Why you shouldn’t give up on your startup idea on the TikTok and Musical.ly example

Or how the failure startup idea can blow up under another angle.

TikTok is a modern monster influencing GenZ and modern business, marketing trends. With more than 500 million active users and hitting both the one billion and 1.5 billion downloads mark on the App Store and Google Play in a single year in 2019. Pretty crazy, huh?

But how it all started?

Believe it or not, the story starts with a startup failure. Alex Zhu after attending Zhejiang University and traveling to the US found his passion in the education industry. In the US working out of SAP’s Bay Area office (2010), he came up with the idea to develop an app for hosting short-form education videos.

Luyu Yang and Alex Zhu

Throughout 2013, Zhu and Luyu Yang – longtime friends and co-founders –  raised $250,000 from China Rock Capital Management for implementing Alex’s idea. With a small team, they spent six months building the educational app, calling it Cicada. 

“It was doomed to be a failure,” Alex later told on the interview for Business Insider. “The day we released this application to the market, we realized it was never going to take off.”

The main problem was in creating engaging yet informative educational content adjusting the lesson plans in bite-sized chunks. The videos took too long to make and didn’t hit the target demographic of teens.

With only 8% of their money remaining, the team needed to come up with a new idea instead of returning the funding to investors. Around this time, traveling to the Mountain View, California Alex noticed a group of teenagers with their phones, listening to music and taking selfies, adding emojis on them. And that’s how the new idea was born.

The team behind Cicada turned the new concept into an app in only 30 days, and in July 2014, launched Musical.ly for creating 15-second lip-syncing music videos.

The Bumpy road to success

The Mysical.ly had its ups and downs but managed to take all the opportunities and make use of the cultural phenomenons in the US to scale the audience and ‘enter the big waters’. At the time, Spike.TV aired “Lip Sync Battle” and suddenly searches for “lip-sync” on the app store kept on showing the app.

Fast enough to make the audience stay the new features were added, like ‘duets’ where two users can collaborate on a video. By adding demographic-specific social features like BFFs also helped with trying to build said community.

Another opportunity arose in 2016 when the Vine platform the bigger Musical.ly competitor announced:

And a large audience of content creators was left with nothing. Other platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook were not the best-fit regards to the 6 seconds Vine content and the inner algorithms.

That was a big step to scale and create a new generation of digital influencers. Yet the platform struggled with aging up the audience.  Musical.ly advertised heavily on online social media platforms. Using Google Ads to help drive growth to age up. The same goes for their ads on YouTube:

This gave rise to a new genre of video on the platform. Users borderline bullying users who were dancing using the ‘duet’ features or posting “cringe” made the platform for a source of humor that later leaked on to Twitter and the stories of users on other platforms. This was one small part of taking them to 40 Million Monthly Active Users (MAU).

How it all related to the TikTok, how we all know it today?

New twist approaching. Meanwhile, in China, ByteDance launched one of its apps in September 2016, which was named Douyin. (Literally: vibration/vibrato) It was very similar, with all of the features of Musical.ly. The design was sharp and contemporary that was able to win the youth in China. In late 2017, ByteDance’s ambitions led to the western market.

And to scale the audience dramatically they made a decision:

ByteDance kept the Douyin logo but come with a new name – TikTok. The new owners would change almost nothing about the design. (For the record, Douyin already looked very similar). The rebrand was successful- users didn’t associate the app with teen lip-synching videos anymore. TikTok would assume the role of a new content platform that would have far-reaching effects on western/eastern content consumption.

And look at it now!
With a new generation of influencers, the modern businesses dispute about the way to stand out and trying to predict the trends to win the GenZ.


And what can we learn from the story?

1. The new hits and breakthroughs are the good old ideas from another angle.

2. Lean on the opportunities in a creative way.

3. Meet the users’ needs and gain feedback. The audience will thank you with their loyalty. 4. Not always new design solutions and features are the points to success. It is all about building an ecosystem where everything fits together.

4. Not always new design solutions and features are the points to success. It is all about building an ecosystem where everything fits together.

5. Don’t be afraid to fail, sometimes it will lead to a bigger success.