TikTok Stole our Idea and I’m NOT Mad

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Hol up - What?

I know what you’re thinking… What the hell is this guy on about. Yeah fair enough, I would be too! Tok (cos I’m too lazy to type it out fully) is a video-focused social media that was founded in September 2016 in China, owned by a company called bytedance, and is now valued at $350B (At the time of writing this article). So how exactly did they steal our idea? Well, for me to discuss that we need to get an insight into what the original idea was.

The Inception

Okay so let’s jump back 2 years now ⌚️ Okay so the year is 2020 summer, and you’re a Flutter developer (A hooman that writes a bit of code to make stuff happen on your phone and a couple of other devices) and Flutter is relatively new so there aren’t a tonne of developers you can hire. A startup(ish) company reaches out to you and is interested in hiring you. I can’t/don't want to say too much specifically about their idea/project, but it was something to do with media. I decided to turn them down due to personal projects I wanted to pursue, plus, I’m at Uni, I don’t have time to part-time at a startup.

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Anyways, back to the main story. I move into a house with a couple of guys for uni. One, who is one of my closest friends, and I was telling him about how a company tried to hire me, and that it got me thinking about media-based ideas. This was around the time that tok was growing at an exponential rate and songs were being abused on the platform. While we were talking we had ideas running forth and back about what the next inventions to apps like Tok/YouTube/Netflix/Spotify were going to take the platform.


We were thinking along the lines of how cool would it be if Spotify was more social, ie. you could share content between users in-app. Then, the idea, what if there was an app that allowed you to share products between users in-app. Ie. merging something like Instagram and Amazon, so posts could be posted by companies, where users could buy products while also being able to send products to their friends. The app was this, brands (not resellers), can post content, and consumers (you and me) can like, follow and share with our friends.

At the time of writing this article, there was a massive rise in small brands doing “drops” (for those who don’t know what this is, it’s a way for brands to stay relevant, creating seasonal/frequent releases of products, at a limited supply) and brand loyalty was not something you’d find easily. Creating an app where you could follow a small brand that you absolutely loved, and can interact with their products when they “drop” would be great, a single place to see and be able to buy their products, while supporting businesses that might otherwise have been looked past.

How are we supporting the businesses? Well, how much do you think Amazon and eBay charge for selling products on their site? Take a guess while you have a look at this lovely photo of a lightbulb.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Amazon, well it’s complicated but for the sake of simplicity, between 15% and 40% 😮 yep, that’s up to 40% per sale goes straight into Amazon’s pockets. Yep also, if you go on Amazon which products do you notice? Just the ones that are at the top, maybe the sponsored ones, and the ones with a trillion good reviews. Now imagine you are a small business that’s trying to start selling products on Amazon. No way you’re going to get noticed is there? Amazon actively discourages brand loyalty and sells products that are sponsored in other words giving amazon a lot of money to get listed first. If you are a small business you won’t have that money to give them in the first place, which makes entering the market even more difficult. We were going to be different. We weren’t going to use advertising, instead, we were going to encourage following brands that you love so that they can build a good customer-brand relationship. We were going to take 12.5% instead of the monstrosity that was up to 40%. Oh yep and eBay, 30% plus listing fees.

We were going to be different. Better. Less profit-oriented. We wanted the consumers to have a place to be able to find and buy products from smaller businesses that don’t usually get noticed.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Tok has Entered the chat

So you know our earlier introduction to Tok, yeah, well, they weren’t really competitors at the time we started out this project, as they were only in the video industry, not so much in the e-commerce industry. We’d have said Instagram was our primary competitor, as well as Amazon, however, Instagram’s “shopping” page was a bit trash and only redirected you to their website.

I woke up one morning, not too long ago, with a video from my friend an avid tik tok’er showing me exactly what we were working on. A social media where a pop-up would allow you to buy products directly from a video, which you could share. Yep, of course, tok was using the same methods as us, taking a commission, using stripe, getting businesses to register products with them.

I was gutted, at the time. It got me thinking however, we are thinking about business and competition the wrong way.

I was absolutely gutted that day, all the work that we’d put in had gone to waste.

The company ByteDance, has a tonne of developers. Amazon has a tonne of developers. Instagram has a tonne of developers. Twitter has a tonne of developers. eBay has a tonne of developers. It was just me, and my business partner who was handling the legal side of things, making sure we didn’t cross any lines that we shouldn’t. I realised that this was going to be a large project. But I didn’t realise how big… When I say big, I mean massive, we had to deal with programming a social media, and a full e-commerce store including shipping, not only for us but for anyone (in theory), so that anyone can create their own store and list products, then came the money side of things, thank god for Stripe. The project was massive, and while we didn’t underestimate how long it would take, it was difficult to keep momentum up. Given that we are both uni students, we had constant deadlines and that made it difficult for us to focus on the app consistently. The lack of motivation wasn’t the only difficulty, spending countless hours at home while friends were out playing in the field or meeting up in town, meant I was missing out on a lot of memories.

If you are curious, we used Stripe, EasyPost, Firebase, Video.Api, Algolia and GetStream.io. A tonne of services that simplified and sped up the development process.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Why I’m NOT Mad

When we started the project, a total year ago, we wanted to provide the best experience for the consumer. This meant the most seamless buying process while keeping them entertained with the content posted by businesses. As a consumer, I’d choose the best for me, and maybe moral obligations would sway me another way a bit, ie. drink coffee from a local coffee shop instead of Starbucks or Costa. Well, it’s the same with apps and social media. I don’t use snap because it’s not a great app in terms of UI (which I hold as one of the most important requirements for an app), instead, I use telegram, which btw is a much better replacement to WhatsApp.

Anyways, why I’m not mad, we’ve started looking at competition as a bad thing. Competition allows companies to recognise what they are doing good, and what they can be doing better. In fact, it gives them an opportunity to provide a better experience to the consumer. I’m not mad because Tok beat us to the punch and did it better, if I was a consumer, I’d have chosen Tok, maybe tried out our app to see if it was better, but quickly realise that Tok has a userbase already and our app can’t compete quite yet.

What’s happening with our app?

Honestly, I’m still not sure, I need to discuss this with my business partner, while I may not pursue this exact idea, I’ve got a bunch more in my head! Keep an eye out.

Give me a follow on my insta, and if you enjoyed this article give me a clap, I‘d really appreciate it and it encourages me to continue writing more content. My friend who showed me that Tok had “stolen” our idea, go show him some love too! https://www.tiktok.com/@rowdygusgus

Thanks, y’all, and I’ll see you in the next article 😄 Hopefully it’ll be on a more happy note.




Flutter Developer, co-lead for GDG Southampton

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Karthik Nooli

Karthik Nooli

Flutter Developer, co-lead for GDG Southampton

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