A Trove of ByteDance Records Mistakenly Went Public. Here’s What They Say.

Somehow, thousands of pages of sealed court documents relating to the birth of TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, were mistakenly released by a Pennsylvania court. Before they were made secret again, I read them.

The documents — emails, chat transcripts and memos — are a fascinating window into ByteDance’s origins. They show that Susquehanna International Group, the trading firm of the Republican megadonor Jeff Yass, played a bigger role in the company than previously known.

They also tell a new version of the ByteDance origin story, one with fits and starts on the way to becoming one of the world’s most highly valued start-ups.

ByteDance grew out of a Chinese real estate site.

The ByteDance origin story, as we know it, has the ring of Silicon Valley lore. As the story goes, the company’s founder, Zhang Yiming, sketched out the idea on a napkin for an employee of a Susquehanna subsidiary in 2012.

The pitch was so impressive that Susquehanna jumped onboard.

In actuality, the records show, the story begins in earnest years earlier. Susquehanna’s Chinese subsidiary handpicked Mr. Zhang in 2009 to run a real estate start-up called 99Fang. The company had good search technology that was supposed to match buyers with their perfect properties.

The company ultimately fizzled, and in 2012, Mr. Zhang wrote in an email that he was bored with real estate. He and Susquehanna stayed in contact as he developed the idea for ByteDance, which he called a “brother enterprise” to the real estate company.

Back to top button