How Douyin became China’s top short-video App in 500 days

Thomas Graziani New WeChat features

Dou Yin is an impressive product: it was developed in 200 days, and within a year got 100 million users, with more than 1 billion videos viewed every day.

How did a team of 8 achieved such as result in just 500 days? Let’s look into it.

What is Douyin?

Douyin is a short-video App with powerful editing capabilities. It enables users to add music and effects to their videos in order to make them more interesting/creative.

Here’s a reel of some Douyin videos. Have a look, but don’t forget to go back to reading the article once you’re done 😉

Why do all of these effects matter? Creating interesting video or audio content is remarkably difficult (much more so than writing interesting articles – and even that is tough, I can tell you) – providing tools to make the content richer and funnier is incredibly valuable

Another game changing aspect of Douyin is its interface: while competitors like Kuaishou are asking users to click on videos, Douyin has a more convenient and addictive “swipe” interface (similar to and… Tinder)

Competitive landscape

The market of short videos in China is not anything new: some of the entrants started as early as 2011.

Who did Douyin have to beat in order to make its way to the top?

  • Kuaishou (快手): launched in 2011. In March 2017, it received a 350 million USD investment from Tencent. In November 2017, Daily Activer Users had already exceeded 100 million
  • Miaopai (秒拍): launched by Weibo in 2012, Miaopai benefited from the traffic generated by its parent company. However, its core product remained mediocre and performance has been disappointing. Miaopai still managed to raise a 500 million USD E round of funding in November 2016
  • Haokan Shepin (好看视频): a project of Baidu, “Haokan Shepin” relies on Baidu’s technological resources and know-how. Launched in November 2017, it already ranks #27 among the free Apps on App stores.

Kaishou is mostly present in Tier 3 and Tier 4 cities in China. Its content consists mostly of users showing off wealth or flirty behavior.

This is quite different from Douyin’s positioning: most of its users are in Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities, and are young people, often below 24 years old. Douyin’s content is often fun and quirky, appealing to a more educated audience.

Of course, this is a curse for Kuaishou who would like to appeal to these younger and wealthier users (who are more valued by advertisers and investors alike), but Douyin seems to only be getting stronger.

Miaopai appears as a weaker contender due to it mostly relying on Weibo’s support. Haokan Shepin is a new entrant which still has to prove its capability to make a dent in this crowded market.

A story of Douyin

Douyin experienced a meteoric rise in the span of less than 2 years.

  • 2016-09-26 official launch
  • 2016-12-22 changed its name to Douyin
  • 2017-01-09 Receives several million RMB of seed investment from Toutiao
  • 2017-03-13 Yue Yunpeng forwards a short video with a Douyin watermark, which is forwarded 5,083 times, and receives 83,175 likes.
  • 2017-08-11 Video views exceed 1 billion
  • 2017-11-10 Toutiao purchases for 1 billion USD and merges it to Douyin
  • 2018-01-23 The App starts getting international success, ranking #1 among free App downloads on App stores in Thailand

The phases of Douyin’s growth

Phase 1: September 2016 – April 2017

The early phase of September 2016 was mostly about refining the product and finding a core group of early adopters.

It was also the opportunity for Douyin to improve their branding by changing their name and logo in order to get ready to scale.

In order to kickstart growth, Douyin integrated social sharing with QQ, Weibo and WeChat, knowing full-well that users would be thrilled to share their well-edited videos, taking users back to the App.

Comments on the App Stores were overwhelmingly positive. Two main criticisms were directed toward Douyin at the time:

  • Being a Chinese version “copycat” of
  • Some technical issues (login glitches, etc.) which ended up being quickly solved

Phase 2: May 2017 – December 2017

This second phase marked the explosive growth of Douyin. This growth was partly fueled by sponsoring some major Chinese variety shows in order to gain exposure, such as “Hip-Hop in China” (中国有嘻哈), “Happy Camp” (快乐大本营) and “Everyday Upward” (天天向上).

Douyin also perfected its App by including a wider choice of filters, stickers and effects which could be added to the videos to make them more engaging.

The App also started exploring opportunities for monetization. In September 2017, it ran a first advertising campaign with sponsored videos from Airbnb, Harbin Beer and Chevrolet.

The campaigns were a success, and Douyin stated that this model was the future of its monetization. As we discussed, the upscale audience of Douyin makes it an interesting platform for such campaigns.

Finally, this second phase of development also saw the entry of Douyin in live streaming. The live streaming capability was restricted to users with substantial audiences (above 50,000 or so).

Live streaming provided Douyin with another opportunity for growth and monetization, and its strong foothold in short-videos enabled it to enter a promising but extremely competitive space.

Comments on the App store during this growth phase were overwhelmingly positive, insisting on the addictive nature of the App. The few negative comments were largely linked with the performance issues linked with the surge of users, which put some stress on Douyin’s infrastructure.

Phase 3: December 2017 to today

At this stage, Douyin had made this way all the way to the #2 rank of the Apple Chinese App store, and first in the video/photo category.

Douyin however still managed to move forward and extend its scope by introducing a “Live Q&A” function which spawned a new wave of growth. By pricing the cost of having a question answered much lower than other platforms (users have to pay to get an answer, but they pay only about 3 RMB against hundreds of RMB on other platforms) Douyin managed to further fuel its growth.

This current phase is also the one in which Douyin has to deal with the drawbacks of growth: with an user base of more than 100 million, avoiding nefarious behavior is a challenge. The App has to keep getting better at monitoring videos and comments in order to maintain a healthy environment for its users.

It is also the opportunity for Douyin to go abroad. Under the name Tik Tok, the App has so far shown impressive results, making it all the way to the top of the Apple store “Free apps” ranking in Japan and Thailand.


Douyin has doubtlessly been one of the most successful Apps of 2017. It showed impressive skills in product development, and perfectly paced its investment in growth in order to take over long-established and well-funded incumbents.

The App now has the opportunity of becoming a truly global leader in its space, becoming one of the first Chinese apps to successfully gain worldwide reach. International expansion will be the main opportunity and challenge for Douyin in 2018.

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