ECONOMY

Billionaire Who Missed Out on TikTok Is Now Trying to Beat It

In 2017, Su Hua, the founder of a Chinese startup called Kuaishou Technology, was on the verge of closing the biggest deal of his career — the acquisition of a fledgling video service that would become TikTok. But arch-rival ByteDance Ltd. swooped in with a better offer, and Su missed out on what has become a global sensation.

Now, the 38-year-old entrepreneur is getting some payback. In February, Kuaishou went public in Hong Kong, raising more than $5 billion on the strength of its booming video and commerce operations. ByteDance, meanwhile, tangled with the U.S. government and then got ensnarled in China’s tech crackdown, likely delaying its own initial public offering.

Su isn’t wasting a moment. Flush with cash from the IPO, Kuaishou is cranking up spending to close the gap with ByteDance, more than four times its size. Kuaishou plans to expand in countries like Brazil and Indonesia, rather than TikTok’s stronghold in the U.S. The company intends to double its global squad to 2,000 by year’s end to accelerate the roll-out of its international products.

Kuaishou could have an advantage over its rival in these markets. While TikTok tends to be stocked with photogenic, dancing teenagers, Su’s stars are a diverse, at times low-brow, crew of entertainers, often from rural regions. They include a binge-drinking farmer and a long-haul truck driver.

“TikTok is a big frontrunner ahead of us today globally, but there’s still huge room for growth.” Su said in his first interview in four years. “Kuaishou’s philosophy is quite different from our peers, and that’s built upon my personal experiences and values.”

To drive Kuaishou’s expansion, the entrepreneur is deploying a tried-and-tested strategy of creating the commoner’s video forum, mixing artificial intelligence-driven recommendations with human curation to deliver a personalized experience. His company aims to reach 250 million monthly users outside China this year, after tripling that base in just the past six months. It has about 300 million users in China.

Kuaishou’s overseas apps span Kwai to Snack Video and Zynn. Kwai, its most successful export and the international twin to its domestic platform, has been downloaded more than 76 million times in the first half of 2021 in countries such as Brazil and Mexico, while SnackVideo built a following in markets like Indonesia and Pakistan.

About half of its 150 million overseas users now hail from Latin America, one of TikTok’s key markets. Earlier this year, Su’s company struck a deal to sponsor the 2021 Copa América tournament, a big draw in the region. It also pledged to spend $10 million to incentivize sports content creators over the next year.

Like all of China’s tech companies, Kuaishou has extra motivation to expand abroad as Beijing cracks down on its domestic industry. Chinese authorities have focused on leaders like Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., but uncertainty over future regulations have ignited a broad market rout. Kuaishou’s stock nearly quadrupled after its debut and has since dropped near its offering price.

Orchestrating the company’s overseas push is Su’s lieutenant Tony Qiu, a former Bain Capital investor and Didi executive who helped the Chinese ride-hailing giant build its presence in Brazil. Since joining Kuaishou last August, he’s been putting his knowledge of the local market to the test, leading a team with hires from Google, Netflix Inc. and TikTok. In April, Kuaishou also welcomed on board Wang Meihong, a former Facebook Inc. senior engineer, to oversee tech for its global products.

“It’s not only creative minds or young, trendy users doing lip-syncing and dancing who come to our platform,” said Qiu. “Kuaishou is more universal.”

Take João Paulo Venancios, a 22-year-old Kwai creator living in the Paraíba state of northeastern Brazil. Since he started on Kwai in March 2020, Venancios has built a following of 2.6 million people with clips where he and his 70-year-old grandmother reenact daily life and movie scenes. Local merchants hire him to make appearances in their stores, earning him about 6,000 Brazilian reals ($1,149) every month — enough to rent a house and pursue his dream to become a professional singer. It’s a fame he couldn’t have built on TikTok or Instagram, whose algorithms make it more difficult for little-known creators to go viral.

“My grandma is very funny, and we created a bond,” he said. “People on Kwai find my videos more relatable.”

That down-to-earth nature of Kuaishou’s platforms reflects its founder’s humble beginnings. While Su now has a net worth of nearly $9 billion, he was born and raised in a small village in China’s central Hunan province. From there, Su aced the country’s grueling college entrance exam and won entry into the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he studied software programming, before working as a developer at Google and Baidu Inc.

“As I grew up, I saw more people who didn’t have a chance like I did,” Su said. “So I hope Kuaishou will provide another way for them to interact with a world different from their own.”

His experience drove Su to entrepreneurship: before Kuaishou, he had dabbled in more than 30 projects in areas spanning video advertising to mobile search and e-commerce. All of them flopped. Ruby Lu, a venture investor who made an early bet in Kuaishou for DCM Ventures, spotted Su’s engineering talents then.

“He came across as a super geek,” she said. “In my book, that is a compliment.”

In 2013, he met fellow software engineer Cheng Yixiao over a dinner that lasted till 2 a.m. Together, they transformed Kuaishou, which Cheng launched two years earlier as a GIF maker, into a video-sharing platform that featured all sorts of content, including vignettes of life in rural China.

By mid-2016, it had garnered 50 million monthly users, according to QuestMobile data. Larger rivals like Weibo Corp. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. whipped up their own short-video offerings but couldn’t build a loyal community, until ByteDance came along with Douyin, which appealed to a younger — and potentially more lucrative — demographic.

Su almost landed TikTok. In 2017, Alex Zhu and Louis Yang, founders of the Musical.ly karaoke app, were shopping around their three-year-old outfit, which had amassed 10 million users in the U.S. — mostly kids and teenagers. They met with Facebook and YouTube executives, but it was Su who went the furthest in talks with them. Then ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming, flush with cash from his hit news app Toutiao, swooped in and offered to buy the startup for close to $1 billion, people familiar with the matter have said.

Click here for a podcast on how TikTok became the world’s hottest app

“We didn’t have much money,” Su recounted. “It’s an episode of significant impact, but not one that determines everything.”

TikTok inherited Musical.ly’s user base, interface and licensing deals with record labels, becoming the first Chinese consumer app to go global. That success — it has about 100 million monthly users in the U.S. alone — drew the hostility of the Trump administration, which argued that its Chinese parent posed a potential national security threat.

Today, Kuaishou has 1 billion monthly users across all products globally, versus ByteDance’s 1.9 billion. Online ads have surpassed virtual gifts to become Kuaishou’s biggest earnings driver, making up half of the 17 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) revenue for the March quarter. That contribution may reach 60% by year’s end, Su said, though the firm remains deep in the red as it adds new businesses like e-commerce and gaming.

Some analysts argue that at its size, Kuaishou should already be generating profits rather than burning cash for user growth. Its IPO sponsor, Morgan Stanley, recently downgraded its stock rating and slashed its target price by 57% to $130.

“If Kuaishou can’t grow organically and smooth out costs when competition deteriorates, that means its business model may face great challenges,” said Wang Guanran, a Shanghai-based analyst with Citic Securities Co.

Back at home, both ByteDance and Kuaishou are grappling with Beijing’s crackdown on its tech giants. Kuaishou’s relatively unpolished vibe — which once featured everything from underage moms to rappers praising drugs — has drawn the censure of the internet regulator over the years. It was among internet firms fined this week for spreading sexually suggestive content involving children. Both short video pioneers were among 34 tech giants ordered to comply with Beijing’s anti-monopoly rules in April.

Kuaishou is working closely with antitrust regulators, who haven’t found any wrongdoing at the firm, the CEO said. Su, who in 2018 issued a public apology for the teenage-mom videos, says content moderation is the “red line” for internet platforms, adding that he has always recognized his firm’s social responsibilities.

Kuaishou won’t become another Douyin or TikTok, Su says. Even though his company is now relying more on top influencers and celebrities to juice ad and e-commerce sales, it will continue to be a platform for small creators like the street busker, pop-science writer and factory worker that Su himself follows and tips anonymously.

“We are trying to strike balance between efficiency and fairness, and we would still be the ones that give fairness the most consideration in the industry,” he said.

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