When talk of a possible TikTok ban began in July, the leaders of a small social video app called Triller saw a growth opportunity.
To attract users, the company set its sights on TikTok’s biggest names. Some of the Sway Boys, a group of TikTok influencers, had been toying with the idea of building their own app to compete with TikTok, but after a discussion with Ryan Kavanaugh, the majority owner of Triller and a veteran entertainment executive, they decided the platform could be good for them.
Triller offered the creators a deal: Tell your audience on TikTok that you’re moving to Triller, and we’ll give you equity and roles within the company. You can still post on TikTok, they were told, but only if you post on Triller more frequently. In turn, of the Sway Boys, Josh Richards, 18, was named Triller’s chief strategy officer, and Griffin Johnson, 21, and Noah Beck, 19, joined as advisers with equity.
Soon, CNBC, Fox News and The Los Angeles Times were writing about TikTok defectors bound for Triller, an app they described as a viable replacement for TikTok should a ban be put in place. In August, Triller announced it was seeking a new funding round of $250 million, hiking its valuation to over $1 billion.
But could it live up to the hype?
Getting That ‘Triller Money’
Founded in 2015, Triller bills itself as an app for making professional-looking music videos, quickly. Functionally, it’s different from TikTok: it has different editing tools; its users can’t “duet,” or react to videos; and while it offers top singles and hit songs, it lacks the extensive library of sounds and mash-ups that TikTok users employ to express themselves.
“I think there’s a lot of things on Triller that TikTok doesn’t have and vice versa, they both have their perks,” said Mr. Beck, of the Sway Boys.
Triller, for instance, has star power. The company has raised money from entertainment executives and celebrities, including Snoop Dogg, 21 Savage and Migos, and brought on a roster of high-profile users, among them the Weeknd, Marshmello, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar, Tyga, T.I. and Jake Paul.
The most important thing about Triller, some of its backers say, is that it’s an American company. Discussions of a TikTok ban revolved around data security concerns stemming from the fact that ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is a Chinese corporation. “Protect your family and our country do not use #tiktok,” Mr. Kavanaugh, 45, tweeted last October. “Take back your data, don’t let them destroy the US Music Industry and spy on our children. Work with the artists for the artists.” (In August, Bloomberg News reported that Triller had made a joint bid for TikTok’s operations in the U.S. and several other countries.)
To bring artists on, Triller has been pulling out all the stops. “Triller money” has become a recurring joke among TikTokers in Los Angeles, the punchline being that the company will do whatever it takes to partner with the right stars
Creators shuttle to and from Saddle Ranch Chop House, a Western-themed restaurant in West Hollywood, in a large black Mercedes-Benz sprinter van emblazoned with the app’s name on the side, thanks to a Triller-negotiated brand partnership. Once there, they pay with Saddle Ranch black cards loaded with unlimited funds, thanks to Triller.
When Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most-followed star (90 million followers), announced she was joining Triller in September, the company provided her with a leased black Rolls-Royce with a “TRILLER” vanity plate. Triller leased a Mercedes-Benz for Josh Richards, another TikTok star. Triller talent are also treated to weekly sushi dinners at Nobu, where they brainstorm with executives while flaunting the meals on Instagram Stories.
Triller has also rented mansions in Los Angeles for top creators to live in. After the TikTok stars Bryce Hall and Blake Gray had their power turned off by the city in August for flouting local guidelines around in-person gatherings, they moved into a Triller house. Last week, nine creators, including Tayler Holder, 23, of the Hype House, moved into another property rented by Triller.
The company pays for housekeeping, weekly Instacart orders, ground transportation, high speed Wi-Fi and production equipment like ring lights. Whatever the talent needs to make content, Triller will get. For one recent video by a creator, the company secured a helicopter.
In July, Triller began offering creators hundreds of dollars a month for posts on the app. Quran Stenline, 21, known online as @SwagBoyQ, said the company offered him money to use the app and also guaranteed that his videos would be featured on Triller’s version of the For You page, which is the equivalent of TikTok’s front page.
Mr. Stenline turned the opportunity down. “I don’t think that’s fair for smaller creators or other creators in general who are trying to get looked at,” he said. At least on TikTok, he said, everyone has a fairer shot at getting noticed.
Tyler Bott, 18, who has 2.6 million followers on TikTok, also received a message from a partnership manager at Triller offering him money to post with the app. He demurred, but the company reached out again in September.
“TikTok is going to be banned in the US!” the manager wrote. “Every US stars are coming to Triller,” followed by three fire emojis. “For the occasion, we’re launching a huge campaign this weekend, we’re asking every artist and influencers to make as many videos as possible in order for the app to get viral and become the first app in the world.”
Mr. Bott thought the tone of the message seemed off. “I thought it was weird they were celebrating TikTok being shut down,” he said. “It seemed like they were just trying to get success from the demise of the app. Usually, I feel like professional companies don’t send messages to creators about their excitement about a competitor getting shut down.”
Creators have also found the app frustrating to navigate. “Every time I try to use Triller it’s a terrible experience,” said Doug Marland, 23, who has 2.3 million followers on TikTok. “I feel like the only way they can get creators to use the app is pay them. I don’t think any creators would willingly use the app otherwise.”
Questions have also come up about the accuracy of Triller’s reported metrics. In August, Triller threatened to sue Apptopia, a third-party app analytics company, for providing estimates of Triller’s app downloads that were vastly lower than the company’s publicly reported numbers. Last week, six former Triller employees spoke to Business Insider claiming that the company “reported monthly active users that were five times higher than what some internal metrics showed.”
Where Triller has seen a lot of organic engagement is with President Donald J. Trump’s supporters.
On Aug. 15, the president’s social team began publishing videos under his name. When a rap contest called the #MAGAChallenge took off on Triller, President Trump tweeted that he would fly the winners of the contest to the White House. (Two Triller employees resigned from the company after the challenge went viral.) Donald Trump Jr. joined Triller in early September and posted an eight-minute monologue on how he believes TikTok is bad for America.
While TikTok and Facebook have cracked down on disinformation this year, banning hashtags and pages associated with conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate, Triller has allowed them to flourish. Mr. Kavanaugh said the decision not to ban such content was intentional.
“Our view,” he said, “is if it’s not illegal, if it’s not unethical, it doesn’t harm a group, and it’s not against our terms of service, we’re not going to filter or ban it. I personally have a huge problem with tech companies being an arbiter of truth. We don’t pick a side in anything, we’re about freedom of speech. We’re not going to decide what mud we think is dirty and what mud we think is clean.”
What to Expect
Though Triller has successfully signed talent, it has not yet proved its ability to launch the careers of influencers. TikTok is still the default place young people go to start from anonymity and grow an audience.
But Mr. Kavanaugh said all that will change soon. Next week, the app is rolling out a new algorithmically curated feed meant to help creators who are building a following from scratch. “All the people who feel like they’re not getting plays or views, they will,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. Triller is also working on bringing more of TikTok’s top female creators onto the app; so far, most of its partner creators are men.
The company says its priority is helping creators monetize. Mr. Kavanaugh believes that influencers today are like pro athletes before they began doing huge partnership deals. Most are doing one-off campaigns, but Triller wants to facilitate bigger, long-term partnerships. In that vein, the company introduced a product called Crosshype, which helps determine the value of a Triller campaign in terms of C.P.M., or cost per thousand views.
Mr. Kavanaugh said that he knows that at the end of the day, what creators on any app want the most is to be able to make a living. “Let’s say a TikToker is going to make $300,000 on a deal with TikTok,” he said. “They’ll probably make $2 million with us. Ninety-eight of the top 100 TikTok influencers are on Triller, and they’re making more money with a smaller company. They’re making three or four times the money from brands because we’ve created a whole new ecosystem where it creates much more value for everyone.”
Even if Triller doesn’t overtake TikTok, it can still become a big business. “TikTok and Triller can coexist and both be successful,” said Anis Uzzaman, the chief executive of Pegasus Tech Ventures and an investor in Triller.
Mr. Kavanaugh said this is only the beginning of a major shift in entertainment and consumption, and he hopes Triller will be a part of that change. “The world moves fast,” he said. “It’s all instant gratification. There’s instant fame and instant content, and we think this is how the future of the world is going to be.”