The billionaire tech visionary behind TikTok
The widespread popularity of TikTok has not just created a new generation of social media stars, it has also created a social media billionaire. Zhang Yiming, the 38-year-old software engineer, who founded the app’s parent company – ByteDance – is now China’s fifth richest person – and the richest resident in the Chinese capital of Beijing – with a net worth of $36 billion, according to Forbes. Despite being one of the wealthiest people in China, Zhang is extremely private and little is known about his personal life. After running the company for nearly a decade, Zhang stepped down as CEO in May this year, telling employees: “I worry, I am still relying too much on the ideas I had before starting the company, and haven’t challenged myself by updating those concepts … I think someone else can better drive progress through areas like improved daily management … The truth is, I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager. I’m more interested in analyzing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people. Similarly, I’m not very social, preferring solitary activities like being online, reading, listening to music, and daydreaming about what may be possible.”
Zhang was born in 1983 in China’s Fujian province to a civil servant couple. He graduated from Nankai University in 2005, where he started off studying microelectronics before switching his major to software engineering. Zhang’s first job out of college was at a digital travel booking startup called Kuxun. Telling the ByteDance employees about his journey, Zhang said, “I was one of first employees. And 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.” His last venture was the real estate search business 99fang.com, the first start-up he formed. The only big company he worked for was Microsoft, where he stayed just half a year. Feeling stifled by corporate rules, he left a lucrative career at Microsoft to join a start-up called Fanfou, which did not take off.
A former computer programmer Zhang started ByteDance in 2012 with his college friend and roommate Liang Rubo, the company’s human resources manager who will take over this year from Zhang as CEO. The group’s first flagship product was the immensely popular Chinese news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao, and its top-hitters now include the Chinese version of TikTok – whose kaleidoscopic feeds of 15 to 60-second clips feature everything from hair-dye tutorials to dance routines and jokes about daily life – Douyin, plus productivity app Lark.
Bytedance is now worth $250 billion, according to Bloomberg, making it the most valuable privately held company in the world. It has over 60,000 employees in more than 30 countries, and TikTok has built huge followings in the US and in Southeast Asian markets.
Yiming oversaw a handful of big acquisitions that helped ByteDance become a global name — including a 2017 deal for Musical.ly, a video-sharing app that ByteDance merged with TikTok. The popularity of its flagship app has exploded, becoming one of the only Chinese-made apps to gain significant traction outside its home country.
Even after TikTok was embroiled in a dramatic battle in the United States last year over concerns that the app posed a national security risk, it has managed to stave off a ban and remains popular. It has about 100 million users in the United States alone.
Zhang attributes his quick ascent to a work ethic that transcended the boundaries of his responsibilities.