The Case for Triller: The TikTok Competitor Approaching Unicorn Status, And Getting Big Breaks
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
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 Musical.ly'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 UzzamanAnis 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 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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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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