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The birth of Douyin, TikTok's elder sister
In ByteDance's own telling: an unexpected success
Not that TikTok necessarily welcomes it, but the app remains in the news. What I have come to realize is that despite its phenomenal success internationally - and its elder sister Douyin’s success domestically, its birth remains unknown in English.
In January 2019, ByteDance shared 抖音是怎么做出来的？How Douyin was made with the general public. Given the close links between Douyin and TikTok initially (ByteDance has since, apparently, tried to make TikTok an independent operation), the story may be helpful in presenting an inside view
An obvious caveat is that this is an official story in ByteDance’s own telling. But subscribers to this newsletter will certainly make your independent observation.
If you desire a much more detailed look at TikTok, my friend Jiang Jiang translated the unofficial Inside TikTok, Zhang Yiming's great voyage through the waves Part I & Part II at his Ginger River Review substack. It was reported by Ms. 张珺 Zhang Jun, a Chinese business story writer.
(Please note the story was published in January 2019, so the numbers below are not most recent. It is a largely word-by-word translation, with minor editing. ByteDance played no role in the process.)
What can be done in 15 seconds? Type 10 words, walk 20 meters, read 100 words, or watch a short video.
With the popularity of Douyin in 2018, the 15-second short video has become another window for people to understand the world. At present, the number of daily active users (DAU) in Douyin exceeds 250 million, and TikTok covers more than 150 countries and regions, topping the list of app stores in many countries.
The outside world may not have realized that behind such eye-popping results, Douyin’s start-up team was not strong at all.
Among them is a product manager who had no prior experience as a product manager and a designer who had no prior experience in charge of a product’s overall design. The code was written by fresh graduate students from scratch. And the intern responsible of operation had no prior experience in the internet industry as well.
"Being young is amazing" was the by the Douyin team leader’s conclusion of his colleagues.
"ByteDance was a small company with 1,000 to 2,000 people. The start-up team had fewer than ten people. They could leave at any time if they thought it wouldn’t work."
After more than a year's hard work from the initiation of the project in mid-2016 to Douyin’s breakout popularity in the Spring Festival of 2018, none of the more than a dozen people left - this is the photo taken before the release of Douyin V1.0.
With the tenacity of Always Day One, the young people of the Douyin team sailed off 知春路 Zhichun Road (the street hosting ByteDance’s HQ). After a long, cold start, they faced the challenge of managing a steep increase in traffic. They also went further on the road of Chinese Internet products going overseas.
An abrupt, young team and a product that were not favored.
In August 2016, when Xiao An came to ByteDance for the second job interview, the company had moved from 盈都大厦 Yingdu Building to 中航广场 AVIC Plaza (ByteDance’s long-time HQ building).
When Xiao An was a sophomore, she did an operation internship in ByteDance’s 今日头条 Toutiao app. Shortly after the recruitment season started, former supervisor Wang Xiaowei called, "I'm working on a new project. Why don't you come and have a look?"
Wang Xiaowei had finished Toutiao-related activities around the FIFA World Cup and taken over a new project of short music videos. As the product leader of the new project, building an operation team was Wang Xiaowei's first task.
Video has been planned by ByteDance. In a PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of Bytedance by founder Zhang Yiming, "video" was placed with "articles" and "pictures" as an important part of the product genre. However, at that time, large-screen mobile phones were not popular in China, and the cost of 4G mobile internet was high. Compared with the fast-growing mobile consumption of content in graphics and text, videos had to wait.
In 2016, when Douyin was ready to enter the market, there were already several mainstream products focusing on user-generated content (UGC) short video: Xiaokaxiu and Meipai targeted urban youths; Kuaishou got tens of millions of DAU in third-and fourth-tier markets; Musical.ly, created by a team in Shanghai, topped App Stores in the U.S. and became popular among young people in North America.
However, ByteDance had nothing to do with all the excitement - the whole company had only 2,000 employees, and the flagship product Toutiao was having just over 50 million DAU. Toutiao Video had just been launched, and Huoshan (another ByteDance product) was only a live-streaming platform - ByteDance’s know-how in multimedia technology was very weak, and everything had to start from zero.
"At first, the company didn't think much of the project - just giving it a chance, so we were the only ones who left the Huoshan team." Zhang Yi was the second product manager in Douyin. Zhang and Wang had moved from Toutiao to Huoshan. Zhang had just grown a little better in the Huoshan role, but now was starting from scratch.
2016 was the year of live streaming, and short videos were not yet favored. Existing short video platforms on the market were mostly in portrait orientation. Only a few were in landscape orientation and they were presenting more than one video at the same time, requiring a click to the full-screen view of the selected video.
Douyin, on the other hand, presents a video in full screen and played it automatically as soon as the app opens. Many job interviewees were startled at first sight.
"A big video jumped out and began to play on its own. I was thinking, what the hell was it? I have never seen it before." Recalling the first interview to get in the Douyin team, Xiao An said, "The interaction was just too weird and I was not optimistic."
After the interview, Wang invited Xiao An to dinner. At a barbecue nearby, Xiao An met other members of the team:
Zhang, the product manager, has his arms richly tattooed and likes extreme sports. Zhang goes to the mountains in the suburbs every weekend to ride a motorcycle. Among three years of working experience, he had zero as a product manager.
Jia Liang, the content operation specialist, just became an employee after finishing an internship. She graduated from a foreign studies university, and was familiar with various types of non-mainstream music but knew almost nothing of the upcoming content operation job.
Li Jian, who works on user operation, was poached as a live streaming talent on Huoshan, where he was an influencer specializing in music and singing. He was a junior student majoring in broadcasting and had zero experience working in the Internet sector.
These young people were eating and the restaurant changed the background music into an unfamiliar rock song in English. Jia Liang casually named the song.
"I was thinking 'what the hell' ..." Xiao An seemed to have been hit, "it was a very young team where we could play." No matter how irrational the project she felt, Xiao An had been attracted by this group of people emotionally.
It was a team that was too green-handed and abruptly pieced together in charge of a new type of product that had never been tested in the market, on top of the fact that the chance of success in a new business has always been slim. People with internet experience and common sense just didn’t like their chances.
However, Xiao An decided to join them. Since everyone likes music and new things, why not make it a cause so that more people can play with them and share their happiness?
make something that exceeds users' expectations
There was no ceremonial groundbreaking. Wang and Zhang quietly moved their workstation to another floor. It was the first time for them to make a new product: "we really didn’t know anything." They were more nervous than excited.
The team took stock of more than 100 short video products on the market. There were platforms for 5-minute videos and 1-minute videos, but there was no product focusing on 15-second videos. Young people, especially those born after 1995 in the first- and second-tier cities, lacked a product specifically targeting them. That’s the prospective users the team bet on.
In order to cater to the needs of the target users, the operation specialists invited students from the nearby secondary schools for advice.
On visuals, some like the candy-colored style in line with the ACG ("Animation, Comics, and Games") subcultures, while others like a calm and low-key style.
Ji Ming, the designer abruptly reassigned from Toutiao to Douyin, concluded that users could only make judgments based on the products already available on the market, and their imagination could hardly exceed their daily experience. As Steve Jobs said, "People don't know what they want until you show it to them."
Ji, aged 24, for the first time took responsibility for the overall design of a product. He said, “perhaps every designer will have the idea that they can make something different. Wang said to me, ‘Don't be too constrained. Be bold. Create something different - a highlight'."
At that time, most of the competing products’ logos on the market were in bright colors. Ji made a version in heavy and bright colors, which was both cool and forceful, and was unanimously approved by the team.
After the style was confirmed, ByteDance’s Huoshan team reassigned nearly ten engineers in less than a week to devote to developing Douyin. Among them, the most senior one had three years of work experience. There were four fresh graduates and interns.
The designers would present a significant design every day and upload it with remarks, typically at 2: 00 or 3: 00 a.m., so that the research and development team members could start programming when they come to work the next morning. After a week, the first version of Douyin came out.
However, great efforts did not produce miracles. Ji almost collapsed in the process of perfecting the first version, which was full of bugs. "I couldn’t believe this is what I did. I was disappointed with what I had worked so hard on. It was painful."
As nobody had any experience in making a new product from scratch, the designers’ plan - in their view, just common sense - couldn’t have been realized by the programmers if the designers hadn’t made sufficient explanations alongside the plan. In addition, designers and product managers have to face the daily soul-searching questions from the technology side: what benefits will this particular point bring?
"Helping with the user experience is the benefit." Zhang insisted on his idea.
As a platform for user-generated content (UGC), in addition to facing the difficulties in its functions and experience, insufficient users and contributions were the truly insurmountable obstacle. At the very beginning, the Douyin team found the number of their DAU halved if they deducted their colleagues.
User contribution could be orally prompted by operation specialists, it turned out. When contributions ebbed, the specialist warmed up a group chat for talents on Douyin and asked "Why didn't you guys share your videos recently?" The contribution rate would immediately pick up by 10%.
However, generally speaking, it was so gloomy that Xiao An, who is in charge of the user operation, doubted herself. "I didn't know what I was doing every day". Of course, she also doubted the product manager, "the function of the product is so poor, so nobody would use it even after I reached out (to them).”
One of the early users was a Chinese student in Canada nicknamed Xue Laoshi, a key opinion leader (regarding video platforms). After giving Douyin a try, he refused an invitation to enter the platform without hesitation. "Your products are too simple. You want to get on the highway with this broken car?"
Li , who worked on user operation, was not discouraged. "I didn't ignore him because he said those words. I said, you are right, please give me some advice."
At that time, similar products in China generally had the problem of unsynchronized sound and picture. An average user could not detect the gap of about 200 to 300 milliseconds, but Xue Laoshi could. He made that point about many similar products before, but those teams failed to make improvements.
The Douyin team was determined to solve this problem. The team members in operation, product, and technology would hold video meetings with Xue Laoshi continuously. In one version after another, they made changes to sync the sound and picture, but often their change affected something else in the app. They could only comfort Xue Laoshi to just try the latest version and then went on to figure out solving newer problems.
In order to improve the timeliness of response, the programmers proactively responded to user feedback and made sure they could respond to high-priority and bugs at any time without delay, thus ensuring the iteration speed of one new version every week.
In the absence of A/B testing data, to help the programmers understand problems, the operation team invited programmers and users into one chat group to facilitate direct communications. When the problems were difficult to detail online, users were be invited to the company office for a face-to-face. Gradually, that ByteDance’s in-office canteen offers delicious food became known to early users of Douyin.
"I’m genuine with you. I chat with you every day. I listen to your feedback. Eventually, they are reflected in the product." Early users made many suggestions. Their contribution empowered Douyin’s growing-up and users’ experience.
There was a big box near the Douyin team’s workstations, where props such as wigs and glasses for shooting videos were placed. When early users celebrated their birthdays, the operation specialists would send birthday cakes and some shooting props. Ahead of Christmas in 2016, then operation intern Li even applied for a credit card - just to buy a Christmas tree on Amazon for Xue Laoshi in Canada.
In Douyin’s early days, the team was mainly young people born in 1994 or 1995. They came to Beijing unaccompanied. The users are their friends. The operation team and early users would have a hot pot together. When some users encountered problems at school and in personal relationships, they would consult with the team members. The only member who majored in natural sciences even helped some early user crack problems in advanced mathematics.
They worked very hard. It was not unusual to publish a latest version at two or three o'clock in the early morning. "If we can't do this, no one can." Zhang once sighed after looking at their floor, emptied by other ByteDance teams hours ago.
After more than a month of testing, Xue Laoshi finally felt satisfied and stopped just pasting on Douyin the videos he had posted on other platforms. Instead, he began to post original videos on Douyin. There were many people like him. Almost all of the early users were hard-earned, one by one.
Those on the outside perceive Douyin as resilient. In fact, the resilience was just programming, testing, and communication - one round after another.
"What was precious at the time was that there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but we were still willing to dig for details." ByteDance had no technology know-how in multimedia, and if it wanted to win over users after entering the competition belatedly, there was only one stupid way - to polish the function and experience to the extreme and exceed users' expectations.
Being young is amazing
"Trust your users" is the phrase that Wang often says. Douyin is decentralized, and any user's contribution could be recommended. Many official intra-Douyin challenge-competition for videos also stemmed from users’ creativity.
“Dance as if taking a bath” 搓澡舞 enabled Douyin to go viral, for the first time. It originated with user Liu Xizi. The operation team then adapted the music. Talent Xia Mu created dancing movements, and a challenge-competition on Douyin was launched, which then spread beyond Douyin.
It was February 2017, and Douyin had not advertised itself. Jia, the content operator, saw a large amount of “Dance as if taking a bath” videos outside Douyin, and felt for the first time that the platform could turn into a success. In April, videos themed #一只猫# #A Cat# broke out to other major social media platforms. In May, Douyin’s DAU exceeded one million, meeting the target number.
Later, Douyin sponsored《中国有嘻哈》The Rap of China, where a song went popular and established Douyin’s identity of a popular cultural community with unique characteristics. On the eve of New Year's Day, Douyin launched 尬舞机 “funny dancing machine,” and the success enabled it to top the App Store in China.
Everything happened unexpectedly fast. Ji, the designer who lived his life entirely between home and office, suddenly found out on a high-speed train prior to the Spring Festival so many fellow passengers were on Douyin.
Back home, his mother’s colleague’s daughter, who was in Grade 6, came to ask for his autograph after knowing he worked on Douyin. Despite repeatedly professing his terrible handwriting, he could not turn down the girl’s enthusiasm.
On the other side, in the Beijing office, the real-time curve tracking user data kept going up sharply.
Many team members didn't go home in that year’s Spring Festival. They stayed for a promotion that coincided with China’s most important occasion for family get-togethers. Douyin added 30 million DAU and some of the talents on the platform quadrupled their following in the week-long holiday.
When the DAU exceeded one million, Bytedance CEO’s office sent two bottles of wine. The team was excited but decided to open them until the DAU exceeds five million. When that mark was hit, the team was too busy and delayed it until 10 million. Then the DAU reached 50 million, 100 million, and 150 million. By January 2019, when domestic DAU topped 250 million, the two bottles remained unopened.
“At first, the goal was 10 million. Everyone was saying 10 million would be a huge accomplishment - how many apps have accomplished such a number in China?” Douyin exceeded everyone’s expectations. Nobody had said this could happen.
"We always felt that it would be much better after this version. But every time after finishing it, we found that there would be more important jobs - more important than before." As if entering a frictionless sliding track, everyone on the Douyin team just couldn't stop. Hiring a few more people could help, they thought, but the speed of recruitment could never catch up with the app’s growth.
What is the potential of young people? The team of programmers delivered an impeccable answer within the Internet industry. Its size grew less than two times when DAU rocketed from zero to 100 million.
Most of the programmers grew up together with the project. University graduates who just left the classroom soon became the pillar. After an intern finished their thesis in university and came back, they would find a newer Douyin.
In the early days, the team members had never worked on a video or photo app. Even each filter had to go through many times of parameters testing. They learned quickly, but at the same time were patient in refining the app.
At an internal lecture within ByteDance on Sunday, Wang Han, the research and development leader, shared Douyin’s tech path. He said that the team's aspiration was more important than its experience or data. "For example, in choosing the designer, if prior experience is the only criteria, the product may fall into mediocrity and become less vigorous." Wang Han paused and concluded, "Being young is amazing."
NEXT STOP: GLOBALIZATION
For Zhang, the product manager, his next most important task is to connect with the international teams and do a good job in the work lines of the overseas version.
At the end of Douyin’s unceremonial launch, the team thought of going overseas. In March 2017, the first international business employee was hired. In June 2017, TikTok V1.0.0 was launched. In November 2017, TikTok ascended to the top of the app store in Japan. In August 2018, TikTok and musical.ly jointly launched the global short video platform.
At present, there are more and more overseas operations that Zhang has to engage. More than 40 working groups have been set up on his (ByteDance’s internal Instant Messaging) IM communication tools, and the little red dots (indicating new messages) kept emerging 24/7.
In order to overcome the language barrier, ByteDance’s IM launched a one-button Chinese-English translation function. All staff in ByteDance are learning English. Their communication efficiency with overseas countries is improving little by little.
The real difficulty lies in the time difference and cultural differences. Facing the customs and cultures in different countries, how can the product and technology teams cooperate with the localized operation teams and come up with creativity adapted to the local culture is another brand-new challenge for the Douyin team.
On ByteDance''s sixth anniversary in 2018, founder Zhang Yiming said, "Globalization is equivalent to changing tracks. We have to repair our cars, but we can't stop to do the repair; we have to move forward without slowing down."
If China is an S-class market (S=Super, meaning of the highest priority), there are many other countries in the same class. In the new arena, we expect this group of young people to have more inventions.
(Please note the story was published in January 2019, so the numbers above are not the most recent. It is a largely word-by-word translation, with minor editing. ByteDance played no role in the process.)
Again, if you desire a much more detailed look at TikTok, my friend Jiang Jiang translated an unofficial story Inside TikTok, Zhang Yiming's great voyage through the waves Part I & Part II at his Ginger River Review substack. It was reported by Ms. 张珺 Zhang Jun, a Chinese business story writer.