To the world, it’s the company behind Tiktok. But in China, the company is often called by the name of Bytedance’s biggest app: Toutiao—short for Jinri Toutiao, the flagship newsfeed app.

Jinri Toutiao, which means “Today’s Headlines,” uses artificial intelligence to track readers’ habits and preferences, and push them stories from more than 1.1 million publishers. The AI-powered recommendation system is by no means perfect; its model prioritizes sensationalism and rapid-fire publication, leading to clickbait articles and plagiarism.

In focus / ByteDance #11

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TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.

But the approach has proven successful: The app has become the most popular newsfeed app in China, with more than 258 million monthly active users (MAU) as of June.

Bytedance is trying to replicate its success in overseas markets by launching Jinri Toutiao-like apps around the world; these include TopBuzz, an overseas version of Jinri Toutiao; BuzzVideo, a recommendation-based short- video platform; newsfeed app News Republic; and India-focused news app Helo.

On top of this global expansion, Bytedance is vying for a slice of the social media pie in China. In January, the company launched the instant messaging app Duoshan, a direct challenge to WeChat. Then the company took aim at the enterprise market in March with the launch of productivity tool, Lark.

This app factory has helped Bytedance accumulate 1.5 billion MAU worldwide as of July. So who exactly are leading these platforms? We decided to take a look.

These apps are run by founding members of the company, founders of apps acquired by the company, as well as veterans from Chinese tech giants such as Tencent and Baidu.

In June, Bytedance reshuffled the leadership by promoting the founder of TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly, and an algorithm expert to step up marketing and monetization in its existing overseas markets.

Jinri Toutiao

Up until the June reorganization, the newsfeed app had been managed by Chen Lin, the CEO of Jinri Toutiao company. Bytedance’s recommendation algorithm expert Zhu Wenjia now runs the app, reporting to Chen.

Chen stayed on as CEO of Jinri Toutiao, but he is no longer directly in charge of the app, according to Chinese media outlet 36Kr.

Douyin

Douyin, the Chinese version of popular short-video app TikTok, is now led by Zhu Jun, senior vice-president of TikTok. Zhu was the co-founder of lip-sync app Musical.ly. He joined Bytedance after the company acquired Musical.ly in 2017 and rebranded it as TikTok.

Huoshan

Huoshan is Bytedance’s less-popular short-video app, which has 106 million MAU. It’s unclear who is currently leading the app after Chinese authorities detained its head Huang Zifeng in May 2018; the company later said he was under investigation for accepting bribes.

Lark

Lark, a Slack-like productivity tool, is Bytedance’s first move into the enterprise service market. The app, which officially launched in April, belongs to Bytedance’s productivity engineering division, which is led by company vice president Xie Xin.

Xu Zhe, a senior product manager, is actually in charge of Lark, according to Chinese media outlet Geekpark. Xu has teamed up with Liang Rubo, the CTO of Jinri Toutiao, and Wu Weijie, the director of monetization, to oversee Lark’s operations. All three of them report to Xie.

Duoshan

Duoshan is Bytedance’s WeChat-challenger instant messaging app, which was launched in January. The app is reportedly developed and designed by a young team, all of whose members were born after 1990. Xu Luran, the 25-year-old product manager, graduated from Sichuan University only four years ago.

TikTok

Before the June leadership shuffle, the person in charge of TikTok was Ren Lifeng, the founding member of the Douyin team and a former Baidu employee. The app is also led by Zhu Jun, to whom Ren now reports, according to the 36Kr report.

Vigo

Vigo is an overseas version of short-video platform Huoshan. Han Shangyou, a former product manager at Tencent, is leading Vigo’s overseas push.

TopBuzz, BuzzVideo, News Republic, Helo

Kang Zeyu is leading the international push of TopBuzz, BuzzVideo, News Republic, and Helo. Before joining Bytedance in March 2017, Kang worked for Baidu as a senior development engineer. Less than a week after his departure from Baidu, Kang joined a company affiliated with Jinri Toutiao, but he continued to claim compensation from Baidu for nine months without disclosing his new position, according to a court file published in May.

 Baidu sued Kang in May 2018 for violating nondisclosure and noncompete agreements.The dispute was settled in June 2018 when the Beijing Labor Arbitration Commission ordered Kang to pay Baidu RMB 830,000.

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The upbeat

Highlights from recent headlines

Probes and strategies in India

  • The Times of India: India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT has requested that Bytedance’s short-video app TikTok respond to a query containing 24 questions about content quality, data security, and age restrictions on the platform.

By taking the query as an opportunity to clarify some of the Indian government’s most pressing concerns, Bytedance could dispel some of the suspicion and possible hostility that officials have toward the platform.

  • Livemint: “Bytedance Ltd, which owns the popular TikTok video-sharing app, will invest in Indian content startups to create a bouquet of apps to target new audiences, borrowing from its successful China playbook, two people familiar with the plans said.”

Although Bytedance has already secured a large following in India with TikTok and Helo, the company is still lacking an app ecosystem similar to what it has established in China. The investments in (and possible future acquisitions of) content, e-commerce, and education technology startups in India could help Bytedance keep users in its ecosystem and speed up monetization in the market.

  • Business Standard: “China-based ByteDance, the parent company of popular short-video application TikTok, will set up a data center in India, becoming one of the first social media companies to do so in the country, the company said in a statement shared exclusively with Business Standard.”

As part of Bytedance’s $1 billion investment in the country, the data center could allay concerns about data privacy in TikTok and potentially lower the possibility of a costly ban like the one in April.

Products and acquisitions

  • TechCrunch: Bytedance has acquired Jukedeck, a UK startup that enables users to create music generated by artificial intelligence.

Once incorporated into Douyin and TikTok, Jukedeck’s technologies could give users more music options during content creation. The acquisition could also reduce Bytedance’s reliance on copyrighted music from major music labels, which have been demanding higher royalties from the company.

  • LatePost: Bytedance could release the smartphone it has been developing for seven months as early as the end of the year.

Although the company said that the smartphone is a continuation of plans made by Smartisan, the phone maker it acquired, the product is reportedly still in development, and could include Bytedance-specific features. The smartphone should also help Bytedance push into the hardware landscape.

Legal battle with Tencent

  • TechNode: “Guangzhou Intellectual Property Court issued two more injunctions against three Bytedance apps, prohibiting them from live-streaming the Tencent games ‘Honour of Kings’ and ‘CrossFire.’”

Bytedance’s short-video apps and content aggregator do not depend on gaming content, but being stripped of the right to use three of Tencent’s most popular games will hurt the platforms. The list of games that Bytedance apps aren’t allowed to use is also likely to expand as Tencent seeks to protect live-streaming platforms it has invested in, such as Nasdaq-listed Douyu and NYSE-listed Huya.

TikTok numbers and changes

  • Sensor Tower: TikTok and Douyin grossed a total of $10.8 million from in-app purchases of virtual currency in June, increasing 588% year-on-year.

So far, the virtual currency can only be gifted to live-streamers, who can then exchange them for real money. Bytedance could potentially see even stronger growth in revenue from this feature if it gives the currency more usage.

  •  TechCrunch: “Short-form video app TikTok, the fourth most downloaded app in the world as of last quarter, is working on several new seemingly Instagram-inspired features—including a Discover page, a grid-style layout similar to Instagram Explore, an Account Switcher and more.”

By improving user experience by making it easier to find content and connect to other apps such as Facebook, these features could shape TikTok into a more user-friendly app.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. He writes a monthly newsletter tracking...

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com