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No, seriously. Where are the TikTok buyers?

Peter Kafka   

No, seriously. Where are the TikTok buyers?
  • Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has decided against buying TikTok.
  • That leaves a really tiny list of people who say they want to buy TikTok. Like, really tiny.

Who's going to buy TikTok?

Not Eric Schmidt. The former Google CEO says he thought about buying the video platform — he doesn't say when he thought about it — but isn't thinking about it now.

OK. So the remaining bidders are … Steve Mnuchin?

Trump's former Treasury Secretary went on TV in March to announce that he'd like to buy the US version of TikTok if owner ByteDance is forced to divest it. But he doesn't have the money to do it or any technical or product chops. And the pitch he's been making since then leaves a lot of people … skeptical.

Anyone else?

[Crickets]

Yes, if you Google "potential TikTok buyers" you'll find a bunch of stories — Business Insider has written one, too — speculating about names. But almost all of these stories are the same. They list Mnuchin as well as Shark Tank host Kevin O'Leary, who also likes to go on TV and talk about buying TikTok.

And as far as (theoretical) public bidders, that's it. Everything else you read is more of an idea, at best: Earlier this year The Wall Street Journal reported that former Activision CEO Bobby Kotick was at a conference and told OpenAI's Sam Altman he should help him buy TikTok. But we've never heard anything about that since.

Other theoretical bidders include Oracle, Walmart, and Microsoft because they either already work with TikTok or considered buying it during the Trump administration. For good measure, the stories usually list other Big Tech companies like Amazon or Apple. But there's zero reporting that indicates that any of the names in this paragraph are actually seriously considering a bid.

And sure, there are most definitely lots of bigcos out there who have a room full of McKinsey-esque strategery people gaming out potential bids for TikTok. Because it's their job to do that. But it really is striking that there isn't a single credible buyer who has raised their hand in public, or has been reported to be mulling a deal, for real.

What gives? I have some theories. They are not mutually exclusive.

  1. The reason we're not hearing about a serious bidder is because there is no serious bidder because no one wants to waste time on a deal that could never come to pass. Maybe the US courts will overturn the law forcing ByteDance to divest US TikTok. Maybe ByteDance will simply refuse to sell even if the law is upheld. Maybe Donald Trump, who says he's against a TikTok ban (now) gets elected in the fall and becomes president in January, when the forced sale or ban is supposed to happen, and finds a way to ignore the law.
  2. The reason we're not hearing about a serious bidder is because no one knows what a forced sale of US TikTok would really look like. What would a US bidder be buying? ByteDance has already said, in its suit challenging the law, that even if it wanted to sell, the Chinese government wouldn't allow it to sell crucial parts of TikTok — notably its recommendation engine. So that leaves what — a brand name and a user base that could easily leave?
  3. The reason that we're not hearing about a serious bidder is because it's impossible to imagine a serious bidder — a Big Tech company with the resources and talent to actually operate a US TikTok — actually getting antitrust approval to buy a giant tech platform. Not in the Biden administration, at least. And if they're hoping to get it done in the Trump administration? Well … see above.
  4. The reason we're not hearing about serious bidders is because serious bidders don't go on TV and talk about how they're going to buy TikTok. They do all the work quietly, with a small team, and keep the whole thing buttoned up until they're ready to announce it. Which means there's no reason to read a story like this. Fortunately, this one is over.

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