Editor’s Note: Rus Yusupov is co-founder and CEO of HQ Trivia and co-founder of Vine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
When I co-founded Vine, we did a few things that made us very popular very fast. But as we grew, we didn’t continue evolving the app by taking on new challenges and experimenting with new features and engagement tools. TikTok, on the other hand, has grown its user base and continually evolved its platform, putting it on a path toward immense success. But now, President Donald Trump has issued an executive order that could result in the company’s acquisition by Microsoft or another US-based company.
Big tech companies have a long history of acquiring innovative startups and killing what made them special in the first place through bureaucracy and trepidation. So the question is: Will the acquirer allow TikTok to continue to evolve, or will a new owner stifle the platform’s innovative spirit and open the door for competition?
When Twitter shut Vine down, it was because we had stopped innovating. Looking back, we missed a number of opportunities, particularly around evolving our creator tools to keep up with how popular culture was evolving. Lip sync, dance videos, longer videos – all these formats ran contrary to what we thought made Vine special. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have resisted them. We should have embraced them.
We also should have expanded our content distribution model and built a recommendation algorithm as a primary way to connect people to content they like, and we should have diversified our network and content, considering a broader range of partners and formats. Finally, we should have better monetized the platform, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of our creators.
Though many tech founders innovate by riffing on existing themes, some introduce new foundational ideas to the market. These are things like the iPhone’s multi-touch screen, Snapchat stories and Mindie’s slow-mo capture tools for creating lip-sync videos. At Vine, we were lucky to have a few: including touch-and-hold for recording clips and auto-playing videos in feeds. The challenge is to take those foundational ideas and build on them. They can’t become static accomplishments. They need to become building blocks toward new innovation.
TIkTok hasn’t stopped innovating. They’ve made bold moves we should have made. Specifically, its algorithm-driven distribution model is extremely accurate and effectively surfaces new personalized content. And allowing creators to monetize their content through live streaming is an underreported, underrated feature, and is key to their success.
If Microsoft or another US-based company does end up buying TikTok, I have concerns about the role the Trump administration will play in the future of the product, having so clearly pushed for its sale. The administration may believe this sale will be to its benefit, and I worry that it could possibly steer the platform post-sale. The Trump administration may also require auditing or proof to be satisfied that TikTok isn’t sending data to China, which could have implications for individual privacy on the platform.
Even with the power of a company like Microsoft behind it, TikTok can’t get too comfortable when it comes to the competition. It can never stop re-imagining everything. Large technology companies certainly have a lot to offer, including providing a sense of longevity and stability to the platform that lets creators feel comfortable committing to it and experimenting more freely. They can help retain top talent and create opportunities for growth.
But we’ve all seen big tech companies stall out on innovation. If TikTok is to remain competitive under the guise of Microsoft or whichever American company might end up buying it, it will need to aggressively innovate in three main areas:
Now that TikTok has captured the market for user-generated content and has become the platform of choice for the next generation of creators and influencers, it needs to continue its expansion into scripted content with more premium experiences. Broadcast-quality episodic TV content, scheduled programming, content verticals and channels, movies released straight to TikTok, the first TikTok Oscar – I see all of this coming, and TikTok’s new owner will need to encourage it.
With new types of content come new ways of monetizing that content. I think TikTok should consider subscription models and premium content rentals as ways to continue rewarding its creators (and itself, of course). It should also explore adding in-app shopping and games.
Embrace live experiences
Live streaming is one of TikTok’s core experiences. As creators get better matched to their niche audiences, engaging with these top creators in a livestream needs to become a deeper, richer experience through incorporation of feedback, games, shopping and other models of engagement.
TikTok is certainly leading the way for video platforms, and it is in the best position to stay there. But to remain a force in this space, it needs to continue to innovate and grow – especially if it gets acquired by a big US tech company. Take it from me: If TikTok doesn’t innovate, someone else will.