Zhang Yiming: The Self-made Billionaire and Entrepreneur Behind TikTok Boom

Zhang Yiming
Source: SCMP

At only 36 years of age, the founder behind one of the most viral social media platforms now has a net worth of $16.2 billion.

Given the monumental and widespread surge in popularity of video-streaming service TikTok, it has managed to churn out a new generation of social media stars as well as a new social media billionaire. Zhang Yiming, 36, is the serial entrepreneur behind TikTok which has more than captured the attention of Generation Z tech-savvy youngsters worldwide while he continues to build his social media conglomerate. 

The founder and chief executive of Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., one of China’s largest internet technology conglomerates, is quickly eclipsing other online content platforms with its unrivalled ability to draw interest from a wide variety of audience.

But despite being one of the wealthiest people in China, Zhang is extremely private and little is known of his personal life even with his work’s wide-reaching audience.

His early life

Born in Fujian, China in 1983, Zhang Yiming was brought up by parents who worked as civil servants. He went to school at Nankai University where he majored in microelectronics and software engineering. 

When he graduated in 2005, he formed a 3-person team and developed an IAM system made specifically for corporate clients. However, to his dismay, he realized the market wasn’t ready then for the technological advancement he was offering. Their start-up failed as China at that time was not as open to the concept of collaborative offices.

The start of his professional career

Afterwards, Zhang began another career working for a travel website, Kuxun, which was later acquired by Tripadvisor. He then went on to work a little while in Microsoft, before focusing all his energy on producing his own applications and founding several start-ups of his own. 

In 2011, Zhang caught a whiff of the shifting global phenomenon of people opting for smartphones than computers. During this time, Snapchat was the one to beat for its user-friendly UI and interesting visual concept used primarily by teenagers across different countries. It was also during 2012 that Baidu’s embedded advertising that came with their news started gaining more attention.

Yiming then wanted to develop a platform whose results were powered by an AI algorithm, in an attempt to divorce from the powerful Chinese search engine, Baidu. It was then he launched Toutiao, an AI-based news recommendation engine that tailored news based on a user’s interests without the help of any editorial staff or human intervention.

The app quickly gained more users and was getting almost a million downloads, which led him to partner with Chinese smartphone manufacturers to embed his program directly into their new phone models. 

Based on the success of his news engine venture, he also wanted to develop an application where users could create short videos that ranged from lip-syncing, talent, or comedy. He wanted an accessible video platform that gave users the freedom to post content they liked so long as it fit the short time frame, making the archive easier to binge as compared to full-length videos. 

He named this short-video platform Douyin, known as TikTok anywhere else, and released it in 2016. Zhang also acquired the popular US app Musical.ly for $1 billion and merged it with TikTok, creating the perfect marriage of an international venture. To engage the younger audience, he integrated AI to recommend similar content to the users based on their preferences and searches.

His entrepreneurial mindset

Zhang Yiming’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident from the choice of companies he worked for post his graduation in 2005 – they were all startups. Yiming started 99fang.com in 2009, and later (in 2011) hired a CEO to run things at 99fang.com – he wanted to focus on building another venture, ByteDance. He founded ByteDance in 2012.

The entrepreneurial spirit he held has always been evident from his choice of companies to work for post-graduation in 2005. They were almost all exclusively start-ups. He also developed his own website, 99fang.com, in 2009 and later hired a CEO to run things as he wanted to focus on another growing venture of his that was quickly gaining more attention, ByteDance.

It is evident he made the right choice of delegating things, as ByteDance is now worth $75 billion, making it the most valuable privately held company in the world.

ByteDance owns several social networking applications that operate exclusively in China. They also worked on releasing a WeChat rival called FlipChat, and then another video-messaging app called Duoshan in 2019, due to the sudden popularity of digital mediums like social media and online gaming like goldenslot. Zhang’s privately-held company is backed by several noteworthy shareholders such as Sequoia Capital China, SoftBank Group Corp., KKR & Co. and General Atlantic. 

Through his successful business partnerships, TikTok became the most downloaded iOS app worldwide. By September 2018, TikTok had surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs, with more than one billion downloads.

When asked for advice on how to achieve success such as his, Zhang Yiming had this to say.

“I think young people have many advantages: they don’t set up unnecessary rules and boundaries upon themselves, they don’t have too much of a big ego to defend, they can often break the routine, they are very hardworking, uncompromising, and they are not sleek.”

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