Who owns TikTok now? A comprehensive account about the popular app’s China-based parent company ‘ByteDance’


In less than five years since its global expansion, TikTok has spurned a new age of internet celebrities and inculcated its own social media culture, especially among the Generation Z demographic. Despite privacy concerns raised over the app’s usage, TikTok’s popularity has yet to dwindle.

One cannot deny that TikTok, the app that went from being a fun video-sharing platform for teens to frequently being embroiled in geopolitics by leaders, is unique in its ubiquitous reach. And so is the story of how it went from being a domestic app in China to an explosive worldwide phenomenon.

Key Takeaways

  • The Chinese tech company, ByteDance, founded TikTok as a global counterpart to its Chinese video-focused social network, Douyin.
  • The current CEO of TikTok is Shouzi Chew who officially took over in May 2021.
  • Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, resigned from the post in May 2021.
  • ByteDance’s co-founder Liang Rubo succeed Yiming as the company’s chief executive in November 2021.

TikTok was founded by a Chinese multinational internet tech company ‘ByteDance’ which owns the app

Zhang Yimeng, the founder and CEO of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance
Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance (Photo by Gilles Sabrie/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The TikTok app that we know of today evolved from a Chinese video-focused social networking site known as ‘Douyin’ (originally named as ‘A.me’) which was launched by ‘ByteDance’ in September 2016. According to Sixth Tone, Douyin (which literally means “shaky sound” in Chinese) was primarily envisioned as an app for user-made music videos and catered to domestic users in China.

However, the founder and then CEO of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, intended for the app to go global and began the process by rebranding the social network as ‘TikTok’ to the international market. Its global expansion began with TikTok’s launch in Indonesia on September 13, 2017, as per Cision PR Newswire.

Just two months later on November 10, ByteDance acquired ‘Musical.ly’, another similar Chinese video-sharing social network based in Shanghai with over 200 million users, at a reported value ranging from $800 million to $1 billion, wrote The Business Insider.

This was a strategic business move by ByteDance in an effort to capture Musical.ly’s dominant US userbase for TikTok’s international expansion. Thus, with the merger of Musical.ly with TikTok on August 2, 2018, the user accounts of both apps were consolidated into one.

TechCrunch reported that with the merged app keeping its name as TikTok, it immediately became available in the US and eventually became a worldwide app. Alex Zhou, the co-founder of Musical.ly and Senior Vice President of Tiktok, talked about the app’s launch in a statement. He said;

“TikTok, the sound of a ticking clock, represents the short nature of the video platform. We want to capture the world’s creativity and knowledge under this new name and remind everyone to treasure every precious life moment. Combining Musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences.”

Disney’s top executive Kevin Mayer became the CEO of TikTok in June 2020 to head its global operations from Los Angeles

Kevin Mayer, chairman of the board of Directors for Dazn Group Ltd (Photo by Lauren Justice/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In an unexpected turn of leadership, Kevin Mayer, the previous chairman of Disney Plus, left the entertainment conglomerate to not only become the CEO of TikTok but also the COO of its parent company, ByteDance.

“Kevin’s wealth of experience building successful global businesses makes him an outstanding fit for our mission of inspiring creativity for users globally. As one of the world’s most accomplished entertainment executives, Kevin is incredibly well placed to take ByteDance’s portfolio of products to the next level,” said Yiming in a statement reported by Variety.

Mayer said that he was “excited to help lead the next phase of ByteDance’s journey” in expanding its products across the world.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to join the amazing team at ByteDance. Like everyone else, I’ve been impressed watching the company build something incredibly rare in TikTok – a creative, positive online global community,” said Mayer in his statement.

After officially joining as the CEO on June 1, 2020, Mayer oversaw the global operations of TikTok from its Los Angeles-based office located in Culver City.

In a short-lived tenure, August 2020 saw Mayer’s resignation in light of growing pressure from the Trump administration regarding TikTok’s US operations

Financial Times first broke the story about Mayer’s resignation from TikTok in August 2020, less than four months after he joined as CEO.

In light of the deteriorating US-China relations and pressure from the Trump administration’s order to sell the app’s US operations to an American tech company (with Microsoft and Oracle in talks to buy the app), Mayer left the company, citing sharp changes in the political environment.

He explained in a letter to employees;

“I have done significant reflection on what the corporate structural changes will require, and what it means for the global role I signed up for. Against this backdrop, and as we expect to reach a resolution very soon, it is with a heavy heart that I wanted to let you all know that I have decided to leave the company.”

He further added that his role of “running TikTok globally will look very different as a result of the US administration’s action to push for a sell-off of the US business”.

Moreover, Yiming voiced his understanding of Mayer’s resignation under the given circumstances as he stated in another letter of his own;

“Kevin spoke to me, and I fully understand that the resulting outcome that we land upon due to the political circumstances we are operating within could have a significant impact on his job in any scenario, but given his particular global role while he’s based in the US.”

In a statement to Financial Times, TikTok confirmed the news of Mayer’s departure, saying;

“We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin’s role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision.”

In May 2021, TikTok finally named Shouzi Chew, who was also serving as the CFO of ByteDance at the time, as its chief executive

Shouzi Chew, chief executive officer of TikTok Inc., (Photo by Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the months following Mayer’s resignation, Vanessa Pappas, who had been the general manager of TikTok’s US operations, served as the interim CEO of TikTok while a search for the permanent CEO was going on.

Nearly nine months with an interim head, TikTok finally landed a person fit for the vacant positions left in Mayer’s wake. In a press release by TikTok newsroom, Shouzi Chew, who had joined ByteDance earlier as its chief financial officer, was named the new chief executive of TikTok.

Chew was set to undertake dual responsibilities as the CEO of TikTok and CFO of ByteDance but he later stepped down as CFO of the company to focus more on his role as TikTok’s CEO. On the other hand, Vanessa Pappas was appointed as the chief operating officer (COO) of TikTok.

“The leadership team of Shou and Vanessa sets the stage for sustained growth,” said Yiming in a statement.

According to CNN Business, Chew had previously worked as an executive at the Chinese smartphone developer, Xiaomi, and is currently based in Singapore. Additionally, Chew had been in the technology sector for a decade and Yiming regarded him as someone who “brings deep knowledge of the company and industry, having led a team that was among [ByteDance’s] earliest investors.”

“[Chew] will add depth to the team, focusing on areas including corporate governance and long-term business initiatives,” he added.

Whereas, Pappas, who had most recently worked at YouTube, would be based in the Los Angeles office branch of TikTok as Yiming also raved about her leadership qualities, saying;

“Vanessa has provided strong leadership and will continue to oversee her current portfolio of responsibilities, including managing all of the platform’s key operations.”

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance’s founder and CEO Zhang Yiming stepped down from the position in May 2021

Zhang Yiming
Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Since its founding in 2012, Zhang Yiming remained as the CEO and chairman of ByteDance until 2021. On May 19, 2021, Yiming announced via an internal letter to employees about his retirement, preferring to explore “long-term strategies, organizational culture, and social responsibility” after relinquishing his managerial duties as a CEO.

The co-founder of ByteDance and the head of Human Resources, Liang Rubo was all set to take over as the new CEO in a transition process that would take place over the next six months. Yiming wrote in his letter published on the company’s website;

“There are still many things that we need to improve, and I think someone else can better drive progress through areas like improved daily management. The truth is, I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager. I’m more interested in analyzing organizational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people.”

Yiming also reasoned that he struggled with achieving daily social responsibilities that came with being a CEO. Further down the letter, he mentioned that he was not a social person and favored solitary activities.

He named Rubo, his “invaluable partner” since day one, as his successor expressing that Rubo could “leverage his strengths in management, organization, and social engagement as CEO”. Yiming also wrote;

“Rubo previously helped me found another company, so we have worked together closely for many years. As many of you know, Rubo has taken on numerous critical roles at ByteDance at different times as we’ve scaled up at an incredible rate globally.”

Liang Rubo, the co-founder of ByteDance Ltd, succeeded as the CEO of the company with effect from November 2021

Liang Rubo
Liang Rubo, Co-Founder & C.E.O of ByteDance (Photo by Sourcecodecap)

While not much is known about the current CEO of TikTok who keeps a low profile, Rubo had initially served as the head of Research and Development, and Efficiency Engineering at ByteDance before becoming the head of Human Resources and Management.

On the day he was announced as the succeeding CEO, Rubo acknowledged his predecessor’s efforts in steering the company till then in an internal email addressing the employees. According to KrAsia, he wrote;

“I have always felt very lucky to be rooted in technology, products, and management because Yiming is in front of me to deal with the many difficulties and unexpected work.”

Nonetheless, Rubo, who reportedly has a reputation for possessing good people skills, remained hopeful about the progress of the company under his reins as he further wrote;

“Now, for the company’s long-term development, Yiming needs to get out of the daily management and focus on the work that is not urgent but important to the company’s development to create more possibilities. Therefore, I will take over his responsibilities as CEO.”