With only 38 years and more than 29,000 million euros in the account, the creator of the famous application Tik-Tok leaves the reins of the company to focus on the long-term strategy
In the West, Zhang Yiming is a great unknown to the vast majority. The name of his tech emporium, ByteDance, doesn’t say much either, even though it employs 100,000 workers and is valued at more than € 80 billion. Even so, this often bespectacled and casual businessman has managed to make more people dance, laugh or even cry than anyone else thanks to his most successful creation: TikTok, the first truly global app made in China.
That is why, after a viral year that made their numbers increase like foam (who did not set a challenge in front of the mobile during confinement?), His employees were stunned to learn that the captain leaves the helm to dedicate himself to the long-term strategy. «Actually, I lack some skills necessary to be an ideal manager (…) I am not very sociable, I prefer solitary activities such as internet, reading, listening to music and daydreaming about what is possible,» he said in a surprise email .
The application arouses suspicions in India, the US and in China itself, which puts the national interest first
With 38 years just turned and 29,000 million euros in the account – he is in the top ten of Chinese billionaires -, the president and co-founder of ByteDance is given a transition period of six months. At its conclusion, Liang Rubo, a former classmate and also co-founder of the company, which until now managed human resources, will take the reins.
Zhang’s is a recurring story in burgeoning China cemented by Deng Xiaoping. Born in 1983 in Longyan, Fujian province, he studied computer engineering at Nankai University in northeast China. A great fan of reading (his father was a bookseller), he spent those years between texts and computers, either creating web pages or providing technical support to his colleagues (this is how he met his future wife).
Upon graduation, he worked at various start-ups, including a travel search engine that ended up in the hands of Tripadvisor or a real estate portal. After a brief stint at Microsoft, in 2011 came his epiphany: the future of internet browsing will be on the smartphone.
A year later, between boxes with overheated food and some overdue invoices, ByteDance was born. One of his first successes was Jinri Toutiao, a news recommendation engine that was mutating to a platform with content in various formats. «We do something innovative, we are not a copy of an American company, neither in the product nor in the technology,» he declared in 2017. The app is still popular in China today.
But the real hit came years later. In 2016, they launched Douyin in the Chinese market, an application for creating and sharing short videos that soon swept the nation’s youth. A year later, TikTok was born, its twin sister for the international market. After a modest start, its popularity soared with the purchase and merger of Musical.ly, which already had a large user base in the United States. Now he plays in the big leagues thanks to his 2 billion downloads and almost 700 million users.
However, in these times of cold war drums, its success has earned it the misgivings of governments. As a result, India banned TikTok from its market in 2020 for national security reasons. From the White House, former President Donald Trump threatened to do the same. To calm the waters, Zhang agreed to negotiate a possible sale with Oracle, a matter that was at a standstill.
Trouble lurks at home, too. Local authorities have long scrutinized the practices of national technology companies. Last month, regulators ordered 34 of them, ByteDance included, to put «the national interest» above all else and comply with competition and consumer protection rules.
To allay potential reluctance, Alibaba was fined $ 2.8 billion for alleged monopolistic practices, and the e-commerce giant’s formerly ubiquitous founder, Jack Ma, has maintained a lower profile than ever since. With his recent decision, Zhang is the latest name to join a list that could grow in the future.
With a reputation as a tireless and ambitious worker, his withdrawal from the front is unlikely to result in a final goodbye. Meanwhile, his successor will have to face pressing issues such as a possible postponed IPO or the search for a new application with which to cement and expand his success.