Profile: Zhang Imin

A modest programmer from the province who opened the TikTok world with big ways to the world market.

Getty Photos

In 2019, not a single entertainment application was spoken so often and loudly as about the Chinese TikTok. He won with equal success American, European and Asian adolescents, uniting them in a huge community within himself. Prior to this, it was not possible to anyone, including Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

The 36-year-old head of Bytedance, Zhang Imin, is responsible for this. Modest and non-public, he built an IT empire in an era when it seemed that this market had long been divided. Zhang stubbornly keeps himself in the shadows, while his company, tacking reputational scandals and Chinese censorship, confidently conquers the international market through TikTok and other projects.

Zhang started work as a programmer, but lost his job due to Chinese censorship.

In 1976, when one of the main figures of Chinese communism and the head of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, died in Beijing, hardly anyone could say with certainty how much this would affect the country’s economic course. With his departure , the large-scale liberalization of the economy began slowly , which allowed many residents to turn to the technology business for the first time.

One of those who assumed the new job was Zhang’s father. He left the civil service in the field of science and opened in the industrial city of Dongguan, near Hong Kong, a small factory for the production of electronics. This was reflected in the children’s interests of Zhang, who was born near the island of Taiwan in the province of Fujian in 1983.

In 2001, the young man entered the Nankai University. Initially, Zhang studiedmicroelectronics, but a year later he switched to software engineering. In addition to his studies, Zhang’s student life consisted almost entirely of coding and repairing friends’ computers. One day, the part-time job paid off on an unusual side – Zhang began dating, and later married a group mate who asked to fix her computer.

Standard student entertainment, such as playing cards or drinking, did not interest Zhang. Restrained and modest, the young man rarely went out without books, which were most often biographies of celebrities. “I read many biographies of great people. You can learn a lot from them, ” said theentrepreneur.

With a diploma in programming, a specialty still earning status, he was one of the first to get a job at Kuxun. She worked on the site of the same name to find favorable air tickets. As Zhang admitted later, one of his strengths was the ability to be interested not only in his area of ​​responsibility, coding, but also in the product itself.

Reflecting on what the buyer needs, he added a function to the site that automatically notified users about profitable promotions, instead of waiting for them to find the right offer. The idea caught on, and Zhang realized that customers do not always know what they want.

The psychology of people worried Zhang and beyond. For a while he worked in the Chinese branch of Microsoft, but soon left. He did not likethat in a large corporation his work was too distant from people who use the final product.

In 2008, the programmer joined the Fanfou team, known for the eponymous “Chinese Twitter”. The companies predicted success, the microblogging format got accustomed perfectly, but in June 2009, the unexpected happened – mass protests of the local population in the city of Urumqi because of Chinese killing of the local population. It was there that the unrest originated, which in the future led to mass surveillance of the locals and their severe suppression .

The popularity of Fanfou played against the application – due to the fact that many protesters coordinated their actions through it, the authorities intervened in the work of the company and demanded to close the project. The manual has obeyed . Coincidentally, two months later, Sina Weibo was launched – a microblogging service that occupied the free market and became one of the main social networks in China.

Fanfou registration page. 
In 2010, the site earned again, but did not achieve the same success.

Together with the management and employees of Fanfou, Zhang observed how, in the field where he had recently worked hard, the new company was entrenched, and its contribution was lost. But suddenly a new perspective appeared before him: Kuxun, the company of which he owned a small part, was sold to TripAdvisor, and Zhang was relied on to share. At her businessman and opened a business firm Bytedance.

Zhang used to be Google and Tencent realized that the future was behind algorithmic ribbons, earning from it

After blocking Google services in 2010 and fighting Western IT services, the technological industry boom came to China. Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba have dividedthis market by launching successful and profitable services and social networks. But they did not take into account future changes – the time of newspapers and the desktop as usual ways of reading news was rapidly ending, and smartphones and smart tape technology replaced them.

Zhang was shrewd. He believed that when opening news sites, people often do not themselves know what they are interested in reading. Therefore, it is necessary to entrust this task to artificial intelligence, which, thanks to the algorithms, will offer each user only that content that corresponds to his interests.

Zhang in the early years of work. Bytedance Photos from his personal archive.

However, when in 2012, the 29-year-old Zhang first came up with the ideas of such an application and asked for money to start, investors doubted that he would benefit where Tencent or Google had not done it yet. “At first, since the founding of Bytedance, people often stopped paying attention to me and started a conversation with my colleagues immediately after we were introduced because of my childish appearance,” the entrepreneur shared .

Problems with the search for investors were also explained by Zhang’s personal philosophy. He sought financial independence from Chinese IT giants, Tencent, Baidu, or Alibaba, and wanted to find foreign investors. These searches led to the fact that the company did not have enough money to pay for an ordinary apartment in Beijing, where the team built an office.

“We huddled together on cheap furniture, but those were happy times. Every day seemed encouraging, and, more importantly, we created something valuable,  Zhang recalled . Sometimes they could barely pay a monthly rent for an apartment – 20 thousand yuan (approximately 183 thousand rubles).

In August 2012, Zhang nevertheless achieved his goal – Bytedance launched the Toutiao news aggregator, which, based on algorithms, recommends each user with suitable content. “The most important thing is that we do not work in the news business. We are more like a search business or social network, – said abusinessman in 2017, emphasizing that Toutiao has no journalists or editors, – We are engaged in innovation. We do not copy the product and technological ideas of American companies. ”

“Indeed, we initially did not take [Toutiao] seriously,” one Tencent manager admittedanonymously . In the first year after launch, Zhang’s service became popular, offering Chinese users a fresh approach to news. But the belief in success did not come immediately.

In 2013, Google announced the closure of its RSS-aggregator, which sent content to subscribers based on their preferences. Then Zhang, rarely giving interviews and appearing in public, gave an essay to WeChat (owned by competitive Tencent) and announced that the problem was not in technology, but in the Google approach. The service turned out to be unfriendly, because people were forced to decide for themselves what was interesting for them, instead of the algorithms doing it for them, the businessman considered .

The headquarters of Tencent, which in the future became one of the main competitors of BytedanceGetty Photo

In 2017, Toutiao used 120 million daily, and the total audience reached 600 million. By this time, top managers of the Asian branch of Microsoft and Uber China were dragged into the aggregator team.

The reality behind the loud indicators looked like this: the main interest among Toutiao users were materials with provocative headings. As written by The Verge, most of the content in Toutiao has little to do with education.

According to the South China Morning Post, in a closed meeting, Zhang himself admitted such a position. In 2018, one of the investors wondered why Toutiao and his counterparts are fixated on social issues, celebrity gossip and obscene jokes.

“Every time we conduct internal tests, the results show that the number of views of articles falls when alternative content like an international agenda, science or technology is submitted ,” said Zhang.

The success of Toutiao and the estimate of the cost of Bytedance in 2017 at $ 20 billion showed that Zhang managed to create a successful startup in an era when China’s IT market was managed by Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. The entrepreneur did not plan to stop: the company soon created or bought out six more projects. Among them are four platforms for creating entertaining short videos that have become the practice field of the future.

By creating TikTok, Zhang opened the company a unique way to an international audience, which Chinese IT had not been able to

Thoughts on creating an application with short videos of vital in Bytedance since 2014, but then the company was afraid that it would not be able to with similar services from Tencent and Weibo. But these same fears didn’t stop two Chinese entrepreneurs, Alex Zhu and Luu Yang, who created the same year.

In this teen-oriented app, users recorded videos from 15 seconds to a minute. Then they connected the recording with songs or sounds, and also applied filters and effects. For a random person, what was happening in looked like chaos, but the application quickly rose to the first position in the App Store, becoming the most downloaded in the US.

A selection of popular videos in

The authors dreamed of making a video-based social network from the service – and it worked out. Interest in was shown by Disney, Apple, Facebook and Bytedance. Zhang’s company went further and copied the concept of the application for its counterpart, called Douyin. It quickly crushed competitors in China, while focused on foreign audiences.

Like all major IT firms in China, Zhang dreamed of finding a way to a Western audience. The most sensible solution turned out to be the easiest – Bytedance absorbed (the exact amount of the transaction was not disclosed, but varies in the region of a billion dollars).

All 100 million active users of the application were transferred to the new service – TikTok, while Douyin has not gone anywhere. Bytedance intentionally made two versions of the same application (Chinese and international) to avoid violating Chinese law. “Instead of focusing only on the domestic market, we went abroad,” recalled Zhang.

After purchasing, Bytedance updated the app’s recommendation engine and added the ability to respond to the video. All this gave a sense of belonging and formed a community. According to a former employee of the company, a week after that, users began to stay in the app by 3% longer – a great success in the industry, where 3% per year is considered a good indicator, noted in the WSJ.

After the success of TikTok, Zhang almost never used the application. He explainedthat the social network was “designed for young people”, but obliged managers to upload their videos there. If someone’s videos were not gaining enough “likes,” the guilty employee publicly wrung out.

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A post shared by Zhang Yiming (@yimzhang) on

Zhang rarely publishes anything on social networks, and even more rarely – photos of himself

With success came criticism. Technology companies have begun to accuse Bytedance of copying American innovations, including those from Snapchat. By analogy with him, TikTok really added videos that disappear after a certain period of time (like “Stories” on Instagram), as well as some editing functions and the principles of searching for new videos.

But the modernization of the heir to and competent copying of foreign innovations is not all that allowed TikTok to become the most discussed application since 2018. According to the WSJ, that year Bytedance allocated a billion dollars for a service advertisement. YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, VKontakte – there is not a single large social network where advertisements for a Chinese app would appear.

In the midst of the campaign, TikTok was advertised even on TNT, and in the first months there appeared official accounts for the group Little Big, rapper Timati, models Diana Melison, comedian Garik Kharlamov and video blogger Mariana Ro. The culmination of the advertising procession was advertising on Times Square on New Year’s Eve. At the moment when thousands of people gathered on the street in anticipation, and dozens of cameras broadcast the final countdown to the end of 2018, the TikTok logo appeared on an interactive billboard.

The end of 2018 was marked for Zhang’s company with another occasion for celebration. In October, the value of Bytedance was estimated at 75 billion dollars, which made the company the most expensive startup in history.

For seven years, Zhang has created a startup that is being honored the status of an empire, where the main product is TikTok

For many parents, TikTok is perceived as an annoying and harmful application for children. “She talked with us only when she asked us to record a video for TikTok with her,” said Maulydia Yusliwan, a 23-year-old Indonesian resident, about a ten-year-old cousin.

Such complaints were not unique: in July 2018, with the submission of the Ministry for the Protection of Children and Women’s Unions in Indonesia, TikTok was blocked for “pornography, blasphemy, and obscene content.” A week later, the service reported the elimination of problems and achieved the removal of the lock.

TikTok’s meme collections have long been familiar to YouTube

The US government also takes seriously the growing influence of TikTok. According to the WSJ, US officials are discussing a possible threat to national security from the Chinese application. And the May decree of Donald Trump, giving the government the authority to block the services of “foreign opponents” of the United States, and aimed at Huawei, could be a mechanism for influencing Bytedance in the future.

Zhang Imin with Apple CEO Tim Cook, October 2018 AP Photo

All the seven years of operation, Bytedance has been able to work more or less quietly under the conditions of Chinese censorship, which is important for the company’s many foreign investors. However, in April 2018, the company had to close the humorous app Neihan Duanzi after complaints from the Chinese authorities.

The government considered the content in the service, according to the concept similar to Reddit, too obscene and offensive. Despite an audience of 17 million people and a friendly community inside the app, Zhang, who probably did not forget about censorship Fanfou in 2009, publicly apologized for taking the company along the “wrong path.”

However, the closure of the application did not discourage Zhang from experimenting and competing. Bytedance is considered a startup and can hardly compete in profit with Tencent or Baidu, but the media compare Zhang’s company with an “empire”. This is not surprising, given the areas to which Zhang’s company plans to expand.

  • Bytedance plans to enter the streaming market and has acquired exclusive rights to movies and TV shows for its Xigua Video application. Its rivals in this field are iQiyi (one of the largest online video platforms in the world), Tencent Video and Youku Tudou (owned by Alibaba);
  • In October 2018, Bytedance launched an online store in China to buy food, clothing, home and leisure goods;
  • In October 2018, the head of the Asia-Pacific region on Instagram left theposition for the post of director of global politics at Bytedance. At the same time, for the positions in the Chinese startup, the heads of the Indonesian and Japanese branches of Facebook left;
  • In November 2018, Bytedance entered into a partnership with the NBA, allowing it to broadcast bright moments, backstage events and recording matches to TikTok and Toutiao;
  • In January 2019, Bytedance released WeChat, a competitor , the Duoshan messenger, similar to Snapchat. In it, users can upload and send short videos to each other, which disappear after 72 hours;
  • In May 2019, it became known that Bytedance is developing its own smartphone. According to media reports, a phone with pre-installed applications of the company is Zhang’s “old dream”;
  • In June 2019 in Bytedance moved former top manager of Facebook and Yahoo Blake Chanldi. In a Chinese company, he is involved in the international promotion of TikTok;
  • In June 2019, WSJ reported that Bytedance was interested in purchasing Snapchat, Twitter and the Quora online issues site.

As for TikTok, since its launch it has evolved from a collection of silly videos into a place of concentration of a large community, who comes up with new entertainment and flash mobs every day. At the same time, The New York Times newspaper wrote , TikTok is almost completely devoid of everything that Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or other services are criticized for — including aggressive media, propaganda, or content with elements of violence. In fact, this is not the case – according to the tag “selfpharm” you can find many publications related to self-inflicted wounds.

The same opinion as NYT is shared by reporter Michael Spencer, who called the TikTok format much more “inspiring than the tedious story of Instagram stories on Instagram.” “In TikTok, everyone, for the most part, is just having fun. Users live in the moment, or create a new one – the weirder the better, ” says The Verge column on the same topic.

As WSJ wrote, some top managers in IT firms believe that TikTok will suffer the fate of Vine – a platform for short clips that quickly gained an audience in 2013, but closed three years later. But if Twitter, which owns Vine, was convinced that it was impossible to make money on the application, TikTok should not have any problems with this – advertising blocks can be easily embedded in the tape.

A selection of the ten most popular flash mobs in TikTok for the month. 
Similar content in the application is generated daily.

Moreover, Vine occupied a niche market, and a small number of users produced high-quality content. Whereas the authors of TikTok have set up algorithms so that they promote content from different people to users. In parallel with this in TikTok drag the popular stars. At least one agreement with Instagram celebrity, implying the publication of one video in the Chinese service, cost Bytedance a million dollars.

Large-scale advertising costs led to the fact that, by the end of 2018, Bytedance revenue for the first time did not exceed forecasts and amounted to about 7.4 billion dollars. Sources from Bloomberg also explained this by the delay in monetization of applications and the slowdown in economic growth in China. However, in October 2019, it became known that Zhang, who started a company in a cramped apartment, reached $ 13 billion, and the monthly audience of Bytedance users exceeded a billion people.

Bytedance Office in Beijing Photo by Bloomberg

But while the successes and failures of Bytedance are described by leading economic publications, Zhang himself remains in the shadows. He still barely appears in public, and the name of his wife – the one with which the businessman met as a student in a hostel – is not mentioned at all in the media. In June 2019, he refused to talk with The Wall Street Journal: he never really spoke to the American business press.

Zhang gave his biggest “interview” in 2016 to university graduates working in the product department at Toutiao. In a big speech, he mostly talked about youth, and how to use its qualities, curiosity, optimism and dissatisfaction with mediocrity, leads to success. He concluded by saying that sometimes startups can offer more than corporations.

You should be able to argue which profession you choose, which company, which profession and which path. These elections should not be short-term. Many people wanted to go to companies with foreign investments and not work in start-ups. In 2007, many classmates asked me about choosing a profession, and I invited them to go to Baidu instead of IBM (a major US software maker – ) or Microsoft.

But many thought in the short term: foreign companies are more famous and pay more. But I will remind you of the truth that you have heard many times. When I finished my studies, my salary ranged from three to five thousand yuan (from 27 thousand to 45 thousand rubles) per month, which, in truth, is negligible. The short term payment difference is not important. However, few people are able to understand this and judge correctly.

Zhang Imin head bytedance

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