This will be a 2 part series in an attempt to understand a consumer product that has taken a generation by storm and understand how we can apply the lessons to our own products / companies.
What we know today as TikTok, started out originally as Musical.ly which Alex Zhu and his team started in Shanghai (which isn’t even China’s tech hub, which would either be Beijing or Shenzhen), while targeting teens in the US.
Alex Zhu is perhaps one of the most interesting product thinkers in creating online platforms today. While he’s clearly studied the best practises in Silicon Valley, he’s adapted the best thinking from China and blended it into his own which makes for a powerful combo, bringing the best of both world’s together.
Alex is from Anhui province in China and was working as a ‘Futurist’ at SAP before raising 250k USD to start an education startup that would be a hybrid of Twitter and Coursera. With only 8% of the funding left and the startup going nowhere, Alex and the team decided to make a hard pivot rather than returning the remaining cash to the investors. While on a train in San Francisco to Mountain View, he noticed a bunch of teenagers on their phones, some listening to music, some messaging, taking photos and decorating them with emojis. That’s when he got the idea of combining music and content creation through videos. The app Musical.ly eventually reached the number one spot on the Appstore in the US and Bytedance acquired the company for 1bn USD and merged it into the Tik Tok that we know today.
While Silicon Valley is still the global leader in tech, and having the best talent go through the most data points to develop best practises, the best product managers must draw from a wide array of sources, because if you’re drawing from the same source as everyone else, your best solution is going to be no better than everyone else’s.
Top 10 takeaways:
- Do not go against human nature
- Make it dead simple for your users to create content (or key action)
- Focus on young people for social products
- Social Platforms must have a connection to real life
- Focus on a niche during the zero to one phase, then diversify the use case
- Focus on utility, then build community
- Stay close to Your Users
- Make your early adopters rich, and the rest will come
- For pivots, you have to change the value proposition
- Make your users need to feel invested
- I might have misquoted Alex here and there, but largely, the message is consistent
- The lessons are my interpretation and learnings. Would love for anyone to comment what else they’ve taken from the videos I’ve shared at the bottom of the essay
- The lessons here while applicable to most consumer internet products, is more tailored to the User Generated Content (UGC) model.
1. Do not go against human nature
“I was observing their behaviour, 50% [they] were listening to music, and the other 50% [they] were taking videos and photos, selfies and [put the] stickers [on top] and shout[ing] around, and they had some good laughs [around it]. So that give me some idea, first, entertainment is going to be much easier than education cause education is against [the] human nature and entertainment is following human nature” – Alex observing some High School students in America.
When Alex was licking his wounds over his education app that was on the verge of going bust, his epiphany caused him to pivot from education to entertainment as his general thought is along the lines of getting a consumer app off the ground is hard enough already, why go against human nature?
If we look at the top tech companies globally almost all of them started out as frivolous things that ‘serious’ people underestimated, as Chris Dixon said, the next big thing will start out looking like a toy. This might be counter-intuitive, but if you want to change the world, give into human vices.
Companies like YouTube, Apple, Google and Netflix, may have started out as toys, but arguably, they have contributed more to education and learning than a lot of smaller companies focused on education.
Key Question: Is my product catering to the most primal instincts of human nature or looking to serve a higher need?
2. Make it dead simple for your users to create content
“First content was only 3 mins long,… but it took me more than 2 hours to produce that content, trying to collect the information from Google, trying to [put] my voice over to talk about [the] coffee… there was a huge unbalance between cost of production and the happiness from the consumption ….” How he knew his education app wouldn’t take off
For Social / UGC apps like Instagram / Tik Tok, the value that they bring the user, prior to the social element, would be empowering an amateur to produce content on the level of a professional photographer / artiste. Most people have a low threshold for putting in the work to achieve something good. But suddenly, if the user doesn’t need to put in the 10,000 hours to produce professional level photography, that is a high ratio of the cost of production to the value of consumption.
Key Question: Can my users create content (or complete action) while watching TV?
3. Focus on young people for social product
“Teenagers in the US should be one of the user focus, they have time, they are creative and they are social media professionals, they actually spend time, all day [around] on social media, and cross promotion”
In addition to the above, interestingly, Alex talks about how teenagers in the US tend to spend all their time on social media and sharing with their friends, hence the low cost of acquisition, but also contrasts American teens with Chinese teens. He talked about how Chinese teens spend all their time studying, hence, little time to be on social media and sharing them. This does seem to be similar to SEA.
Key Question: Is my product social or new (even shifts in music genres)? If so, I should probably target teens.
4. Social Platforms must have a connection to real life
“I personally don’t believe live streaming alone as a platform can go really big…If we look at [the] big platform[s] like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, there is a common thing, which is interaction between your real friends, that’s the master plan, to become a platform with 100m DAU”
This could be an explanation for why Twitter never made it as mainstream and to the size that the other social platforms.
Key Question: Is my product social at it’s core? Am I aiming to get to 100m DAU? If so, there has to be a link to the user’s real life.
5. Focus on a niche during the zero to one phase, then diversify the use case (From brush to canvas)
“In the zero to one phase, you want to be a brush, you have to solve a specific need very well, but once you reach one, and one to grow to X, you want to be a canvas, you want all kind of things to happen on this blank canvas”
This is very much in-line with how most of the largest consumer tech companies grew. Facebook started with college kids, Amazon focused on books, Grab started with taxi bookings, and WeChat started with messaging. On a smaller scale, Kevin Kelly talks about how all one needs to do is to find 1000 of your truest, most obsessive fans and you can make a living off that group.
Key Question: Am I narrowing down my audience enough?
- Do not go against human nature, building a consumer internet platform is tough enough. Also, there isn’t a historical use case where large consumer internet company didn’t start out catering to the Limbic part of the brain. A more abstract takeaway from here is to always be grounded in reality, I hear too many founders talk about high minded ideology while they should focus on what works.
- Make it dead simple for your users to create content (or key action). In today’s attention scarce world, any additional second your user spends struggling to complete an action makes you just a little worse than your competitor.
- Focus on young people for social products. They have the most time, creativity and inclination to use, share and more importantly, get your product.
- Social Platforms must have a connection to real life. People are more interested in watching their friends do mundane things than strangers doing interesting things.
- Focus on a niche during the zero to one phase, then diversify the use case. In the beginning, you can only serve your community well when it’s ridiculously tailored to a niche (like lip synching), you can expand the use case once you have distribution.
- For social products, SEA founders might want to think about targeting the US as they still lead the world in culture, and with the exception of live streaming, most social products tend to take off in the US before the rest of the world.
- Is my product catering to the most primal instincts of human nature or looking to serve a higher need?
- Can my users create content (or complete action) while watching TV?
- Is my product social or new (even shifts in music genres)? If so, I should probably target teens.
- Is my product social at it’s core? Am I aiming to get to 100m DAU? If so, there has to be a link to the user’s real life.
- Am I narrowing down my audience enough?
Continue to part 2 here