June 23, 2021

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The Inside Story Of TikTok’s Tumultuous Rise—And How It Defeated Trump

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One of the world’s hottest startups, the social media app has faced plenty of corporate drama both inside and outside the company, according to interviews with more than a dozen current or former employees.


Near the beginning of 2020, TikTok’s top executives decided to contend with a pressing question: With the U.S. presidential election fast approaching, what would they do with political content on their newly ascendent social media app? The concern prompted meetings and internal debates on the subject, some held in person, some virtually over the company’s proprietary Lark communications software. They considered whether they might, for instance, teach the app’s algorithm to identify a MAGA banner in a video as problematic content. But such adjustments could unfairly flag content not actually political in nature: Perhaps the MAGA sign was there, but the video was, in fact, a lip-sync clip and nothing more.

Political content on other social media sites had transformed those platforms into places for disinformation. And even if that didn’t happen on TikTok, the app would run the risk of becoming home for legitimate, if liberal, political discourse, angering Republicans, some of whom had already voiced concerns about the app. The group of executives considering the matter included Zhang Yiming, the billionaire head of TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and the discussions went as far as to consider turning off TikTok’s algorithmic For You feed during the presidential election, a drastic action disabling the social network’s signature feature.

“TikTok was really trying to avoid having any political content,” says a person familiar with these internal discussions, which haven’t been previously reported. “They were trying to be a place for fun. They were like, ‘We’re an app for singing and dancing.’”

While it’s unclear whether TikTok made any small changes, it certainly didn’t take drastic measures, such as deactivating the For You stream. By mid-2020, political content was flourishing on TikTok, and videos tagged just with #election2020 and #2020election would go on to accumulate 3.4 billion views. And then came the fateful moment in June when hundreds of teens and K-pop fans launched a campaign on TikTok to disrupt a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by registering for free tickets with no plans to attend the event, giving the president an embarrassingly false expectation for a packed house. From there, TikTok has been unable to escape politics, caught up in a geopolitical maelstrom that has threatened to submerge what is one of the world’s hottest startups—a four-year-old app with about 700 million monthly users and an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue.

An almost unparalleled corporate drama has continued to play out since TikTok ran afoul of former President Donald Trump. In August, Trump ordered a fast-paced sale of the business, saying he’d ban TikTok if that didn’t happen. By month’s end, TikTok’s CEO, former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, had quit, leaving Zhang to contend with Trump and TikTok’s suitors. Talks about selling TikTok would involve some of the planet’s largest publicly traded companies, most prominently Microsoft, Oracle and Walmart, all eagerly jockeying to win the most-prized tech asset of the decade.  

“We were working around the clock during this period—there was significant confusion in the public about the timeline, mechanisms and legality of what was being said, so it was a very tense time,” says Vanessa Pappas, who became TikTok’s interim head after Mayer stepped down. “Obviously everyone was working remotely, but there were multiple daily calls amongst senior management. The combination of the unusual orders and our response coming in the midst of a pandemic made it an incredibly surreal situation.”

The tumult has continued, but it’s no longer Pappas’ responsibility to quell it. On Friday, TikTok appointed a new CEO, Shouzi Chew, who joined ByteDance just a month earlier as the Beijing parent company’s chief financial officer. The Harvard-educated Singaporean executive is fluent in English and Chinese and deft at navigating both cultures, says one executive who worked closely with him in China. In a country where personal connections are paramount, Chew forged a relationship with Zhang years ago when Chew, then a partner at Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s DST Investment Management, was searching for promising investments. He led a team that became one of ByteDance’s earliest backers in 2013.  

Global politics aside, Chew has internal challenges. TikTok’s fourth leader in a year, he will have to deal with what numerous current and former employees describe as a workplace built on mistrust, suspicion and secrecy. “I’m not disputing that some employees believe that,” a TikTok spokesman says. “But I would dispute that is the widespread belief.”

Internal practices and procedures that some describe as toxic stand in sharp contrast to the company’s public perception as a forum for light-hearted entertainment for young people. In interviews, 17 current and past employees say that underlying the tensions with the Trump administration was a company culture in which executives were promoted beyond their level of competence, employees were belittled by supervisors and expected to work until 1 a.m. to communicate with bosses in China, and basic information like org charts were nearly impossible to find.

One former TikTok employee recounts moments when a manager would ask direct reports to assemble against a wall, as if facing “firing squads.” There, the direct reports would then “absolutely get torn to shreds in front of all of your peers for everything you had done wrong.” (“If that happened, it was inappropriate,” says the TikTok spokesman.) “Whenever anyone asks me, ‘What happened to you there?’ I’m like, ‘I would need a whole night and a couple of drinks to tell you everything,’” the former employee says. 


 For a story that would engulf the world, it could not have commenced more humbly—with two friends, Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang, who met working at a Shanghai insurance firm, eBaoTech. When they struck out on their own, their first effort in the early 2010s was a startup called Cicada Education, which allowed anyone to create short education videos on a smartphone. It didn’t take off. So Zhu and Yang shifted course somewhat. When Zhu kept noticing young people watching video on their phones while commuting on the Bay Area’s Caltrain, he settled on the idea of building a tool for easily creating and posting video. Musical.ly, an app for lip-sync clips, launched in 2014. 

Musical.ly quickly proved popular enough to attract investors like Greylock and GGV Capital to pour in, flooding it with $151 million in funding. Zhu and Yang operated the company from China while also setting up an outpost in Santa Monica, California. Things went better than they did with Cicada, but the app struggled to keep users engaged over time. It was also trying, pretty unsuccessfully, to branch out from lip-sync videos and attract more than teenage girls as users. In 2017, the pair sold Musical.ly to ByteDance—founded by Zhang five years earlier—for close to $1 billion. Zhu and Yang joined ByteDance as executives.

ByteDance was something of a savior for Musical.ly. It hadn’t found a buyer in any of the big U.S. tech firms, whose thinking generally seemed to be: “It’s just lip sync—how big can it be?” recalls GGV Capital managing partner Hans Tung, who invested in Musical.ly and played matchmaker between its founders and Zhang. “I know how ambitious he is, how good the algorithm is and how he wants to build a global company…so I encouraged both sides to help each other.”

TikTok had launched nearly a year earlier, and ByteDance formally combined it with Musical.ly in August 2018. TikTok had an important, distinct feature: a refined algorithm for serving up videos to users based on their interests, one ByteDance built through experience creating similar technology for Toutiao, its news aggregator. Before the year was out, TikTok had 271 million monthly users. It would almost double that figure to over 500 million users by Christmas 2019.

Throughout the rapid expansion, TikTok operated from an office in Los Angeles with Zhu as its president. To ensure TikTok employees kept up with the massive growth, there were twice-annual performance reviews, as well as a process for resetting formal goals, known as OKRs or “Objectives and Key Results,” every two months—the latter a laborious process that created “analysis paralysis,” as one former TikTok employee put it. To meet their objectives, TikTokers knew they were expected to work a long day. “The days did not end at six or seven. They ended at 1 a.m.,” recalls an ex-TikToker. “We were doing double shifts,’’ says another one-time TikToker. “When China would wake up, we would have to get online and restart our days.” (A TikTok spokesman says long days aren’t unusual in the tech world and adds the company has increasingly tried to add staff and reduce workload.)

TikTokers in America were expected to be available to answer questions and attend meetings in the evenings when overseas counterparts commenced work. Everyone used Lark, the ByteDance-created communications application similar to Slack. And TikTokers felt obligated to respond to Buzzes—message notifications sent via Lark—even in the dead of night. (Some employees say they found Buzzes difficult or impossible to disable, though the company says Buzzes are, in fact, possible to deactivate.) Adding to the always-on pressure: Lark has read receipts, and they can’t be turned off. Their immutable nature makes it obvious when someone is working and when he or she isn’t.

Not that TikTokers always knew who they should communicate with. The company doesn’t place a high priority on formal titles; nor did it make org charts widely available. (Zhang would later describe labels as “shackles we put on ourselves.”) Many teams were purposefully formed around junior managers. This was an explicit hiring strategy one senior executive described as  “small carrots in big holes.In other words, TikTok sometimes placed inexperienced executives into roles with outsized responsibilities, then step back and wait to see whether they could grow into their jobs. The TikTok spokesman says the company relies heavily on performance reviews in making such determinations.

TikTok says such practices haven’t hurt general sentiment among employees, pointing to its place on a recent ranking of the 100 best large companies to work for conducted by Built In, a Chicago company that has created an online community for tech resources and recruiting. And, to be sure, some employees and former staff members recount overwhelmingly positive workplace experiences. Says Daniela Genie, a former creator partner manager at the startup, “At TikTok, everyone feels like a family.”


As TikTok’s employees sought to maintain the app’s growth, its popularity caught the attention of U.S. lawmakers, particularly Republicans. In November 2019, Congress held a hearing about China and its presence within the tech industry. At the session, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a staunch conservative who has been among social media’s most vocal critics, decried “the danger of Chinese tech platforms’ entry into the U.S. market,” specifically singling out TikTok during the meeting. Around the same time, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which oversees transactions between American businesses and foreign ones, said it would review ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly amid concerns the Chinese company might share user data with the Chinese government.

TikTok has denied sharing any user data with China, but it nonetheless had an image problem. As a partial fix the following May, it hired a CEO: Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive who had helped orchestrate Disney’s most significant acquisitions—Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox—and burnished his reputation with the successful launch of the Disney+ streaming service. When Disney passed him over for its top job last February, TikTok was among the suitors who came calling. But Mayer wasn’t the only solution TikTok pursued. Its parent, ByteDance, bulked up its lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., spending $2.6 million last year, a nearly 10-fold increase from 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also began entering into conversations with Microsoft, broadly discussing a deal where the tech giant would take a minority stake and possibly help TikTok store user data in America.

Things would get more complicated quickly. At the end of June, President Trump planned what he hoped would be a triumphant return to the campaign trail, a mass rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa. Five days before the June 20 gathering, Brad Parscale, still then Trump’s campaign manager, boasted about an immense influx of requests for free tickets made through an online form: over 1 million. But when the evening arrived, attendance was visibly sparse, thanks in part to that movement organized on TikTok by anti-Trump users registering for tickets without any intention of going. 

“We had families in England reserving tickets to come to this rally, teenagers in Australia that saw the video and jumped on the bandwagon and found Oklahoma zip codes and U.S. phone numbers to reserve tickets with,” recalled Mary Jo Laupp, a Fort Dodge, Iowa, resident who was one of the leaders of the insurgency. Her TikTok video calling on users to take up the campaign would amass 1 million videos. “This thing went worldwide.”

It was an embarrassing blow for the famously thin-skinned president. Little more than two weeks later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News the U.S. was considering banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, out of national security fears. Could the Tulsa rally really have been the igniting event? China hawks like Pompeo and White House trade advisor Peter Navarro had long been eager to turn up the heat on China and its flourishing technology companies, and they now had an opportunity to get the president to move on the issue. The rally produced “a more high level of interest” within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for taking on Chinese tech, says one former White House aide, with the Navarro-Pompeo set getting to do “what they were already trying to do anyway.”


Yet the Trump Administration struggled to decide what exactly it would do. There’s a particular 72-hour stretch that helps demonstrate the disarray within the White House on the issue. On Friday July 31, President Trump told reporters flying home from Tampa, Florida, he intended to ban TikTok. And, the president said, he intended to do so as soon as the very next day. He didn’t. Following a Sunday morning round of golf, he had a telephone call with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, effectively greenlighting Microsoft’s pursuit of a TikTok deal. 

Trump gave Microsoft a 45-day deadline to finish the transaction, in which the Redmond, Washington, software giant would buy TikTok’s operations in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand and ensure the app stored Americans’ user data in the U.S. To further pressure TikTok into a quick sale, he issued two executive orders to force the app out of America if it didn’t sell. 

The first order sought to prevent any more downloads of TikTok in the U.S. if the company didn’t sell by mid-September, the second would ban it outright if it hadn’t completed the matter later in the fall. Both would be challenged in federal court. 

The job of enforcing the president’s first order fell to the Commerce Department. Problematically, the White House never consulted the department before signing the executive order, says one former top Commerce Department official. “We found out from the Wall Street Journal and CNN that this executive order had been signed,” says the official. When Commerce experts did start investigating, their eyebrows went up. “In the universe of apps and devices that have a legitimate national security risk, where does TikTok rank? I got to tell you, it ranks pretty far down on the list,” says that Commerce official. “There are other more pressing priorities. A lot of us were pretty confused about why this was meriting special attention.”

Those who worked within the Commerce and Justice departments say the president’s timeline doomed the entire thing. “It was about the most ham-handed approach anybody could possibly take,” says one former Commerce Department official, who says the process would’ve needed many months to produce a better outcome. “It completely hamstrung our ability to prosecute the matter.” Commerce, meanwhile, expected the White House to send over the evidence it had relied on to draft the order. It never came, and it’s possible it never existed. “We had to go through the entire process of proving what the president had already determined … from scratch,” says an ex-Commerce official. “There was a fantastic degree of frustration….We ultimately came to the conclusion that they didn’t care if these [executive orders] get implemented. They wanted a headline, to make a political message that they’re hard on China.” 


As Trump’s troops prepared to meet TikTok in court, the company pondered how to sell itself—and to whom. Those efforts took place on several fronts, aided by two of ByteDance’s most prominent investors, General Atlantic’s Bill Ford and Sequoia’s Doug Leone. The discussions with Microsoft fell largely to Zhang, Ford and Leone. Mayer, who wouldn’t comment for this story, was left out of those talks and instead pursued overtures from Oracle, says a source familiar with the negotiations. Oracle, which didn’t comment, wasn’t a natural choice: It doesn’t have deep experience acquiring or running consumer tech companies. But its billionaire cofounder Larry Ellison does have deep ties to GOP politics. (On one occasion, Ellison organized a Trump campaign fundraiser charging $100,000 for a golf outing and photo-op with the president.) And those Republican connections would’ve seemed attractive given the situation with Trump. 

But none of the various permutations of the sale would’ve represented what Zhang or his investors really wanted. Zhang wanted to retain control over the company, while investors like Ford and Leone would’ve been hoping for an IPO, not a hastily arranged sale that might undervalue TikTok. (The company declines to comment on the deal.) 

TikTok’s top brass would like to portray the company’s inner-workings at this time as industrious and cool minded. Nick Tran, TikTok’s head of global marketing, says the staff was “confident throughout this whole time” and “incredibly resilient through the difficult challenges.” “It was a whirlwind,” concedes Kudzi Chikumbu, who oversees TikTok’s connections with the social media influencers on its app. “I think putting our heads down and taking on the growth of this app and really continuing to work allowed us to focus and not really focus on what was surrounding us.”

The potential consequences were dire. A U.S. ban lasting two months would reduce its American audience by 40% to 50%, according to TikTok’s own estimates  made public in a court filing. A six-month ban would be fatal, bringing an 80% to 90% fall in its U.S. audience, TikTok’s most crucial market. 


By Election Day, the date TikTok had so fretted about, things were looking up even more. Trump was out, Democrat Joe Biden was in.


Morale within TikTok suffered as Trump launched his attacks, those at TikTok at the time say. When the company held a virtual all-hands meeting in August, it  fielded questions from employees. But “the answers were delivered in a way designed to shame the questioner, to get people to shut up,” says a person familiar with the thinking behind those meetings and their goals. “If you asked a question, you were given a response that was not meant to be transparent. It was meant to be belittling.”

“I was in those meetings, and this claim is preposterous,” says Josh Gartner, TikTok’s head of corporate communications. “No one actually on those planning calls could think that was the goal.” The company says the comments in the all-hands meeting weren’t meant to be belittling or stifle employees and that the company tried its best to be transparent.

“The information we received about the company was always through reporting elsewhere,” recalls one former TikToker. “It was very stressful. Every time Trump opened his mouth, my phone would be ringing with my colleagues,” says another ex-TikToker. “It was hard to know to know if you had a job the next day.”At the end of August, as TikTok was considering whether to sell itself and how to fight the Trump Administration, Mayer announced he was leaving, an inglorious end for what was trumpeted as a game-changing hire. Vanessa Pappas, a top Mayer lieutenant who had joined a year and a half before him, took over as TikTok’s interim head. The handoff to Pappas “really wasn’t such a significant transition,” she says, adding she enjoyed her time, “however brief,” with Mayer: “Kevin came in and was here for a few months and left.”

By mid-September, TikTok had picked who to do a deal with: Oracle and Walmart, with Oracle saying it expected to get a 12.5% stake in TikTok. Around the same time, it won its case against Trump’s first executive order, receiving an injunction that stopped the download ban. A second court victory followed in October, which blocked the president’s second executive order to ban the app entirely. 

By Election Day, the date TikTok had so fretted about, things were looking up even more. Trump was out, Democrat Joe Biden was in. 


The first thing the Biden Administration did about TikTok in February? It asked a court for more time to work through a case related to the app ban, giving the sense the new White House, which wouldn’t comment for this story, was in no hurry to get to the matter. Biden has made his priorities clear: vaccines and the economy. Battling it out with an app popular among young people in his voting block is not. The result: The Oracle-Walmart deal remains in limbo. It’s unclear whether it will ever be finished, especially since it may need approval from Chinese authorities, who changed government regulations around exports last August that could give them a say in the process just as TikTok negotiations were in global headlines. “We really are committed to working in good faith and maintaining that constructive dialogue with the [U.S.] government,” says Pappas. 

As recently as a few days ago on April 30, ByteDance sent a strong signal it doesn’t see much to fear from Biden: selecting the new TikTok CEO, Chew, from within the Chinese parent company. It’s hard to imagine ByteDance making such a choice—a non-American executive—if it thought Biden was likely to adopt the same stance as Trump. 

Chew couldn’t seem more different than his two immediate predecessors, both of whom joined TikTok from jobs at prominent U.S. companies—Disney for Mayer, Google’s YouTube for Pappas, who moves from interim head to chief operating officer.

After graduating from University College London in 2006, the Singapore-born Chew did a two-year stint at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker before receiving a Harvard MBA. He next worked for Russian billionaire Milner’s DST Global investment fund in its Hong Kong office, then left to go work at Xiaomi, first as chief financial officer and later president of international. There, Chew helped expand the smartphone maker’s global presence and led its 2018 IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that raised $4.7 billion at a roughly $54 billion valuation. 

Chew and Zhang have “known each other for a very long time. I think they think very highly of each other. They have been in touch very closely for all of these years,” says a prominent executive familiar with ByteDance. “[Chew] was the guy who wrote him a big check and trusted he would build a meaningful company. That was the beginning of their friendship.”


While Chew must contend with his billionaire boss and the governments of two world superpowers, he also has to handle an onslaught of competition from other social media companies, as well as the challenging culture within his own firm. 

TikTok poses the most significant threat to Facebook in a decade, and Facebook has responded by adding a competing short-form video function, Reels, to Instagram, and concentrating on adding features on Facebook and Instagram that allow users to earn money from their followings, something TikTok has prioritized, too. Snapchat, meanwhile, is paying out as much as $1 million a day to users who publish content in its new Spotlight feed, which had 125 million users in March, and YouTube now has YouTube Shorts. The latter are exactly what they sound like, and they’re a hit. The company began rolling out YouTube Shorts last year internationally, and even before its U.S. launch in March, its videos had racked up 6.5 billion views. 

Pappas says TikTok’s vibrant community provides a protective moat against its competitors. “We’ve seen this phenomenon of where culture really starts on TikTok,” she says, citing the improbable resurgence in popularity of sea shanties earlier this year after 26-year-old Nathan Evans posted a video of himself performing “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” “I think that these moments, those shining moments of these cultural trends being born on TikTok, really do just showcase the difference of the platform to some of the competitors out there and the uniqueness of what TikTok is able to do.”

TikTok is reluctant to share much about its plans to counter its rivals. Some focus is going toward expanding its livestream technology, a feature that has become popular during the pandemic with everyone stuck at home; and providing easy-to-use editing tools like Stitch, which allows users to clip and use scenes from other videos. Moreover, Pappas says, TikTok is looking to diversify its content beyond its historical strength in comedy, dance and music videos, a lesson learned from the Musical.ly days. Recent popular genres include #TeachersOfTikTok (9.2 billion views), #EarthDay (4.5 billion), #MentalHealthAwareness (3.3 billion) and #SupportSmallBusiness (2.1 billion).

Another top priority is getting money to the social media stars who’ve risen to fame on TikTok—lest Instagram or Snap or YouTube steal them away. TikTok has said it has earmarked $1 billion-plus for its Creator Fund over the next three years. Influencers must apply to join the financing program, which pays out money to those creators based on which content receives the most engagement on the app. TikTok declined to share any further details about the metrics used to make those judgments. 

It will require a delicate balancing act for Chew to beat back competition from well-operated rivals, and he may face challenges re-orienting departments such as Human Relations. Two former TikTok employees complain about the past functioning of HR employees, saying they appeared to seek out peers and their bosses in the hopes of attaining a constant stream of information about what employees were doing. (A TikTok spokesman says he’s never heard of such practices and that the way the company’s HR department gets information about employees is through performance reviews.)

“I had no control over my P&L, I had no control over my head count, I had barely any control over my org design,” says a former TikTok executive. (TikTok denies this, saying all senior management do control these things.) “I was brought in to manage a business. You can’t do that if you don’t have full control.” 

Sue Radlauer contributed research.

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