From an ordinary tech engineer to one of China’s richest man – The journey of TikTok’s Zhang Yiming


ByteDance’s founder started out as an ordinary tech engineer who made the wildly successful apps TikTok and Jinri Toutiao. He’s now worth US$16.2 billion

Zhang Yiming’s name is derived from a Chinese proverb that translates to surprising everyone with a first attempt.

However, the tech entrepreneur’s path has not been an overnight success.

During his time at university, Zhang switched his major from microelectronics to software engineering. However, he did meet his wife at Nankai University. The couple have yet to add children to the mix.

“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” – Zhang Yiming

Feeling stifled by corporate rules, he left a lucrative career at Microsoft to join a start-up called Fanfou, which did not take off.

His journey has been one of extreme ups and downs.

“In 2005, I graduated from Nankai University and joined a company called Kuxun. 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,” he said in a speech to employees at a Toutiao boot camp.

Zhang Yiming is the founder of ByteDance, the parent company of popular apps Jinri Toutiao and TikTok.

Zhang attributes his quick ascent to a work ethic that transcended the boundaries of his responsibilities.

“At that time, I was responsible for the technology, but when the product had problems, and I would actively participate in the discussion of product plan. A lot of people say this is not what I should be doing. But I want to say: your sense of responsibility and your desire to do things well, will drive you to do more things and to gain experience,” he said.

An engineer at the time, Zhang’s experience and involvement in the business sector eventually proved useful in his own ventures.

“I remember that at the end of 2007, I went to meet the client with the sales director. This experience let me know what sales are good sales. When I established Toutiao and recruited staff, these examples helped me a lot,” he recalled.

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It’s paid off handsomely. Today, the 36-year-old is among the richest in China with an estimated US$16.2 billion net worth.

He derives most of his success from founding ByteDance, a Beijing-based technology company with several success stories under its belt.

The company is mainly known for Jinri Toutiao, a news aggregation platform, and TikTok, a popular short form video sharing platform. In June, a company executive stated that the company had hit more than one billion active users across its apps earlier this year.

“Since I became an entrepreneur, I have been exposed to more and more people and experiences. When I was an engineer, my thought patterns were pretty limited. But now I must develop a product, which makes it necessary for me to understand our users and what they experience,” said Zhang.

He now makes it a point to participate on the platform and ropes in his employees too.

“For a very long time, I was merely watching TikTok videos without making any of them myself, because it’s a product mainly for young people,” said Zhang.

“But later on we made it compulsory for all management team members to make their own TikTok videos, and they must win a certain number of ‘likes’. Otherwise, they have to do push-ups. It was a big step for me.”

The All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce and the United Front Work Department has named Zhang Yiming in a list of 100 entrepreneurs noted for their “great achievements in the development of the private economy” over the past 40 years.

Last October, Zhang secured a US$3 billion funding round that valued ByteDance at around US$75 billion. Investors in ByteDance include General Atlantic, SoftBank, KKR & Co and Primavera Capital Group, according to Crunchbase.

The All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce and the United Front Work Department also named him in a list of 100 entrepreneurs noted for their “great achievements in the development of the private economy” over the past 40 years.

At a conference, Zhang said that Toutiao’s daily active user growth would be capped at an additional 40 million if it did not increase its value to users.

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“For a very long time, I was merely watching TikTok videos without making any of them myself, because it’s a product mainly for young people”– Zhang Yiming

His other notable hit TikTok differentiates itself from your ordinary destination for short-form mobile video. On its site, it describes itself as “raw, real and without boundaries, It’s from the gut, ‘come as you are’ storytelling told in 15 seconds”.

According to market research firm Sensor Tower, the app hit one billion downloads worldwide in February. Known as Douyin in China, TikTok’s global popularity and influence has helped him to see beyond China.

“We have a group chat in which we see videos made by users from outside China every day, from countries like Brazil and Vietnam. It makes you realise that the world is a very big place, and it expands your horizons. It makes our life much more interesting,” said Zhang.

He knows there is much to be done as he expands globally to match his ambitions.

“We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist. Just like there was an international division of labour in the industrial age, in today’s information age there’s also an international division of labour. Chinese entrepreneurs must also improve their own capabilities as they go global,” he said.

“Google is a company without borders. I hope Toutiao will be as borderless as Google. Personally, I hope to do things that are interesting and meaningful to society.”

His ambitions have not faltered in any way. In fact, Zhang is still finding new ground to break.

ByteDance recently confirmed that it is going to diversify its portfolio from software to hardware with the launch of its own smartphone. The resulting product is rumoured to be seeing the light of day as early as the end of the year, according to a report by Chinese media LatePost.

Note – This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.