on Xinyoudi's website
Mafia Town, a person of the strike video games, on Xinyoudi’s web-site. Today, the developers composing its code function for a enterprise Ms Gu set up in 2018, Shanghai Youta (Yotta Online games). © Screenshot

Then Mr Huang landed on the thought that would turn into Pinduoduo. In 2015, he requested his crew to create a “social ecommerce” enterprise. Named Pinhaohuo, customers received a improved price tag if they could persuade a pal to invest in the very same merchandise. The web page commenced with promoting fruit, and at a person level Mr Huang redeployed 100 employees from Leqee to support out.

A couple months later on, Mr Huang’s gaming team created a 2nd app making use of the same team-buying design to an online marketplace, the place any merchant could listing their goods. It was named Pinduoduo and 20 important gaming staff shifted to aim on the enterprise, Mr Huang instructed neighborhood media.

“These ended up two distinct roads, Pinhaohuo was pushing to create warehouses and fulfilment, like a (akin to Amazon) for new make, but the staff members from the gaming organization did not see it as feasible,” claimed Mr Huang.

Pinduoduo’s small business product promptly won out and swallowed the Pinhaohuo workforce. But the website of businesses in the Greenland creating were being tangled tightly together. Lebbay was employed to sign-up Pinhaohuo’s social media accounts, which were important product sales channels, and introduced in a quarter of the put together company’s product sales in 2016. Leqee was mentioned as Pinhaohuo’s operator on its site. Shanghai Xunmeng, the gaming arm, ran Pinduoduo.

When outside investors ploughed $50m into Pinduoduo in 2016, the possession of the team of businesses commenced to improve. Xunmeng’s 90 for every cent proprietor on paper, 69-12 months-aged Gu Yanping from rural Ningxia province, transferred her stake to the entity that American buyers invest in into today. Pinduoduo later stated in its prospectus that Xunmeng was “controlled by the Founder (Mr Huang) because its institution.”

Ms Gu instantly established up a second corporation for the spun-out gaming assets. A single early Pinduoduo investor acknowledged that the internet of companies were tied to Mr Huang. “The other companies are just creating a small funds, they really do not have any impact,” the person mentioned. With Pinduoduo “he wishes to make a excellent company,” the trader said. 

“Every organization has its own staff members and has its possess staff, he has to be responsible to them, he just cannot just shutter the businesses,” the person included. 

How the FT traced the ownership of the ecommerce apps

This past year the gaming enterprise has appreciated sales of $489m, in accordance to details from Sensor Tower. With each other with Pinduoduo, it has moved to a gleaming new tower referred to as the Shanghai Arch, in which workers donning anime costumes and vivid blue wigs to match the figures in their online games, create code a couple of floors beneath Pinduoduo’s rapidly-developing workforce.

The other ecommerce ventures stay in the Greenland developing. But the traces in between the providers are still blurred.

6 present-day and previous staff members at Vova and the other ecommerce internet sites told the FT that while they were being recruited by Lebbay or Leqee, their paychecks came from the company Ms Gu established up in 2016 to consider around the gaming property currently being spun out of Pinduoduo. “It was always a secret, they never ever explained to us why,” mentioned Ice Chen, a previous computer software developer for just one of the web sites.

Just after the FT questioned two of the organizations about Ms Gu’s id this summer season, she transferred almost her complete stake in both of those firms to a man, who has also established up an investment decision partnership for Pinduoduo this yr, business data clearly show.

Greenland building in downtown Shanghai
Greenland creating in downtown Shanghai © Ryan McMorrow

It was the latest of a raft of share transfers Mr Huang and his acquaintances have designed, with most carried out in the spring of 2018 as Pinduoduo ready for its Nasdaq listing. 

The most consequential share transfer arrived in Might 2018 when Mr Huang transferred vast majority possession of Pinduoduo’s primary Chinese operating entity, regarded as a variable desire entity, to Mr Chen.

Other Chinese tech executives, these types of as Pony Ma of Tencent or Robin Li of Baidu, have stored restricted control of their onshore corporations, which operate their businesses and maintain essential licences. But Mr Huang holds no shares in Pinduoduo’s VIE. 

“Colin must definitely believe in Chen Lei or it is a terrifying situation, for equally Colin and US buyers,” said Jesse Fried, a corporate governance skilled at Harvard Legislation College.

Supplemental reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing and Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai. This report was amended to accurate Robin Li’s identify