Musical.ly has been in the news recently as a result of its acquisition by Chinese company Toutiao for a reported $1 billion. But before the company was a success story, it was a startup struggling to get investors' attentions in China, in part because the company had an unprecedented goal: to be the first Chinese company to start a social entertainment platform geared specifically at American users. This boldness and clarity of vision may have turned a few investors off, but it attracted the attention of Cheetah Mobile, one of the world's largest mobile platforms, and its CEO, Fu Sheng, who went on to become one of the first investors in the platform.

Fu first encountered musical.ly when the young company won a competition for startups. As a result, musical.ly got the chance to become part of a mentorship program focused on giving startups the skills they would need in order to succeed.

It's hard to pin down the exact numbers, but the Chinese media reported the initial Cheetah Mobile investment in musical.ly to be roughly $5 million. At the end of the Series A round, Cheetah Mobile controlled a sizeable percentage of the stock. Even after dilution, the company easily maintained over 15% of equity at the time of the musical.ly sale.

Here's how Cheetah Mobile identified, in musical.ly, a billion dollar exit:

Disruption

In this age of technological innovation and disruption, precedent doesn't mean as much as it used to. Just because something like musical.ly had never been done before didn't make its success impossible, because new social app-based offerings are launched every day. Something that might have seemed like a risky bet in the past because of a lack of historical data can end up being an incredible success story, and change the way that people view an entire industry.

Market to Market Commonalities

When Fu Sheng looked at the global market, he realized that people are more alike than different as global citizens. This is one of the core tenets at Cheetah Mobile: that it is possible for companies to build global businesses that can reach audiences in other markets, even if they come from different cultures or backgrounds. Part of Cheetah Mobile's mission is to become a bridge to help companies from China go overseas and reach other markets, and identify brands that could reach markets in China. That's exactly what they saw in musical.ly - the potential for their product to reach a group of people that previous investors thought was impossible.

After the Cheetah Mobile investment, musical.ly made it to the top of the App Store a few months later. As young people started to fall in love with the creativity of the musical.ly community and creativity, other investors started to join and sign onto later rounds.

A Focus on the Long-Term

Josh Ong, Cheetah's Director of Global Marketing and Communications, has some standout memories from working with the musical.ly team. At one point, on a trip to their US headquarters in San Francisco, in a small coworking space, he sat down with Alex Hofmann, President of musical.ly's North America operations. Hofmann shared that musical.ly was so focused on growing its community, it hadn't been developing relationships with the press as much as it would have liked. Hofmann simply didn't want to make a huge noise when they were still focused on growing their community and protecting its integrity. This made a big impression on Ong, as it was a marked difference from other CEOs, who often try and get attention in order to draw more users and partners into the fold. Instead, musical.ly kept the community and creators their first priority. Ong, unsurprisingly, is a huge advocate for PR, but thinks that musical.ly made the wise choice to stay quiet while they were growing their community and working out their music partnerships.

Cheetah was also one of the partners that helped musical.ly develop their monetization strategy. In the course of developing that strategy, they had some long conversations with the founders and the musical.ly team and came to the understanding that musical.ly's primary focus at the time was and continues to be the health, vibrancy and positivity of their community. It was clear early on that monetization wasn't their number one priority. In an ideal world, most companies would have that long-term view in mind.

Decision Making Latitude

As for Cheetah Mobile's management process, it was very hands-off. They lent musical.ly the support, expertise, and learning that Cheetah possessed in-house, but as investors, gave them the freedom to pursue their goals. Letting musical.ly do what it needed to do was a major contributor in the young startup's success. This, along with Cheetah's unique perspective as a company that understands how to reach local markets, were what allowed Cheetah Mobile to believe in musical.ly from the beginning, and what ensured the investment produced a remarkable return. And ultimately, isn't that what we should be focused on?

Published on: Dec 20, 2017
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