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Musical chairs: TikTok’s rotating leadership

Written by KrASIA Connection Published on   5 mins read

Despite having six CEOs in five years, the company is eager to expand to untapped markets.

Since its release in 2017, TikTok has taken the world by storm. In the five  years since its launch, it has amassed nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users (MAUs). In comparison, Instagram has 1 billion MAUs as of March 2022, a decade after its acquisition by Facebook (now Meta).

TikTok isn’t the first China-made consumer platform to attain global recognition; it’s also a company that has had frequent leadership changes—a condition that would normally lead to conclusions that the company was in dire straits.

By examining the way TikTok evolved based on the individual who was at its helm, we see that the company is evolving quickly to match its status as a globally competitive enterprise with a highly popular product.

Even though TikTok is officially headquartered in Los Angeles, some of its staff members joke that they’re unsure where the company’s heart of operations is. Like many multinational companies, it operates on a hub and spoke model, with regional heads taking charge of operations within their respective geographies. At the same time, thousands of people in ByteDance’s offices in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as the team in Singapore, where current TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is based, provide support.

When TikTok went live in 2017, it was positioned as the international sibling of Douyin. At the time, Ren Lifeng, who was head of Douyin’s operations and had a vital role in developing the short-video platform from scratch, oversaw TikTok as well.

TikTok was being built as a near-mirror image of Douyin. The two platforms shared the same teams for algorithm design, user growth, and R&D. TikTok also referenced Douyin’s playbook of starting with content that incorporated popular music and viral dance moves to reach a broad user base. “Douyin has more musical tracks available, as well as better effects and filters, making it overwhelmingly powerful compared with overseas competitors,” a regional operations manager told LatePost.

At the time, another app called Musical.ly, which was built by a team based in Shanghai and had been operating in the US since 2014, offered a similar user experience. Launching the app led to short videos that spanned the entire phone screen, each one displayed by a recommendation algorithm that processed user interactions to learn their preferences. A swipe took users to a new video—it was as simple as flipping from one channel to the next on TV. The only difference was that apps like Musical.ly were rapid, endless, and demanded attention.

In October 2018, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, merging it with TikTok. This new iteration of TikTok was placed under the management of Kelly Zhang, who is now CEO of ByteDance China. Right before the merger, Musical.ly had more than 6 million daily active users (DAUs) in the US, but there was room for improvement in the recommendation algorithm behind the platform.

This made Musical.ly and TikTok the perfect match. TikTok could benefit from the stickiness of Musical.ly’s user interface, while the recommendation engine behind TikTok, which has proved to be effective as it powers popular content aggregator Toutiao, could place engaging content on users’ screens. Plus, the team that operated Douyin had accumulated significant experience in building user communities. All of these factors combined to make TikTok the powerhouse that it is today, chiefly by making the short-video app a staple in mainstream consumer culture.

A member of TikTok’s product team told LatePost that Kelly Zhang spent significant amounts of time in Los Angeles and frequently visited Japan and India to conduct hands-on research about users in these countries. By the end of 2019, TikTok had 500 million MAUs, a 1,000% increase compared to two years prior. At this point, TikTok was one of Facebook’s largest clients for advertisements.

As more and more new users downloaded TikTok, Facebook began to see TikTok as a serious competitor to Instagram, which began to develop Reels, its own short-form video feature. Meanwhile, the Trump administration had initiated a national security review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, with the former president threatening to shut down TikTok’s operations in the US.

Subsequently, TikTok evolved again. Kelly Zhang and Douyin personnel peeled away from the app. The reins were picked up by Alex Zhu, the founder of Musical.ly and a genius product manager.

Billing himself as TikTok’s “temporary CEO,” Zhu stood out among the low-key and strait-laced tech crowd around him. He styled his long hair, had a penchant for ancient Chinese poems, sang Beijing opera (even performing live online), and generally had a flamboyant streak. Along with ByteDance co-founder Zhang Yiming, Zhu began recruiting for key positions at TikTok overseas. He also became a senior vice president in ByteDance, overseeing TikTok’s government and public relations.

Alex Zhu and Zhang Yiming’s quest was to appoint a new TikTok chief who could navigate the US’s political and business environments, with a knack for speaking to the American public. Kevin Mayer, the former chairman of the direct-to-consumer and international division of The Walt Disney Company, fit the bill.

Mayer was also appointed as global COO of ByteDance. He oversaw the company’s music division, a gaming arm, as well as overseas corporate development, sales, marketing, public affairs, security, and legal affairs. In the words of one ByteDance employee who spoke to LatePost, Mayer “never missed any detail in profit and loss statements.”

Yet, his tenure lasted a mere three months, perhaps due to intensifying pressure from the Trump administration. After Mayer’s resignation, Vanessa Pappas—YouTube’s former global head of audience development who joined TikTok’s US team early on—became interim CEO.

Finally, this culminated in the appointment of Shou Zi Chew, former CFO of Xiaomi International, as TikTok’s CEO. He had been in contact with ByteDance since the company’s early phases—when Zhang Yiming’s team still operated out of an apartment in Beijing, Chew was one of the investors that was contacted about taking an early stake. He also facilitates DST’s investment in ByteDance.

Chew brought to the table extensive experience from his time at Goldman Sachs and low-key venture capital firm DST. After moving between London, Hong Kong, and Beijing, Chew finally settled in Singapore, which remains his home base.

Xiaomi co-founder Lei Jun once described Chew as “diligent with a vengeance.” Ahead of Xiaomi’s IPO in Hong Kong in 2018, Chew generated a spreadsheet containing the information of every investor he had ever met. It had 1,500 rows.

Among the six figures who have been at the helm of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew has the least amount of experience in product operations and R&D. A TikTok staff member told LatePost that the CEO is less concerned about the platform’s details, and that Alex Zhu still provides input in this area, frequently asking, “Is there room for optimization?”

Under Chew’s leadership, most of TikTok’s regional general manager positions have been taken up by local professionals. With that said, TikTok still has plenty of room to grow around the world. For 2022, close to USD 6 billion, or more than 50%, of TikTok’s ad revenue for the year is expected to be derived from the United States. By contrast, Japan is expected to only contribute 2%. In many other markets, the company is only getting started with offering its advertising and e-commerce services.

This article was adapted based on reporting by LatePost. KrASIA is authorized to translate, adapt, and publish its contents.


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