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Triller on being TikTok's rival: We see 'ourselves as the adult version'

A phone screen displays music video maker application Triller's logo with a Snapchat icon in back of it in Ankara, Turkey on April 02, 2020.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Triller, the Los Angeles-based music video-sharing app backed by celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne, has been making gains — thanks, at least in part, to TikTok's troubles.

But the app, which launched in 2015 (two years before TikTok in 2017) wants new users to know that it isn't looking to be a TikTok clone.

We see "ourselves as the adult version," Triller co-owner and Hollywood producer Ryan Kavanaugh tells CNBC Make It.

"We look at [TikTok] like a stepping stone to Triller," he says, adding that the app's content is "a little more risque" and meant for a slightly older crowd.

President Donald Trump's threat to ban TikTok in the U.S. over privacy concerns (as Microsoft explores buying its business in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand), along with some TikTok stars decamping, has resulted in more than 35 million downloads for Triller in just the last few days alone.

Kavanaugh says he and the Triller team have been working nonstop to build out camera features for the app's new social feature. "We've been getting two hours of sleep a night, but I definitely can't complain," he says.

To date, the app has been downloaded more than 250 million times worldwide and has roughly 65 million active users, according to a Triller spokesperson. That's a huge increase from October of last year, when Triller reported 13 million active monthly users and 60 million total downloads.

And while Triller executives are enjoying the rapid boost, they never set out to be dubbed as "TikTok's rival."

"Before all of this, we used to tell people we're not competitive with TikTok," Kavanaugh says.

Triller originally launched as a short music video app, where users and musicians could post and browse videos of themselves singing along to their favorite song. Then in 2016, it became a full-fledged social media network — allowing users to follow and be followed by others.

Triller is still committed to being a music video platform. But amid TikTok's security woes, it has added several new features that are similar to TikTok (e.g., users can post funny videos of themselves singing, dancing and giving lifestyle tips).

Kavanaugh says the additional features were added when TikTok megastar Josh Richards and others approached Triller about switching over to the platform amid security concerns.

Still, the company has no plans of following TikTok's formula.

"We have a big sign on our wall in the office that says, 'TikTok is for kids,'" says Kavanaugh, whose company Proxima Media (which produced films like "The Fast and the Furious" and "Immortals") acquired a majority stake in Triller last year for an undisclosed sum.

Kavanaugh says the sign isn't meant to be "condescending." It's meant to serve as reminder to staff that Triller wants to be different.

"Our whole thing is like, TikTok trains the audience that we don't want to have, which is the 8- to 14-year-old audience," he says. However, Triller says its age minimum to sign up for the app is 12. 

And according to Wallaroomedia, a social media advertising agency, an estimated 60% of TikTok's billions of users are between the ages of 16 to 24, with 26% between 25 to 44. 

Kavanaugh says Triller wants to avoid the younger audience due to online child privacy laws, which protects children under the age of 13 from companies collecting personal information without their parents' consent.

That problem is an issue TikTok has run into. According to Reuters, The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into allegations that TikTok violated a 2019 children's privacy law by collecting personal information from kids under 13 without their parental consent. TikTok adamantly denies the claim.

Kavanaugh says Triller first saw a boost in downloads in March, when it partnered with Snapchat to integrate content into the Snap story feed.

In July, TikTok superstars Josh Richards and Noah Beck announced that they are leaving TikTok for Triller. Richards has been named Triller's chief strategy officer and Beck will serve as an advisor for the app. Both are equity shareholders. (Triller would not disclose how much of a stake the stars hold.)

Despite any gains, Triller still has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to get as big TikTok. In April, TikTok surpassed two billion downloads worldwide, according to Sensor Tower, and has about 800 million monthly active users

But both TikTok and Triller are facing more competition these days. On Thursday, Instagram launched its own short-form video platform called Reels. In 2018, Facebook (which also owns Instagram) tried to launch a TikTok version of its own called Lasso, but shut it down last month, according to TechCrunch.

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

 CNBC Make It is NOW STREAMING on Peacock. Find our original programming in the Channels section.

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