Zhang Yiming: The billionaire tech visionary behind TikTok – Folks
Equipped with groundbreaking AI and a keen sense for youth trends, Zhang Yiming revolutionized Internet video with the popular TikTok app and made a fortune.
But at just 38, he also realized that being at the forefront of China’s wild tech scene comes at a high price for politicians and managers.
Zhang’s startup Bytedance owns the video app TikTok, whose kaleidoscopic feeds of 15- to 60-second clips offer everything from hair coloring tutorials to dance routines and daily life jokes.
The former computer programmer founded Bytedance in 2012 with his college friend and roommate Liang Rubo, the company’s HR manager, who will replace Zhang as CEO this year.
Zhang said the couple connected through a “love of computers” and bought a computer and monitor as students at one of China’s top universities in northern Tianjin City.
Then he made a name for himself helping other students install computers – and that’s how he met his college lover, whom he later married.
In a farewell memo that is not burdened by the ritual self-congratulations of top executives, Zhang said he was giving up the role because he said he lacked management skills and preferred “from what might be possible to dream ”instead of leading the tech giant.
He also hopes to focus on “social responsibility” and is already ranked as one of China’s top charitable donors.
But he is stepping back at a time when many Chinese tech companies are under great pressure as Beijing cracks down on its digital giants who are wreaking havoc on millions of Chinese consumers.
With a net worth of $ 36 billion, Zhang is now the fifth richest person in China, according to Forbes.
Although he is in the upper echelons of the Beijing Billionaires Club, Zhang described himself in his candid farewell message as “not very sociable, preferring solitary activities such as being online, reading, listening to music”.
His move to hand over the day-to-day running of the company follows similar moves by other tech tycoons, including Colin Huang of e-commerce giant Pinduoduo.
“The regulatory environment for technology companies in China is constantly changing, and it takes a lot of energy and effort,” said Shen Meng, director of Beijing-based boutique investment bank Chanson & Co..
“Wearing two hats at a company as big as ByteDance is just too stressful.”
See the right moment
The young company is proud to use artificial intelligence to personalize newsfeeds according to the interests of the users, with a keen eye for the needs of the younger generation in China.
Zhang says his company’s success is based on “being able to innovate when the moment is right”.
The group’s first flagship was the hugely popular Chinese news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao, and the top hits now include the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, and the productivity app Lark.
Bytedance has over 60,000 employees in more than 30 countries, and TikTok has built a huge following in the US and Southeast Asian markets.
“ByteDance is ripe enough to step down,” said Ke Yan, a Singapore-based analyst with DZT Research.
“He can now selectively do what he thinks is important instead of being a CEO who has to take care of the most important things.”
But the self-proclaimed daydreamer has been under tremendous pressure to convince the world that TikTok will not share data with China’s Communist Party.
Former US President Donald Trump made a spate of demands on Bytedance over security concerns, including demands to sell TikTok’s US operations to an American company or to threaten to close it.
Bytedance has also faced bans and fines in the US and Pakistan for content or data collection – and was blocked in India amid bitter tensions between Delhi and Beijing.
For Zhang, the pressure made him look for a simpler work life.
“I have come to the conclusion that moving from the role of CEO with all the daily responsibilities that goes with it would allow me to have more influence on longer-term initiatives,” he said in his statement announcing his resignation .
By retiring from the top position, the former programmer hopes to create “space” for a “more objective perspective on the company”.
– Bloomberg News contributed to this report –