What is TikTok worth? Guesses range from $20 billion to over $100 billion

TikTok Inc. offices in California, US. By passing a bill that could ban video-sharing app TikTok in the US, the House of Representatives took one of the most aggressive legislative moves the country has seen during the social media era. (Photo: Bloomberg)
TikTok Inc. offices in California, US. By passing a bill that could ban video-sharing app TikTok in the US, the House of Representatives took one of the most aggressive legislative moves the country has seen during the social media era. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Summary

The answer depends partly on whether TikTok bundles the U.S. and international businesses, and if it includes its coveted algorithm.

SINGAPORE—Now that President Biden has signed legislation forcing the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations, any potential deal raises a big question: How much is the popular video-sharing app worth?

Those asking have some huge—and widely varying—numbers to consider. One suitor has suggested $20 billion as a starting price for the U.S. operations. Executives at TikTok parent ByteDance have previously considered TikTok’s global operations to be worth about half of the Chinese company’s overall value, which would put it above $100 billion, according to people familiar with the matter.

Settling on the exact value will be difficult because the tech industry has never seen a sale like this before, and there are several unknowns.

A big factor is what would come with the sale. Would it be the whole international business and its more than one billion users, or just the U.S. operations with 170 million users? Would TikTok’s secret sauce—the addictive video-personalization algorithm that China has signaled it won’t allow to be sold—be included?

Another question hangs over how attractive TikTok’s U.S. business is, as its once dizzying growth slows and Instagram rises as a rival.

It will likely take months or more to settle on a sale price—if it ever comes to that. President Biden on Wednesday signed the legislation after Congress approved the bill in recent days. TikTok is preparing to sue on free-speech grounds to stop the bill from being implemented. The legislation gives ByteDance up to a year to find a suitable buyer or face a U.S. ban.

Further complicating a potential sale is that ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, could theoretically let TikTok be banned in the U.S., though outside investors have a say, too.

Zhang owns 20% of ByteDance, according to the company, though super shares have given him larger voting rights. Roughly 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors including Carlyle Group, General Atlantic and Susquehanna International Group. The remaining 20% is owned by company employees.

So far public declarations of interest in buying TikTok have been limited. Kevin O’Leary, chairman of O’Shares ETFs and a star of the TV show “Shark Tank," said he was putting together a bid valuing it between $20 billion and $30 billion, without the algorithm. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he was forming a group to buy TikTok, and Bobby Kotick, the former chief executive of videogame publisher Activision, has also approached Zhang, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Should Zhang and other shareholders agree to sell, a starting sales price from ByteDance’s perspective could be well over $100 billion. Executives at ByteDance last year said TikTok could be valued at as much as half of ByteDance’s valuation, according to people familiar with the matter.

ByteDance declined to comment on its view of TikTok’s valuation.

In December, closely held ByteDance offered $160 a share to buy back shares from shareholders, telling them it implied a valuation of $268 billion, the people said.

(WSJ)
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(WSJ)

Other investors think ByteDance is worth less. In private equity markets where ByteDance shareholders sell their stakes, the prices were lower than $130 a share, according to data from Rainmaker Securities, a private-equity brokerage. That would value the Chinese tech giant at less than $215 billion.

There is also no consensus that TikTok is actually worth half of ByteDance, which operates several popular apps in China.

Some investment banks and investors are valuing TikTok at five times its advertising and livestreaming revenue, according to people familiar with the matter. Last year, TikTok’s revenue from advertising and livestreaming, its main revenue sources, was about $22 billion, people familiar with the matter said. That suggests TikTok could be valued at $110 billion.

These starting points assume that ByteDance sells all of TikTok instead of cleaving it into two businesses: one for the U.S. and another for the rest of the world.

America is TikTok’s biggest market and a major growth engine. The U.S. business launched an e-commerce service in September and aims to have $17.5 billion of merchandise transactions this year, people familiar with the matter said.

TikTok’s U.S. business is hitting its ad-sales targets, but user growth is stalling, the Journal reported last month. U.S. average monthly users ages 18 to 24 declined by nearly 9% from 2022 to 2023, according to the mobile analytics firm Data.ai. Sensor Tower, an analytics firm, estimates that daily time spent on Instagram grew 10% over the past year, compared with growth of 1% on TikTok, though TikTok still dominates social-media platforms in overall time spent on the apps.

It is also unclear whether TikTok is profitable. In a March 2023 interview, TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew said it wasn’t profitable yet because it was spending billions of dollars trying to silo its U.S. and European operations from China, in an attempt to appease politicians and regulators worried about the app’s ties to Beijing.

Selling only the U.S. business would let ByteDance keep most of TikTok, but Chew said that doing so might “break" the app. Part of TikTok’s appeal, he said, is that people outside the U.S. can experience Americana.

“You can be an American user, you could go viral in France, for example," he said. “If you had two companies—one for the U.S. and one for the rest of the world—you think about how you’re going to interoperate. How are you going to do that?"

Another issue that could reduce TikTok’s sale price is control of the app’s algorithm, or the system that personalizes what videos a user views. China said last year that selling TikTok would be subject to government approval because the algorithm falls under Chinese export-control rules.

ByteDance thinks the algorithm is key to making TikTok addictive and fun, investors and company executives said. Buyers might have to bid for TikTok without the algorithm and install their own system.

“You have to be a steward to change it from TikTok China to TikTok U.S.A.," Shark Tank’s O’Leary said on CNBC last month. “Everybody assumes you’re not going to get the algorithm from the Chinese government, and there’s no question that they will not sell it."

Dave Sebastian contributed to this article.

Write to Raffaele Huang at raffaele.huang@wsj.com and Weilun Soon at weilun.soon@wsj.com

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