With TikTok having established itself as the definitive social media platform for Gen-Z over the past few years, this explosion of popularity is in stark contrast to the profile of its founder, who prefers to avoid the public eye
The years of the pandemic compelled many people around the world to find new ways to occupy their time, on condition that those ways allowed us to remain isolated in our homes. Some turned to traditional pastimes like baking or knitting, while others sought to further their education, with online education platforms offering official qualifications having reported surging enrolments over the 2020 to 2022 period. Meanwhile, others decided to lose themselves and their worries in the popular app TikTok, which was founded by Chinese internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming and developed by internet technology company ByteDance, which Yiming also founded back in 2012.
As a video- hosting, editing and sharing app, TikTok was used to document the age of COVID-19 on a personal level, with some lamenting the loss of social lives, others satirising the ubiquity of video conferencing, and a number providing valuable health and safety advice. The app itself even served to promulgate official advice from the WHO and local health authorities.
Initially released in September 2016, the app enjoyed solid growth over the first few years of its existence, only to have exploded in popularity by the time of the outbreak of the pandemic, TikTok welcomed more than 315 million new users in the first three months of 2020 alone, setting a record for the most downloads any app has ever had in a single quarter, and by September 2021 it had hit the coveted mark of a billion users. However, as much as the pandemic might have driven millions of bored and frustrated people online in search of distractions, TikTok’s popularity is hardly a nascent trend. The app quietly began life as Douyin (as it is still known in China) in 2016, but its sudden and meteoric rise in popularity saw it merge with U.S. app Musical. ly in 2018, and it achieved huge success with members of the Millennial and Z generations.
But what about the man behind the app and the parent company that developed it? Often described in the media as ‘private’ and ‘secretive’, Yiming prefers to keep a low profile, despite the massive success of his ventures.
Just like his compatriot and fellow entrepreneur Jack Ma, Zhang had an inauspicious start to his career. During his student days, he switched from studying microelectronics to software engineering, only to join travel website Kuxun immediately after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Nankai University, becoming only its fifth employee and first engineer. He earned promotion to the post of the company’s technical director just a year later, but in 2008 he left Kuxun to join Microsoft. Despite having seemingly made it big by joining this blue-chip giant, Microsoft’s restrictive corporate environment was evidently not for him and he soon joined a start-up called Fanfou. This may have ultimately proved to be an unsuccessful venture, but it did light the career path that Zhang would soon be taking.
Zhang is recognised by the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce as being among the top 100 entrepreneurs of the last 40 years
When 2009 saw the process begin to sell and break up his former employer, Kuxun, Zhang spotted his opportunity and stepped in to purchase Kuxun’s real estate search business and transform it into 99fang.com. This was his first foray into entrepreneurship, and with it he achieved a degree of success. Still, the success of that initial attempt would be dwarfed just three years later, with the founding of internet technology company ByteDance, which he created in a Beijing apartment and which went on to earn him a place on Forbes’ China 30 Under 30 List in 2013.
The inspiration behind ByteDance’s first major venture, news aggregator Toutiao, is an example of the old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”. Zhang identified an unaddressed need for information among Chinese mobile users, who were finding it difficult to source relevant information from existing internet companies as a result of Chinese censorship laws and a lack of distinction between ads and genuine search results.
Toutiao took the fight to big players like Baidu by providing users with information that mattered to them through the use of algorithms. Despite the retrospectively obvious potential of the idea, it didn’t receive the required financial backing immediately. Sequoia Capital initially passed on the concept, as did other investors, only for Susquehanna International Group to eventually step in and back the plan.
Two years after its launch, the app had more than 13 million daily users, and Zhang’s concept was vindicated by Sequoia Capital’s about-face; the investing firm put forward $100 million to support ByteDance in 2014. In 2018, the company secured a funding round of $3 billion. And by the first quarter of 2020 ByteDance reported revenue of 5.6 billion U.S. dollars, representing year-on-year growth of 130 per cent.
Given the state of China’s internet market, it’s impressive that Zhang was able to achieve so much success. With the market then dominated by Tencent and Alibaba, the start-up was apparently the first to seek neither funding nor protection from either, and has emerged as a successful challenger for the attention of mobile users. Even more impressive is the fact that ByteDance exported its success overseas, a feat rarely accomplished by previous emergent Chinese tech giants. As Zhang once noted, “Google is a company without borders. I hope Toutiao will be as borderless as Google.”
For a very long time, I was merely watching TikTok videos without making any of them myself, because it’s a product mainly for young people
ByteDance, which bought one of China’s biggest private hospital chains in August 2022, has interests in everything from news and education to video gaming. This privately held company, which raised money at a $180 billion valuation in 2020, reportedly agreed in September 2022 to spend $3 billion to buy back shares at a $300 billion valuation.
Zhang resigned as CEO of Bytedance back in May 2021 and as chairman in November 2021, but the company’s success has still ensured that he today ranks as the 2nd wealthiest person in China and the 25th wealthiest in the world, with a personal wealth of an estimated $47 billion… and he’s yet to turn 40!
Recognised by the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce as being among the top 100 entrepreneurs of the last 40 years, and by the United Front Work Department for his contributions to the private economy, it’s possible that the secret to Zhang’s success can be boiled down to his simple belief that, “We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist”, which echoes Chinese business magnate Jack Ma’s own emphasis on diligence and an unyielding work ethic when developing the Alibaba Group. While such a focus on productivity can be a source of health concerns across Asia, it’s quite possibly a big driver behind Zhang’s achievements.
ByteDance is seeing no decline in its popularity among investors and is continuing to diversify, adding not just new software to its raft of apps, but also hardware too – furthering Zhang’s legacy despite him having left the company, but also reflecting his expressed willingness to adopt new ideas when they are sensible, as evidenced by his self-confessed use of TikTok.
“For a very long time, I was merely watching TikTok videos without making any of them myself, because it’s a product mainly for young people,” Zhang once admitted in an interview for the South China Morning Post. “But we later made it compulsory for all management team members to make their own TikTok videos, and they must win a certain number of likes. Otherwise, they have to do press-ups. That was a big step for me.” Given the inspiring career path of this 39-year-old, it’s probably not the biggest step he’s ever taken, but small steps often carry us the greatest distances.