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Analyse Asia

Oct 31, 2020

In episode 334, Matthew Brennan returned to discuss his new book "Attention Factory: The Story of Tik Tok & China's ByteDance". Matthew began with the inspiration and the key themes behind the first English book specifically focused on ByteDance, observing the rise of the company. He discuss the backstory of Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance and how he learned from his past experiences to build Toutiao first before embarking on Douyin that eventually led to Tik Tok. Last but not least, Matthew debunked the common misconceptions on Tik Tok and ByteDance, explained how their business models work and offered a glimpse to the challenges ahead for the company in the near future.

Here are the interesting show notes and links to the discussion:

  • Matthew Brennan, Co-founder of China Channel and author of “ (, @mbrennanchina , Linkedin, Wechat:Yowdy-CQ)
    • As the highest recurring guest on the podcast, it’s great to welcome you back. First question: what have you been up to since our last conversation?
  • “Attention Factory - The Story of Tik Tok and China’s ByteDance” by Matthew Brennan
    • What is the inspiration behind writing this book?
    • What are the key themes for this book?
    • Who are the major audiences that you want to target in this book?
    • Tik Tok and ByteDance are often characterized by Western commentators and media as a threat to Facebook, Twitter and even to the US government itself. What are the key misconceptions about Tik Tok and ByteDance? 
    • Probably this is the first book which dives in depth into the background of Zhang Yiming, the founder of Bytedance, and the surprise is that he used to work for China’s twitter clone, Fanfou (started by Wang Xing, now founder and CEO of Meituan-Dianping) and was shut down by the authorities. Can you elaborate more on his background and his stint as a CEO with another startup called 99Fang before coming to ByteDance? What has 99Fang taught Zhang Yiming in the process?
    • After he resigned from 99Fang, he started ByteDance and it was not with Tik Tok that he started his foray. He did Toutiao, can you talk about the design concepts and what Toutiao taught the ByteDance team?
    • One can think of the success of Tik Tok in three stages: Douyin in China, acquisition of and then expanding globally across the decade of 2010 to 2020. Let’s start with Douyin first, how did the app cross the chasm to drive users?
    • Tencent has tried to challenge Douyin on the homeground with Weishi, what did they get wrong and why have they failed to challenge Tik Tok? 
    • What are the key business models for Tik Tok and Douyin from ByteDance? How does the app bring revenues to the company? How are the apps localized or globalized to ensure a better user experience? 
    • There are different ways to look at Tik Tok. One interesting insight was from Eugene Wei’s recent article “Tik Tok and the Sorting Hat”, where Tik Tok does not need the social graph but rather rely on the recommendation engine algorithm to push the interests of the user, which makes Tik Tok a more direct competitor to Youtube. What are your thoughts on how one should think of Tik Tok as a mobile app or social network or video network?
    • Probably, we should talk about what happened to Tik Tok in the US this year. They have hired Kevin Mayer, former head of Disney+ and then Donald Trump threatened to shut them down, and first there was supposed to be an acquisition from Microsoft, but ended up with Oracle and Walmart clinching a partnership deal. Can you share your thoughts on what happened and where this is likely to go before & after the US elections?
    • What are the key challenges you see for ByteDance in the coming year?
  • Closing
    • Do you have any recommendations that have recently inspired you?
    • Where can our audience find you and your new book “Attention Factory”?

Podcast Information:

The show is hosted and produced by Carol Yin (@CarolYujiaYin) and originally created by Bernard Leong (@bernardleong, Linkedin). Sound credits for the intro music: Taro Iwashiro, "The Beginning" from Red Cliff Soundtrack.

analyseasia · Attention Factory: The Story of Tik Tok & China’s ByteDance with Matthew Brennan