Zhang Yiming, tech baron caught in a bind

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Zhang Yiming started 2020 with an ill-fated decision: to journey extra.

The success of brief video app TikTok, with greater than 1bn world customers, meant he ran one of many world’s most precious personal tech start-ups. He deliberate to spend half of each month exterior China, recruiting worldwide executives to the app’s mother or father firm, ByteDance.

Now Mr Zhang is caught in Beijing however however lives on Silicon Valley time. For the previous month, he has woken at 10pm native time to give attention to the corporate’s embattled US operations. TikTok has drawn US president Donald Trump’s escalating ire, culminating on Thursday with an government order banning TikTok from transacting with US entities in 45 days.

The Trump administration had beforehand ordered ByteDance to promote TikTok to an American firm, so Mr Zhang is in talks along with his former employer, Microsoft, over a sale. It isn’t but clear what the brand new ban means for that deal.

Over the previous decade, Mr Zhang, 37, has constructed ByteDance right into a formidable opponent to incumbent social media giants world wide, from China’s Tencent to the US’s Fb. As a result of the corporate is in all places, he additionally faces assaults on all fronts.

In China, nationalists have known as him a “traitor”, and demanded he “get up” to Mr Trump. Twice final week, he wrote to staff at midnight in his private timezone to reassure them in regards to the firm’s future, and telling them to disregard the social media onslaught.

There are an enormous vary of outcomes for the Microsoft deal. ByteDance initially talked about promoting TikTok’s US operations and those who report back to it, resembling Canada and Australia, for $15-30bn. However Microsoft can also be weighing a purchase order of the entire thing. But Mr Zhang needs to make ByteDance a world firm with half its customers abroad by 2021, and TikTok, as its largest world model, is central to that imaginative and prescient. There’s additionally uncertainty in regards to the app’s future in India, the place TikTok had its largest pool of customers, however Delhi has just lately banned it and dozens of different Chinese language apps.

Born in 1983, a yr earlier than Fb’s Mark Zuckerberg, the low-key Mr Zhang is seemingly lower from the identical fabric as so many US “tech bros”. Educated at Nankai College in Tianjin, the place he switched from biology to software program engineering, he shares Silicon Valley’s cultural references and super-rationalist, optimising mindset.

Sleep, he as soon as instructed a colleague, was a “boring factor” wanted solely to realize “optimum situation”. Biographies and textbooks, he stated in 2018, are the one books value studying — though he admits to liking libertarian favorite Friedrich Hayek, and former Common Electrical chief Jack Welch’s administration ebook Profitable.

After assembly his spouse at college, the multi-billionaire began as a coder. A longtime investor says Mr Zhang designed half of the expertise on the coronary heart of ByteDance himself. He labored at journey web site Kuxun and Microsoft and began his first firm in 2009.

Mr Zhang’s path to founding ByteDance started along with his work on search-engine suggestion algorithms. Satisfied that small screens had been the long run, he got down to create merchandise for them. The lead to 2012 was Toutiao (Right this moment’s Headlines), his first viral app in China, which really useful an infinite information scroll from inferred person tastes. Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese language predecessor, did the identical for video.

Mr Zhang launched TikTok itself in 2017. Its dizzying rise was helped by the acquisition that yr of Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app launched in Shanghai that took off amongst US teenagers. TikTok absorbed Musical.ly’s US userbase.

Despite the fact that the 2017 deal had been between two Chinese language corporations, the US began investigating it two years afterward nationwide safety grounds. “Yiming knew how a lot stress he would encounter on his abroad march,” says one investor. From the start of 2019, “at any time when we acquired collectively, all he requested me about was the way forward for China-US relations”.

On the coronary heart of presidency concern about ByteDance, and its attraction to shoppers, is its user-generated content material. TikTok has confronted allegations, which it denies, that it spies on customers for Beijing, and that its suggestion algorithm might affect elections. US youngsters have already used the app to sabotage a Trump rally.

Whereas the US has been behind this present disaster, ByteDance has weathered a earlier one in China. In 2018, Beijing briefly banned two of its apps, and completely shut down its joke app Neihan Duanzi. Most of the app’s 22m customers blamed the ban on political content material, not the official purpose of sexual jokes.

Mr Zhang, a pragmatist, grovelled: “We didn’t realise expertise should be led by core socialist values,” he wrote on the time. He has been rather more aggressive about American critics, publicly accusing Fb of participating in a “smear” marketing campaign to get TikTok kicked out of the US, thus eliminating a competitor.

His personal politics are probably complicated. Nationalist trolls have circulated screenshots of a submit he made in 2012, since deleted, that known as the Marxist view of historic improvement “probably the most basic instance” of “unreliable” predictions.

Eight years later, with the US all however set to curtail his efforts to increase worldwide, Mr Zhang has been caught out by the unpredictability of the Trump administration.

Further reporting by Henny Sender and Miles Kruppa

yuan.yang@ft.com and hannah.murphy@ft.com

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