Written in collaboration with Zara Zhang
One question I get frequently is: Which tech companies in China are on their way to become giants – the next “BAT” (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent)?
In my opinion, four companies are well-positioned to be the next generation of Chinese tech giants: Toutiao, Meituan-Dianping, Didi – a trio that’s collectively known as “TMD” – and Xiaomi.
(Didi is a GGV portfolio company; I am an early investor and former board member of Xiaomi, as well as a personal investor in Dianping).
Those outside of China may be less familiar with Toutiao, which owns some of China’s most popular content and social apps, and is now reportedly valued at over $22 billion (40 times what it was worth three years ago). Toutiao has over 600 million total users and 120 million daily active users. The average user spends 74 minutes per day on the app. Its explosive growth even took Tencent by surprise. Anu Hariharan, a partner at the Y Combinator Continuity Fund, recently wrote a thoughtful product analysis of Toutiao that explains how the company was able to achieve this.
Toutiao, which means “headlines” in Chinese and calls itself an artificial intelligence company, uses algorithms to recommend news and other content to readers. It was seeded by SIG China, and later funded by Yuri Milner and Sequoia Capital China. Sequoia Capital US, General Atlantic, and China Construction Bank also became new investors recently.
The company has been making a lot of news – both literally and figuratively. It developed an AI bot called Xiaomingbot that automatically generated news articles using machine learning during the 2016 Olympic Games. It has snatched up many top talents to join its team, including Ma Weiying, the former assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, and Liu Zhen, a former senior executive at Uber China. It has gone on an acquisition spree in the past year, buying up companies including the US video app Flipagram and the Indian media aggregation site DailyHunt.
But Toutiao’s ambitions go beyond news itself – it has recognized that the next big thing in content is short videos, and has launched three new apps – Tik Tok (Dou Yin, 抖音), Hipstar (火山小视频), and Xigua Video (西瓜视频, formerly called Toutiao Video 头条视频), which have become some of the most popular short video apps in China. In total, Toutiao owns at least six apps in China and two in the US that are together changing the way millions of people create, consume, and share content. Recently, Toutiao has also reportedly been testing a Snapchat-like app called Kuaipai, which may have similar functions as Snapchat and shares Snapchat’s Chinese name.
Many of us at GGV have known Toutiao’s founder – the 34-year-old Zhang Yiming – for years. He is a hungry and ambitious serial entrepreneur who clearly wants to go global, and has been winning in multiple markets, including Japan and Southeast Asia.
During GGV’s Evolving Lifestyle conference on Oct 10 in Beijing, I interviewed Yiming on stage. Below is the conversation (translated by Zara Zhang).
Hans: I’m sure there are many fans of Toutiao and Tik Tok (Douyin) in this audience. We’ve known Yiming for a few years. Today, we’d like you to share your personal evolution from an engineer to a CEO.
Yiming: Recently, I realized that many people have showcased their lifestyles using Tik Tok. Since I became an entrepreneur, I have been exposed to more and more people and experiences. When I was an engineer, my thought patterns were pretty limited. But now I must develop a product, which makes it necessary for me to understand our users and what they experience.
Hans: Could you share a few stories?
Yiming: For a very long time, I was merely watching Tik Tok videos without making any of them myself, because it’s a product mainly for young people. But later on we made it compulsory for all management team members to make their own Tik Tok videos, and they must win a certain number of “like”s. Otherwise they have to do push-ups. It was a big step for me.
Hans: Why does Toutiao want to go into social?
Yiming: We must adapt to the industry’s changes. In the content industry, texts and pictures have evolved into videos, and content is increasingly generated by users. Many of our changes are in response to what today’s users need.
Hans: Given that you were doing well in the domestic market in China and didn’t have major competitors, why did you want to expand overseas?
Yiming: Since our topic today is lifestyle, I will center my response around that. I was recently chatting with a product manager who said that expanding overseas has made his job a lot more exciting because he gets to interact with all sorts of users. We have a group chat in which we see videos made by users from outside of China every day, from countries like Brazil and Vietnam. It makes you realize that the world is a very big place, and it expands your horizon. It makes our life much more interesting.
Hans: From our perspective, we think that as long as Chinese companies can overcome the cultural barrier and has a technology that has been proven in China, they will not face major competition overseas. Chinese teams tend to work harder.
Yiming: We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist. Just like there was international division of labor in the industrial age, in today’s information age there’s also an international division of labor. Chinese entrepreneurs must also improve their own capabilities as they go global. Google is a company without borders. I hope Toutiao will be as border-less as Google. Personally, I hope to do things that are interesting and meaningful to society.
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Hans Tung is a Managing Partner at GGV Capital. A five-time Forbes Midas Lister, he has been a US/China investor for more than a decade. He was among the first Silicon Valley VCs to move to China full time, betting on the rise of the Chinese consumer internet market with companies like Xiaomi where he was an early investor and board member. His portfolio includes 3 of the top 5 shopping apps in the App Store – Wish, Poshmark and OfferUp – with Ibotta growing fast at #12. Other companies in his geographically diverse portfolio include: Airbnb, Bowery Farming, Bustle, Dirty Lemon, Function of Beauty, Giphy, LimeBike, Lively, musical.ly, Peloton, Slack, Smartmi, Xiaohongshu (aka Red), Yamibuy, and more. Read his blog at hans.vc.