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Here’s the thing about TikTok. Even if you don’t use it—or even, let’s be honest, fully understand what it is—you’ve likely come across one of its Canadian stars on your Instagram feed, shared on Facebook or, increasingly, covered by major media outlets. Take Lubalin, the 30-year-old Montreal musician with hipster style and dark, Fabio-like locks who recounts internet drama to catchy, self-produced pop songs. (His rendition of two people disagreeing over how much a horse weighs might actually be perfect.) He started posting videos during lockdown; less than a year later, he has three million followers, was recently profiled by Rolling Stone and, back in January, collaborated with Jimmy Fallon and Alison Brie on an internet drama video that premiered on The Tonight Show.

The app is rapidly becoming a major player in the Canadian entertainment space. The company does not release market data, but according to Statista, TikTok had 315 million global downloads in the first quarter of 2020, an increase of 67.6% from the first quarter of 2019. Hootsuite’s research arm, We Are Social, reported the service had 689 million users worldwide by January 2021, placing it behind Facebook (2.7 billion), YouTube (2.2 billion) and Instagram (1.2 billion)—but well above Snapchat (498 million), Reddit (430 million) and Twitter (353 million). And its growth is promising, especially since it’s now attracting users beyond its teenage target audience. Data provided by analytics company Comscore shows the number of adult users more than doubled between March 2019 and March 2020.

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It’s no wonder the company opened a Canadian office late last year—or that it hired Microsoft, Instagram, Facebook and Soho House alum Daniel Habashi to head it up. Born in Montreal to Egyptian immigrants and raised in Mississauga, Ont., he has a high-stakes job at a crucial time. Overall, the app doesn’t seem to be generating much revenue yet. A November 2020 Reuters article reported that, while its Chinese parent company was on track to generate $27 billion in ad dollars that year, TikTok itself contributed little to its bottom line. And although there’s steady growth in Canada, there’s also a high degree of skepticism about any firm with Chinese roots. While its popularity spiked during the pandemic, the novelty may wear off as those new adult users get their vaccines and venture outside again—or its base of teen users move to the next hip thing.

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As his resumé might indicate, Habashi has always loved getting his hands on the next, coolest thing, whether that was a video game, a BlackBerry or, later, an iPhone. But it was the community surrounding these products that inspired his career. “I remember being a young kid [who was into] skateboarding and going to the skate shop to connect with the community of skaters in my area,” he says. He found a similar experience later in online music forums and then through instant messaging. “The ability to discover and connect with like-minded individuals from around the world through technology has always fascinated me.”

Sahar Rana/The Globe and Mail

It’s no wonder, then, that Habashi found a home at TikTok, which is known for bringing like-minded individuals together. The service has always been about community building, beginning its life as Musical.ly, a Chinese social media service that allowed users to film and share short videos of themselves lip-synching to a catalogue of a million songs. As with its successor, users could employ other users’ funny monologues, singing or other sounds in their own videos, “duet” with one another using split screens and apply pre-set filters to hilarious effect. The startup launched in China and the U.S. in 2014 and quickly gained a foothold among American teens and tweens, who loved the interactivity and creativity it offered. By the following year, it was No. 1 in Apple’s app store in 19 countries. Soon after that, it launched Live.ly, a sister app devoted to live-streaming, and began inking advertising deals with Coca-Cola and film studios, on top of signing licensing agreements with Apple Music and other major labels.

Enter ByteDance. The Chinese tech company had launched Douyin, an app similar to Musical.ly, in 2016; it accumulated 100 million users in its 12 months of existence. Hungry to expand overseas, ByteDance released a version of Douyin, called TikTok, in other Asian countries in 2017 and, later that year, acquired Musical.ly for a reported $800 million to $1 billion. Then, in August 2018, it merged Musical.ly and TikTok, and made the new, upgraded app available worldwide. Within a month, it had surpassed Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat in monthly downloads, and users realized just how easy it was to build an audience on the platform thanks to its algorithm, which was designed to encourage discoverability.

By the time Habashi joined the company in 2020, fresh off two years as the chief marketing officer of private members’ club Soho House, even more Canadian creators had built brands on the platform. James Jones, a onetime breakdancer from the Tallcree First Nation in Alberta, began using TikTok to share cultural knowledge and affirmations for Indigenous people, often through videos of himself hoop dancing to hip hop; Bomanizer, then a media student in his last year at Ryerson University, had gone viral for his parodies of reality TV and pandemic life. Habashi sees his mission as not only amplifying their voices on TikTok but also looking for ways to support off-app success.

Sahar Rana/The Globe and Mail

“I want to see them bigger than TikTok,” Habashi says. “I want to see people in big Hollywood pictures.”

Some of that is already happening. Last April, Bomanizer, whose real name is Boman Martinez-Reid, signed to Creative Artists Agency, which also represents Beyoncé, George Clooney and Kanye West, while other creators in the U.S. have appeared in commercials, signed modelling contracts and even scored makeup lines. But part of the support TikTok Canada can offer will come from a physical office space and production studio that is in the works in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, Habashi says.

“We wanted to make sure that at our official headquarters, there was a home for creators, where they’d have access to not only the team but also a full production studio to create content at the calibre of their talent. I felt like opportunities were somewhat limited in the region.”

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It’s unclear whether this studio will function in the way Habashi hopes. This isn’t the first time a social media platform has tried to build a studio for creators in Toronto—YouTube opened a 3,500-square-foot space at Toronto’s George Brown College in 2016, following the creation of similar facilities in eight cities around the world. But by 2019, it had announced it would be shuttering the Toronto site in favour of temporary pop-up locations across the country, which was more in line with its global strategy.

But for Habashi, a physical space is key. It’s not meant to be just “a nice office with nice desks,” he says. “It’s important to make it richer. It can be a home for brands, for creators [and] for employees themselves.”

When Habashi talks about community, he doesn’t just mean the creators who post on the app. He’s also thinking about the audience who’s consuming that content, who, according to Statista, were spending an average of 858 minutes per month on TikTok by March 2020, almost double the time they spent just five months prior. And, he says, they’re not who many people expect them to be.

“There’s a lot of misconception of what content is on TikTok and what demographic uses [it],” he says. “There’s a great kind of breadth of content and depth of content. There’s a great deal of learning content on TikTok, from DIY stuff to great math hacks I’m teaching my kids that I didn’t learn in school. It’s very much a platform for everyone.”

To keep it that way, the company has made a number of proactive moves—including a new prompt that encourages users to reconsider posting a comment that might be “inappropriate or unkind”—which seem focused on maintaining the app’s status as “one of the last sunny places on the internet,” as Habashi puts it. That may be why it’s thrived despite concerns over ties to China, including speculation from some senior U.S. government officials that it may be sharing data about Americans with a foreign government. Former U.S. president Donald Trump fanned the flames of suspicion when he signed an executive order that threatened to ban the app if ByteDance did not find an American buyer for its U.S. operations. But the panic has since petered out, both because a federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to ban TikTok, saying it had “likely overstepped” its legal authority, and because, as some privacy experts pointed out, any concerns over TikTok also apply to other social media apps, including Facebook and Instagram.

Still, from a regulatory perspective, Habashi reiterates that TikTok does not operate in China (there, it’s Douyin) and points out that “Canada, in particular, has a lot of independence in terms of day-to-day operation.”

And Canadians can take some comfort in the company’s corporate structure, according to Pengfei Li, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. “Although it is a multinational enterprise, if we think about its business, it is actually like an assembly of country- or region-based networks: TikTok U.S., TikTok Canada, TikTok Japan, etcetera. There is little synergy across these regional networks,” he says. “Due to this fragmented network nature, TikTok can localize their business, including its operation and data centre, within national or regional borders. The localization strategy helps them gain trust with regulators.”

The third piece of the TikTok community is Habashi’s team. He started this job at an odd time—during a pandemic and a global racial reckoning, when being connected felt important, yet he had to meet prospective employees through Zoom.

That’s what happened with Vanessa Craft, the former editor-in-chief of Elle Canada, who left the job to become TikTok’s director of content partnerships, Canada. “It was very apropos of our time,” she says. “I was at the cottage. [It was] the irony of talking to the GM of TikTok, the most innovative tech company in the world, while I’m running on a dirt path trying to find a WiFi signal.”

Luckily, there wasn’t any Zoom fatigue during their conversation. “I hung up the phone and I thought, You know, that was unexpectedly fun,” she continues. “I trusted his vision, and he was obviously looking outside of the traditional hires. He was looking at having a diverse leadership team, with diversity across races and genders and so on, but he also looked for diversity of experience.”

But it didn’t become clear just how different a leader Habashi would be until they actually began working together. Craft quickly noticed something strange about how he ran meetings: He never interrupted, or if he did, he apologized right away. Eventually, she asked him about it, and he told her that when he was younger, he had been deeply affected by seeing his mom interrupted or silenced. He’d pledged never to do that to anyone else.

To Craft, this isn’t just a sign of kindness or basic human decency. It speaks directly to the type of leader Habashi is. “He solicits feedback, and while he does a lot of the work confidently, he leads without an ego. He works very hard. He cares about people. He is definitely a leader of our time,” she says.

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For Habashi’s part, while he feels strongly that it’s only right to make sure everyone on his team has a voice, there’s also a practical reason he strives to create spaces in which others can be heard: He knows he’ll likely learn something, particularly from the “incredibly talented female leaders” on his team, like Craft. Working for a company that lets Canadians speak to the world, he’s committed to keeping his ears open to his colleagues. As he puts it: “I’d be a fool not to listen.”

As seen in the May issue of Report on Business magazine, Best Executives

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