Zhang Yiming is the founder and chief executive of Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., one of China’s largest internet technology conglomerates that is quickly eclipsing other online content platforms with its unmatched ability to draw in younger social media users. The apps in ByteDance’s portfolio include Toutiao, a popular content platform in China, as well as TikTok, the video-based social media app quickly becoming popular with Gen-Z. Founded in 2012, ByteDance is valued at $75 billion and brings in around 1 billion monthly users globally — it is considered by some as the world’s most valuable start-up.
Yiming majored in microelectronics and software engineering at Nankai University and began his career working at the travel website Kuxun, later acquired by Tripadvisor. After a short stint at Microsoft, Yiming took to producing his own apps and founded several start-ups, including a real estate search portal. Eventually, Yiming focused his efforts on news aggregation apps in 2012 to compete with Baidu’s offering of news embedded with advertising.
He first launched the content platform Toutiao, an AI-based news recommendation engine that tailors news based on users’ interests without the help of editorial staff. As the app rapidly garnered downloads by the millions, Yiming partnered with Chinese smartphone manufacturers to embed it into new phone models. ByteDance later rolled out its short-video platform Douyin (known as TikTok in the US) in 2016 and acquired the popular US app Musical.ly for $1 billion to merge it with TikTok in 2018, successfully venturing into markets abroad.
The privately held company is backed by shareholders including Sequoia Capital China, SotftBank Group Corp., KKR & Co. and General Atlantic. TikTok became the most downloaded iOS app worldwide in the first quarter of 2019, according to the US research app Sensor Tower. Its popularity has borne social phenomena such as Lil Nas X’s hit song “Old Town Road,” while brands such as Burberry, Poshmark and Calvin Klein have capitalised on its Gen-Z stronghold through popular challenges. However, Bytedance is routinely scrutinised by the Chinese government for its lack of filtering fake news and violent and sexual content for its users as young as 12 years old.