TikTok has been downloaded more than a billion times. It’s a free app where users can make 15-second videos lip-syncing, telling jokes, dancing, and more. TikTok, created by Beijing-based tech startup ByteDance, is available in 75 languages and 150 global markets — and it’s especially popular with kids and teens. But it’s actually not just one app — it’s two.
Because of China’s “Great Firewall,” which regulates all of the country’s internet and social media, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming had to create two different versions of TikTok to expand it internationally. One version is made for China’s censored online market; the other was released for the rest of the world.
Yiming is setting an example for other Chinese digital content companies looking to expand globally and for American companies trying to reach the market in China. In China, the app isn’t called TikTok — it’s called Douyin. Both apps have the same short-video format, but Douyin is exclusive to China, where TikTok isn’t available.
More than one billion videos are viewed on Douyin every day, matching TikTok’s international popularity. Since ByteDance owns both versions of the app, its revenue is combined. The company’s current valuation: $78 billion.
TikTok makes money through ads and virtual goods like emojis and stickers. It also uses a powerful AI algorithm to match users, instead of Facebook’s technique of recommending content based on likes and viewing habits. That means TikTok controls a user’s entire feed and adjusts to user preferences the more time they spend on the app.
The international version of TikTok launched in 2017. That same year, TikTok founder Zhang Yiming bought similar social video app Musical.ly for $900 million, and by August 2018, had combined TikTok’s AI-fed monetization streams and Musical.ly’s Western fanbase into one super-app. The new combined app shot up in popularity, gaining 30 million new users in just three months.
Though the content restrictions differ between China and the rest of the world, the app works the same way. Yiming, who the Harvard Business Review describes as a “serial entrepreneur,” said in an interview his goal is to run a “borderless company” that can move past China’s restricted market into the global scene. This two-app loophole could start a trend for companies hoping to get around China’s Great Firewall.