Zhang Yiming made ByteDance Ltd. the world’s most valuable private enterprise through a series of successful apps like TikTok that have challenged Facebook and other incumbents on their own turf. His latest target: Alibaba.
The 38-year-old AI coding genius on the hunt for the next big issue of ByteDance has set his sights on the $ 1.7 trillion e-commerce arena in China. The co-founder has hired thousands of employees and recruited renowned sponsors like impresario Lei Jun from Xiaomi Corp. to drive what he calls his next “major breakthrough” in global commerce – selling products to consumers through his short videos and addicting livestreams. This effort will not only test Zhang’s magic touch with app building and ByteDance’s AI magic, but also investor reception ahead of one of the tech world’s most anticipated IPOs.
His startup is already starting to make waves in an industry long controlled by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Jack Ma’s JD.com Inc. She sold around $ 26 billion worth of makeup, clothing, and other merchandise in 2020, making her first year. what Alibaba’s Taobao took six years to accomplish. It is targeting more than $ 185 billion by 2022. Douyin, the Chinese twin of TikTok, is expected to contribute more than half of the company’s $ 40 billion in domestic advertising sales this year, in part through e-commerce. .
“Short video platforms have so much traffic that they can do virtually any business,” said Shawn Yang, managing director of Blue Lotus Capital Advisors. “Douyin is not only in commercials, but also in live broadcasting, e-commerce, local life services and research. This leaves a lot of room for the imagination. “
Booming e-commerce activity could help the company surpass its $ 250 billion valuation when it goes public, countering concerns surrounding Beijing’s crackdown on the country’s internet giants. Preparations are said to be underway for an entry that would be one of the world’s most anticipated debuts. The startup is working with advisors on the offer and chooses between Hong Kong and the United States as its listing location, people familiar with the matter said. While ByteDance doesn’t handle sales or the merchandise itself, it hopes to sell more ads to merchants, increase traffic, and reduce business.
The internet giant is a late entrant to the social commerce scene in China, where influencers tout products to fans like a Gen-Z version of the Home Shopping Network. The format, launched by Alibaba as a marketing tool in 2016, developed a life of its own last year when Covid-19 spurred demand for home entertainment. Last year, Alibaba’s Taobao Live generated more than 400 billion yuan ($ 62 billion) in gross merchandise value, and Kuaishou Technology’s social platforms hosted 381 billion yuan in transactions, more than double that of by Douyin.
ByteDance is counting on its artificial intelligence and interest-based recommendations to help its e-commerce business catch up. On a booming night out for the one-year-old company last month, executives explained that the company intends to replicate its success by using AI algorithms to feed user content into online shopping. Scrolling through an endless stream of social content, now more connected to physical goods than ever before, Douyin users won’t be able to resist their urge to buy, they said.
It’s “a bit like shopping on the street,” Bob Kang, the 35-year-old e-commerce manager of Douyin, told hundreds of people at the Guangzhou event. “As people get richer, they don’t go to malls or boutiques with specific things in mind, they just buy if they see something they like.”
Kang, a former engineer at Baidu Inc. who was poached by ByteDance in 2017, is one of a group of up-and-coming young lieutenants commissioned by Zhang to innovate for the company. He was previously the technical manager of ByteDance’s Helo app, one of India’s most widely used social platforms for sharing content like videos – until the South Asian nation shut it down with dozens of people. Chinese applications last June for national security reasons.
Since Kang took the helm of e-commerce, Douyin has banned live broadcasters from selling items listed on third-party sites and urged them to open their own integrated stores, barring rivals like Alibaba and JD.com Inc. from To take advantage of. its traffic. It has grown a customer support team from around 100 to around 1,900 people to fight counterfeits and is recruiting for over 900 other positions to support the business. ByteDance also has an online matchmaking system that connects marketers with influencers and their agencies, and it sets up physical bases to host live streamers and merchandise, like Alibaba does.
The initiative gained traction with celebrities like Lei, the founder of Xiaomi who hosted live broadcasts promoting his Mi TVs and smartphones. Luo Yonghao, a once high-profile entrepreneur who sought to challenge Apple Inc .with his smartphone business, is another big influencer, moving more than $ 17 million in merchandise in his very first livestream on the platform.
Small merchants are following their lead, like Zhou Huang, who created a Douyin storefront for his jewelry business in October, bypassing conventional platforms like Alibaba’s Taobao. Instead of charging platform operators hefty fees for traffic, she has managed to muster a fan base of around 20,000 by creating videos that offer handy tips like how to pick the right size when going. purchase of a bracelet online.
“It’s hard for brand new merchants like me to get customers to Taobao,” says Huang, whose Douyin store broke even after just three months. “Sometimes people come to our store not for shopping, but for entertainment. But once we have enough visitors, we can make a sale. “
ByteDance lends a hand. In Foshan, Huang and 200 other jewelry sellers are coached on everything from registering a store and marketing to making great videos. Round-the-clock technical support is available: Huang says that whenever his live broadcast channel goes down, technicians at ByteDance immediately come to the rescue.
Huang is one of some 1 million creators who generated e-commerce sales on Douyin in January, drawn by the platform’s 600 million daily users. The platform – which generates commissions from merchants as a new source of income – aims to have more than a thousand brands join brands like Suning.com Co. this year by setting up stores in Douyin, and this year. number could increase fivefold by 2022, the company predicted in an internal memo. The GMV could reach 600 billion yuan this year before doubling to 1.2 trillion yuan in 2022.
ByteDance’s ambitions are not limited to Alibaba. The company has also started allowing users to book hotels and restaurants through Douyin, offering lifestyle services similar to Tencent’s super apps like Meituan and WeChat.
Douyin’s foray into e-commerce in China could offer a roadmap for TikTok, which has started testing the waters of online shopping through ties to WalMart Inc. and Canadian e-commerce company Shopify Inc. In December, Zhang told global employees that e-commerce, when combined with live streaming and short videos, offers an even greater opportunity outside of China, according to participants who asked not to be identified. The company also quietly built a team of engineers in Singapore to grow TikTok’s nascent e-commerce operations.
ByteDance’s surge in online shopping comes as its other businesses face headwinds. To develop video games, ByteDance bought development studios, but producing blockbuster hits like Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Honor of Kings could take years and China has already cracked down on the industry in spurts. In online tutoring, regulators have sought to curb excess marketing and competition is fierce against a large number of deep-pocketed startups like Alibaba-backed Zuoyebang.
In April, Zhang’s company was one of 34 companies ordered by the antitrust watchdog to conduct internal investigations and rectify the excesses. And although its payments service is only just getting started, ByteDance and its peers have been hit with sweeping restrictions on their fast-growing financial operations following a meeting with regulators, including the central bank last month. .
But the same scrutiny could help the owner of TikTok make inroads into e-commerce in China, the world’s largest online marketplace. Alibaba has sidelined rivals JD.com and Pinduoduo Inc. for the past decade, allegedly through practices such as forcing merchants into exclusive deals. Regulators have since imposed a record fine of $ 2.8 billion on Jack Ma’s flagship company and made eradicating “one in two choices” one of the main goals of its antitrust campaign, creating the place for young people like ByteDance.
So far, the biggest and most immediate boost to ByteDance’s e-commerce expansion is advertising revenue, which still accounts for the bulk of its revenue. As the number of merchants increases on Douyin, their marketing spend within the platform also increases. The company predicts that e-commerce could overtake gaming to become the biggest contributor to ad sales. At rival Kuaishou, traders contributed about 20%, the company said in March.
“It’s more about getting a bigger share of ad spend from brands that would otherwise spend money on platforms like Alibaba,” said Michael Norris, senior analyst at market research firm AgencyChina based in Shanghai. “That’s where the Alibaba threat comes from.