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How did TikTok start – from 0 to 100M users in 500 days and to 1B in over 5 years (11 min read)

TikTok (Douyin in China) – a short-form video social media that has grown to over 1B users

It rose to its position through a merger of two Chinese apps, Musical.ly and Douyin which was later rebranded to TikTok. The core feature of Musical.ly was lip-syncing with music while TikTok was the broader platform for sharing short videos on specific topics and trends

?Strategy & Tools

TikTok History Timeline


  • Aug 2014 - Musical.ly is released in China and the US, riding the hype wave of another short-form video app, Vine. Due to lack of resources, Musical.ly focuses mostly on the US market

  • Jun 2015 - Musical.ly reaches 10M registered users

  • Jun 2016 - Musical.ly reaches 90M registered users

  • Sep 2016 - After 200 days in development by a team of 8, A.me is released in China. Two months later it’s rebranded to Douyin. It was another one of a set of similar apps but it attracts a young audience (below 24) from the so-called Tier 1 and 2 cities (such as Beijing and Shanghai, the most wealthy and developed)

  • May 2017 - Musical.ly reaches 200M registered users

  • Aug 2017 - TikTok video views reach 1B

  • Sep 2017 - The international release of Douyin as TikTok. It already reaches 100M users - after 1 year and only 500 days since the idea phase

  • Aug 2, 2018 - TikTok’s merger with Musical.ly. ByteDance, the company behind TikTok paid between $800M to $1B for it. User accounts have been merged into one app called TikTok.

  • Nov 2018 - TikTok has already 680M active users

  • 2018 - American celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon or Tony Hawk start using TikTok

  • Q1 2020 - 315M downloads. That’s the best quarter for any app, ever.

  • Jan 2021 - 62M downloads

  • Feb 2021 - TikTok has way over 1B users, estimated at 1.1B user base worldwide, with 200M just from the US. It is now available in 154 markets in 75 languages

Connecting with the audience

Musical.ly had a WeChat app with hundreds of members in which the creators discussed with users the platform’s growth. They shared product wireframes and other insights.

That led to developing only the functions which really seemed interesting to the users and on the other hand - created a highly-engaged group of early evangelists.

American Dream for everyone

Alex Zhu, the creator of Musical.ly, admitted in one interview that he wanted to create sort of an American Dream. As he put it, if Facebook and Instagram users were Europeans and Musical.ly users were Americans, you want to show the Europeans that it may be impossible to move to the upper class, but you can do it in the US and that’s why you should move to live there.

Similarly, allowing early adopters to become the platform’s celebrities with large followings, created an example for newcomers that although it’s hard on FB and IG, you can fulfill your dreams about being famous on Musical.ly. The same worked for TikTok.

Targeting teenagers

Targeting teenage audience was a well-thought-out strategy for Musical.ly. Since teenagers are creative and native to the digital world, attracting enough of them gave the platform a word of mouth distribution that brought other groups in.

Seamless UX

Instead of trying to create new habits, Musical.ly used the existing ones - scrolling, liking, and commenging is often a part of everyday commute –rather than consuming educational content.

This is why the app picked up on one hand–as being entertaining–while providing a light experience for consuming and creating content only added up to being more engaging.

How did TikTok start?

TikTok was invented in 2016 by ByteDance, primarily as Douyin. The idea was pretty much the same - mixing music with users videos, mainly for lip-syncing purposes.

Soon after, in 2017, ByteDance bought Musical.ly which stood a competition for Douyin, and then they connected users’ accounts from Musical.ly and TikTok, merging everything in the form of their TikTok app.

Why is TikTok so popular?

First, it was because of how simple it was when it came to sharing. The most effective growth driver for TikTok was its easy sharing to other platforms. Douyin integrated sharing with QQ, Weibo, and WeChat.

In the international app, TikTok made it easy to share videos through phone’s messaging system, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Instagram Stories, Email, and QR codes. You can even download the video and do whatever you want with it – no other social media app allows you to do that.

What’s clever about it is the fact that TikTok users can use its video editing functionality and share their work with followers or friends on whichever platform they use more frequently. Since all videos are watermarked, they bring new users in who also want to try it out.

Also, part of TikTok’s global success are people with a large following and celebrities who joined the platform early on. Among those, you could see Jimmy Fallon, who mentioned the app on his show, or Tony Hawk, the famous pro skater.

Who is the owner of TikTok?

The owner of TikTok is ByteDance, which was founded by a Chinese billionaire, Zhang Yiming. It means that the actual owner of TikTok is Zhang Yiming.

TikTok owner net worth

Zhang Yiming is a Chinese entrepreneur, and a billionaire, as his net worth is estimated on the level of $59,4 billion (as of January 2022).

Remarkable product

Marketing starts with a product. If it’s good enough, the growth requires just to make enough people see it.

You could judge that people loved TikTok and Musical.ly based on the reviews. There were a ton of positive ones and most people admitted that the apps are simply addictive.

Of course, there was some critic, such as that TikTok was just a copy of Musical.ly in its early days, but most people were really happy which encouraged new users to check the apps out.

Picking the right fight

TikTok tried the same concept as Vine - to not involve in fights where it can’t win. Bigger social media platforms would require the users to stay in the app for the longest time, providing only a minimum of external links, but TikTok does the opposite.

Here, you can link your Instagram and YouTube profiles in bio and you are encouraged to use other platforms to share your TikTok. That design is focused on letting one user out (for a while) to bring a few more in.

On the same note, Musical.ly didn’t fight with Spotify or Pandora with music as a product. Music was a part of the product and a tool for distributing it.

For example, when Jason Derulo released a new song on Musical.ly prior to the official release, that led to 1M videos being produced on the platform and then shared on other social media, leading to millions of views. By the time of the release, the song was a massive hit.

TikTok Boom

One year since the idea phase, TikTok already had more than 100 million users, and in summer of 2020, TikTok has revealed that it had about 100 million active users only in the USA. September 2021 saw TikTok scoring more than 1 billion monthly active users globally.

The rapid growth of the platform is known as the TikTok Boom, and there is even a book by Chris Stokel-Walker titled “TikTok Boom” which tries to explain the whole thing of TikTok’s insane popularity.

Incentivizing early adopters

AdWeek reported that some creators could be paid for using the app. A brief has been found, which suggested that some influencers were offered $500 to start creating on the platform and get other incentives to keep posting and gaining more and more viewers.

TikTok hasn’t confirmed or denied these revelations

What is TikTok business model – how TikTok makes money?

TikTok business model is based on paid advertisements and sponsorship. TikTok makes money when brands purchase ads on the platform. The platform is paid by brands to let them promote themselves through it. Many brands use TikTok for business purposes.

TikTok business model is similar to YouTube or Facebook. It’s basically about:

  • In-feed video ads (short videos in user’s feeds, appearing as they scroll down),

  • brand takeover ads (pop up immediately once you open the TikTok app),

  • top-view ads (pop up spontaneously when you use the app for a bit longer),

  • branded hashtag challenges (viral short videos promoting brands with the gamification aspect),

  • branded special effects (users can buy and use them in their videos for a limited time).

Sponsorship

Douyin used the good ol’ sponsorship to reach a wide audience, which is also a part of what the TikTok business model is about.

They sponsored major Chinese variety shows, such as “Hip-Hop in China”, “Happy Camp”, or “Everyday Upward”. TikTok’s product placement could be seen in many other TV shows around the globe.

Livestreaming

Accounts with audiences of over 50k followers gained live streaming capability on Douyin. Since TikTok celebrities were already present cross-platform, that was also one of the main channels of early user acquisition.

Tools
Social Media
Email
TV

?Psychology

Bandwagon effect

This easy sharing allows bringing new people into the platform, while more and more active users are the reason why more of them keep joining. They eventually do it just because everyone around them is doing so. And with over 1B users, that means 1 on every 7 people on the planet uses TikTok. That’s why TikTok got so popular.

FOMO

Like with many live digital events, FOMO has its role in making people join livestreams. The fear of missing a valuable content from beloved celebrities had been driving TikTok’s growth from its early days.

Social proof

TikTok Boom played heavily on the social proof. Sponsoring TV shows and influencers, along with thousands of positive reviews, created a belief that everyone’s already on TikTok and so you need to join, too.

Entertainment and Dopamine shots

Various social media platforms refer to dopamine shots differently.

On TikTok, consuming entertaining content, one by one, keeps users glued to their screens and makes them want more. That’s the baseline for why is TikTok so addictive.

Authenticity

People on Instagram stopped being authentic years ago. Tons of editing software, professional photographers, and exposing only the best highlights from people's lives are far from being genuine. TikTok is different. 

People on TikTok are more authentic. More prone to share their errors. And error is human. 

?Window of Opportunity

Launching a new app on a market as large as China might look easy but TikTok’s success is an effect of clever strategies.

The most important could be using existing social media to acquire new users but if there’s something for you in it, it’s this - don’t fight your competition. Think about how you can use their products to promote yours.

It’s also important who is the owner of TikTok, as Zhang Yimig had had a significant experience in the world of social media before TikTok started. He knew what the TikTok business model should look like.

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