TikTok: 36-year-old tech guru turned passion for short videos into a fortune
The Chinese billionaire behind teen phenomenon TikTok is a 36-year-old tech guru whose eye for youth trends and pioneering use of artificial intelligence has blasted the app to global success.
Zhang Yiming’s Beijing-based startup Bytedance owns TikTok, whose kaleidoscopic feeds of 15 to 60-second clips feature everything from hair-dye tutorials to dance routines and jokes about daily life.
Since launching in 2017, TikTok has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times, according to US-based research agency Sensor Tower.
It has huge followings in India, the US, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Bytedance, which Zhang founded in 2012, prides itself on using AI to personalize newsfeeds according to users’ interests.
The company has had “huge and immediate success” because it pays close attention to its young users, said Bo Ji, assistant dean of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.
“The new generation ... want to share their real feelings, whether good or bad. They are more direct and expressive,” he said.
TikTok is Bytedance’s most popular overseas app, while its other products in China and abroad include news aggregators and productivity tools.
Together they have taken Zhang — a programmer before he became a businessman — to the highest echelons of China’s billionaire club.
It is noteworthy that in 2019, he was listed in the top 20 of the Hurun China Rich List with US$13.5 billion in wealth, surpassing more established tech tycoons, such as the founder of search giant Baidu.
Zhang’s fortunes were given a huge boost with Bytedance’s 2017 acquisition of lip-syncing video app Musical.ly — later merged with TikTok — in a deal reportedly worth as much as US$1 billion.
“Mr Zhang is unusual Chinese entrepreneur,” said Bo.
“He built something for the world; he understands the young people and their psychology.”
Liu Xingliang, dean of the DCCI research center, said Zhang represents a new wave of entrepreneurs and a different breed to China’s most famous tycoon, Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
“He is “more like a young Pony Ma,” Liu said, comparing Zhang with the 48-year-old co-founder of Chinese Internet giant Tencent.
This is because Zhang “used to be a programmer, paid more attention to products and knew technology well.”
Bytedance also operates a Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin.
It is the top short video app in China, with over 400 million monthly active users, according to iResearch.
Douyin, launched in 2016, attracted users by bringing onboard top celebrities like Chinese actor and singer Kris Wu.
But Bytedance’s first flagship product was the immensely popular Chinese news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao, or “today’s headlines.”
“(Toutiao) has changed Chinese reading habits ... they will know what you like to watch, and you will have the things you like to see recommended to you,’ said Liu.
Aside from TikTok, Bytedance also runs TopBuzz in the US, an English-language news aggregation app that the company was reportedly trying to sell.
In 2016 it became a controlling stakeholder of BaBe, an Indonesian news app.
Recent reports say the company is also planning its own music streaming service to compete with Spotify and Apple.