Curiosity, connection, and creativity are essential parts of human nature, and harnessing those qualities into a marketable product has led to some of the biggest business successes in history. Few people understand this better than the mysterious Chinese billionaire, Zhang Yiming, founder of the world’s most valuable startup. At just 37 years old, his company, ByteDance, has grown to a valuation of over $110 billion in the nine years since its inception, birthing several massively successful apps. The most well-known of these in the United States is TikTok, a platform that connects hundreds of millions of young adults and teens around the world.
Yiming’s upbringing was rather unorthodox for his home in China, with parents who encouraged self-expression and experimentation rather than conformity and linear ambition. His father, a computer scientist, taught him a passion for business and technology after opening an electronics processing center. The whole family was fascinated by reports of new technology from friends who had traveled overseas, and their conversations sparked in him a lifelong love of tech.
Zhang Yiming always had an insane work ethic
At Nankai University, Yiming quickly developed a reputation for being able to repair computers and other electronics and ran a small side hustle doing so for other students. While there, his interests shifted to programming, and he changed his degree from microelectronics to software engineering. Yiming became excited by the idea of building something that would bring joy and utility to a wide audience and began experimenting with app creation.
After graduating in 2005, he joined Kuxun, a startup travel website. The venture was very new at the time, and he was their first engineer hired. Within a year, his extraordinary work ethic and brilliant technological insights had been rewarded with a promotion to technical director. In this position, he had around 50 software engineers working underneath him and gained vital experience in sales, production, and management.
Although Yiming enjoyed working at the rapidly growing startup, his eyes were already looking ahead to starting his own enterprises. With that in mind, he left Kuxun in 2008 to work at Microsoft, intending to learn more about how large corporations operated. He soon felt confined and creatively stifled, however, and left to join a microblogging startup. His timing was unfortunate. Within a year, the company had become caught in the crossfire of the country’s censorship riots and was forced to close.
Zhang Yiming’s secret weapon to success
Instead of joining another new venture, Yiming decided that it was time to attempt to build his own. He created several small apps that never took off before founding 99fang, a real estate search portal, in 2009. Unlike his previous projects, 99fang became a raging success. Within two years, it was the most popular website of its kind in China. Unsatisfied, however, he hired a CEO to manage the company and left to start a new venture.
Leaving 99fang proved to be the pivotal decision in Yiming’s career. Fascinated by artificial intelligence and machine learning, he founded a new venture in 2012 with the intent of harnessing it to vastly improve user experiences. The company, ByteDance, struggled with a lack of funding from reluctant investors but created several promising lower-budget products. The success of those won them an initial investment of $3 million and allowed them to launch an AI-backed search engine and news aggregation site called Toutiao.
Toutiao was unique at the time for its ability to use machine-learning algorithms and produce highly tailored news content for the user. It grew enormously and quickly, and it remains to this day as one of ByteDance’s primary sources of revenue. Yiming, however, did not stop there.
TikTok was born and caught on like wildfire
Yiming noticed the success of creative social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram and the ongoing paradigm shift from computers to smartphones for casual entertainment, and he understood the potential scope of the market for creative social apps. Zhang wanted to create a platform aimed at catering to youth that featured lip-syncing, talent sharing, and simple video editing. Additionally, he wanted to use AI to tailor suggested videos and recognize faces for photo filters.
With a newly established track record for highly successful products, ByteDance was able to pull in a round of funding for the new app that totaled $75 million. The resulting app was called Douyin, launching in September 2016. Chinese youth flocked to download it, and within a single year, it had 100 million users with over a billion videos viewed daily. Yiming saw not only the local success but also the underlying universality of the concept and prepared to take the app to the global market. In 2017, Douyin was replicated for international audiences and launched with the name TikTok.
Although it was almost immediately wildly successful in many large markets such as India, the United States already had the lip-syncing niche filled by an app called Musical.ly. Undeterred, Yiming purchased the competing app after only two months in the U.S. market for an estimated value of $1 billion. He quickly integrated it into TikTok, creating a much wider user base and expanding capabilities.
ByteDance is now one of the largest companies on the planet
The global introduction of TikTok caused a meteoric growth in ByteDance’s revenue in 2018, bringing in $12 billion that year. Of that, $3 billion was profit. By the end of the year, it had become the number one most downloaded phone app with 100 million users in the United States and over 300 million in India. Yiming shamelessly advertised his app on rival platforms like Instagram and Facebook, a tactic that proved to be one of their largest sources of new users. In one year alone, TikTok invested over $1 billion in USA advertising.
To inspire his team to truly connect with their product, he instituted a policy that every worker—himself included—had to make their own TikTok videos and get a certain number of likes or face a punishment of doing pushups. This unique tactic served to keep his team in touch with the trends and direction of the platform and adjust it accordingly. TikTok became a powerful revenue source between its in-app purchases, affiliate marketing, and advertisements.
Yiming’s business acumen and understanding of TikTok’s user base served ByteDance well. In the app’s four years in the United States, it had jumped to the fifth most popular app in the country, beating out established giants like Reddit and Snapchat by a significant margin. Together with Toutiao, TikTok has propelled ByteDance to an estimated value of over $100 billion, over 60% of which is from Douyin/TikTok alone.
Zhang Yiming’s net worth
37-year-old Zhang Yiming is one of the world’s youngest billionaires and one of the richest men in China with a net worth of around $27 billion. Despite that, the jeans-wearing entrepreneur is humble and kind, and he is constantly finding ways to meet people from all walks of life. He remains incredibly passionate about the endless creativity of humanity, a quality that continues to fuel progress and innovation in his ongoing projects.