End of an era? Get to know the big bosses quietly reshaping how tech does business...

 (Illustration by Leyan Chen Getty Images)
(Illustration by Leyan Chen Getty Images)

Question: could you name the CEO of TikTok? Two billion people use his app, the most downloaded of the year, and yet you’d probably walk past Shou Zi Chew in the street without a second glance — and certainly without stop - ping for a selfie. And that’s just the way he wants it.

The mild-mannered, suit-wearing Singaporean cuts quite a different figure from most of the other maverick, space-racing CEOs of the big tech companies. Chew, 39, has no celebrity girlfriend, no movies have been made about him and he has posted just one solitary (and very boring) tweet, which, of course, directs everyone straight to his TikTok. And yet his company is predicted to turn over £10billion in revenue this year, making it bigger than Twitter and Snapchat combined.

‘Shou Zi Chew is leading the charge for a different breed of tech mogul,’ says Rachel Richardson, former head of editorial at Snapchat and founder of the technology and content consultancy service Beginning, Middle and End. ‘They’re just as rich and powerful but their tactics have changed — self-promotion and saving the world are out, quiet power grabs and playing the long game are in. The leaders with low name recognition are posting business results that go from strength to strength, like Brian Chesky at Airbnb, who has quietly transformed the rental market, navigated the turbulent Covid period and emerged with his company’s most profitable quarter results ever. Meanwhile, the megalomaniac tech titans of old are learning that you can fly too close to the sun.’

Yes, we’re looking at you, Elon Musk. After a months-long battle to buy Twitter, Musk’s £37bn new toy has spent the past few weeks lurching from one chaotic crisis to another. Having arrived at Twitter’s San Francisco office toting a white porcelain sink (‘Let that sink in!’), the self-described ‘chief twit’ then reportedly fired key executives via email, slashed 50 per cent of the workforce and asked those who remain to go ‘hardcore’ or go home. This led to up to 1,000 resignations, the closure of the office and speculation that the service, used by more than 240million people, could break down.

Musk’s plan to charge $8 per month for blue tick verification has — at the time of writing — been put on pause, after imposter accounts parodying everyone from Pope Francis to Musk’s own Tesla were certified. The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co was forced to apologise after a fake account (verified with a blue tick) tweeted that insulin was now free, sending its share price plunging and wiping £13bn off its market cap. Musk’s response? To change his profile on the messaging platform to ‘Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator’ and his location to ‘hell’.

For too long we deified leaders like Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk. Now the narrative has shifted.

But Musk’s tumultuous tenure hasn’t been bad news for everyone. His promise to protect free speech and keep moderation and regulation light has led to Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump having their accounts reinstated, the latter after a poll among users narrowly came down in his favour. Kanye West, who was locked out of Twitter in October for anti-Semitic comments, is also now tweeting again.

‘Musk’s whole ethos is to move fast and break things,’ says Matt Navarra, a social media analyst. ‘And, bar a few run-ins with the Federal Trade Commission, his colossal wealth and power have meant he’s largely been able to do what he wants, whenever he wants. But he might have bitten off more than he can chew with Twitter. First and foremost he’s an engineer, so a social media platform is new territory for him. The core of any social platform is human connection and I don’t think Musk has the skills to understand that. Huge brands have now paused their advertising on the platform and there’s a very real possibility that Twitter could collapse.’

‘In the latest round of earnings calls, most major tech companies took beatings from the market after reporting disappointing results. But the outlier was Apple, which beat Wall Street expectations on revenue and earnings per share,’ says Richardson. ‘Cook may not be a visionary like Jobs but he’s shown that he’s a world-class strategist who clearly lacks the insecurity of some of the other tech CEOs — who, once they gain fame in the business world, want to expand that into the broader public consciousness.’

‘Right now the big tech disruptors are getting disrupted themselves,’ says Russ Mould, a director at investment platform AJ Bell. ‘A lot of tech companies believed that the pandemic-era good times would last forever and they’ve now been caught off guard by the economic downturn, increased competition and ad revenue losses. But the quieter, more strategic CEOs are setting a positive tone and culture, and allocating resources to the best effect.’

Sundar Pichai at Alphabet and Google is regarded as another safe pair of business hands. ‘Of all the big tech guys, Pichai appears to be the geekiest of them all,’ says Richardson. ‘He has zero interest in the high life and while Mark Zuckerberg and [Snapchat founder] Evan Spiegel famously dropped out of college to found their companies, Pichai has steadily worked his way to the top following the traditional academic route. When he makes public appearances he is rarely flashy and his Instagram appears dedicated to documenting his business trips, full of self-deprecating comments about his lack of photography skills. Despite enormous control and power over the Western world’s information, Pichai appears to be devoid of any personal mission to save the world — how refreshing!’

It’s quite a contrast to the likes of Musk and Jeff Bezos, who appear to have been so seduced by the stars (of both kinds) that they’ve taken their eyes off the business ball. Bezos has now stepped down as CEO of Amazon and into the chairman’s seat, but while his personal profile soars, shares in the company are tanking — they fell by 28 per cent this year, beleaguered by rising inflation, lower consumer spending and supply-chain woes. Amazon is now reportedly planning to shed 10,000 jobs, the largest cuts in the online retailer’s history. Bezos has been keeping busy though, taking an 11-minute joy-ride into space, making a cameo appearance in Star Trek Beyond and constantly getting papped at celebrity parties and Nobu in Malibu with his glamorous girlfriend, TV presenter Lauren Sanchez.

Zuckerberg at Facebook — where TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew once interned — is faring even worse. Since the company rebranded as Meta in October 2021, the stock price has plunged by 70 per cent, wiping billions from Zuckerberg’s net worth. Two weeks ago, he announced the company was making 11,000 employees redundant. In a memo to Meta employees, he was forced to apologise for over-investing in the ‘Metaverse’. The company has ploughed $15bn into this 3D virtual world in the past year alone, more than the GDP of Jamaica. ‘I got this wrong, and I take responsibility for that,’ said Zuckerberg in the memo.

Lucie Greene, founder of futurist consultancy Light Years and author of Silicon States, says the tech industry as a whole is at a crucial turning point. ‘For too long we all deified tech leaders like Zuckerberg, Bezos and Musk. They were the new rock stars with magazine covers and keynote spots,’ she says. ‘Now the narrative has shifted and people are viewing their massive influence and power much more critically. The fall of WeWork and the unseating of its charismatic leader Adam Neumann in 2019 was perhaps the first indicator of this. We’ve gone from revering these tech gods to loathing them and even laughing at them.’

Mel Arrow, chief strategy officer at the creative agency BMB, agrees. ‘Megalomaniacal leaders or “brilliant jerks” are in every industry, but it’s in tech platforms where the biggest falls from grace are happening,’ she says. ‘This is because the internet was designed to be an egalitarian, open-source tool, but it’s become ring fenced and monetised by people like Zuckerberg and Musk. Online communities are powerful, financially alluring things, but their real power lies in the people themselves. Unfortunately for the overbearing tech leaders among us, it means you can’t force those communities into a metaverse if they don’t want to go, and you’ll definitely struggle to get them to pay for what they’ve come to expect for free.’

The question is whether this new generation of under-the-radar CEOs can resist the lure of fame. Although Chew attended the Met Gala in May with his wife, Vivian Kao, he doesn’t seem keen on celebrity. He has barely given interviews and in 2021 he shelved a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign for a TikTok NFT project involving stars Lil Nas X and Grimes. According to insiders, he seems to have his eyes firmly on profit, not on courting publicity.

Richardson says that for Chew, maintaining a low profile is a very savvy move. ‘Given TikTok’s rapid rise, concerns about dangerous trends and misinformation thriving on the platform, and its ownership roots in China, TikTok’s boss has so many difficult questions to answer it is probably better to avoid saying much at all,’ she says. ‘Chew has a tricky job to do presenting himself to the West as the autonomous leader of a global service while fulfilling the demands of the app’s Chinese parent company ByteDance.’

In a meeting late last year, one TikTok employee asked where Mr Chew saw the app in 100 years. One can only imagine the lofty multi-planetary fantasy Elon Musk would have conjured up when asked this question. ‘I just want to make money next year,’ said Chew.