What makes TikTok tick?
Discussing how Zhang Yiming has built a global content empire
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TikTok was founded in 2016 by Zhāng Yīmíng 张一鸣, the 39-year-old Internet entrepreneur and founder of Bytedance (字节跳动 zì jié tiào dòng).
By the end of 2021, TikTok had reached 1.2 billion monthly active users outside of China, expected to hit 1.5 billion by the end of 2022. In China, its equivalent platform, Dǒuyīn 抖音 is accessed by over 600 million users daily.
An article recently published by Chinese writer Zhāng Jùn 张珺, Inside TikTok: Zhang Yiming’s voyage through the waves (TikTok内幕：张一鸣的巨浪征途), charts the rise of the company.
It’s a very long, well-written piece, and a challenge for any Chinese language learner to get through.
Fellow Substack writer, Ginger River Review, has done an excellent job of translating the whole article into English in two parts here and here. It’s worth a read in full if you have time.
One thing that stands out through the story is how TikTok did some things very differently than other Chinese companies going global, such as:
Localising teams and data centres in different countries early on
字节跳动已成为容纳外国人最多的内容平台公司。内容产品带文化属性、地域基因，字节招募大量本地人。字节一只手扫荡壁垒，保证通畅运行；一只手又埋下壁垒，将权力置于极少数人的控制下 - Bytedance is the biggest Chinese hirer of international talent. As a content business, it is a geography-specific cultural product so it was necessary for Bytedance to hire lots of local talent. At the same time, Bytedance on the one hand was clearing barriers internally to ensure smooth communications; and on the other hand building barriers to ensure that power was kept within the hands of the few.
Making a risky, high-profile strategic acquisition that paid off, beating Facebook and Kuaishou to it with a lower price
Musical.ly来得太及时了。它为字节献上第二个产品躯壳和海量内容燃料 - Musical.ly came at just the right time. It gave Bytedance a new platform for products, and a limitless supply of video content.
Gaining a foothold in the US market with content that could go global
TikTok占领发达国家。它有一个公共池子，美国内容供应全球，抖音内容供给东亚、东南亚。威力特别大 - TikTok established in developed markets. With that it had an endless supply of free content - American content supplied the world, while Douyin content fed markets in East and South East Asia. It was a powerful strategy.
So this week we explore conversations about Zhang Yiming and the content empire he has built, and getting a feel for what makes him, and his company, tick.
The Favourite Five
My favourite words that punctuate the story of Zhang and TikTok are tied together by agriculture, animals and warfare.
1. 沙粒 shā lì
grains of sand; sand in the shoe, things that get in the way
对人对事极为精确，眼睛容不下灰色和沙粒 - He can read people and situations very well, and he doesn't allow things to get in the way.
2. 狗屎运 gǒu shǐ yùn
dog shit luck; a stroke of luck, unexpected good fortune
公司为他发放了超额年终奖，“可能百万级别”。“新加坡和香港同事都在说，他踩了狗屎运 - The company gave him a huge annual bonus, ‘probably as much as a million’. Colleagues in Singapore and Hong Kong said that he got really lucky.
More: See SupChina phrase of the week on the background of this phrase, and why stepping on dog shit is a good thing!
3. 凤毛麟角 fèng máo lín jiǎo
hair of a phoenix, horns of a unicorn; very rare
只有为公司做出杰出贡献、凤毛菱角的人才能获此殊荣 - Only the very few employees that have made considerable contributions to the company can receive this honour.
4. 初生牛犊不怕虎 chū shēng niú dú bù pà hǔ
newborn calves are not afraid of tigers; young and fearless
这时，字节谈不上有什么影响力，出海小组是帮初生牛犊的年轻人，连“招兵买马”都是难事，全凭一腔热血 - At this time ByteDance didn’t really have much influence. The team that was responsible for the overseas business was a group of fearless youngsters. Even hiring people at that time was difficult, and all they had was their passion.
5. 赔了夫人又折兵 péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng
lost his wife and his army; got doubly done over; lose out on both fronts
强迫整合不仅阶段性流失用户，还要损耗一笔不菲的现金流重建品牌，有可能“赔了夫人又折兵” - Being forced to integrate not only cost them users, they also wasted a huge amount of money on rebuilding the brand. They were worried it might be a case of losing on both fronts.
Consuming the Conversation
情商 qíng shāng
emotional intelligence, EQ
他有一种纯粹人格体现出的高情商 - He has high emotional intelligence reflected in his straightforward personality.
狠绝 hěn jué
这让他流露出一种狠绝 - This made him expose his ruthless side.
老辣 lǎo là
‘old spicy’; experienced
他比张一鸣更感性，但是判断老辣、杀伐果决 - He’s more sensitive than Zhang Yiming, but he’s experienced and decisive.
腹地 fù dì
the heart of a place
中国内容平台第一次深入西方腹地 - This was the first time a Chinese content platform had entered the western market
Note: this is usually translated as ‘hinterland’ but in this context it’s a metaphor that means ‘near to the centre’.
差池 chā chí
稍有一步差池，字节在美资产血本无归 - With the smallest mistake, Bytedance’s assets in the US could make a loss.
Note: different from 错误 cuò wù; 差池 chā chí is more literary and normally relates to a ‘strategic error’. 错误 is more general.
军心 jūn xīn
hearts of the troops; team morale
在这艘全球化舰队上凝聚了人心、稳定了军心，带领所有人一同驶入黑夜 - He brought people together across the international business, boosted morale, and led them all into the unknown.
瓜分 guā fēn
‘cut the melon’; to carve up
假设赢者通吃，会瓜分一半市场 - If the winner takes all, it will take out half of the market.
垒筑 lěi zhù
to build a fortress
在这高墙垒筑的时代，TikTok的使命就是去建立桥梁，让全世界的人能够彼此连接、享受快乐 - This is a time of high walls between countries. The mission of Tik Tok is to build bridges, allowing people all around the world to connect and enjoy together.
钦点 qīn diǎn
张一鸣钦点集纳了华人血统、新加坡国籍、英美留学背景，以及一张英俊而亲和的东方面孔的周受资，出任TikTok总经理 - Zhang Yiming hand-picked Shouzi Chew as the General Manager of Tik Tok. He has it all: he is of Chinese heritage, has Singapore nationality, has studied in the UK and US, and is good looking and personable.
碾压 niǎn yā
‘rolling’; put pressure on or squeeze out
张一鸣远没预料到，这个产品未来会对快手形成碾压之势 - Zhang Yiming never thought that this product would put such pressure on Kuaishou.
Note: this word comes up quite a lot in the article; also common in business convos.
尝甜头 cháng tián tou
taste something sweet; know that we are on to a good thing
小视频让他尝到甜头 - The response to short videos made them know they were on to a good thing.
一盘棋 yī pán qí
a game of chess; big picture
在张一鸣眼中，全球版图之上，TikTok自始至终跳动的是一个字节、一盘棋 - In the eyes of Zhang Yiming, TikTok is part of Bytedance, in the same global picture.
老冤家 lǎo yuān jiā
grumpy old man; the long-term competitor in the market
他们最重要的投放渠道当然是老冤家Facebook - Their main advertising channel was of course also their long-standing competitor, Facebook.
Related: 冤大头 yuān dà tóu - someone deceived on account of their generosity, or large size (previously discussed in 22 January newsletter).
心头肉 xīn tóu ròu
‘heart - head - meat’; apple of one’s eye
坐在顶楼最东边的张一鸣，也将国际化视作心头肉 - Sitting in the corner on the very top floor of the building was Zhang Yiming. Going global was his absolute focus.
片汤话 piàn tāng huà
a load of rubbish; hot air
也有员工耸耸肩，说他讲的不过是些“片汤话”。“我都听了三遍了。” - Some colleagues shrugged their shoulders, saying that what he said was a ‘load of hot air’, and ‘I’ve heard it three times now’.
Note: a northern Chines dialect word that’s crossed over into the mainstream. Also said as 片儿汤话 piān er tāng huà.
异军突起 yì jūn tū qǐ
抖音和TikTok异军突起，让字节估值翻了近36倍 - Douyin and TikTok emerged suddenly which led to the valuation of Bytedance increasing by a multiple of 36.
冉冉升起 rǎn rǎn shēng qǐ
几年后冉冉升起的TikTok，只是字节国际化的一条明线 - After a number of years the rise of TikTok is just one of the visible ways in which Bytedance is internationalising.
天壤之别 tiān rǎng zhī bié
the difference between heaven and earth; totally different
中外移动互联网增长变现渠道有天壤之别 - The ways in which Chinese and international mobile platforms monetise are completely different.
Related: 判若云泥 pàn ruò yún ní - as different as clouds and mud
有功之臣 yǒu gōng zhī chén
a meritous minister; a team member who has contributed a lot
离开的人中，不乏有功之臣 - Among those who left there is no shortage of people who have made a considerable contribution to the company.
死里逃生 sǐ lǐ táo shēng
escape from death
从政治夹缝死里逃生，并醒悟对梅耶尔的任用是一次失误后，张一鸣进一步琢磨起他的全球化舰队 - Escaping certain death due to the political situation, he realised that hiring Meyer was a mistake, which led to Zhang Yiming to be more careful about who to bring in to his international team.
鳞次栉比 lín cì zhì bǐ
row upon row; lots of them
职业经理人鳞次栉比——周晶锦和刘新华替他在国际化道路上试错 - There are plenty of managers to hire. Zhou Jingjin and Liu Xinhua helped by experimenting with the international business.
得民心者得天下 dé mín xīn zhě dé tiān xià
if you win the hearts and minds of the people, you can rule the nation
对内容产品，美国是高地，“得美国者得天下” - The US is the pinnacle of content products. If you win the US, you can rule the world.
Note: from the teachings of Mencius 孟子 Mèng Zǐ.
尽人事，听天命 jìn rén shì, tīng tiān mìng
do your best, let fate decide
不知情的中高层，安抚不知情的基层道：“尽人事，听天命。” - Mid-level managers who didn’t know what was going on comforted lower level team members by saying, just do what you can, and let things take their course.
Note: traced to the Qing dynasty novel, Romance of the Flowers in the Mirror (镜花缘) by Lǐ Rǔzhēn 李汝珍
乱拳打死老师傅 luàn quán dǎ sǐ lǎo shī fù
accidentally beat an old master to death; a haphazard way of doing things that inadvertently might lead to an unexpected win
他们亲自上场招聘本土团队，将技能传授出去。明明知道结果是“乱拳打死老师傅” - The China team were personally responsible for hiring local talent, passing on key skills in the process, even though they knew the local teams may end up beating the China team.
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