Alumni Stories
Kelly Zhang and Lidong Zhang

How the Leaders of ByteDance Shaped China’s Biggest Global Tech Success Story

ByteDance is one of the biggest success stories in the tech world of today. It is the owner of the short-form video apps Douyin and its international counterpart Tiktok. Tiktok has engaged international audiences with its video platform unlike no other Chinese company has done before; and at the end of 2021, was the most downloaded app globally with 656 million downloads. Two people have been instrumental in ByteDance’s story: Kelly Zhang and Lidong Zhang.  

Kelly Zhang, CEO of ByteDance China and Zhang Lidong, Chairman of ByteDance Beijing’s non-product operations, are two graduates of CKGSB who now have leading positions in the unicorn company. Kelly Zhang graduated from the Business Scholars program and Zhang Lidong from the EMBA program.

In this new alumni series, we track down CKGSB’s most influential graduates, many of whom have gone on to lead unicorn companies – privately held companies valued at USD $1 billion or more. According to CB Insights – a global platform which provides authoritative and up-to-date information on the world’s billion-dollar private companies – China has created a total of 217 unicorn companies between 2017 to 2021. Thirty-nine (or 18%) of these companies are run by CKGSB alumni, including 35 companies where CKGSB alumni are founders or co-founders, and 4 companies where they serve as the chairman, CEO or president.

As China’s leading business school, it’s not surprising that CKGSB has been able to produce so many business leaders playing a pivotal role in China’s economic development. More than 18,000 successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and executives of multinational corporations have chosen to study at CKGSB for the original China insights, world-class faculty and peer-to-peer learning with China’s movers-and-shakers. More than half of CKGSB’s alumni are at the CEO or Chairman level and, collectively, lead one-fourth of China’s most valuable brands.

How ByteDance Rose to Unicorn Status?

In 2009, ByteDance’s founder and CEO Zhang Yiming worked with Liang Rubo to create a search engine for real estate, known as Later, Zhang Yiming worked with his colleagues to create a personalized news app called Toutiao, which would become ByteDance’s core product and is still hugely popular today.

In 2012, the company had two core products: Toutiao and Neihan Duanzi – a platform which allowed users share humorous videos which is no longer in operation. By 2016, ByteDance added more products such as Huoshan video, the acquisitions of Vigo video in Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian news app BABE, as well as Douyin in 2016 – ByteDance’s most successful product which has 600 million daily users in China today.

After acquiring, ByteDance looked to expand internationally and launched Douyin’s sister company TikTok in the US in 2018. Today, ByteDance has added other products such as Lark and Xigua video and is valued at approximately $140 billion.

ByteDance has gained most of its revenue through advertising, however it is launching into other areas such as e-commerce, fintech, healthcare, food delivery and mobile payments (Douyin pay was launched in January 2021).

Kelly Zhang’s Role in ByteDance’s Rise

Kelly Zhang was one of the key contributors to the creation of Douyin in 2016.  She has played an important role in using data analytics to create user-generated content. With a background in social media app development, she joined ByteDance in 2013 after they bought Tube, a company she founded allowing users to share photo with friends.

She has been instrumental in developing Douyin’s business model to gain revenue from advertising rather than through e-commerce. Moreover. Kelly Zhang had a key role in signing partnerships with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss.

Moreover, photo and video editing were revolutionized by ByteDance. The company greatly facilitated content creation with apps such as the photo editor Qingyan and the video editing app Jianying – both of which Kelly Zhang was instrumental in creating.

Zhang Lidong’s Role in ByteDance’s Rise

Zhang Lidong manages strategy, partnerships, public relations, human resources, and legal affairs. In contrast to Kelly Zhang had a background in digital media, Zhang Lidong was a successful journalist in traditional print media for eight years. He served as the vice-president of the Beijing Times Committee, writing on topics varying from medicine to the automobile industry.

Zhang Lidong was hired by Zhang Yiming in 2013 to work on the development of Toutiao, due to his expertise in the media industry and his experience in crisis management. Since then, Zhang Lidong has worked on many projects, such as creating the marketing service platform Ocean Engine, and marketing Douyin, Toutiao and Huoshan.

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