Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, which has rapidly become a global social media phenomenon.

Zhang Yiming – The Success Story of the Founder of TikTok

Zhang Yiming is the visionary behind Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., one of China’s largest and fastest-growing internet technology conglomerates. Among ByteDance’s impressive portfolio of applications is TikTok, the video-based social media platform that has become a global sensation, particularly among Gen Z. ByteDance, founded in 2012, also includes Toutiao, a widely-used content platform in China. With a valuation of $75 billion and around 1 billion monthly users worldwide, ByteDance is recognized as one of the world’s most valuable startups.

Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, which has rapidly become a global social media phenomenon.

Born in 1983 in Fujian, a southeastern coastal province of China, Zhang belongs to a generation of Chinese millennials who have witnessed and benefited from China’s economic reforms. Fujian was one of the first regions in mainland China to open up to the world, which played a significant role in shaping Zhang’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Zhang’s journey mirrors the stories of many Western tech entrepreneurs, marked by humble beginnings and a relentless pursuit of success through trial and error. He graduated from Nankai University in 2005, initially studying microelectronics before switching his major to software engineering.

After graduation, Zhang joined a startup where he acquired essential skills that would later lay the groundwork for his own ventures. Reflecting on his early career, he said, “I joined a company called Kuxun and I was one of the first employees. I started as an ordinary engineer, but by the second year, I was managing about 40 to 50 people, handling back-end technology and other product-related tasks.” This rapid progression and his innate ability to master new skills propelled Zhang into a prominent figure in the tech industry.

During his tenure at Kuxun, Zhang learned the importance of excellence and responsibility. He stated, “Although I was responsible for technology, I actively participated in product planning discussions whenever issues arose. Some people said it wasn’t my job, but I believe a strong sense of responsibility and a desire to excel will drive you to take on more and gain valuable experience.”

Zhang’s proactive attitude and problem-solving skills were instrumental in his career. He credited his time at Kuxun with teaching him valuable sales skills, which he later used to grow ByteDance. “I remember going to meet a client with the Sales Director in late 2007. This experience showed me what good salesmanship is. When I founded Toutiao and started recruiting, these lessons were invaluable.”

In 2009, Zhang launched his first business, a property search site called 99fang.com. Although he left the company three years later, the experience ignited his entrepreneurial drive. In 2012, he founded ByteDance, aiming to provide news aggregation services through innovative technology.

Zhang noticed that Chinese smartphone users struggled to find relevant information on mobile apps and that Baidu, the leading search engine, was cluttered with undisclosed ads. He envisioned using artificial intelligence to push relevant content to users, leading to ByteDance’s creation.

ByteDance started in a modest four-bedroom Beijing apartment where the team lived and worked. Zhang fondly recalled a slogan he saw at a construction site: “small place, big dream.” He said, “Our biggest room was about 10 square meters, but our ideas were enormous. We discussed globalization in that small apartment.”

Zhang’s vision for ByteDance was global, unlike many of his contemporaries. Despite initial challenges in securing funding, Susquehanna International Group recognized the potential and invested in the startup.

In August 2012, ByteDance launched the Toutiao news app, which attracted over 13 million daily users within two years. Zhang aimed to differentiate Toutiao from Baidu by using AI to recommend news rather than relying on search queries. “We push information through recommendations, not by queries,” he explained.

Zhang modeled his management style after U.S. tech giants like Microsoft and Google, incorporating bi-monthly town hall meetings and discouraging employees from calling him ‘boss’ or ‘CEO.’

In September 2015, ByteDance launched TikTok (known as Douyin in China). The app quickly became popular with Gen Z and millennials, eventually gaining a worldwide following. ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly for $800 million in 2017 and its integration into TikTok further boosted its success.

Today, ByteDance is worth $75 billion, making it the most valuable privately-held company globally. TikTok has become the top non-gaming iOS app in the U.S. and one of the most popular social networks among American teens, with over 1 billion downloads.

Reflecting on his experience with TikTok, Zhang said, “Initially, I only watched TikTok videos without creating any myself, as it’s mainly for young people. But we later made it mandatory for all management team members to create TikTok videos and achieve a certain number of likes, or do push-ups. It was a big step for me.”

This initiative helped Zhang and his team refine the app based on their personal experiences. Employees describe Zhang’s leadership style as ‘soft-spoken yet charismatic, logical yet passionate, young yet wise.’

Looking ahead, Zhang hopes to see TikTok continue to grow internationally and for ByteDance to become as borderless as Google. He concluded, “We must work harder and strive for perfection. In today’s information age, there is an international division of labor. Chinese entrepreneurs must enhance their capabilities as they go global.


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