After reading Zhang Yiming’s resignation letter, in both the original Chinese and official translated version on ByteDance’s English website, I felt a sense that he felt profoundly misunderstood by the world.
That sense is not hard to validate after reading just a few media articles that reported on his resignation. Reputable media institutions would quote phrases from so-called experts who say things like, “Founders of China’s tech unicorns have built enormous personal charisma. Beijing is worried that they may grow political ambition or at the very least influence the political agenda-setting with their popularity.”
If we are talking about Jack Ma, maybe. But Zhang Yiming? Personal charisma? Have you seen this guy? Well, here’s a video of him and Liang Rubo (the next CEO of ByteDance and Yiming’s BFF) visiting the apartment where they started ByteDance:
I can hardly imagine Yiming doing an earnings call, let alone harboring political ambitions. Sadly, almost no journalist covering tech in the US or China has been a founder or operator of any company of any meaningful size. It’s worse than sad because these journalists usually end up quoting analysts who have never been involved in business; they only look at companies through spreadsheets and research reports, not as a collection of human beings to recruit, hire, manage, coordinate, motivate, and oftentimes, fire when things don’t go well. None of these things are easy to do in isolation, let alone when done synchronously, but that is, in essence, a company. And when you multiply them all by (literally) the tens of thousands, you get the day-to-day work of the CEO of one of the most valuable tech companies, period.
Thus, the only sentiment that’s worth any salt is from a CEO of equal caliber, like this tweet from Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe:
Bummed to hear about Yiming Zhang stepping down — truly an amazing CEO. To give a sense for the caliber of their execution: ByteDance was founded in 2012, is reported to have generated $35B of revenue in 2020, and hired 40,000 people last year.
— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) May 20, 2021
40,000 new employees in one year? And not just any year, but 2020? The sheer number of onboarding sessions, training, 1-on-1s with direct reports, OKR planning, etc. will wear any mid-level manager down, let alone an introverted CEO, who was also confronted with the toughest geopolitical quagmire imaginable. I’ve only built teams a fraction of that size, and it was a drain (I’m definitely an introvert too).
The lack of first-hand understanding and empathy for what entrepreneurship and company building entails means that most media narratives, especially ones about China tech, default to familiar tropes and the lumping of completely different personalities—Jack Ma, Colin Huang of Pinduoduo, and Zhang Yiming—into one bucket. And the people who read (and believe) these media narratives, often due to lack of alternatives, will be misinformed.
People are incapable of interpreting events like Zhang Yiming’s resignation as simply the action of a self-aware person who thought deeply about what he’s good at, what he is bad at, and have decided to use his energy where it can be used best—ironically, the one thing every good CEO or people manager should recognize. It’s the kind of self-awareness that’s all too rare in tech. It’s more worth celebrating than over-speculating.
There’s been a lot of rough comparisons between Zhang Yiming and other successful tech CEOs. Some have compared him to Zuckerberg, because both built an ad-driven social media company—a somewhat lazy comparison that I’ve fallen into before. More people have recently compared him to Colin Huang, given Colin’s own recent resignation with similar motivations.
But the more I think about it, the more I see Zhang Yiming as following the “Larry Page model,” which Colin emulated, perhaps having been an Xoogler. Larry, Yiming, and Colin are all engineers by training. All three appear to be introverted nerds but also have worldly ambitions to build products and are not content to stay within academia. All three scaled their respective companies faster than their predecessors, partly due to their talent but also because of the natural scaling effect of technology products, especially when deployed in a growing market like China’s.
Let’s do a rough comparison of each ex-CEO’s resignation timing.
When Larry Page resigned for good in 2015, Google:
- Valuation: ~USD 380 billion
- Company age (at the time): 17
- Total headcount : ~60,000
When Zhang Yiming resigned last week, ByteDance:
- Private market valuation: ~USD 180 billion (but shares have been trading close to ~USD 400 billion as recently as April)
- Company age: 9
- Total headcount: ~100,000
When Colin Huang resigned earlier this year, Pinduoduo:
- Valuation: ~USD 150 billion
- Company age: 5
- Total headcount: ~8,000
Given what Zhang Yiming has accomplished, with or without all the geopolitical tensions or antitrust regulations, his resignation and self-directed transition seem more than appropriate.
Some tech CEOs choose to embrace the challenge of becoming a manager—Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, Reed Hastings, Pony Ma, Wang Xing, Patrick Collinson. Others choose to step away—Bill Gates, Larry, Colin, and Yiming. They all began as engineers and nerds in one flavor or another, yet they are anything but the same. It’s almost impossible to group and interpret them by conventional boundaries, like nationalities, markets, types of product, or business model, let alone geopolitical landscapes and regulations. That’s what makes them entrepreneurs and outlier successes.
Does my narrative better explain why Zhang Yiming resigned than what you may have read elsewhere? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly not worse. Given what I know about the tech business, China, entrepreneurship, and company building, I feel obligated to at least present an alternative narrative and a different perspective for you to consider.
When I recorded a podcast on ChinaTalk a few weeks ago, the host Jordan Schneider asked me who in the Chinese tech scene deserves the Steve Jobs Hollywood biopic treatment.
A perk of being a repeat guest on @jordanschnyc‘s ChinaTalk is that you can pick your own Mandarin hiphop outro song. One more reason to listen to this ep, aside from my thots on @elonmusk+China, Morris Chang, Open Source, Endless Frontier & Zhang Yiming https://t.co/H24uVA00cs
— Kevin Xu (@kevinsxu) May 12, 2021
My answer was Zhang Yiming, obviously not knowing he was going to resign soon. I’ve always seen him as one of the more thoughtful tech CEOs. That monk-like thoughtfulness is abundantly evident if you read his company all-hands speech in March—his last one as CEO of the company. The speech read more like a meditation retreat session than the typical rah-rah you’d hear in a tech company. His resignation is just the latest action that reflects his meditative, daydreaming, and hyper self-aware nature.
Whether he’ll be in a Hollywood biopic or not is out of my hands. But if that ever happens, Ashton Kutcher should definitely not play him.