- Apr 2020
“The most important thing is that we are not a news business. We are more like a search business or a social media platform,” Zhang said in a 2017 interview, adding that he employs no editors or reporters. “We are doing very innovative work. We are not a copycat of a U.S. company, both in product and technology.”
The story of how Bytedance became a goliath begins with news site Jinri Toutiao but is tied more closely to a series of smart acquisitions and strategic expansions that propelled the company into mobile video and even beyond China. By nurturing a raft of successful apps, it’s gathered a force of hundreds of millions of users and now poses a threat to China’s largest internet operators. The company has evolved into a multi-faceted empire spanning video service Tik Tok -- known as Douyin locally -- and a plethora of platforms for everything from jokes to celebrity gossip.
“The predominant issue in China’s internet is that the growth in users and the time each user spends online has slowed dramatically. It is becoming a zero-sum game, and costs for acquiring users and winning their time are increasing,” said Jerry Liu, an analyst with UBS. “What Bytedance has created is a group of apps that are very good at attracting users and retaining their time, in part, leveraging the traffic from Jinri Toutiao.”
What Zhang perceived in 2012 was that Chinese mobile users struggled to find information they cared about on many apps. That’s partly because of the country’s draconian screening of information. Zhang thought he could do better than incumbents such as Baidu, which enjoyed a near-monopoly on search. The latter conflated advertising with search results, a botch that would later haunt the company via a series of medical scandals.