Who is Zhang Yiming?

Zhang Yiming is a Chinese entrepreneur with an impressive list of accomplishments. He founded ByteDance in 2012 and followed it up with the video platform TikTok (Douyin) and news aggregation service Toutiao. 

As of January 2023, Forbes estimates that the entrepreneur has a personal net worth of $49.5 billion. This makes him the second-wealthiest person in China and among the 25 richest people in the world according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Early career

Zhang majored in software engineering at Nankai University in Tianjin before earning his degree in 2005. Thereafter, he became an early employee of the travel website Kuxun and progressed from engineer to technical director in only twelve months. 

He soon found himself with 40 or 50 people under his command and was responsible for the platform’s back-end technology and other product-related tasks. Zhang also worked briefly for Microsoft in 2008 but quit soon after because he felt stifled by the company’s corporate rules.

During his time at Kuxun, Zhang gained crucial early experience. He learned the fundamentals of start-ups which would later help him make the transition from young entrepreneur to successful businessman. 

He also learned crucial sales skills that would be used when he recruited staff at Toutiao. What’s more, he appreciated the value of the pursuit of excellence when faced with product-related problems: “… when the product had problems, I would actively participate in the discussion of a product plan. A lot of people say this is not what I should be doing. But I want to say: your sense of responsibility and desire to do things well, will drive you to more things and to gain experience.”

Fanfou and 99fang.com

Zhang then joined the microblogging company Fanfou which was more or less a Chinese Twitter clone. However, it closed for a time in 2009 because of censorship related to riots in the country and once reopened, was unable to compete with the likes of Weibo and WeChat.

When Expedia announced it would acquire Kuxun that same year, Zhang took charge of Kuxun’s real estate search business and started 99fang.com with friend Liang Rubo. 

99fang.com was a real estate search engine platform for buying, selling, and renting Chinese property, and it also provided users with the latest real estate trends and mortgage rates, among other things.

While Zhang left the company around three years later, it nevertheless sparked an entrepreneurial flair in the businessman.


Fast forward to 2012, and Chinese smartphone users were having problems finding relevant information in their mobile apps. Compounding the problem was search company Baidu which was mixing undisclosed ads within its search results.

In a small apartment in Beijing, Zhang, Hubo, and several 99fang employees started work on an app that would be the predecessor to Toutiao and ByteDance. The app used big data algorithms to classify news based on user preferences.

Zhang’s vision was to use artificial intelligence to generate relevant content and make recommendations to Chinese consumers. Most venture capitalists balked at this vision, but eventually, Susquehanna invested $5 million in 2012 with a more substantial $100 million from Sequoia Capital two years later.

Around the same time as Susquehanna’s investment, ByteDance launched Toutiao and grew it to around 13 million daily users by 2014. “The most important thing is that we are not a news business. We are more like a search business or a social media platform. We are not a copycat of a U.S. company, both in product and technology”, Zhang noted at the time.

Nevertheless, Zhang’s management style echoed those seen in American tech companies like Google and Microsoft. Like these companies, Zhang also had global ambitions for ByteDance.

Zhang’s success in the crucial Chinese market should not be overlooked either when one considers that the country was dominated by Alibaba and Tencent.

Even more impressive is the fact that ByteDance’s success has translated into overseas markets – a feat most other Chinese tech firms have found impossible.

Zhang stepped down as ByteDance CEO in May 2021 and was replaced by Rubo.


TikTok is the Chinese creative social media platform driven by short-form video content enabling users to interact and generate content at scale. TikTok primarily makes money through advertising, and it generated $4.6 billion in advertising revenues in 2021, thus making it among the most popular attention-based business models or attention merchants.

TikTok (known as Douyin in China) was launched in September 2015 and was an immediate hit with Gen Z and Millennial audiences.

ByteDance then purchased Musical.ly for $800 million and incorporated some of its features into TikTok.

Zhang stepped down as ByteDance CEO in May 2021. In a rather candid message on the company’s website, he admitted that he lacked “some of the skills that make an ideal manager. I’m more interested in analysing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people.

To that end, Zhang now focuses on big-picture tasks like identifying future business opportunities and mapping out industry trends. 

But this is not to say that he is rigid, inflexible, or ignorant of new ideas today. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Zhang explained that he used to watch TikTok videos but never made his own because he believed the platform was for younger generations.

At some point, however, he had a change of heart and “made it compulsory for all management team members to make their own TikTok videos, and they must win a certain number of likes. Otherwise, they have to do push-ups. It was a big step for me.

Awards and inspiration

Zhang has won several awards over his career. In 2018, he won the Forbes China Businessman of the Year for his contributions to the tech industry. The following year, TIME named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In 2020 he was particularly prolific, winning Fast Company’s Person of the Year for his innovation in tech products and the Financial Times Person of the Year for his efforts in making ByteDance one of the world’s most valuable companies.In a nod to compatriot Jack Ma’s diligence and exemplary work ethic, Zhang’s success is perhaps based on his belief that “We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist.

Key takeaways:

  • Zhang Yiming is a Chinese entrepreneur with an impressive list of accomplishments. He founded ByteDance in 2012 and followed it up with the video platform TikTok (Douyin) and the news and information content site Toutiao.
  • When Expedia announced it would acquire the travel website Kuxun in 2009, Zhang, a former employee there, took charge of its real estate search business and started 99fang.com.
  • Zhang founded ByteDance in 2012 based on a vision to use AI to generate relevant content and recommendations for Chinese consumers. He stepped down as CEO in May 2021 to focus on bigger-picture tasks.

Key Insights

  • Zhang Yiming’s Background: Zhang Yiming is a Chinese entrepreneur known for founding ByteDance, TikTok (Douyin), and the news aggregation service Toutiao.
  • Early Career: Zhang majored in software engineering and gained early experience at Kuxun and Microsoft. He later co-founded 99fang.com, a real estate search engine platform.
  • ByteDance’s Founding: In 2012, Zhang co-founded ByteDance with a vision to use AI to generate relevant content and recommendations for Chinese consumers.
  • Toutiao’s Growth: ByteDance launched Toutiao in 2012, a news and content platform that grew rapidly and garnered millions of daily users.
  • Global Ambitions: Zhang had global ambitions for ByteDance and achieved success not only in China but also in overseas markets.
  • TikTok’s Success: TikTok (Douyin) was launched in 2015 and became an immediate hit with Gen Z and Millennial audiences. It primarily makes money through advertising.
  • Zhang’s Management Style: Zhang’s management style was influenced by American tech companies like Google and Microsoft. He stepped down as ByteDance CEO in May 2021.
  • Awards and Recognition: Zhang has won several awards, including Forbes China Businessman of the Year and TIME’s 100 Most Influential People.
  • Focus on Big-Picture Tasks: After stepping down as CEO, Zhang focuses on big-picture tasks like identifying future business opportunities and industry trends.
  • Personal Growth and Adaptability: Zhang’s willingness to adapt and learn from younger generations is exemplified by his decision to make TikTok videos himself and encourage his management team to do the same.

Related to TikTok Business Model

TikTok Business Model

TikTok is a creative Chinese social media platform primarily driven by short-form video content. It launches challenges of various types to tap into the creativity of its users and generate engaging (if not addicting content) accessible via an infinite feed. TikTok primarily makes money through advertising, thus making it an attention-based business model.

Digital Advertising Industry

The digital advertising industry has become a multi-billion industry dominated by a few key tech players. The industry’s advertising dollars are also fragmented across several small players and publishers across the web. Most of it is consolidated within brands like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Bing, Twitter, TikTok, which is growing very quickly, and Pinterest.

How Do TikTokers Make Money

TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance turned as among the most successful native micro-video platforms, and it became the go-to platform for millions of young users. Thus, the “TikToker” has already become the evolution of the “influencer” from platforms like Instagram. Those TikTokers make money in a few ways, such as monetary gifts, sponsorships, advertising agreements, affiliations, and more.

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