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I Ran the First Version of TikTok. Here's What I Learned About Spotting Viral Trends. Follow your users' interests. They'll show you the next big thing.

By Alex Hofmann

This story appears in the October 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Alex Hofmann

There are different approaches to innovation: You can either create something completely revolutionary, like Snapchat. Or, you can develop a product that people are somewhat familiar with, watch how they use it, and then lean heavily into building out the features they enjoy most.

From what I have seen, the latter has a higher chance of success. It's what has guided my career in consumer apps — including my time as president of Musical.ly in 2015 through its ByteDance acquisition and rebranding as TikTok in 2017, to my current endeavor building new products that connect people, like Wink (a friend-making app with 2 million users) and Summer (today's fastest-growing new dating app).

Think of innovation like this: Imagine you are a DJ and there are 500 people in the audience. If you start the night by playing very edgy, unfamiliar music, then chances are you won't get people dancing. But if you lead with something everyone knows, they'll start moving — and then you can see what sounds and beats they're really jamming to and bring in new selections based on what you've observed from your audience.

Related: 3 Reasons TikTok Is Here To Stay

This is exactly what we did at Musical.ly. The app didn't start at all like TikTok is now. In the beginning, it was a simple platform with one familiar purpose: People could choose a song, then create short videos of themselves lip-syncing to it. We looked closely for what we called "musers" — users who, like muses, were inspiring others to think creatively. As they kept playing with the app in innovative ways, like creating incredible transition videos using unique phone angles and jump cuts, we kept evolving it by adding different features, filters, and effects.

After leaving TikTok, in 2018, I started a company called 9count with cofounder Joe Viola. We continue to follow this same innovation formula. For example, with our app Wink, we watched as more and more users put "looking for a FaceTime buddy" in their bio. That gave us the idea to add audio and video calling into the Wink messenger — with the proper safety measures, of course. But we never want to create a jarring experience for users, so we'll gently introduce new things every month, see how they respond, and then act quickly: We double down on what gets high engagement, and remove what doesn't.

I've come to think of this as the "bread-and-butter approach." Most people like bread and butter, so let's give them that first. Then, once they're here, we can see what else they like.

Related: 4 Ways to Leverage Marketing Trends for Viral Growth

My thinking about innovation has evolved. Before, it went something like this: I'm at point A. I imagine what point B is, and now start moving toward point B. But I've come to realize that many of the best products didn't have a clearly defined end goal. That's because, if I were to envision exactly where Summer or Wink were going, then those apps can only become as good as my imagination — and my imagination can never be as good as where our users will lead us!

We also need to take the current culture into account and create something that mirrors it. If you look at the top app charts and music charts in any country, you will gain an understanding of what is important to people at that point in time. With all of this in mind, we start with an idea of where we'd like to lead an app, but then view it as a totally blank canvas. Our users will color it in with their passion and creativity.

So far, it's working. Across our portfolio of apps, we have more than 15 million downloads and are on track to make around $10 million this year.

We believe in co-creation. We put something out there and invite others to help us evolve the idea, so it becomes something they love. There's nothing like taking your passion and watching the world run wild with it.

Related: 5 Secrets to Growing a Massive TikTok Following

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