Colors of China: The story of App TouTiao

Colors of China

The growth of the IT industry in China has created new opportunities for young entrepreneurs.

That has meant a virtual revolution, with new ideas and products challenging traditional business models.

One such product is TouTiao. “You only receive news that you care about,” explains Zhang Yiming, founder and CEO of customized news application.

Within just 90 days of its launch in 2012, the app had acquired nearly 10 million subscribers. That number has grown to 170 million as of Oct. 5, 2014.

The key to this success is the simplicity of the concept behind TouTiao. The app essentially works as a news aggregator. However, it goes beyond mere aggregating. It analyzes user preferences through their social media accounts and then delivers customized news.

“It’s meaningless to go through the massive information online. A personalized reading platform saves time for users,” explains Zhang Yiming.

And his contemporaries seem to echo that sentiment.

Zhang Peng, founder of GeekParka, a popular tech community in Beijing, says that reading habits of people are changing and growing fragmented.

One of the key drivers of this change in reading habits is technology. By the end of this year, China is expected to be home to over 500 million smartphone users. This means three out of 10 smartphone users in the world will be Chinese, according to a recent report by market research institute eMarketer.

It is within this context that Zhang Peng believes that it is increasingly important for content providers and deliverers to focus on getting “the right information to the right person.”

In such an environment, apps like TouTiao seem poised to flourish.

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Copyright controversy

However, that success would not necessarily come easy. In fact, TouTiao has had its fair share of controversies ever since it was launched.

Considering that it does not generate content but only aggregates it, in its early days, several traditional media outlets had raised concerns about copyright violations.

The controversy was around some of the content published by TouTiao, which was linked to trans-coded webpages (deep linking), instead of taking users back to the original content provider’s homepage.

That led to an uproar, with media originations claiming that it was a violation of their copyrights.

In response, TouTiao decided not to adopt a confrontationist approach and offered to tweak its systems and work in collaboration with the organisations.

Although the journey to a compromise was arduous, the controversy didn’t seem to bother Zhang Yiming too much. The man who’d started out as a programmer decided that it would be best to keep his focus on improving the product.

It is not surprising then that nearly 50 percent of his staff comprises technical personnel.

“The goal is to perfect our product though improving our technology,” he explains when talking about the future.

When he started out, the goal for Zhang was to see his vision through to its logical conclusion. And what he’s learned over the years is that it takes not just creative thinking but also a qualified and dedicated team to ensure that dreams can come true.

So with Chinese IT companies booming and going global, raising billions internationally, is a TouTiao IPO in the offering anytime soon?

“It is not my current concern,” Zhang responds with a smile.

Would you like to get in touch with Zhang Yiming and share your thoughts and suggestions about TouTiao? Write to him at


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