“I like American company culture more – fairer and more people-oriented. ByteDance is marching like an army, everyone is carrying out orders”
– An executive who worked for both companies, 2022
Many non-Chinese and Chinese employees who have/had stints at Chinese tech companies feel the same. Kevin Mayer, a seasoned media executive who was briefly CEO of TikTok and COO of ByteDance – was the highest casualty.
The recent controversy at TikTok’s London office has put the cultural issues again in the limelight. ByteDance / TikTok, which used to be regarded as the Chinese culture whose culture was the most similar to that of Silicon Valley, is now labeled with “toxic culture”, at least by the media.
However, the more fundamental questions are: why do tech Chinese companies act the way they do? And why are they perceived to be more militaristic and not ‘people oriented’? And most importantly, why do so many people still want to work there?
Chinese tech giants in the international markets are influential and yet understudied. Aside from the extensive coverage of Jack Ma, not much information exists regarding their leadership thinking, strategy, organization, strengths and weaknesses. After Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, ByteDance is regarded as the second (some say third) generation of Chinese companies, and it wanted to be global.
In 2017, ByteDance, known to Chinese as the “app factory”, bought Music.ly. Over the next three years, TikTok, as Douyin’s international edition, grew in leaps and bounds.
For the first time, one large Chinese tech company was seriously challenging a US incumbent (Facebook, thus renamed Meta Platforms) in its home market, and was perhaps taking over the world. How did ByteDance conquer the US market whereas Musc.ly, Kuaishou and many others couldn’t?
One of the reasons is Leadership. Founder Zhang Yiming is known to both be deep thinking and ruthless in driving his people really hard. He had dreamt for ByteDance to be a globally competitive company and had realized that to do this, he had to learn English well. It was reported that he not only spent a lot of time practicing English, he also asked the company’s top management to learn – not an easy undertaking.
Zhang Yiming said in 2020 “I hope everyone will not pay attention to short term glory or loss, instead focus on patiently doing the right thing well. It is about a big vision, but a small ego.”
This culture had worked well for ByteDance as it was starting out. However, the company has evolved over the years – and in multiple markets. The complexity of the operations but more importantly, of the Organization, needs ByteDance’s leadership and people to evolve as well – despite holding tremendous product advantages.
Otherwise, many of the challenges Meta is facing now will also plague ByteDance.
And if you want to be the first to get your hands on the book, you can pre-order here.
Next week – we will share more stories on how ByteDance strategy, people and organization changed over the years – to where it is now, and how it should move forward.
Stay tuned and Happy Friday!!
Guoli Chen & Jianggan Li