Jul 22, 2020 - Technology

How ByteDance may try to save TikTok

Illustration of three dollar signs rendered similarly to the TikTok logo
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The best way to save ByteDance, the world's most valuable tech "unicorn," may be to break up ByteDance.

Driving the news: Some of the Chinese company's U.S. investors are discussing a carve-out of all or part of TikTok, which is under growing geopolitical pressures, according to The Information.

Backdrop: ByteDance was most recently valued at $75 billion by venture capitalists, and at around $95 billion in secondary market trades.

  • ByteDance's core product is a Chinese news content platform called Toutiao, but TikTok is its most popular global offering.
  • TikTok is viewed as a potential national security threat in the U.S., due to alleged data privacy issues tied to the Chinese government, and could soon be banned here (as it already was in India, which had been its top market).
  • Already, the House has voted to ban federal employees from having TikTok on their devices, the Defense Department recommended the same to its staff, and we've seen the same from at least one large company (or two, depending on how you view Amazon's flip-flop).
  • In short, TikTok risks becoming the next Juul — a wildly-successful, VC-backed consumer tech startup felled by targeted government intervention.

How would a carve-out work? This is the $75 billion question. Two sources tell me talks are more embryonic than preliminary, although they acknowledge that political threats could serve as accelerant.

  • For starters, it's unclear that carving out TikTok would make D.C. stand down. Particularly given that many of the U.S. firms reportedly involved, such as Sequoia Capital, have major China operations. Worries about code and conspiracy can't necessarily be solved via cap table.
  • Second, financing the deal could prove challenging. A total buyout would certainly cost double-digit billions, which is daunting for even the deepest-pocketed U.S. venture capitalists.
  • Private equity could get involved (KKR is among ByteDance's backers), but new investors would almost certainly need to be tapped (hi Silver Lake, we see you there). All without any guarantee of CFIUS approval or that the deal would solve TikTok's India and U.S. problems.

The bottom line: Buying TikTok sounds like an elegant solution, but may prove just as thorny as the problem itself.

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