The Case for Triller: The TikTok Competitor Approaching Unicorn Status, And Getting Big Breaks

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

The Case for Triller: The TikTok Competitor Approaching Unicorn Status, And Getting Big Breaks

Fresh off of closing a $50 million round that valued the company at $300 million, Triller – headquartered in L.A. and with offices in New York, London and Paris – is now seeking $250 million at a valuation of $1.25 billion, according to executive chairman Bobby Sarnevesht. The short-form, user-generated video sharing app's momentum has picked up lately thanks to increased usage during the pandemic and the troubles of TikTok.

"The numbers look crazy recently," said Anis Uzzaman, chief executive of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested several million dollars in the $50 million round. Those numbers include 120 million total downloads and 60 million monthly active users, Sarnevesht told dot.LA.

Triller's user count is now close to what's (now TikTok) was back when it was acquired by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance in 2017, and as TikTok comes under more regulatory scrutiny, Uzzaman predicts that Triller will become "the American TikTok."

How Could It Get There?

Triller executive chairman Bobby Sarnevesht.

One clue lies in India. When Narendra Modi banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps in June amid escalating military tensions between the two countries, Triller's usage "went through the roof," Sarnevesht said. In early July, Triller CEO Mike Lu wrote that his company had become the top iOS app in India "without spending a dime."

"We're seeing (Indian) users say they prefer Triller to TikTok, but just didn't know about it," Sarnevesht said.

To Uzzaman, Triller's ability to handle the surge of Indian users proved the strength of the platform's underlying technology. "I'm sure many other platforms would have choked with the new volume of clients," he said. With the "possibility of the same thing happening in the U.S.," Uzzaman feels confident that Triller would be ready for another upswing.

Pegasus Tech Ventures chief executive Anis Uzzaman

Anis Uzzaman

TikTok, which is reportedly the subject of preliminary discussions for a sell-off, has a big head start. According to analytics firm SensorTower, it has been downloaded over 2 billion times. TikTok's global user count is estimated at over 800 million. And a recent Reuters piece pegged its valuation around $50 billion.

If TikTok is banned in the U.S. that would obviously put Triller in a place to pick up some ground. Four factors stand out that could shift the balance in Triller's favor.

Privacy & Security

The government isn't the only one concerned about privacy and security concerns, Uzzaman said.

"The market is getting more concerned about security and privacy," he said. "People are getting more vocal." Having Triller's teams based in "the top democracies in the world...definitely makes a huge difference."

Sarnevesht emphasized that Triller "treat(s) the face as an object – we don't map the face. Data is secure. We don't track geo-locations on where users are."

Concerns around whether TikTok shares data with the Chinese government, meanwhile, have been well documented.

Music First, Social Second

"Our business is music. It's in our DNA," said Sarnevesht. Uzzaman said this confers two key advantages.

One is Triller's product mix. Uzzaman pointed to Triller's "Step Up Challenge," a music battle where competitors can win prizes, and the TrillerFest virtual music festival, which attracted over 5 million viewers and participants this April.

"We have a music-centric, music-first app that has amazing creator tools," Sarnevesht said. "Amazing events. Concert series coming out in different locations and different genres. It's a very different destination for content users and producers and watchers."

That musical foundation has lately sprouted other kinds of content. "We're starting to see a tremendous influx of content…(like) cooking, practical jokes, and gaming," Sarnevesht added.

Another advantage to being music-first, Uzzaman said, is that musical stars like posting on the app. "Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmello: they're regularly posting music videos in the app – we've never seen that in TikTok," he said. "Regular people can create music videos and have people watch them right next to Eminem…(It makes) people feel like they're celebrities."

"I think artists appreciate the organicness of Triller," Sarnevesht added.


In line with Triller's music origins, it has long-term deals with the big three music labels and numerous music publishers. This enables Triller users to include songs from those rights holders' extensive catalogs without having to worry about copyright issues.

"What differentiates Triller is we've always had music licenses in place," said Sarnevesht. "It gives artists a platform to have their content in a place where it's not being stolen."

Conversely, TikTok has mostly operated via short-term deals with labels and publishers. It does, however, have a long-term deal with Believe, a big independent music company, and it recently forged an agreement with the National Music Publishers' Association. NMPA's President and CEO David Israelite isn't done negotiating; he posted a warning earlier this week on his Instagram that Triller should 'watch out,' later elaborating that the company "must legitimize its business by properly licensing all music on its platform."

Triller also has partnerships with Spotify and Apple Music. Jack Warning of Pegasus Ventures said these help boost user engagement. If a Triller user likes a song on the app, for instance, they can add it to a Spotify or Apple Music playlist. And users can pull songs from Spotify and Apple Music into Triller to make videos.

But "the biggest partnership that really got our attention," Uzzaman said, "was with Billboard." Alongside charts like the Billboard Hot 100, it has begun publishing weekly charts of top songs from the Triller app.


There is "more technology behind (Triller) than people understand," said Uzzaman, who likened Triller to the earlier days of Google, when it was chasing the heels of Yahoo. He pointed to Triller's AI tools for editing videos, and protocols for helping brands advertise on the platform.

Among other features, Sarnevesht pointed to new, "game-changing" recommendation algorithms, and highlighted how Triller's 2019 acquisition of UK-based MashTraxx came with "13 employees, 11 Ph.D's, all specializing in AI. One of them wrote a thesis on recommendation engines and AI in the short-form video space."

TikTok has no shortage of technology, which it has recently begun to share more openly. But it is currently being sued by Triller for patent infringement, and potentially for antitrust as well.

TikTok has highlighted its relationships with creators as a competitive advantage, which it is hoping to entrench with its recently announced creator fund. But reports have indicated that TikTok creators are beginning to look elsewhere, including to Triller.

Meanwhile, as Facebook builds its own TikTok competitor on Instagram called Reels, it has reportedly offered big deals to entice TikTokkers to defect. TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer has called Reels a copycat product, and pointed out that Facebook's previous "copycat Lasso failed quickly."

"The same thing can happen for Reels," noted Uzzaman. "Until they are playing in the market, there is no guarantee...Triller is already far ahead of anyone else in the U.S. market."


Sam Blake primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.