Depending on who you ask, TikTok might be described as a Gen-Z entertainment app that’s better than therapy, a global threat to freedom of expression or a national security menace. But to Alex Zhu, it was a project born out of desperation.
In the summer of 2014, the Chinese entrepreneur and his co-founder Louis Yang were still reeling from the failure of their first brainchild -- an education app that “combined the idea of Coursera and the idea of Twitter into one product.” Ordinary people, he discovered, aren’t really into using their smartphones to learn. Instead, they mostly browse Facebook, play games and message each other. Phones are used for entertainment and connection.
Left with just a fraction of the US$250,000 they initially raised from venture capitalists, Zhu chanced upon his next idea on a train ride to Mountain View, California. There, he saw teenagers listening to music, taking selfies and videos, and showing each other their screens. It dawned on him that teenagers might love an app that combines all these elements together.
The result was Musical.ly, the app that became TikTok as we know it today.
“Musical.ly allows everyone to be an entertainer,” Zhu said.
Within a year of its launch, Musical.ly topped Apple’s US App Store ranking -- a rare accomplishment for a Chinese-made app. Zhu had been working in the US for the German software firm SAP, but he moved back to Shanghai where most of his Musical.ly team was based. More than a decade before, he studied civil engineering at Zhejiang University, a two hours’ drive southwest of the city.
Then in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg came knocking on his door.
In August of that year, the CEO of Facebook invited Zhu to his company headquarters at Menlo Park, California to explore the possibility of acquiring Musical.ly, according to sources who spoke to Buzzfeed. The talks continued the following month when a Facebook team visited Zhu and Yang in Shanghai. There was no question that Facebook viewed Musical.ly as a threat.
If you watch the few YouTube videos of Zhu speaking at various tech events, the first thing you’ll notice is how articulate he is. Despite his slightly accented English, he speaks with ease and relatable humor, evident from the laughs he elicits from the audience. His ambition for Musical.ly was also apparent.
In a 2016 conversation with Greylock Partners’ Josh Elman, Zhu compared building a social media community to founding a nation. As he explained, the first goal is to entice people from elsewhere to move to your new country, just like America did during the 18th century.
“You want to build an economy, you want to build a population [and] you want people from Europe to migrate to your country,” he said. “[For Musical.ly,] Instagram is Europe. Facebook is Europe.”
He likened teens who joined Musical.ly to migrants chasing the American dream. They saw ordinary people find fame on a new app and wanted the same for themselves, he said.
Musical.ly was eventually acquired, but not by Facebook. By the end of 2016, Chinese startup ByteDance had launched a domestic app called Douyin that was nearly identical to Musical.ly. ByteDance snapped up Zhu’s company for as much as US$1 billion in late 2017. The following year, it merged with TikTok, an international version of Douyin.
After helping with the transition, Zhu took a few months off to “rest, go clubbing in Shanghai and listen to jazz,” he told the New York Times. The 40-year-old, it seems, has always maintained an artistic and philosophical bent.
His personal blog linked on his Linkedin profile is titled the “The Passion of Sisyphus” -- named after the Greek hero who was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a steep hill, only to see it fall back as it nears the top. The blog, last updated in 2012, is filled with poetry and short stories. One of them is about a future archaeologist who excavates social media profiles.
Those were more innocent times. Today, Zhu heads TikTok and reports directly to ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, according to Chinese media.
It means he’s been thrust into the position of assuring American authorities that TikTok’s Chinese roots are nothing to fear, something highlighted by a recent interview. The New York Times asked Zhu: What if Chinese president Xi Jinping asked him to take down a video or hand over user data?
“I would turn him down,” Zhu said.