Imagine a company that has 1 billion users across the world, but you don’t know their name. Imagine a company worth $75 billion, more valuable than Uber, but you wouldn’t be able to recognise their logo.
You’re imagining ByteDance.
This Chinese tech company, founded in 2012 by Yiming Zhang, is probably the world’s most anonymous multi-billion dollar company. However, ByteDance will not stay a secret for long. It’s ready to make a bid for success on a global scale.
Since its founding in 2012, ByteDance has built up a portfolio of successful tech brands, household names in China.
Its flagship product is Toutiao, a news aggregator that pulls together stories from Chinese news services, serving them to users based on their interests. It claims to have 120 million daily users.
That’s not all, however. ByteDance also operates:
Tik Tok — a music and video platform
Flipagram — a popular video app, acquired in 2017
News Republic — a breaking news and video aggregator, acquired in 2017
Top Buzz — International version of Toutiao
Buzz Video — a platform for short videos and GIFs
Perhaps the boldest statement of ByteDance’s ambition for global reach came when it acquired Musical.ly in a deal worth between $800 million and $1 billion.
At the time of acquisition, Musical.ly had 60 million active users, mostly in the US. However, it had very little traction in China and the Far East. ByteDance aims to change that. It wants to grow this music-based social networking app, popular with teenagers, into a truly global player.
Tech giants in the West regularly talk about their mission and corporate philosophy. However, we know very little about the philosophies that drive ByteDance and other Chinese tech companies. From what we can tell, ByteDance appears to be a forward-looking organisation, with values to match their technical expertise.
ByteDance aims to empower women in technology. In 2017, ByteDance struck a global partnership with QUALS, a joint initiative of UN Women and ITU, the leading United Nations tech agency. ByteDance works with EQUALS on programmes in China to empower women and girls by boosting access to the opportunities of the digital economy. ByteDance is also concerned with its effect on its users, partnering with Tsinghua University to research the impact of social platforms on society.
ByteDance has recently found itself at times at odds with China’s ‘great firewall’ of censorship. In the run-up to New Year’s Eve 2017, Toutiao was taken offline for 24 hours as punishment for what the Chinese government saw as “exerting a bad influence on online opinion” with possibly pornographic content. ByteDance, while trying to grow in China, still attempts to push the boundaries of what it can do in that country.
Domestic growth and overseas potential
ByteDance’s ambitious programme of acquisitions shows that it has a plan to keep growing in China. With its products such as News Republic, Top Buzz and Musical.ly, it now has a presence in over 40 other markets, including Japan, S. Korea, N. America, Europe, Latin America, South East Asia and India. However, for companies like ByteDance, mere presence is not enough. ByteDance wants to fulfil its potential and become a global giant.
After a year of scandals, Facebook has experienced a sharp decline in user numbers. A Pew survey of 3,400 Facebook users in the US found that 29% of respondents had deleted their Facebook app in the past year. A massive 44% of respondents aged between 18 and 29 said they had stopped using Facebook.
If young people are shunning Facebook in their droves, could a Chinese-owned social network fill the gap? Musical.ly has already shown that it can build up an audience of younger people. ByteDance will be looking to enhance its offering to take their new acquisition to critical mass.
ByteDance is investing in advanced AI, aiding content discovery, tailoring delivery to users’ interests and enhancing user experience. Could ByteDance’s algorithms provide users with the content they want, without crossing the line as Facebook did?
China is coming
Now you know all about ByteDance, remember where you read this when everyone is talking about them!
ByteDance is just one of a large number of Chinese companies to watch. In fact, you could say that China has already arrived as a major player on the global tech scene. 9 of the world’s top 20 tech companies are based in China. These companies are growing as fast as mobile take-up in China surges. Huawei is now the 3rd biggest phone brand in the US.
Can Western companies maintain their leadership, as Chinese hardware and software innovators continue to invest? Only time will tell.
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