5 min read.
In November 2018, ByteDance became the world’s most valuable startup at US$75 billion, clinching the title from reigning champion Uber, valued at US$72 billion at the time. Despite its relatively nascent entry into the industry, ByteDance’s rapidly expanding reach and ever-growing popularity have enabled it to become a close competitor of incumbent Chinese tech giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. In the first quarter of 2020, China Internet Watch has identified ByteDance (64.4%) to be the next-best performing in terms of mobile reach, after Tencent (96.4%), Alibaba (93.3%) and Baidu (86.2%).
Behind the extensive media coverage of ByteDance’s economic success, here are seven lesser known fun facts about ByteDance that will help you better understand the success story of the emerging tech giant.
- ByteDance’s Founder and CEO Zhang Yiming switched majors several times in university. Zhang Yiming first enrolled as a biology major at Nankai University, a top 20 university in China. In an interview with Tsinghua University, Zhang Yiming expressed that his desire to pursue biology stemmed from his fascination with the fact that the laws of biology are elegant and simple themselves, although they govern complex organisms and ecosystems. He then transferred to microelectronics (or electrical engineering), a subject he was also interested in, but which offered few opportunities for him to apply the skills he had learned. Finally, he transferred to software engineering in the second half of his sophomore year, where he remained until he graduated.
Zhang Yiming’s unconventional journey in university inspired him to adapt methods in software engineering to the biological concept of having simple laws govern complex ecosystems. The same philosophy is reflected in ByteDance, a company built with the purpose of designing easy-to-use platforms that can help users navigate complex information.
- The first product that ByteDance launched was Toutiao (头条), and this idea came about on the Beijing metro. In a speech he gave to students at Nankai University in 2015, Zhang Yiming revealed that he had noticed fewer people reading newspapers on the subways. Instead, smartphones were becoming increasingly popular and common, which prompted him to conclude that smartphones would eventually replace newspapers to become the most prominent platform for information dissemination. As someone who was constantly brainstorming ways to discover information more efficiently, Zhang Yiming was inspired to venture into digital news distribution. Shortly after, he founded ByteDance in his four-bedroom apartment in Beijing and proceeded to launch Toutiao, a news platform that delivered customized content to users using Artificial Intelligence.
- Despite having risen to fame and recognition in light of ByteDance’s tremendous success, Zhang Yiming disliked publicity, rarely giving interviews and public speeches. In fact, apart from staying out of the public eye personally, Zhang Yiming has made privacy a top priority at ByteDance as well. The company has consistently remained private regarding its current operations and future plans; few industry analysts have visited the company and its employees are prohibited from speaking with journalists without the company’s permission. According to what two employees told Nikkei Asian Review in response to interview requests, violation of the rule would mean dismissal.
- Bytedance has a unique hiring policy that differs from the majority of the Chinese tech sector. In many prominent Chinese tech companies like Tencent and Baidu, priority is given to the most qualified individuals, particularly those with overseas qualifications and expansive track records. On the contrary, ByteDance focuses on hiring the most suitable people who are able to bring fresh and valuable ideas to the table, even if it means they are fresh graduates without abundant experience in the industry. This is seemingly a reflection of Zhang Yiming’s personal experiences, having never studied nor worked overseas. In a blogpost in 2019, Zhang Yiming mentioned that many product managers in ByteDance would not have been able to work at the company if they had adopted hiring policies similar to that of many other tech companies. He emphasized that ByteDance focuses on hiring the “right people”, regardless of “educational background, work experience or [job] title”.
- ByteDance’s TikTok is the first example of a Chinese product successfully assimilating and thriving in the global market. Previously, there were many Chinese platforms which have achieved equally remarkable successes in the Chinese market as Toutiao, including Taobao, QQ, and WeChat. However, a Chinese app’s success in the global market has been unheard of, until TikTok. In a speech he presented to a group of business school students at Tsinghua University in 2018, Zhang Yiming emphasized that “Chinese companies, like their American counterparts, are born to be global”. He highlighted the importance of brand positioning when it comes to successfully entering the global market, and added that “[if] you can’t position yourself globally, you won’t be able to take advantage of global resources.” In a separate interview with South China Morning Post, he also expressed hopes of ByteDance eventually becoming “as borderless as Google”.
- Unsurprisingly, TikTok’s international success has brought about concern to incumbent global tech giants like Facebook. Following TikTok’s increasing popularity, Facebook quietly released a short-video sharing application called Lasso in 2018, as a potential competitor of TikTok. However, according to Variety in June 2020, Lasso had such a small number of users that App Annie, a reputable mobile data and analytics platform, was unable to track its usage. With effect from 10 July 2020, just two years after Lasso was launched, Facebook made the announcement to shut down the app in light of its failure at gaining traction with users.
- Chipotle was the first major restaurant chain to have an official TikTok channel and launched a TikTok campaign. While many brands have adopted the wait-and-see approach when it comes to utilizing TikTok for marketing purposes, Chipotle had done the exact opposite. In May 2018, it launched the #ChipotleLidFlip challenge in collaboration with YouTube star and Chipotle superfan David Dobrik. Within a month, the hashtag had gathered 104 million videos and 230 million views. Having witnessed the tremendous success of their first TikTok campaign, Chipotle proceeded to launch the #GuacDance challenge in July 2019. According to Forbes, the challenge generated 250,000 video submissions and 430 million video starts, making it TikTok’s highest-performing brand challenge in the United States to date.
- ByteDance’s senior employees are required to make their own TikTok videos. In an interview with South China Morning Post, Zhang Yiming emphasized the importance of experiencing the products he had developed from a user’s perspective. Despite having watched TikTok passively for a while, he found the experience to be incomplete. This realization prompted him to begin utilizing TikTok as a content creator himself, while also encouraging his employees to do so. In fact, Zhang Yiming said he had “made it compulsory for all management team members to make their own TikTok videos”, requiring them to achieve a certain number of likes on their videos, in order to avoid having to do push-ups as a punishment.