We studied 50+ startups on TikTok and here’s what we found

By Li Jin and Lila Shroff

Illustration by Brandon Handoko

One morning a few weeks ago, we woke up to excited messages from friends telling us that our website, Side Hustle Stack, had appeared on their TikTok For You Page. That video led to hundreds of thousands of pageviews per minute, crashing our site in the middle of the night.

The surprise? We hadn’t actually created any content on TikTok. The flood of traffic was driven by a video created by @alexcazam, a 19 year-old college student that none of us knew, who had stumbled across the site. In the weeks afterwards, her TikTok has surpassed 5 million views.

Before this, we had tried other strategies for driving distribution—press outreach and launching on Product Hunt where we got over 600 upvotes—but none of these tactics came close to approaching the success of a single viral TikTok video.

We quickly realized: businesses that figure out how to leverage TikTok will have an advantage in building brand awareness, cultivating user trust, and efficiently acquiring customers.

Since that day, our initial viral boost has led to a stable, high level of traffic to the site, and in parallel, we’ve gone down a rabbit hole to better understand how startups can best leverage TikTok. That includes surveying the Twitterverse, diving deep and interviewing creators and brands, and creating an account of our own (@sidehustlestack, which has grown to 14K followers in <2 weeks).

The following is a summary of what we’ve learned so far. Note that while we this piece can help guide your TikTok strategy, it should be taken with a grain of salt: the platform is ever-evolving and requires constant experimentation. Our plan is to update these learnings on a continual basis.

What are the best uses of TikTok for startups?

Despite being best known for viral dances, lip sync videos, and other challenges popular among Gen Z, TikTok has exploded in mass appeal, and now counts a broad swath of the population in its exponentially growing user base. As of June 2020, TikTok had around 50 million daily active users and 92 million monthly active users in the US, up nearly 800% from January 2018. The average US user opens the app 8 times a day and spends 46 minutes per day on the app.

For startups, TikTok can be a goldmine for growth. The app is designed with a level playing field that enables newcomers to quickly grow and go viral. Unlike more established social networks that reward users with already-accrued status, TikTok’s For You Page and personalization algorithm purposefully surfaces videos from even little-known accounts. 

Businesses of all sizes have seen success on TikTok. On one hand, there’s Netflix, which amassed 12 million followers in a little over a year by leaning into trends and creating entertaining highlights. Then there are small businesses like Pounce Cat Cafe which has made viral videos and cultivated a community on the platform, leading to over 1,700 cat adoptions.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for businesses looking to succeed on TikTok: anything from a low-effort iPhone clip to a fully staged and edited promotion can go viral. That makes it great for startups who are strapped for cash but can bring a lot of fun and passion.

There are a few areas where TikTok really excels for startups:

  1. Building user trust and buy-in
  2. Driving awareness of new products and services
  3. Creating buzz around a category
  4. Getting user feedback and creating a two-way dialogue

Let’s dive in to each:

1. Building user trust and buy-in 

Because TikTok is video-based, it’s naturally conducive to storytelling and showcasing a more multifaceted narrative instead of simply shilling products. Brands can show off their authenticity in a more raw, unpolished way and promote trust with the audience.

Creators have told us that the less commercial-like and more word-of-mouth-like, the better. The best content feels like something your best friend might share with you.

For startups, there’s a built-in advantage for generating trust and buy-in on TikTok: most founders are truly passionate about what they’re building. Showing that authenticity, excitement, and passion can help make users feel bought into your success and want to support your journey.

Pre-launch, startups can create anticipation by talking about the context and story behind an idea. Companies can direct those fans to sign up for a mailing list or be added to a waitlist. When companies launch, there’s a built-in set of fans ready to evangelize a product.

New dating app Monet’s beta launch on TikTok is a perfect example of generating user trust and creating hype. The launch video introduces users to the team behind the app and explains their journey, from first identifying the problem to building out a solution. There are fun, personal anecdotes: the team living together, going on hikes, and making dinner. Gen Z viewers come away excited by the product and rooting for the team’s success. 

@joanna.shan

blow this up tiktok 😭😎🎨😌🎉 sign up to use Monet at monetdating.com and come draw some dope stuff w us !!!!!!! #tiktok #fyp #date #drawing #love

♬ Back Pocket – Vulfpeck
Monet’s beta launch video on co-founder Joanna Shan’s personal account (@joanna.shan).

Subscription-splitting startup TabTab (@victordanielcarde) and friend-finding app Flox (@jamietylerlee) have both found success by employing similar TikTok strategies as Monet.

@victordanielcarde

Blow this up tiktok 😭😎💸🎉 download TabTab using the link in my IG bio and start saving money on subscriptions !!! #foryou #fyp #netflix #savemoney

♬ Buttercup – Jack Stauber
TabTab’s launch video on founder Victor Daniel Carden’s personal account.
Flox’s waitlist launch video on founder Jamie Lee’s personal account.

2. Driving awareness of new products and services

From our own survey of 100+ Gen Zers, over half of TikTok users have downloaded an app or visited a website they discovered through the app, and more than one-third have purchased a product.

Companies can use TikTok to show off their products in a way that doesn’t feel overly commercial or transactional. Think: cool demo videos, product walk-throughs, tutorials, and other information that can be conveyed visually.

Consumer research suggests that more than 51% of consumers trust other posts by real people than those created by brands. TikTok benefits from built-in social proof, through comments, dueting, stitching, and other users creating videos about products. If other users are raving about how cool something is, users are more likely to trust it.

Ephemeral messaging app Honk (@usehonk) shows off their product in a way that speaks to the absurdity of Gen Z humor: full of non-sequiturs, Monke memes, and astrology.

Our takeaway? The more ridiculous and Gen Z the humor, the better. 

Honk’s Launch Video on TikTok received 1.2M views.

Breathing app Breathwrk (@Breathwrk) makes their visual breathing exercises a part of the TikTok experience. The account, which has amassed over 1.5M followers and 18.6M likes, consistently interacts with users and creates content in response to comments.

@breathwrk

Reply to @clarasbestfriend hope this helps <3 - our pain relief breath from the app

♬ if u use this ur c00hie stinks – Stfu Bye
Breathwrk breathing exercise for migraines received 374K likes.

For an example of a brand leveraging TikTok to drive product purchases, take a look at Aavia‘s (@aavia.io) account. By combining a trending sound and demos that show off the coolest features, their videos get consistently high viewership.

@aavia.io

Aavia Smart #birthcontrolpill Case + App tracks your pills for ya! Repost since TikTok won’t allow us to share orig 😣 #fyp #birthcontrolcheck #HowTo

♬ Lottery – K CAMP
Aavia’s product demo received 1.3M views.

Though virality on TikTok may be short-lived, it’s often accompanied by significant follower growth, which, over time, translates to more viral videos. And while consistently posting new content is key, the best TikToks are evergreen and can continue to attract viewers long after they were initially posted.

Remember: the people you’re reaching on TikTok will reflect the demographics of the app. That means consumer-friendly products are more well-suited to TikTok than, say, something related to enterprise apps (except for Notion, which seems to be having a moment).

3. Creating buzz around a category

TikTok’s algorithm surfaces content — however niche — that users may find interesting. That means it’s a great place to create buzz around an entire category or educate users regarding a certain topic. Once users are interested in your category, companies can suggest related products/services that users are likely to be interested in.

Users often refer to these niches as which “side” of TikTok they are on — Alt TikTok, NostalgiaTok, FoodieTok, straight TikTok, BookTok, FrogTok, you name it. Scroll through the “How to Go Viral on TikTok” side (yes, it’s a category of its own!) and you’ll see countless mentions of the importance of finding your niche. Owning a niche and continuing to create content for it over time will translate into a base of educated users who are actively invested in that particular topic.

Some great creator-led business examples are @smallbusinesstips_ and @pricelesstay, both of whom have cultivated and grown their audiences by refining their content to focus on niches like small business advice and Gen Z financial literacy, respectively.

Sneakerhead app Plugd’s (@get.plugd) audience growth reflects their success in carving out a following among sneakerheads. By creating content around this category (like how to spot fake sneakers), they’ve used TikTok to drive top-of-funnel awareness before pushing users to the app itself.

Plugd’s video helping users identify fake sneakers received 500K+ views.

CopyAI (@copy.ai) has carved out a niche in the in the small business vertical, with consistent content about starting side hustles and ways that its product can make entrepreneurs’ lives easier.

A recent CopyAI TikTok exploring e-commerce trends for 2021.

4. Getting user feedback and creating a two-way dialogue

Because discovery on TikTok is primarily driven through the For You Page, a video that gains traction is a clear indication that users have excitement for its content. That means creating content on TikTok is a great, lightweight way to test ideas: before even building out a product, startups can gauge reception to a concept via TikTok.

TikTok is also a treasure trove of user insights. The comments section resembles no other: it’s collaborative, full of humor, and brutally honest. Comments, even those not on a company’s own account, are chock-full of insights: what users find confusing, what they’d like to see more of, what’s on their minds, etc. Rather than running a formal survey and recruiting respondents, TikTok helps get products in front of many users, who are usually eager to share their thoughts.

A new pre-launch social media app, Herd (@herd.app) is already hard at work creating dialogue on TikTok. The benefits are two-fold: firstly, when Herd launches their beta version, there’s already a base of excited users. Secondly, common questions and reactions in the comments guides Herd in tweaking their approach and product.

@herd.app

I can’t talk right now, I’m trying to fix social media for the betterment of society. #socialmedia #socialdilemma #womeninstem

♬ original sound – Herd | Social Media App
One of the Herd App’s first videos (500K+ views) outlining the problems with traditional social media and inviting users to join them as they build their solution.

John Hu (@jayhoovy ) is a founder documenting the process of building his startup on TikTok, with videos about ideation, design thinking, and customer validation. This approach works especially well since his focus is on the creator economy, and his content has opened doors to conversations with big creators about their pain points.

John Hu is building his startup in public on TikTok.

@sabbilyon, who first went viral for seeing how much money he could make driving Uber Eats for a month (net profit $7709 pre-tax), is currently chronicling the process of building a business from scratch. His content has encompassed choosing which product to sell (car air fresheners), finding suppliers, negotiations, branding, etc. Throughout the journey, he’s deliberately inclusive of his viewers (“let’s create this together”) and gets audience input on various decisions, generating buy-in, support, and purchases.

@sabbilyon’s first video in his “Starting a Business on TikTok” series.

Strategies for success on TikTok

Ready to get started on Tiktok? Here are some tips:

Content

  • The basics: Use popular sounds, add visual teasers to the first frame, test out new features, and jump on trends before they become mainstream.
  • Establish your style: Successful creators and brands find and stick to different styles of content.
  • Cater to Gen Z humor (see Honk, above): absurd, seemingly incoherent and out of left-field content tends to do well.

Timing

  • Keep up the momentum and post consistently: Create 4-5 content pillars that align with your brand and goals, and post consistently throughout the week.
  • Time your posts: The consensus is that the best times to post are from 6 to 10am and 7 to 11pm ET. If your account is upgraded to a Pro account, you’ll be able to access analytics around when your followers are most active.
  • Invest in high engagement among early audiences: What’s important is getting views early on — TikTok tests content with a small group, and, if the users like it, the platform continues to surface it to larger and larger groups.

Understand Your Audience

  • Track your growth: Change your account to a business or creator account to better track analytics (more on that here).
  • Own and diversify your audience: While TikTok can be a great source of growth, the algorithm is unpredictable, so it’s best to funnel users to your website, newsletter, or other social channels (e.g. through a link-in-bio tool). Recycle TikTok content to Instagram Reels, Snapchat Spotlight, etc. to diversify across platforms.
  • Go live: Live streaming on TikTok allows for direct engagement with users, providing companies the opportunity to showcase their products and answer questions in real-time. Going live is especially recommended when you have a video that’s gaining traction on the For You Page.

Join Our Network

If you’re intimidated by TikTok or have a lot on your plate, work with the creative experts!

For example, John Moon’s (@blondgoblin) legendary cranberry sauce video was so catchy that Ocean Spray posted it on their own channel, where it has over 900K views. It’s unlikely that Ocean Spray itself would have ever thought to compose a song about the superiority of canned vs. homemade cranberry sauce. Working with creators enables brands to tap into a much bigger pool of creativity and reach new audiences.

👉 If you’re a brand/startup, fill out this form to get matched to creators.

👉 If you’re a creator looking to collaborate with brands/startups, fill out this form so brands can find you.

We’ll share these directories with both sides afterwards!

10 thoughts on “We studied 50+ startups on TikTok and here’s what we found”

  1. Late to the game on this article but thought this was really well written! Tiktok has been so powerful to drive Gen Z traffic to our app (one video can get 1M+ views easily even if you’re a new account). Our account (https://www.tiktok.com/@heyauby) mainly hopped on existing trends on Tiktok but I think we could be better at sharing our founding story. Thanks for the other example accounts and strategies to check out!

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