Taking TikTok’s crown: is Triller a top contender?

TikTok was THE mobile phenomenon of 2019 with almost 700M app installs. But India just banned the company along with dozens of other Chinese apps, costing TikTok 200 million users basically overnight.

And with the ban talk getting louder and louder in the U.S. … are other contenders poised to steal its thunder?

In this edition of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with one of the owners and board members of Triller, which has over 100M installs … and just got a bump of 40M new installs in India after the TikTok ban.

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John Koetsier: As the TikTok ban talk gets louder … who will take TikTok’s crown?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.  So TikTok was the mobile phenomenon of 2019. They almost had 700 million app installs and it was growing even faster in 2020 — over a hundred million app installs in May, according to Sensor Tower. But, of course, India happened, right? India banned TikTok and about 60 other apps from China and TikTok lost 200 million users overnight. We’ve also seen in the past week and a half or so, talk in the U.S. about banning TikTok, from the Trump administration.

So the question is, who’s going to be the new youth-fueled social entertainment mobile winner?

Well, one option is Triller. The app has over a hundred million downloads already and the question is, is it poised to overtake TikTok? To dive in, explain more, get into it a little bit, we’re joined by Ryan Kavanaugh, a board member and co-owner of Triller.

Ryan, thank you for joining us! 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Thanks for having me, John.

Ryan Kavanaugh, Triller

Ryan Kavanaugh, Triller

John Koetsier: Hey, it’s a real pleasure to have you. And this is a really, really good time. I mean, it’s a weird time in kind of world history, and splinter nets, and apps that are being banned here and banned there.

But let’s start with Triller. Talk a little bit about Triller, what it is, how old it is, and some of what you’ve been able to accomplish.

Ryan Kavanaugh: Sure. Well, obviously it’s been a very crazy, interesting couple of weeks to say the least. But, you know, we’re very pleased, and when I say pleased, we kind of got hit obviously a little bit like the unknown like TikTok did, meaning as soon as TikTok got banned in India we immediately became the app.

As TikTok got banned in India we immediately became the app …

I think actually we were the number one in photo and video, and #3 of all apps in India, and so our volume obviously went through the roof. And you know, our journey, it’s interesting because people before this obviously used to ask us about TikTok as a competitor.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ryan Kavanaugh: And we used to say, ‘TikTok’s not a competitor’ because we really don’t see them as a competitor. You know, there’s a lot of room in the world for short form video content, right? And whether they want to admit it or not, TikTok’s primary audience is 8 to 13.

And so, our audience is primarily that 15 to 27, it’s a little bit because we are music first, and we always will be music first, and we’re hip hop and we’re rap. You know, we’re just more edgy. And so it’s interesting because what we point out is it’s two things. One, it causes a natural age gate. So people are always asking about age gating these days, right? And anybody can type in a fake birth year.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ryan Kavanaugh: An 8-year-old knows how to type in a fake birth year and that’s what they call age gating, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ryan Kavanaugh: But the truth is that we know, everybody knows it, TikTok’s audience is that 8 to 13. Our audience is naturally kind of that 15 to 27 and so when we’re talking to people, whether it be investors or people who are interested, we just say, ‘Hey, go do the litmus test yourself. How old are your children?’ And let’s say one says what they say, ‘Well, I have a 13-year-old and I have an 18-year-old.’ I say, ‘Okay, ask your 13-year-old if she knows about it and what she thinks, guarantee you you’re going to get a visceral reaction. And ask your 18-year-old what they say, TikTok versus Triller.’

Inevitably, almost every time, the 13-year-old will be like, ‘Yeah, I kind of heard of it, let me check it out’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see that’ because we’re a little racy, because R & B is a little racy and hip hop is a little racy, right? And I mean, racy, I don’t mean race, but you know, risqué is probably a better word.

We have not paid $1 in promotion advertising, user acquisition …

But you know, if you ask the 18-year-old, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, TikTok’s like for kids, that’s where people dance and send videos and Triller’s cool.’ And so we kind of, so we have not paid $1 in promotion advertising, user acquisition, none of the above. And so, one of the things that we are really proud of is that our audience is organic and natural. And so … sorry. 

John Koetsier: No, that’s just an interesting point that you made there. There are very, very few apps on the planet that get to a hundred million downloads without any paid user acquisition. You can probably count them on a single hand, maybe two hands or something like that. That’s impressive! 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Yeah. It’s something we really are proud of and I think it has to do with the way that we went about this. So when you kind of look at how Triller was built and what it was built upon, every — I mean you probably know this better than anybody — every social app, I think literally, maybe there’s some exceptions, but I can’t find them, they’ve built themselves on stealing music.

Like, whether it was Facebook, or even Twitter, or Snap, or whoever it is — and by the way, we love all those guys. I’m not putting them down, but like, it’s just par for the course, it’s like okay, if you’re going to have a social network or a content app, you’re going to go steal music and then eventually you’re going to get big enough and they’re going to slap a half a billion dollar fine on you and then you’re going to have a contentious relationship with them for the rest of your life.

So we did something very different. We went and said, ‘Okay, so first of all, we want to be music first.’ So we actually went to Warner’s, went to Universal, went to Sony, which controls 95% of the world music and said, ‘We want to have you as part of our journey from the beginning, how do we build something and build a relationship that is equally beneficial for you and us? We want you to be our partners up front.

So we have what we call “all-you-can-eat” access to the music and we’re, I think we’re the only site that has it, and we’ve created and kind of coined the term “social streaming.”

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Just by virtue of participating on the app, the artist gets streams and credits, and from that they get gold and platinum albums, and from that they make money …

Ryan Kavanaugh: So by creating this ecosystem, what we did is we set it up in such a way that just by virtue of participating on the app, the artist gets streams and credits, and from that they get gold and platinum albums, and from that they make money. So for the labels it became this win-win, the audience gets access to music that otherwise normally they wouldn’t get because it’s $2 million sync license or something, right, and they can use it and not have it taken down. The artists actually get their gold and platinum albums, the labels get paid, and also we became a huge music discovery app.

So that plus the fact that the — I think about a year and change ago, the world of music really flipped where hip hop and rap became norm.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Ryan Kavanaugh: No longer just a genre. So, us as a genre site where we used to say we’re urban, like we’re now not a genre site, we’re mainstream, you know. 

John Koetsier: For a certain demographic, I’m sure, and age range, 

Ryan Kavanaugh: We call it a “culture graphic.” So we kind of coined the term, it’s like Triller has a culture graphic and it’s age range, and it’s gender, and it’s just multiple things. But, so all that stuff really, I think, benefited us and we really also focused on the user and the user experience. So about 15% … sorry. 

John Koetsier: No, that’s fine. Since you paused anyways, I wanted to talk about the growth that you’ve seen since TikTok [was] banned in India. And so that’s about 200 million users that potentially had downloaded their app and fewer active users, but you saw an immediate boost right there.

So there must be some overlap in your audiences if people lost their one thing that they were doing and moved over to yours, is that correct?

Ryan Kavanaugh: Yeah. So yes. And we actually just were discussing this phenomenon. It was something we didn’t exactly think about, but we were working to launch in India in about, you know, when I say “launch” we obviously are in India, but, to launch with an appropriate partnership and all the right kind of rules and JVs and structures.

And so we’ve been working on this for quite a long time because India is probably TikTok’s biggest market and an important market. So we had, I don’t know, we had a number of users, not a massive amount but we had a number of users, but we did not have an Indian kind of local concept.

We want it to be culturally proper, we want it to be politically proper, we want it to be economically proper …

And so we were going to be coming out in a month or two months with a pretty large announcement around partner, and working with the government, because when we go into a region we don’t want to do what TikTok does. Like they come in and they bulldoze and they just say, ‘We’re playing by our own rules.’ We like to go into a country and play by their rules, and every country has different rules. So we want it to be culturally proper, we want it to be politically proper, we want it to be economically proper. So we’ve been slowly setting that up.

When TikTok shut down … 24 hours later we were like … 40 million downloads or something out of India …

When TikTok shut down, we literally woke up and 24 hours later we were like, I don’t know what it was, 40 million downloads or something out of India. And all of a sudden we were literally the app in the category. You know, we realized something interesting, which we did, I think, unnaturally, but it happened.

So on our app, you know, music and a social feed so you can click on the top music or social, right. And we do that to give obviously diversity but it’s also personalization. And personalization, we like to think our tech is far superior — not think, we know our tech is far superior to everybody else’s — but part of that tech is personalization. So even though we may be very music centric in a lot of like, you know, hip hop and rap, if I’m all of a sudden looking at dance videos and I used to be a TikTok influencer, and that’s what I’m making… 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Ryan Kavanaugh: … then my personalization is going to make the app act like that for me. And so it was, I think, the closest thing they had, because if they play with it for 24 hours and that’s what they’re looking at, the next time they turn it on it’s going to feel more like TikTok to them.

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting, huh. Well, that’s kind of genius because if you’re kind of music first, then you’ve got kind of the music first experience. And if you’re kind of the social first, then you’ve got that correct?  

Ryan Kavanaugh: Correct. And we find a lot of these influencers — so they’ve been reaching out to us in the U.S. as well, a lot of them are leaving TikTok, obviously, and wanting to come over to us before — they don’t want to lose their audience, they want to get it done before it’s banned.

So we probably have … 50 of the top TikTok influencers …

So one of the things we’re finding is that a lot of them who weren’t using music because of copyright, because of issues, and because of the way that the tech worked with TikTok, when they see the ease of use of our platform where we call it the “multi-camera muti-song take,” where they don’t need to go into a professional editing room but they have all the same capabilities right on their phone. They’re actually starting to use music.

So we probably have the top 50, or 50 of the top TikTok influencers currently moving over to us.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Ryan Kavanaugh:  Either they’ve moved or they’re moving, and we’re going to let them announce it. But, you know, some of them we can say, some we can’t. But when we onboard them, TikTok doesn’t give them the support. So we’ve got to come on and say listen, what do you guys need? You want to help with your brand deals?

Our chief CMO was the ex-CMO of Mondelez … before that head of Digital Pepsi. He’ll go help you with every brand deal. Like, you want no help? Fine. You want us to give you special filters? Great. What can we do to help you? And so when they start learning and we train them like, hey, look, you can do this with music. They’re like, ‘whoa, we had no idea this was possible.’

And these are some of the biggest influencers, like we had the number two largest TikTok influencer just came over and the whole list of them, so. 

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. Interesting. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the U.S. Obviously TikTok is still there. But we’ve heard several, and it hasn’t just been the administration, it’s been Trump himself who has weighed in on this and said, ‘we’re looking very seriously at a ban.’

Do you anticipate a ban will happen for TikTok in the U.S.? 

John: Do you anticipate a ban will happen for TikTok in the U.S.?

Ryan: I actually do.

Ryan Kavanaugh: I actually do. And it does bother me when I hear people say it’s political. I mean, I’m pretty apolitical. So, you know, I can’t really even, I normally don’t get involved in it. I just kind of shut down when I hear the debates. But there is not only like in-depth tech reports out there, but there’s people who have taken those in-depth tech reports and distilled them into kind of, I’ll call it my language layman’s terms, where it actually shows you visually what is happening on TikTok.

And it shows you visually that literally as you’re looking at, as you’re working on TikTok, what’s happening on your iPhone or your Android. And it shows you like, okay, this is what Apple’s taking, so this is the data that Apple’s taking as you’re using it on a normal everyday basis, and this is what TikTok’s taking. And literally as you peel it back — I mean, and these are professionals who do this — peel it back and show, they’re like it’s just spyware. Like it’s spyware with a social media thing wrapped around it.

And so I actually get frustrated when I hear people, like I heard them just come out and say, ‘Oh, we have a U.S. CEO, like, wait, you hired a U.S. CEO two weeks ago. It makes you U.S.? And having been in — I’ve done a lot of work in China in the past — and having worked in China like they’re not shy. The Chinese government owns Chinese companies. They have to do what they tell them to do. So for TikTok or ByteDance, everyone says ‘yeah, well, we don’t give them any data.’ They’re basically saying we’re willing to go to jail or get killed, because unfortunately the Chinese government they admit they’re communists, they don’t hide it.

And they basically, I keep telling people, I’m sure that ByteDance is getting a lot of — can I say that bad word on this? 

John Koetsier: Yes, haha.

Ryan Kavanaugh: In a lot of s–t for what they’re saying publicly, because it demeans the Chinese government. The Chinese government makes no qualms about saying, ‘If you’re a Chinese company, we have access to you and you do what we say. We are communist, period.’

But for ByteDance to say that’s not true, it almost demeans it. 

John Koetsier: So I’ll ask you for some specifics then on the data and the spyware applications that you’re talking about. I know for instance, in iOS 14, it was pretty obvious that TikTok was grabbing the contents of the clipboard. So if you copy and paste something on iOS — iOS 14 can now show you what companies are doing or apps are doing with that, and actually a variety of companies have been caught doing that.

LinkedIn was caught doing that as well.

And for some, it might be a misconfiguration. LinkedIn argued it was a bug. For others, obviously, it’s a pretty nifty way of grabbing maybe a credit card number or whatever else you might have there. But what else have you seen or heard? And that’s, by the way, for everybody, that’s now gone from the LinkedIn app and it’s also gone from the TikTok app. But what else have you seen about data collection? 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Well, basically what at least — and I’m not a professional, I’m not an engineer, so — but what I have read and seen, and heard from multiple places, is that  obviously,  the clipboard thing, you know, was a huge deal. I mean, forget just clipboard, anything you cut or copied was just being sent to TikTok. Whether LinkedIn did it also and did it by mistake, I can’t say if they did or didn’t, but at least it’s a U.S. company. It’s not going to the government. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

TikTok is owned effectively by the Chinese government …

Ryan Kavanaugh: It’s not going to a nefarious source. You know, maybe LinkedIn was doing it to monetize, which is not a good thing. But TikTok is owned effectively by the Chinese government. And so they’re copying, and they were getting every single thing you copied. Think about what you copy on your phone every day. The second thing is that they have access to your geolocator.

So everywhere you go, every place that you visit is being sent. When you type, at least from what I’ve been told, when you type it actually reads what you’re typing, that’s being sent to them, like on your keyboard.

And so my understanding,  your phone book, all the data in your phone book, the contacts, and the info and the contacts. So my understanding is that the theory was that it was being used to look at the behavior of our children and for the Chinese government to understand that behavior and understand how to manipulate messaging on behalf of the Chinese government.

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting. Well, scary, if true. No doubt about that. Let’s get back to Triller. You’ve had this massive change. You were planning to go into India a month from now or some weeks from now. Fortune favors the agile. You had a massive bump in interest and downloads. I’m sure you’ll still go through with your launch plans. I’m sure you’ve also accelerated those.

But you’ve also got  global opportunities — opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere. What do you do? Do you change your strategy right now? Do you keep doing more of what you’re doing? Do you try and grow faster, bring on some VC to do that and take advantage of this opportunity right now, which might be a historic opportunity to fill a void or fill a gap? What’s your focus? 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. 

John Koetsier: Hahaha.

Ryan Kavanaugh: So, we’ve been quietly, but, you know, we’ve basically been contacted by, like I said, most of the major TikTok influencers or their reps. So we’re in the process of helping onboard most of them. Some who are just, you know, they rely on this as a way of life and living.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ryan Kavanaugh: And so they need this, and some who actually are like, ‘I don’t want to be involved in a company that’s doing that,’ like are really principled about it. And some who are just like, ‘this whole thing is crazy, I just need to go somewhere.’ So we’re focusing very much on that experience, and particularly what we found is no one’s really helping them monetize at TikTok.

And so what I mean is like, yeah, TikTok has a monetization engine, but there’s no personalization to it. And if you look at the top, there’s a hundred people on TikTok that generate most of their revenue in the U.S. So from our side, we make sure that our team, which is, as I said, Bonin our CMO, and the whole marketing team, I mean, they basically advise most Fortune 500 companies that at least are known on the highest levels there, because Bonin was the youngest C-suite executive of any Fortune 50 company. So we actually spend the time saying, ‘Okay, what is it, what deals do you have? What brand deals do you have? What sponsorship deals do you have? We want to help you make them better.’

And we’ve found that that was never done over there. And that just by doing that, we’re able to double and triple what people were making on TikTok just by jointly reaching out and saying, ‘Look, Triller’s going to do the following for these influencers and add the following tools, bells, whistles … can we negotiate a deal for them?’ And so it’s been a very interesting ride. Again, no cost to us. We don’t, we’re not paying the influencers, but we are helping them. So that’s focus one.

Focus two is that we’ve always wanted to give our users the most comprehensive set of tools to make the best content in the easiest manner. And so about 15% of our audience are creators, which nobody I think has anywhere close to that. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

… a multi-take camera, I mean, I don’t think anybody else has that, where you can literally sit there and hit, you know, play a song, and hit ‘take one, take two, take 3’ …

Ryan Kavanaugh: So we’re basically always upgrading and updating the tools. So whether  it’s a multi-take camera, I mean, I don’t think anybody else has that, where you can literally sit there and hit, you know, play a song, and hit ‘take one, take two, take 3’ … 

John Koetsier: Wow!

Ryan Kavanaugh: … video, and then edit each one. And then use the AI or do it on your own. Or whether it’s, you know, we just bought a company, Halogen, which is a go-live app that we bought so that our users can have a go-live functionality. So we’re really focused on making sure that that experience and that tool set is easy, but is very professional.

John Koetsier: Really interesting. What you’re basically saying is you have a creator-first attitude, and that if you get the best creators on the platform, you get the best influencers on the platform. You make it easy for them, and you make it profitable for them, their followers are going to come along and their followers who want to consume the content that they’re creating are coming along as well.

Also interesting you said that about 15% are creators, because the average percentage on a social platform, even a creation focused platform, is like 1% or something like that, right. And then maybe 10% of curators or something like that, but the vast majority of people, 99% or 90% are mostly simply consuming content. Well, very, very interesting.

I have to ask you a stupid, stupidest question you’ll answer today … the origin of the name? I keep thinking “Thriller” and I keep having the song go off in the back of my head. Was that anywhere in the thought process? 

Ryan Kavanaugh: You’re definitely not the only one. It’s actually Trill, so “ill” obviously in Trill, so it’s basically a combination of the “iller” or/and “chilling.” So you’ve got the chill in ill.

And it was actually, we didn’t come up with the name, but it was created, the app was actually originally created as a utility by two musicians who are also PhDs in behavioral psych or cognitive science, who wanted to be able to cut music and music videos with their tools at home, rather than having to go into a studio. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Ryan Kavanaugh: And so it really was music first. So the trill in ill came from basically the world of rap and hip hop. 

John Koetsier: I like my explanation better, but you’re very welcome to your own. 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Hahaha.

John Koetsier: Thanks so much Ryan. Thank you so much for taking some time, Ryan. 

Ryan Kavanaugh: Thanks for having us.

John Koetsier: It’s been a real pleasure. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. Really appreciate you being along for the ride. Whatever platform you’re watching on, hey, like, subscribe, share, comment. If you’re on the podcast later on, please rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help.

Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.