Mar 16, 2024 - Business

The TikTok sales pitch

Illustration of hands fighting over the Tik Tok logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If China does the unexpected and allows TikTok to be sold, there are big questions as to who would want to buy it and for how much.

The big picture: TikTok's popularity hasn't translated into profits.

By the numbers: Wedbush analyst Dan Ives puts the value of TikTok's U.S. operations at $100 billion, although he says that plunges to $40 billion if a buyout doesn't include the company's addictive algorithm.

  • TikTok's U.S. revenue reportedly was between $16 billion and $20 billion in 2023, but CEO Shou Zi Chew has said the company is in the red. Spending is heavy for moving data to servers and it's also paying out to grow its e-commerce business and a data security project with Oracle.
  • The company touts 170 million U.S. monthly active users. That's nearly as many as Facebook, more than Instagram, and far more than either Snapchat or X, according to eMarketer.
  • Moreover, it's a heavily engaged audience, with U.S. adults spending nearly an hour per day on the app, per eMarketer.

Zoom in: "Growth" would be the key buzzword in any TikTok sale process.

  • The app reportedly generated only $200 million to $300 million in 2019, and that was on a global basis. U.S. monthly active users in 2018 were just 11 million.
  • Comparing those to current figures, that's an astronomical growth spurt in a relatively short time.

Yes, but: Any TikTok suitor would need a strong stomach. Not only because it's still unprofitable, but also because of the migraine headaches inherent in owning and operating a popular social media company.

Look ahead: The most logical buyers for TikTok are ByteDance's non-Chinese investors, including General Atlantic, Sequoia Capital, and Susquehanna International Group.

  • That's because they know the company best, have deep pockets, and can execute the simplest structure via a share swap with some new money sprinkled on top — possibly from an influence-thirsty billionaire.

Still, outside buyers are circling. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Activision CEO Bobby Kotick are both working to form investor groups, with Mnuchin saying he'd also welcome current investor participation.

  • Do not expect a Big Tech company to bid, because it would be a nonstarter on antitrust grounds. And it's hard to see another Fortune 50 player that would have interest, outside of maybe Walmart.
Go deeper