Zhang Yiming is the Founder of Beijing ByteDance Technology Co ., one of China’s biggest internet technology conglomerates that are quickly eclipsing other online content platforms. The apps in ByteDance’s portfolio include TikTok, the video-based social media app quickly becoming popular with Gen-Z. Founded in 2012, and Toutiao, a popular content platform in China. ByteDance is valued at $75 billion and brings in around 1 billion monthly users globally — it is considered one of the world’s most valuable startups.
Born in 1983, Zhang is among a generation of Chinese millennials experiencing China’s economic reforms first-hand. His home province Fujian on the southeast coast, was among the earliest regions in the Chinese mainland to open up to the world.
Like many of his Western counterparts, Zhang started humbly and persevered through trial and error. He graduated from Nankai University in 2005, where he started off studying microelectronics before switching his major to software engineering.
After graduating, Zhang secured a job at a startup that helped him pick up valuable skills that would build the foundations of his own company. He says, “I joined a company called Kuxun and I was one of first employees. I was an ordinary engineer at the beginning, but in the second year, I was in charge of about 40 to 50 people responsible for back-end technology and other tasks related to products.” This speedy growth and his innate ability to master skills have helped transform the young entrepreneur into one of the decade’s rising leaders.
Zhang learned the value of pursuing excellence in all his products while still in his first job at Kuxun. He continued, “At that time, I was responsible for the technology, but when the product had problems, I would actively participate in the discussion of product plan. A lot of people say this is not what I should be doing. But I want to say: your sense of responsibility and your desire to do things well, will drive you to do more things and to gain experience.”
An engineer at the time, Zhang’s dedicated attitude and fervour to solve problems eventually proved helpful in his ventures. Zhang credited that job to teach him valuable sales skills that he later used to grow his company, ByteDance. “I remember that at the end of 2007, I went to meet the client with the Sales Director,” Zhang said. “This experience let me know what sales are good sales. When I established Toutiao and recruited staff, these examples helped me a lot.”
In 2009, Zhang started his first business, a property search site called 99fang.com. He quit the business three years later, but the company sparked a drive for entrepreneurship in Zhang. In 2012, he founded ByteDance, a Beijing-based business that provides news aggregation services.
In 2012, Zhang felt that Chinese smartphone users were struggling to find relevant information in mobile apps and the search giant Baidu was adding undisclosed advertising with search results. Zhang had the vision to push relevant content to users by generating recommendations by artificial intelligence that eventually led to the birth of ByteDance.
The company began in a four-bedroom Beijing apartment where the team lived and worked in the early days. But Zhang said the condition was quite decent for a startup, and the neighbourhood is lovely.
The entrepreneur recalled a slogan he once saw at a construction site that reads, ‘small place, big dream.’ “The biggest room was like 10 square meters,” he said. “Our ideas were very big. We could talk about globalization in a small apartment.”
His vision for the company was not limited to China like most entrepreneurs; he planned to expand the company world over. However, this vision was not shared by most venture capitalists. Despite multiple efforts, he failed to secure funds until Susquehanna International Group invested in the startup, seeing the project’s potential.
In August 2012, ByteDance launched the Toutiao news app and attracted more than 13 million daily users within a span of two years. Zhang wanted to create a news platform powered by artificial intelligence, different from China’s search engine Baidu. “We push information, not by queries, bu rather by news recommendations,” he said.
“The most important thing is that we are not a news business,” Zhang said. “We are more like a search business or a social media platform. We are doing very innovative work. We are not a copycat of a U.S. company, both in product and technology.”
Zhang’s management style with ByteDance was modelled after U.S. tech companies such as Microsoft and Google. It included bi-monthly town hall meetings and discouraged employees from referring to him as ‘boss’ or ‘CEO,’ as per the Chinese norm.
In September 2015, ByteDance launched its video-sharing app TikTok (known as Douyin in China) with a small fanbase. The product was an instant hit with Gen Z and millennials and became popular worldwide in the following years. ByteDance bought Musical.ly, a Chinese social media service a year later for US$800 million and integrated it into TikTok.
According to Pitchbook, the company is now worth $75 billion, making it the most valuable privately held company globally. The company also owns several social networking apps that operate within China. TikTok has emerged as the No. 1 non-gaming iOS app in the U.S; Business Insider reported in September 2021. The app is one of the most popular social networks among American teens and has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.
Talking about his experience with the app, he says, “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. But later on we 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 push-ups. It was a big step for me.”
This step also helped him understand how to perfect the app based on his and his employees’ experiences with TikTok. Employees reported that Zhang’s leadership style is ‘soft-spoken yet charismatic, logical yet passionate, young yet wise.’
Talking about the future of the app, he says, “I want the app to continue to grow abroad, and hope that ByteDance will be ‘as borderless as Google’ one day.”
In conclusion, he says, “We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist. Just like there was an international division of labour in the industrial age, in today’s information age there’s also an international division of labour. Chinese entrepreneurs must also improve their own capabilities as they go global.”