TikTok Started With a Tech Guy From China Who Decoded America’s Teens

TikTok has emerged as the defining app of a generation: a cultural tastemaker, a musical hitmaker and a launchpad for a new breed of celebrity. Its hold on American culture can be traced back to Alex Zhu, a technology entrepreneur from China.

Zhu grew up in Anhui province and studied civil engineering at Zhejiang University. He came to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at the software company SAP SE. On a Silicon Valley train ride in 2014, Zhu became fascinated by a group of American teenagers seated nearby, listening to music and shooting video on their phones. He decided to create an app that joined the two cultural obsessions.

The result was Musical.ly, which encouraged users to record themselves lip-syncing to pop songs. Zhu later sold Musical.ly to a fast-rising Beijing startup called ByteDance Ltd., which folded the app into TikTok.

The first episode of Foundering: The TikTok Story looks at the genesis of Gen Z’s favorite app. It tells the story of a 36-year-old Chinese tech founder who seemed to have an uncanny understanding of American teenagers—a skill that helped him build a social media powerhouse that even competitors, including Facebook Inc., wanted to buy.

“He just has this incredible perspective of building this company from China that American teenagers are using more than anything right now,” said Josh Elman, a former Musical.ly investor who now works at Apple Inc.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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