Who is Yiming Zhang?
The founder of ByteDance is virtually unknown outside of China
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Bytedance for as long as I can remember. Toutiao and Douyin have become mainstream apps in China and the world is taking notice. They are taking the world by storm, and even making companies like Tencent and Facebook cringe about what this startup might become.
Yiming Zhang is the brain and founder of Bytedance that will go IPO, and when they do they could be easily valued at about $50 Billion. That would instantly make them among the world’s most valuable startups.
According to Forbes some of his accomplishments are:
- Zhang Yiming chairs Beijing ByteDance, one of China’s largest content platforms.
- The privately held company raised fresh investment funds at a valuation of $20 billion in 2017.
- Shareholders include Sequoia China funds.
- Zhang holds a degree from Nankai University where he majored in software engineering.
- Zhang was a member of the 2013 Forbes China 30 Under 30 List.
He has a personal net-worth of $4 Billion. He’s just 34 and studied software engineering. Bytedance was founded just six years ago, on March 9th, 2012. It has accomplished more than Facebook did in its first six years; this is because Bytedance has an app ecosystem based on AI, and how content is personalized. It has two of its own apps that are already mainstream successes in a country of 800 million consumers.
Toutiao has at least 173 million MAUs. Douyin has over 150 million daily domestic (China) users. Double that and you get the MAUs. These make the likes of Snapchat and Twitter look pretty small. Douyin, called “Tik Tok” in foreign countries, has a kind of viral story format that’s far more inspirational than the tedious Instagram feeds of stories.
ByteDance is seeking to build the future of content discovery and creation.
This is a far more inspirational mission statement than Facebook ever had. In 2018, we found out that social media doesn’t connect the world, it hacks the world. Facebook has been weaponized not just in politics, by misinformation but with Google has created an advertising duopoly that changed the course of ethics on the (western) internet.
ByteDance is no longer known just for the mobile app called Jinri Toutiao, or Today’s Headlines, which aggregates news and videos from hundreds of media outlets. It is today a competitor of Tencent and BAT companies for the most popular and viral apps in mainland China. Since the popular teen lip-syncing app musical.ly was acquired and merged with Douyin, its future could be very bright. Musical.ly was surprisingly popular with Western teens as well.
If localized to other markets Jinri Toutiao could quickly make other news aggregates obsolete in global markets. This is because of how ByteDance’s AI works. They recently partnered with Intel on an AI lab. ByteDance now fully understands how to build and market apps that go viral quickly. Remember, Facebook got lucky with acquisitions of other apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp; they didn’t build utility into the Facebook flagship app like WeChat did from Tencent. Facebook Messenger never became the chatbot friend we hoped it would be. Facebook is late in serving up Aloha, a device that can do Voice-AI, or is useful or has a personal assistant-like capability.
Yiming Zhang isn’t building an app, he’s Building an Empire
This isn’t some company that relies on Advertising to make incredible revenue. This is a company that leverages AI at the service of content to build incredible user experiences.
“Jinri Toutiao has massive computing and storage resources. We have more than 50 PB of daily data processing capacity, and our data storage is greater than 1500 PB. Infrastructure is the key to support the app’s development,” says ByteDance Vice President Yang Zhenyuan.
If Facebook built a surveillance net masquerading as a public utility tool that was weaponized by Russia and influenced key outcomes, ByteDance is building what comes after Facebook. Since Bytedance started from mobile and with AI, and since it’s located in China where the greatest number of consumers live, it has a distinct advantage over Facebook or Google.
The most incredible thing perhaps about Yiming Zhang is that he didn’t use Tencent or Alibaba as funding sources. This means ByteDance can have its own character and challenge those older companies.
If Douyin’s monthly active users (MAU) have exceeded 300 million, what does that mean for the rest of the world? It’s a little sister of Instagram with a younger and more Asian base.
Any app that ByteDance produces now is almost guaranteed to succeed. How can you compete with WeChat in its payments, business and communications prowess in China? ByteDance creates amazing mobile experiences in other ways, in its own way.
ByteDance is misunderstood and practically unknown in the West. It’s not just the fastest growing media startups. In essence, it’s AI at the intersection of content. It probably does this the best in the world. Google should have been able to create apps, but instead all it has to show is the acquisition it made of YouTube, and a little thing called Google Maps. WhatsApp adding more features or Instagram stealing stories from Snapchat isn’t innovation.
Yiming Zhang is therefore accomplishing what Mark Zuckerberg never could, in far shorter a time period. Facebook has had more than double the lifespan of ByteDance, yet by focusing too much on Ads, it lost the ability even to keep up with the future.
ByteDance does micro video already better than Facebook likely ever will. Douyin does immersive stories likely better than Instagram ever will. That’s a problem for the future of Facebook, if I might be so bold as to point out the obvious. Douyin’s micro videos are as varied as life. Instagram stories are not very varied; they are quite repetitive and somewhat irrelevant from an audience perspective. There’s no AI to personalize them to our interests; the “next feed” that will take over traditional feeds is kind of dumb.
That’s ByteDance’s specialty, targeting to the audience interests with AI. Retaining users is not just about how big your network is (Facebook), but the quality of experiences you actually can give them (ByteDance). As global users start to leave social media apps, they want video-first experiences. YouTube can rack up a lot of traffic, but it’s just one platform — like just one place a vlogger or a video creator might find a good future.
You cannot really find articles that make much sense of ByteDance in western tech news publications. This is why you have to read the likes of TechNode, just to get your feet wet. It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to take a bow; personally I think Zhang Yiming will one day eclipse him. ByteDance will be the biggest IPO in 2019 and could even hit a valuation of $75 Billion. The Government crackdown on content may have hurt ByteDance in early 2018, but the IPO route could strengthen it considerably as a result.
Either way ByteDance will keep making hit apps. Pipixia is the name of its re-launched jokes app. Bytedance will continue also to acquire important apps to improve its ecosystem, where News Republic, musical.ly and Flipagram were just the beginning. It could one day acquire Snapchat, which may be one of the only western apps that would complement its arsenal. The world doesn’t realize what ByteDance is, but it will.