Zhang Yiming, the founder of ByteDance – the company behind the popular short-video app TikTok – will be stepping down as CEO by the end of 2021. He issued an internal letter to all employees on Thursday announcing that co-founder Liang Rubo would take over as the new chief executive.
The internal memo states Zhang giving up his day-to-day responsibilities “would enable (him) to have greater impact on longer-term initiatives.” He also announced that he would be working side-by-side with Liang over the next six months “to ensure the smoothest possible transition.”
In Zhang’s memo, he explains that “often when companies mature and expand, many fall into the trap of the CEO becoming overly central…This leads to an over-reliance on existing ideas already in the company, and results in knowledge structures being slow to iterate.”
To avoid this pitfall, Zhang said: “I believe I can best challenge the limits of what the company can achieve over the next decade and drive innovation by drawing on my strengths of highly-focused learning, systematic thought, and a willingness to attempt new things.”
Zhang believes that his departure as CEO would help the company stay innovative moving forward. In his memo, he also confessed that he lacked some of the skills that make an ideal manager. “I am more interested in analyzing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people,” adding that Liang would be better positioned to take on the job.
The billionaire’s decision to step down comes at a time when the company is considering an initial public offering (IPO). The Financial Times reported that shares recently traded hands at a valuation of more than $200bn in private markets, according to people familiar with the matter.
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Zhang co-founded ByteDance in 2012 with Liang, his university classmate. In 2015, the company launched its TikTok app (known as Douyin in China), which instantly became a hit. In 2020, the short-video platform was once again the most downloaded app of the year. According to GlobalData’s thematic research, TikTok benefited from a surge in users during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The resignation arrives as Chinese authorities upped the ante on antitrust regulations in the tech sector. In March, several industry giants – including ByteDance – were slapped with hefty antitrust fines, as the relationship between the Chinese state and tech companies appears to be souring more and more.
The international branch of the business meanwhile has also come under fire amid rising tensions between the US and China. In August of last year, former Disney executive Kevin Mayer stepped down as CEO of TikTok after having been in the position for less than three months. He cited the changing “political environment” in an apparent reference to former President Donald Trump’s pressure on the platform.
A month later, Trump signed an executive order banning TikTok from the US’s Google and Apple app store. However, the ban was halted at the last minute when a court granted an injunction allowing the app to remain available in the US.