San Francisco real estate agent Erik Throm makes approximately 20 sales a year. Half of those are thanks to TikTok.
Throm has 10,000 followers on the platform. He often fields inquiries from potential clients who discover him there, including a recent call this week.
“The guy said, ‘I like your content; I like your vibe,’ and wanted me to help him find a condo in Mission Bay,” Throm said.
Were a sale like that to go through, Throm would be looking at a commission of around $25,000, if not much more, depending on the final price of the home. In other words, for Throm, posting to TikTok—the app that rose to prominence through dance mashups and lip-syncing—has literally paid off.
Across the Bay Area, TikTok creators say they’ve been floored by the platform’s unprecedented potential for growth. Whether their brands are real estate, restaurants or lifestyle, they’ve leveraged its reach into financial and brand-development gains. It’s a lucrative revenue stream, but one that could dry up if the Biden administration bans the app on national security grounds.
Many creators with wide audiences are taking that threat seriously—Throm most of all. The real estate agent wasted no time in talking to his followers about the potential ban.
“This is it. Looks like the beginning of the end for TikTok,” he said, referencing a need to diversify his brand and convert his fans over to other social platforms. “So I hope you guys all follow me over on YouTube.”
San Francisco resident and lifestyle influencer Kara Harms has been successfully running her own business, Whimsy Soul, for eight years. She started the brand in 2015, posting to her blog and steadily amassing a loyal Instagram following of 77,000 fans.
Always looking to be an early adopter of new platforms, Harms jumped on the TikTok bandwagon in 2019. Almost immediately, a video she posted blew up.
“I got 20,000 followers overnight,” she said. “I’d never seen growth like that.”
What took her eight years to reach on Instagram, she surpassed in mere months on TikTok. Harms currently has 330,000 followers on the video hosting app.
Harms’ exponential growth tracks with the platform’s overall development. TikTok reached 1 billion monthly global users in September 2021, halving the time it took Instagram to achieve the same milestone, according to the tech industry publication The Information. Later that year, it became the most-trafficked website in the world.
Allie Tong, a Bay Area food and lifestyle influencer, had a similar experience. She started her Instagram account when she was 21 or 22 years old—she’s 29 now—and has 106,000 followers on the photo-sharing platform. She got on TikTok in 2020, taught herself to film and edit videos and, in only two years, grew an audience of 110,000 people.
More TikTok followers doesn’t necessarily mean more money for creators—though it can mean more reach and exposure.
Harms and her husband—whom she was able to hire a few years ago as her business thrived—pulled in $320,000 in 2022. Although TikTok is the platform where they have the most followers, only 6% of their revenue comes from it. They do better with banner ads and affiliate links on their website and Instagram deals.
Data from influencer marketing firm NeoReach shows that creators make less on the video sharing app compared with other social networks. They earn about $1,674 on average per month on TikTok, compared with $4,118 on YouTube and $3,853 on Instagram.
Still, there’s something unquantifiable about TikTok’s immense reach, Harms said.
“It has this unmeasurable power that doesn’t necessarily directly translate to money in the bank. I get recognized on the streets of San Francisco all the time now. That mass reach—I just wasn’t able to capture that with Instagram or the blog.”
Whereas Harms and Tong got their influencer starts on Instagram years ago, 23-year-old Jenna Chai started building her brand and community directly on TikTok.
Chai has found a niche on the platform posting cooking and baking videos and exploring Asian food in San Francisco. Viewers also seem to like watching her vegan boyfriend cook.
“There’s a few videos of him cooking that blew up and got several million views, and from there, my account just grew,” said Chai.
Chai only got on TikTok six months ago, and she has a full-time job as a product designer. But the platform is already supplementing her income, bringing in a quarter of what she makes in her nine-to-five job.
Since she hasn’t had a chance to grow an audience on other platforms, Chai said the threat of losing TikTok is concerning.
“Myself and a lot of other content creators, we rely on the platform as another source of income."
Should TikTok get banned, not only would Chai lose her supplemental income, but also an entire community.
“I would probably try to find my followers on another platform, like Instagram, but that would take a lot of time and effort—so I’m not sure how willing I’d be to do that,” Chai said.
Throm, the real estate agent turning to YouTube, said he wouldn’t have left his job in tech to run his own business if he hadn’t been confident he could weather any storm.
“I’m the one taking all the risks and reaping all the rewards. This is the life of an entrepreneur,” he said.
Referring to previous social media networks and sharing platforms, Harms said she’s seen it all before: “Snapchat coming and going. Clubhouse coming and going. It’s the wave you’re riding.”
Plus, compared with the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, the threat of a TikTok ban is serious but not life-altering.
Harms explains, “2020 was really scary for our industry. The day the lockdown happened, our website traffic cut in half. We lost a $30,000 brand deal that day. So if we can survive that, we’ve got this.”
Sophie Bearman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org