As Zhang Yiming Leaves ByteDance’s Global Board, Liang Rubo and Eight Core Executives Step Forward

bytedance
(Source: ByteDance)

This article is authorized to be translated from the original article of LatePost. Original title: 张一鸣退出字节跳动全球董事会,梁汝波与八名核心高管走向前台 Author: Gao Honghao, Shi Xian, He Qianming, Chen Jing. Editor: Huang Junjie, Song Wei. Copy editor: Peter Catterall

After more than nine years since founding ByteDance, Zhang Yiming has at last got his delayed satisfaction.

The firm’s education business has laid off more than 5,000 employees, its commercialization business has shut down sales centers in many cities, and the company has downsized or reduced recruitment across several other businesses. ByteDance’s diverse range of departments no longer seeks never-ending growth at the expense of unlimited investment, and its employees can clock out at 7 p.m. every day, at least in theory.

Zhang Yiming has begun to enjoy his long-awaited free time, too. In May 2021, after announcing that he would step down as CEO, Zhang started attending bi-monthly meetings with his replacement, Liang Rubo. He has also found spare time to look into non-priority businesses, to fly to other cities, and even to check out the firm’s front-end code.

LatePost learned that Zhang Yiming had taken another step back, formally stepping down from the ByteDance board and handing over his seat to Liang Rubo. This decision marks the end of the CEO’s handover period.

As a result, the entire business will be restructured.

Today, Liang Rubo released an internal letter announcing the establishment of six business groups, namely Douyin, Dali Education, Feishu, Volcano Engine, Nuverse and TikTok. All of these businesses report directly to Liang.

The restructuring has seen no substantial business changes, nor did it alter the reporting relationships between most of the business heads. Kelly Zhang, the head of Douyin, already ran Toutiao and Watermelon Video prior to the adjustments. The only departmental integration is Volcano Engine with ByteDance’s Middle Platform business, making it an independent board and raising its importance within the company.

After the adjustments, ByteDance will be structured around BUs (business units) with explicitly defined boundaries for each one. The internal disorder inevitably brought about by the firm’s massive expansion over the past nine years may finally be dispelled.

It was only ten months ago when ByteDance appeared to tolerate no limits to its future. The company’s total number of workers increased from 60,000 to 100,000 in 2020. Education was still seen as an important new business avenue that would require years of consecutive investment.

Today, the firm finds itself in a new environment – with a new framework altogether.

Eight Core Executives

The core management team of ByteDance is composed of six BU heads, along with Zhang Lidong (chairman of ByteDance China and head of the commercialization business) and Hua Wei (head of HR and the management office). They are separately responsible for spending money, generating income and supporting the CEO.

Except for Zhang Lidong, who was born in 1979, all core executives of ByteDance including Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo belong to the ‘Post-80’ generation. More than half of them are computer science graduates, including Zhang Yiming, Liang Rubo, Chen Lin, Xie Xin and Yang Zhenyuan.

Kelly Zhang joined ByteDance in 2013 and has since grown into one of the essential figures within ByteDance. From general manager of Douyin and head of the business department to CEO of Beijing ByteDance, she has steadily moved up the firm’s career ladder.

Before joining ByteDance, Zhang was an entrepreneur, whose company was later acquired by ByteDance. She was good at operations and driving growth, and she led the team bringing Douyin to what it is today from zero to one. In 2019, the platform wanted to refocus on product-driven growth. So Zhang Yiming replaced Kelly Zhang with Zhu Jun, who are better at developing products. Zhang Nan stepped away from Douyin to become the head of the Mutual Entertainment Department, managing Douyin, Volcano, FaceU, Qingyan Camera and other departments. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Douyin encountered fierce competition from Kuaishou, and Zhang returned to the front line in leading the platform to penetrate the lower market.

The following year, Kelly Zhang was appointed CEO of ByteDance China, but she was not in charge of businesses such as Feishu, games and education, which reported directly to Zhang Yiming at the time.

Insiders praise her as a management-type talent, strong in execution and always goal-oriented. She has proven herself by fighting hard battles under Meituan’s “talent ladder theory.” She is now moving into the fourth stage: to prove that she can also win tough battles as some businesses facing stagnant growth – such as Toutiao and Watermelon Video – are definitively merged into the Douyin section.

Chen Lin, head of Dali Education, is the company’s fastest-rising star, and his experience is proof that young talents see far more opportunities to move up in startups than in big companies.

In 2008, Chen graduated from Peking University with a master’s degree in computer science, and in the following three years, he worked at Microsoft, Tencent, Yahoo and Alibaba, one after another. He joined ByteDance in 2012 as a product manager for Toutiao.

Within only six years, Chen became the CEO of Toutiao. Staff in the education business praised him as “rational and keen to talk about logic.” Zhang Yiming described him as “sensitive, intuitive and empathetic”. In 2019, Zhu Wenjia replaced Chen as head of Toutiao, and Chen began to focus mainly on social businesses (Duoshan, Feiliao) and education innovation businesses (gogokid, etc.).

The education business was originally expected to enjoy the brightest future among the above four innovative businesses. Chen expected a third product with more than 100 million DAU (daily active users), after Toutiao and Douyin. In October 2020, Chen became the CEO of Dali Education, and was prepared not to be able to make profits for three years. Due to the recent regulatory policies, however, now the education business has to be transformed.

Xie Xin graduated from Peking University with a degree in computer science. He and Liang Rubo were both Zhang Yiming’s colleagues at Kuxun, and have both headed the human resources department at ByteDance. At the end of 2014, Xie joined ByteDance, where he oversaw the construction of the firm’s collaborative office system and the incubation of Feishu.

Liang Rubo, now global CEO of ByteDance, once reported to Xie Xin. In March last year, the company adjusted its organizational structure, and Xie was put in charge of  the Feishu business section, composed of Feishu, EE (Engineering Efficiency) and EA (Enterprise Application).

Yang Zhenyuan is heading the Volcano Engine business section. In 2005, Yang graduated from the School of Computer Science and Engineering at Beihang University and joined Baidu. He later became the deputy director of Baidu’s Search Department. In 2014, Yang joined ByteDance’s Middle Platform department (“DATA”), taking charge of the Volcano Engine business.

The Middle Platform system built by Yang was credited as one of the secrets for ByteDance’s success. He championed the opening of the middle platform to external services, and said in an internal meeting at the end of last year, “For some companies, technological progress is brought about by business development, but vice versa, technological progress can also boost development.”

Yan Shou is the head of Nuverse. He graduated from Tsinghua University with a master’s degree in automation in 2011 and worked at Monitor Group (later acquired by Deloitte) for nearly two years before joining Tencent’s strategic cooperation department. He started his career at ByteDance in 2015.

Yan initially took charge of the strategic investment business at ByteDance and later became the first director when the firm officially started its gaming business in 2019. However, he did not have any game-related experience in the past.

In his role, Yan won over more autonomy for the games department, setting up a new procurement process as well as a new recruitment and assessment mechanism. For a long time before this, the games investment and strategic investment were kept under a single department. It was not until 2021 that Nuverse under Yan’s guidance set up the Nuverse Inspiration Fund. Bimonthly meetings were also allowed to be canceled. 

In March 2021, ByteDance acquired Shanghai Moonton Technology Co., Ltd. for $4 billion. The move was considered an important milestone in the firm’s history. Moonton’s Mobile Legends: Bang Bang is one of the most popular online competitive mobile games in Southeast Asia. A person close to ByteDance said Moonton would become one of the main teams within ByteDance Games.

Yet the most urgent mission for Yan Shou is to deliver a truly successful original game.

In March 2021, 37-year-old Zhou Shouzi, former partner and president of Xiaomi’s international division, joined ByteDance as CFO and is regularly based in Singapore. Zhou’s addition to the team is believed to be a signal that ByteDance is preparing for IPO, as Zhou was previously in charge of Xiaomi’s IPO.

Just a month later, ByteDance announced that Zhou would take on an additional role as the CEO of TikTok, mainly responsible for corporate governance and long-term business planning. TikTok staff said that Zhou was not closely involved in product details, but was more in control of the general direction. Zhu Wenjia, the former CEO of Toutiao, was redeployed to TikTok in 2021 and is now in charge of product and technology.

SEE ALSO: ByteDance Co-founder Zhang Yiming to Step Down as CEO

With Zhou’s departure as CFO, some commentators assume ByteDance will further delay its IPO plans.

Zhang Lidong, chairman of ByteDance China and head of the commercialization business, has undergone the least changes. Before joining ByteDance, he headed the advertising business at the Beijing Times. Since joining ByteDance in 2013, he has been in charge of its commercialization business.

Zhang’s commercialization department contributes the majority of ByteDance’s overall revenue. In 2020, ByteDance’s advertising revenue was around 180 billion yuan ($28.154 billion), close to 80% of the firm’s total. Zhang is also considered one of the firm’s most courageous executives because he cut down Douyin’s second-class e-commerce business, which could have yielded huge revenue but also contained high risks.

LatePost learned that Kang Zeyu, the head of the first-level section of the fastest-growing e-commerce business within ByteDance, reports to Zhang Lidong.

Hua Wei joined ByteDance in December, 2014, and is one of the founders of the company’s organization and structure. He previously oversaw the investment business at ifeng.com. In the early days of ByteDance, Hua Wei was responsible for the company’s strategic investment, overseeing several investments and M&As, such as kuaikanmanhua.com and IC photo. He is now in charge of human resource management, focusing on the company’s organizational and cultural construction.

Hua Wei is considered to be more rational and less emotional than Zhang Yiming. A ByteDance employee once described Hua Wei as more of a strategist with the sole aim to support Zhang.

In March 2020, while celebrating its eighth anniversary, ByteDance undertook a large-scale organizational upgrade. Liang Rubo became the head of human resources. Hua Wei took charge of the strategic investment department while continuing his role as Zhang Yiming’s assistant in charge of MO (Office Management) and investor relations. In May this year, after Zhang Yiming stepped down, Hua Wei resumed the HR-related work. The first move he made was to eliminate the “big/small week” policy that had been implemented for more than nine years, where most of its employees work a six-day week every second week.

Integrating Douyin, Watermelon Video and Toutiao

One of the priorities of this restructuring is to integrate relevant businesses scattered across different departments. After the adjustment, Kelly Zhang, CEO of ByteDance China, now has with a clearer authority, becomes the focal point responsible for all content-based platform businesses.

Previously, Toutiao and Watermelon Video were classified under the first-level Department of General Information Platforms, headed by Chen Xi and Ren Lifeng, respectively, and both report to Kelly Zhang. Meanwhile, Douyin fell under the Mutual Entertainment Department, headed directly by Kelly Zhang, which includes products such as Douyin Volcano, Qingyan Camera, Faceu and others. Search is an independent business headed by Wu Kai, who also reports to Kelly Zhang.

The reporting relationships remain the same. By integrating many products into one business section, the firm becomes more compatible and flexible.

“Watermelon Video and Toutiao have lost their potential for growth. Integrating them into the same business section with Douyin means that they need to offer more support to Douyin,” one ByteDance source said.

Douyin is China’s largest short-video platform, but its growth flatted after reaching 650 million DAU in 2020. The platform is exploring more forms of contents to attract new users, a ByteDance source said.

“Douyin has started to highlight quality and ‘useful’ contents, which Watermelon Video has done before,” the aforementioned source said, adding that “the two products will be more deeply integrated in the future.”

LatePost has learned that Douyin has set up a confidential special group dedicated to studying the Xiaohongshu app. Xiaohongshu and Bilibili are now considered as strategically important as Kuaishou.

An internet industry analyst pointed out that Xiaohongshu and Bilibili have about 50 million and 60 million active users, respectively, and that these 110 million users constitute a group that Douyin cannot easily cater to.

LatePost has also learned that ByteDance has integrated its commercialization strategy with its business strategy, and that the section head Zhu Shiyu now reports to Kelly Zhang. “We hope to strike a better balance between keeping the user experience intact and raising revenue,” a ByteDance source said.

“The company has expanded to 100,000 staff and the business is still moving fast,” said a ByteDance source, but there are already internal conflicts among teams. Some teams would even try the failed strategies of other departments in pursuit of results.

While it is hard to find a promising market, it is also essential to improve effciency in one’s own capacity. Many interviewed sources said that ByteDance’s integration is in line with the firm’s current trend of “removing the unnecessary and gaining strength.”

Elevate Corporate Service and Introduce Vocational Education

For the first time at the company-wide level, ByteDance has explicitly designated Volcano Engine as a core business section, suggesting that the product’s internal status has been elevated. Formerly, Volcano Engine was a department under ByteDance’s Middle Platform business, and its head, Tan Dai, reported to Yang Zhenyuan, ByteDance’s vice president of technology.

Volcano Engine is a business carrier that allows ByteDance to sell its Middle Platform technology to the external market. At present, it offers A/B testing and other technology solutions used in ByteDance’s growth process. Next, it will focus on IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), covering storage, computing and networking.

A source close to ByteDance said that in the original business planning, the management of Volcano Engine’s different businesses were more fragmented – for example, Tan was not in charge of strategy, making it difficult for the company to focus on business development.

LatePost has learned that after the recent business adjustments, the products and R&D staff of the technical Middle Platform (“DATA” department) will be integrated with the business of Volcano Engine. The new section will provide enterprise services internally and externally, with Yang Zhenyuan still acting as its head and reporting to Liang Rubo.

The public cloud IaaS market in China has been mostly dominated by large vendors. According to market research firm IDC, five vendors accounted for 77% of the IaaS market in the first half of this year, including Alibaba Cloud, Huawei Cloud, Tencent Cloud, Tianyi Cloud (China Telecom) and Amazon AWS. There is not much space left for ByteDance.

For ByteDance’s efforts in the IaaS market, industry insiders generally agree that the firm has a lot of “craters to avoid,” needing at least five years to catch up.

While the status of enterprise services is on the rise, ByteDance’s Dali Education is looking for the meaning to exist.

In July, the Chinese government enacted a series of policies in a bid to reduce students’ academic burden both on and off campus, setting strict limits on the education and training businesses around primary and secondary education. Guagua Long, which was Dali Education’s best performer, significantly downsized its tutoring division in August. The total number of staff in ByteDance’s education business slipped to about 10,000 from about 15,000 in January this year.

ByteDance has not entirely quit the education industry. Chen Lin recently said internally that the sector is still not digitalized enough and that “there are still opportunities for structural changes.”

After the recent adjustments, ByteDance’s Dali Education has been divided into four segments: smart learning, adult education, smart hardware and campus cooperation.

Smart learning is an AI interactive curriculum of recorded classes for primary and secondary school students. It no longer includes the currently popular live classes. Adult education includes vocational education, Open Language, Xuelang and other projects. Smart hardware consists of Dali smart learning lights, writing boards and other products. Campus cooperation seeks to provide technical systems and content services for public schools through big data and AI Learning.

A ByteDance source said that smart hardware and campus cooperation are currently the two key sectors, and more efforts will be devoted to smart learning and adult education.

Vocational education represents a new business venture for ByteDance. The business was formerly focused on corporate internal training and is for now positioned as vocational training for people in the workplace.

A vocational education entrepreneur thinks that while it is the most convenient path to turn to vocational training, given ByteDance’s previous experience internally, the bigger and more promising market is actually civil service exams, graduate school exams and vocational qualification exams, etc., because these are directly linked to promotions and salary increases.

But a ByteDance executive sees it differently. He believes that professional certification is a short-term necessity that does not guarantee promotions or a higher salary, whereas training for the improvement of workplace ability is the only way to achieve long-term goals of personal development.

Amid Tough External Environment, a Moment to Rest and Recover

ByteDance was established in 2012. It transformed the Chinese media sector with Toutiao in 2014, and started its overseas expansion in the same year. In 2016, Douyin figured out the recipe for growth in the short videos arena, and together with TikTok that was launched later, came to dominate both the working hours and free time of users around the world.

In 2018, ByteDance injected its soaring ads revenue into a series of new businesses: games, e-commerce, search engines, local life, mid-length videos and online reading.

Zhang Yiming once said in an interview that “it takes great effort and offers no advantage to compete against others in their core areas.” The firm’s new business ventures since 2018, however, are basically entering into the “core areas” of others.

This battle on multiple fronts tests the fighting strength of ByteDance.

“Zhang Yiming once set a standard for all new businesses, that there should be as many talents at Douyin, Watermelon Video and Toutiao as there were at ByteDance a few years ago,” a ByteDance source said. However, what really happened is that as a swarm of new businesses were set up, a substantial number of experienced staff were transferred to the new ventures, lowering the density of talents in existing businesses.

As a result, several of the company’s businesses are now stuck in growth bottlenecks. Douyin has seen little growth after reaching 650 million DAU in 2020. The firm’s education business now faces strong industry regulation. Neither Toutiao nor Watermelon Video are doing well. Users are less willing to read written information, which directly reduces Toutiao’s DAU. The number of daily active users at Watermelon Video has dwindled from 50 million to about 20 million currently.

LatePost has learned from a source close to ByteDance’s commercialization department that the company predicts a slowdown of its ad revenue growth in Q3 and Q4 to around 30% – 40%. By comparison, the growth rate of its ad revenue exceeded 100% in 2020.

The core business has lost its potential for growth, and related business investments have also contracted.

At the beginning of this year, Toutiao’s Jisu Version team conducted a research in several low tier cities, trying to find a “spiritual incentive” to attract new users, instead of the current cash subsidy approach. Watermelon Video has scaled down part of its budget for copyright procurement and will mainly purchase low-cost contents such as classic old movies and TV dramas in the future.

Since the third quarter of 2021, “removing the unnecessary and gaining strength” has been included in the OKRs (Objectves and Key Results) of Kelly Zhang and other executives. Staff optimization has been performed across sectors such as commercialization, music and games, to varying degrees.

Meanwhile, the diverse challenges that ByteDance once confronted are temporarily “sealed.” The U.S. government’s threat to shut down TikTok was rarely mentioned in the wake of Trump’s defeat at the ballot box. Domestically, ani-trust regualtions have rendered the competitive tactics of big companies a little milder. Douyin’s rival Kuaishou has scaled back its investment due to account losses following its public listing.

A ByteDance source sees the present moment as a prime time for addressing issues accumulated during the tech giant’s rapid development. He belives that staff reductions and business cutbacks are necessary means to squeeze the bubble.

ByteDance is embracing a rare period of rest and recovery.

About LatePost

LatePost (www.latepost.com) is a business news outlet, cofounded by Caijing Magazine, one of the most influential financial news publications in China.

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Our original editorial insight was that Internet companies had migrated to the absolute center of China’s economic operation. Now, they have become the most vital infrastructure of China, wielding enormous power but also attracting scrutiny from the public and the authority.

The LatePost strives to seek the truth in this sector, regularly publishes hard-hitting investigations and high profile interviews. We have interviewed most founders of big tech companies in China, Including Zhang Yiming of Bytedance, Colin Huang of PDD, Wang Xing of Meituan, and Lei Jun of Xiaomi.