The Man Behind ByteDance: Zhang Yiming

4 min read.

By now, most of us would have heard of Zhang Yiming. Contrary to his name, which in Mandarin means “surprising everyone with a first attempt”, it actually took Zhang several attempts before he successfully established this rising tech giant that we all know today as Bytedance. 

People describe Zhang’s personality as one that is closer to Pony Ma than Jack Ma. Reticent, introverted and “geeky”, many wonder how a typically soft-spoken IT geek can helm a company with 60,000 employees. Thanks to his parents, he always kept abreast of the latest technology trends and was mesmerized by entrepreneurship stories from a young age. Throughout his work life, Zhang has been blessed with extraordinary EQ and people skills, which have allowed him to endear himself to many colleagues and partners. Since graduation, he has also taken meaningful steps to sharpen his business acumen at every stage of his illustrious career.

Starting from the Ground Up

After graduating from Nankai University with a major in software engineering in 2005, Zhang made his first step into the working world with a stint at an online booking travel start-up, Kuxun. Having commenced his career as an ordinary engineer, his competence propelled him to technical director within just a year. At that time, he was already overseeing 40 to 50 people and was also responsible for product-related work and back-end technology. It did not take him long to obtain another promotion – as a small department head, and eventually becoming leader of a large one. It is natural that many have wondered how Zhang moved up the ladder so rapidly. Some believe it was because of his wealth of experience in the tech industry, while others believe it was because of his well-rounded skill set. 

An Avid Learner

At one of Zhang’s speeches, he surprisingly gave credit to none of the above, instead drawing attention to his character traits. One notable attribute is being a team player. Zhang never sets a border to what he should and should not accomplish at work. Upon completing his set tasks, he always offers his colleagues a helping hand whenever they raise problems, even if it is outside of his “job scope”. Zhang himself has said that he does not believe in the concept of limiting oneself within a “job scope”. For instance, he would study a vast amount of coding knowledge from CodeBase. Whenever a new employee was onboarded, he never failed to go through coding concepts with them, to consolidate their understanding and ensure that they duly learnt the ropes. This more often than not resulted in a win-win, as his colleague would gain a greater understanding of difficult programming concepts, while Zhang himself would refresh and reinforce his own skills. Zhang also acknowledged that this process cycle of learning and re-learning has been key to helping him grow and improve as a leader and worker. 

A Passionate and Humble Leader

Another outstanding attribute Zhang possesses is diligence. Arriving home at midnight was the norm when he was working at Kuxun. Even after he reached home, he would carry on programming into the wee hours of the morning. Zhang’s drive to work relentlessly was not because of the company’s requirements, for he exceeded them time and time again, but rather his interest and passion for what he was doing. 

Looking back at his journey at Kuxun, Zhang often expressed gratitude to his first job for honing his salesmanship, which he leveraged to grow ByteDance to the respectable behemoth it is today. As he recalls, the concept of good salesmanship was ingrained in him through his experience of meeting an important client with the Kuxun’s sales director towards the end of 2007. His experience laid the groundwork for him when it came to staff recruitment at Toutiao. 

From Learning the Ropes to Bytedance Founder

After plying his trade at Kuxun for about three years, Zhang left the company and joined Microsoft. He clearly knew what he wanted when he first joined this tech unicorn – to understand from the inside-out how corporations manage business. Nonetheless, feeling stifled by corporate rules and bureaucracy, Zhang left his lucrative and prestigious post. To many, it might have seemed crazy to spurn such a glorious opportunity. Yet to Zhang, this was just the beginning, as he soon embarked on the journey of building his very first start-up.

Zhang joined another startup initially called Fanfou, a microblogging site known as China’s rendition of Twitter; however, due to unforeseen circumstances, it failed to succeed and he moved on to his next venture. In 2009, he took over Kuxun’s real estate business wing just as it was about to be acquired by Expedia Group. At 99fang.com, he observed in detail as more users shifted from accessing information via computers to their smartphones. He believed this was an irrevocable shift and thus took to a sustained period of intense mobile development and built 5 mobile applications within the span of 6 months. These applications became viral for their ease of use, as they allowed users to view, buy and rent listings via their mobile phones. At their peak, 1.5 million users used his applications.

Fast forward to 2012, Zhang noted how difficult it was for smartphone users to find credible news sources. This occurred at a time when Baidu, the “Google of China”, often mixed undisclosed advertorials with news articles, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. It sparked his passion for creating a platform in which search results were powered by artificial intelligence, moving results closer to credibility and away from unsolicited marketing. Despite all his apparent success, Zhang was far from done. He handed over leadership at 99fang.com, meanwhile channeling his attention towards the development of Bytedance, once again augmenting the fact that his drive for success seemed to know no boundaries. 

A Problem-Solver, Innovator, and Visionary

Zhang is obsessed with observing and problem-solving. He is never shy to try new and innovative ways to solve a problem. He is a true believer of value creation, which is why outsiders see him as a bold leader who dares to challenge the norm in content sharing. To Zhang, unlike other observers and business leaders, the market is not a zero-sum game. He firmly believes that entering into any already saturated market is not merely taking a cut of the pie, but creating a bigger pie by generating genuine value on top of what incumbent players are already offering. This is best made clear in how Zhang boldly entered the busy music streaming space in Indonesia and India with Resso, despite the presence of giants Apple Music, Youtube Music, and Spotify.

The examples of his creative spirit and ethos are plenty. At his first job, Zhang spent an hour developing a small program on his own accord during his lunch break, which allowed notifications to be sent immediately whenever a train ticket was available. This solved the problem of having to search online repeatedly in real-time, making it less of a hassle to book train tickets. Where others rested, Zhang laboured. 

In 2011, Zhang had the vision to discern that fewer and fewer people read and sold physical newspapers. Simultaneously, smartphone sales were at unprecedented highs. Smartphone sales in 2011 alone were equivalent to total sales from 2008 to 2010. The revolutionary popularity and dissemination potential of smartphones made Zhang confident that there would be significant demand for personalized recommendations, and hence Toutiao was born. More than just delivering tailored content to each individual, however, Zhang firmly believes that the revolution in information dissemination will make a huge difference to society’s efficiency, cooperation, and collective knowledge. As such, though it may seem strange, Toutiao has also been used to search for ‘missing’ individuals. As of March 2018, over 5000 missing individuals were found with the help of Toutiao. 

“I never set boundaries when I do things…many people say this is not what I should do. But what I want to say is that your sense of responsibility, the motivation you have to complete a task to its full potential, will drive you to do more and gain experiences along the way.” A trailblazer, leader and warrior, although not without its challenges, it is without a doubt that Zhang has lived up to his name – the man who shocked the world.