It is what it is

Josh Elman interviews Alex Zhu

Alex Zhu is the cofounder of (TikTok) and initially wanted to create a company in education space. He thought that by combining ideas from Twitter and Coursera they will allow users to share bit-sized educational content on mobile and a multiple billion dollar company will be built. This turned out to be a complete failure.

This is an incredible interview that I re-watch often.

Major lessons:

  1. If you want to build a new UGC platform or social network then the content has to be extremely light. The content creation AND consumption need to happen within seconds, not minutes or hours.
  2. Education is against the human nature. If you look at how people use their phone, the majority of people are using their phone to communicate and entertain (play games, using Facebook or social media to message friends). It's hard for a new startup to try to change the human nature. It is much better to follow human nature so they decided to switch to entertainment.
  3. For a new social platform to take off, it is better to have young people as early adopters. Especially teens in the US. Why? They have tons of free time and they are creative and are already familiar with digital products such as Youtube. Also if your product can attract a small group of these users and make them talk about it in schools, you get zero distribution cost.
  4. Initially you have to focus on utility aspect. First Instagram users didn’t use app for the feed, likes or comments. They came for utility - amazing filters - and used the photos to post elsewhere. Community part came later. (Think about single player - multiplayer products. It helps to perfect single player scenarios before you go multiplayer).
  5. You have to stay really close to users. It is called participatory design. Involve the end users in the design process from the beginning. They had hundreds of early users on Wechat and had daily conversations, not only conversations about how early users are using the product but also to understand how they think, immerse themselves in the American culture.