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TikTok megastar Josh Richards on how he got 20 million followers, and why he's leaving the app

TikTok star Josh Richards speaking at CES.
Josh Richards

If you don't know who Josh Richards is, just ask the nearest Gen-Zer. At 18, Richards is a bonafide TikTok superstar, with over 20 million followers on the video-sharing app (way more than Kylie Jenner's 14.1 million for context) and over 1 billion likes on his posts — which are mostly of himself dancing and lip-syncing to songs.

Now, at a pivotal time for TikTok — as Microsoft is in talks to buy its business in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand and after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app amid security concerns — Richards says he is leaving leaving TikTok for rival video-sharing app Triller.

Here, Richards tells CNBC Make It how he reached elite TikTok status, and why, now that he has it, he hopes to take his audience elsewhere. 

'I'm a very competitive guy' 

Richards first started dabbling in social media when he was 13.

"I had like an Instagram where I would post, with 70 followers on it. It was just my friends. It was a private account," Richards tells CNBC Make It.

Then, before heading into his freshman year of high school, Richards got into posting videos of himself dancing to rap music on the video-sharing app formerly known as Musical.ly. (TikTok's owner Beijing-based owner ByteDance bought Musical.ly for $1 billion in 2017 and combined the two apps.) Richards made a bet with himself that if he could get 10,000 followers by the end of the summer, he would keep doing posting; if not, he would quit.

"I'm a very competitive guy," Richards says.

After spending up to five hours a day creating Musical.ly videos, Richards says he had close to 26,000 followers by his deadline.

"So I continued my journey and kept posting," he says.

'You have to have heart'

When ByteDance purchased Musical.ly, Richards says his followers automatically transferred over to TikTok. And by that time, Richards was already making money.

At 15, a year after starting on Musical.ly, he started making money through song promos, where he would promote music in his posts. Eventually, those deals evolved into working with brands such as Reebok, Cash App and Crocs, he says. Then when he turned 17, he made social media his full-time focus while still attending high school.

Richards now has 20.1 million followers on TikTok, 6.8 million on Instagram, 2.1 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.1 million follows on Triller. 

While he admits it took "a lot of work" in the beginning to reach this type of social media success, he says he has now gotten to a place where he only spends 30 minutes a day a shooting content with the help of his management team. 

Richards says he made six figures in the last six months by signing a recording contract. (He posts original content, like his viral rap "Still Softish" on YouTube.) As for TikTok, Richards declined to say how much money he makes, but Talentxent, the firm that Richards co-owns and that represents him and other social media stars (like Tal Fishman and Nessa Barret), says influencers can make "anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per post" on the platform, depending on the size of their following. 

"It's calculated based on engagement, creative, timeline, exclusivity and other material points as well as marketplace data we have/get," Michael Senzer, head of business development at Talentxent says.

But Richards warns that wannabe social media influencers shouldn't focus on the money.

"It can't be just a money grab," he says. "When I first did social media it wasn't because you know I looked at it and was like, 'I'm going to try to see how much money I can make.'" 

"You have to have heart. You have to have a business mindset and a love and passion for this," Richards says.

Bye, TikTok

Despite Richards' massive success on TikTok, he announced on July 28 that he is leaving the app and going to rival Triller. Triller debuted as a short form music content app in 2015 but has since added a social feature similar to TikTok.

Richards said his decision to leave has to do with security concerns. (In January, a team of security researchers announced they found vulnerabilities in the platform that could leave it susceptible to hackers, and more recently, Trump and other Washington officials have accused the app of collecting data on Americans and sending it to the Chinese government. TikTok denies the allegations.)

However Richards is also now Triller's chief strategy officer and is an investor with an undisclosed stake in the business.

Triller launched in 2015 and last year raised $28 million in a funding round led by Proxima Media, which has a majority stake. The app also has celebrities investors like Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg. 

Triller has grown to more than 250 million downloads worldwide from 60 million last year, in part due to users' security concerns about TikTok, according to TechCrunch. A Triller spokesperson says the app has seen user downloads increase over 20 fold in the last week alone and has roughly 65 million active users. That number, however, is still a far cry from TikTok, which crossed more than 2 billion downloads in April, according to SensorTower. 

On Wednesday, TechCrunch reported that Triller is now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion. 

Richards also says he is still posting on TikTok before moving over to Triller full-time to encourage his followers to move with him. Others social media influencers like Noah Beck (who is also an investor in Triller) and Griffin Johnson have followed Richards to Triller, while still using their TikTok accounts to lure followers too.

Triller co-owner Ryan Kavanaugh says that for safety, Triller only stores "very limited data" on its users in the U.S. and in the U.K., and has double encryption. And "we don't even allow, even if they wanted to for the app to be downloaded in China," Kavanaugh says. 

This story has been updated to reflect that Beck is an investor in Triller. 

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