An app called Musical.ly is the latest teen craze and it already has 70 million users
Unless you live with a teenager, you’ve probably never heard of Musical.ly.
If you do, then you’ve probably already appeared in one of your kid’s music videos.
The DIY music video app first came on the scene in 2014, but exploded to the top of the App Store charts last summer. It hasn’t fallen below the top 40 since. Often, it’s swapping top places in the app store with Snapchat and Instagram.
The 15-second videos are typically people lip-syncing or dancing to some of the top hits. More recently, Musical.ly stars have started launching their own careers, and traditional music stars, like Jason DeRulo, are now pledging to debut their videos on the platform first, a coup over YouTube.
Today, more than 10 million people use the app daily and produce around the same number of videos every single day. All in, 70 million people have registered as Musical.ly users, says its cofounder and co-CEO Alex Zhu.
While the music videos have drawn people to the app, Zhu knows that’s not why they stay. He’s building Musical.ly to be the next social network — one based on videos that only entertain people and keep them coming back.
“Today the very proposition of the app is not about creating music videos. It’s not about lip-syncing. It’s about a social network,” Zhu said. “It’s a community. People want to stay because there are other people. ”
‘Doomed to be a failure’
The idea for a make-your-own-music-video app was a desperate pivot away from an education app.
Zhu had been interested in education during his time as a project manager at enterprise software giant SAP, even earning the title of “education futurist.” He thought massive online courses, also known as MOOCs, were great, but no one finished them.
In 2014, he believed he’d come up with a billion dollar idea: short-form education videos.
Zhu and his cofounder and co-CEO Louis Yang raised $250,000 from venture capitalists and spent six months building an app called Cicada. The idea was that experts, whether it was coffee or calculus, could create short three to five minute videos explaining a subject. But there’s a reason you’ve never heard of it before.
“The day we released this application to the market we realized it was never going to take off,” Zhu said. “It was doomed to be a failure.”
It was doomed to be a failure.
His team had missed that the videos took too long to create. Lesson planners had a hard time condensing their expertise into three minutes. Content creation and consumption needed to be within minutes and seconds, not hours. It wasn’t entertaining, and it didn’t attract teens.
At that point, Zhu’s team only had 8% of its money left, he says. Instead of giving it back to investors and walking away, they scrambled to come up with a new idea.
‘We got lucky’
Open Musical.ly today and there’s no trace of its failed education app roots.
The 15 second videos are long enough to draw a laugh and tell a story, but not too long that teens get bored and move onto the next one. It’s a mix of teenage boys thumping their chests to a song, to gymnastics routines set to music, to acting out funny lyrics from songs.
Zhu first landed on the idea when he watched a group of boisterous young teens on the train in Mountain View, where Google is based. Half of the teens were listening to music while the other half took selfies or videos, covered them in stickers, and then shared the results with their friends.
That’s when Zhu realized he could combine music, videos, and a social network to attract the early teen demographic.
The team turned Zhu’s new idea into an app in 30 days, and launched Musical.ly in July 2014. Immediately, they saw the numbers were great. Around 500 people were downloading it a day, but more importantly, they kept coming back.
“You can buy the users, but you can’t by the user retention,” Zhu said.