Zhang Yiming is a Chinese internet entrepreneur. He founded ByteDance in 2012 and developed the news aggregator Toutiao and the video-sharing platform TikTok (Douyin). As of 2019, with more than 1 billion monthly users, ByteDance is valued at US$75 billion, making it the most valuable startup in the world. Zhang’s wealth is estimated at $13 billion, making him the ninth richest person in China.
Zhang was born in April 1983. In 2001, he entered Nankai University in Tianjin, where he majored in microelectronics before changing to software engineering and graduated in 2005. He met his wife at the university.
In February 2006, Zhang became the fifth employee and the first engineer at the travel website Kuxun (酷讯) and was promoted to the technical director a year later.
In 2008, Zhang left Kuxun to work for Microsoft, but felt stifled by the corporate rules of the company. He soon left Microsoft to join the startup Fanfou (饭否), which eventually failed. In 2009, when Kuxun was about to be acquired by Expedia, Zhang took over Kuxun’s real estate search business and started 99fang.com (九九房), his first company.
Zhang thought that Chinese smartphone users were struggling to find information in mobile apps available in 2012, and the search giant Baidu was mixing search results with undisclosed advertising. His vision was to push relevant content to users using recommendations generated by artificial intelligence. This vision, however, was not shared by most venture capitalists, and he failed to secure funding until Susquehanna International Group agreed to invest in the startup. In August 2012, ByteDance launched the Toutiao news app and within two years attracted more than 13 million daily users. Sequoia Capital, which rejected Zhang the first time, came around and led a US$100 million investment in the company in 2014.
In September 2016, ByteDance launched its video-sharing app TikTok (known as Douyin in China) with little fanfare. The product was an instant hit with millennials and became popular worldwide. ByteDance bought Musical.ly a year later for US$800 million and integrated it into TikTok.
As of late 2018, with more than 1 billion monthly users across its mobile apps, ByteDance is valued at US$75 billion, surpassing Uber to become the most valuable startup in the world. Zhang’s wealth is estimated at $13 billion, making him the 9th richest person in China.
- Zhang Yiming chairs Beijing ByteDance, one of China’s largest media content platforms.
- The privately held company raised fresh investment funds at a valuation of $75 billion in 2018.
- Shareholders include Sequoia Capital China.
- Zhang holds a degree from Nankai University where he majored in software engineering.
- Zhang was a member of the 2013 Forbes China 30 Under 30 List.
Zhang Yiming full text of the speech
Everyone is very young. I came here with a lot of pressure. I graduated nearly 11 years ago, and seeing you makes me feel that each new generation exceeds the last one.
And I took part in the campus recruitment in Wuhan last year and saw that young people today are competitive. I was wondering what I should share with you today. After thinking about it, I would like to draw up the topic and change Jobs’ “Stay hungry, stay foolish” to “Stay hungry, stay young.”
I want to share with you my work experience after graduation. Also, as an interviewer, I’ve probably interviewed 2,000 young people over the past 10 years. Some of them are in Toutiao now, and some went on to other companies and met different development paths. At the algorithmic level, we call this a “positive example” and a “negative example”. I want to explore why the gap between “positive” and “negative” so large.
What is “Stay hungry, stay young”?
“Stay hungry” refers to curiosity and the thirst for knowledge and ambition. But why “stay young”?
I think young people have a lot of advantages: they don’t have rules and regulations; they don’t have too much ego to maintain; and they often break the rules; they work hard, and they don’t compromise, and they are not sophisticated.
Ten years on, some young people still have these wonderful qualities. I think that’s “staying young.”
“Staying young” means never reaching a ceiling and continually growing. On the contrary, many people improve their skills after graduation, but they reach a ceiling and stop growing.
Let me share with you my personal experience after graduation.
In 2005, I graduated from Nankai University and joined a company called Kuxun. I was one of the first employees. And I was an ordinary engineer at the beginning, but in the second year, I was in charge of about 40 to 50 people responsible for back-end technology and other tasks related to products. I was asked: why did you grow so fast in your first job? Did you stand out in that company?
Not really. Standards were high at that time. I remember two doctors graduating from Tsinghua University’s Computer Department who were enrolled at the same time as me.
So, did I perform best on technology? Or was I the most experienced? I found none was right. And then I thought about what qualities I had.
First, at work, I didn’t distinguish my work from others’. When I finished my work, I helped my colleagues to complete their work as well as I could. At that time, I saw most of the codebase. If I had time, I would teach the code to new staff, and that enabled me to grow as well.
During the first two years when I started working, I went home almost every day at midnight or 1 am. And when I went home, I also programmed. It was because of personal interest, not the company. Soon, I was promoted from managing one module to managing the whole backend system. I was in charge of a small group, then a small department, and then a big department.
Another thing is I had no boundaries. At that time, I was responsible for the technology, but when the product had problems, and I would actively participate in the discussion of the product plan. A lot of people say this is not what I should be doing. But I want to say: your sense of responsibility and your desire to do things well will drive you to do more things and to gain experience.
I was an engineer at that time, but the experience of participating in the product was very helpful to my later transformation. My involvement in the business sector helped me a lot in my current job. I remember that at the end of 2007, I went to meet the client with the sales director. This experience let me know what sales are good sales. When I established Toutiao and recruited staff, these examples helped me a lot.
These are the characteristics I had when I just graduated.
Common Characteristics of Outstanding Youth
Later, I joined various entrepreneurial teams. In the process, I worked with many graduates, many of whom are still in contact with me. Let me share with you some of the good and bad things I’ve seen. So, to sum up, what are the qualities of these great young people?
First, be curious, and be able to learn new things, new knowledge, and new skills. I am not very modest today because I think of myself as a positive example, and then I will give you a negative example. One former colleague had a good theoretical foundation, but every time he finished his work, he directly went home. He spent more than a year at the company, but he didn’t know anything about new technology or tools on the Web. So, he was very dependent on others. Whenever he wanted to make a function, he needed someone else to help him to do the latter half, because he could only do the first half. If he had been curious, he would have learned and mastered the front-end, back-end, and algorithms, and thus he could have completed the debugging analysis himself.
Second, remain optimistic about uncertainty. For instance, when Toutiao was first established, I said, “We’re going to make a product whose click volume is 100 million per day. (Of course, the number exceeds 100 million now, and we have nearly 500 million daily clicks.) A lot of people think, how could you possibly do that? Only big companies can do that well. He didn’t dare to try. Only optimistic people believe the can do it and are willing to try. That’s what I did when I joined Kuxun.
Kuxun wanted to create a next-generation search engine. It failed in the end and created a vertical search for travel. I didn’t know what other people thought about it, but I was so excited. I wasn’t sure whether Kuxun could make it, nor did I know how to do it, but I learned. Even though it didn’t work out in the end, it was helpful. As long as you’re optimistic about the uncertainty, you’ll be more willing to try.
Third, don’t be mediocre. We are all very outstanding among the students. But I want to say that in society, we should set higher standards. I have seen a lot of college students and colleagues who work together, and there are a lot of very good people who are better at technology and performance than me. But 10 years later, many people didn’t live up to my expectations: I thought they could have done well, but they didn’t.
Many people don’t set up challenging goals after they graduate. I looked back and found that some former colleagues worked for banks. Some joined banks directly after graduation, and some worked for a while before working for banks. Why do I connect this with “not being mediocre”? Because many of them joined banks to get a Beijing household registration, or because the banks had housing subsidy or provided affordable housing at the time.
If you are unwilling to be mediocre and want to perform well, will these things worry you? Do you need a Beijing household registration and a house in Beijing? If graduates set their goals as buying a two-bedroom house in Beijing and spend all their energy on it, their work will suffer.
Their behavior will change and they will not take risks. One friend did part-time jobs in his spare time to earn some money. Those part-time jobs didn’t require too much skill, but they affected his career development and mental state. I asked him why, and he said, “Well, to cover the down payment.” It seems he earns money, but he’s losing.
It’s important not to be mediocre. Mediocrity is not about a high salary or good technology, but having high demands for yourself. You may develop slowly in the first two years, but it will be very different in 10 years.
Fourth, don’t be too proud or too satisfied with yourself. Here’s a counterexample. Two young people impressed me a lot. They had good qualities and skills, and they had their characteristics. I was their supervisor at the time, and I found that their work performance was always poor. They felt that the other colleagues performed worse than them. They were the top 20 percent among all the new hires, but they thought they were in the top 1 percent. And they didn’t want to do basic work, like creating debugging tools. They couldn’t cooperate with others when needed.
They were qualified talents when we hired them. And they were smart and learned fast, but they were too proud. I don’t think that contradicts not being mediocre. Not being mediocre requires challenging goals, and not being proud requires you to work from firm footing.
Among the 2,000 staff, I had high expectations for many of them, but some didn’t develop as well as expected. And among those from whom I didn’t expect too much, some exceeded my expectations. I’ll give you an example here. One of my colleagues was responsible for product development when entering the company. At that time, we didn’t think he was particularly clever and only let him do some assisting work, such as collecting statistical data and user rebounds. Now he’s the vice president of a company worth 1 billion dollars.
And then I thought about it. He was a man who was willing to work, to be responsible and never weasel out of a challenge. As long as he had the opportunity to do something, he did it as well as he could. He didn’t perform very well all the time, but we always gave him feedback. After he went to the company, he took charge of an unimportant channel, which had less than 100,000 users. He made the channel better and better. Without a complete team, he took up a lot of responsibilities and did lots of work.
Fifth, the judgment of important things. You should be able to judge what major you choose, what company you choose, what profession you choose and what path you choose to develop by yourself. These choices should not be short-term ones. Some of the examples above cover this. For example, many people were willing to go to foreign-invested companies and would not like to go to startups. In 2007, many schoolmates asked me about career choices, and I suggested that they should go to Baidu instead of IBM or Microsoft. But many people thought in the short term: foreign companies were more famous and paid more. But I will remind you of the truth that you’ve heard many times. At graduation, the salary gap maybe 3,000 to 5,000 yuan, but you can neglect that. Short-term pay gaps are not important. Few people can get rid of their salary gap.
That’s what I wanted to share with you.
Thank you very much!