Casey Evertsen drove down a suburban Utah street lined with trash bins, speaking into his phone’s camera as he gave a tour of the brightly-colored truck he uses for his garbage can-cleaning business.
“If you like seeing dirty stuff get cleaned and watching how cool stuff works, follow along,” he said in the video shared on TikTok. “Let’s clean some bins!”
Evertsen’s service, Bin Blasters, had for a whole year struggled to get traction through Facebook and Instagram. So taking a cue from his teenage daughter, he decided to try promoting it on TikTok instead. On his eighth video, just one month in, Evertsen “blew up.”
“I went out and just started cleaning bins that day, started on our route, and I look at my phone like an hour later, and there’s 17,000 views,” he recalled. “Then it just got in the millions.”
Evertsen rode the viral TikTok wave to grow Bin Blasters from a fledgling business into a large and lucrative operation spanning four states and a host of employees. His nine locations across Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Illinois are supported today by franchise owners, truck drivers, customer service workers, a digital marketing agency, legal consultants and contractors focused on design and online strategy. Next, as he continues posting daily to the video platform, he’s looking to bring on a CEO.
“I went from being a guy that cleans garbage cans to a franchisor trying to figure out how to be a franchisor and growing this business,” he told Forbes. “TikTok changed it all.”
This TikTok success story is not unique to Evertsen; as the platform becomes an ever-more-powerful discovery engine and shopping hub, many of the app’s 150 million American users have used it to launch businesses and careers. The company says 5 million U.S. businesses use TikTok to reach customers. And some creators have themselves morphed into mini-industries supported by dozens—even hundreds—of staff, from managers, agents, lawyers and publicists down to editors, producers and assistants.
The $100 billion creator economy, and the supply chain of jobs that come with it, are staring down a potentially enormous upheaval as the Biden administration threatens to ban TikTok over national security concerns. The U.S. government has long feared that the wildly popular app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, could be used by China to surveil and manipulate Americans. Following three years of negotiations on a deal that would address those concerns, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. has demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owner sell its stake in the platform—or face a ban.
Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing to simply shut the app down. The House Foreign Affairs Committee this month voted to advance a Republican-led bill that would enable President Joe Biden to ban TikTok, and 18 senators—nine Democrats and nine Republicans—are also cosponsoring broader legislation giving the Department of Commerce the ability to ban communications technologies, including TikTok, built by foreign adversaries. (The White House endorsed that proposal, the RESTRICT Act.) The leader of the House committee holding the first-ever congressional hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday also supports an outright ban.
But as the prospect of a ban intensifies, so too does the chorus of voices fighting against it. A former top intelligence official has warned a ban might be both politically unpopular and could fuel a geopolitical nightmare. Civil liberties activists have argued it would do more to silence Americans than protect them. A new Forbes investigation on TikTok’s continued access to Indians’ data, even after their government banned the app in 2020, indicates that a U.S. ban could fail to address concerns about user data the company has already collected. Even a former TikTok employee who took his complaints about the company’s data security practices to Congress described a nationwide ban as unnecessary. And people who’ve built their livelihoods around the app say the political crossfire has largely overlooked not only the opportunities afforded them because of TikTok, but also the sprawling ecosystem of businesses and jobs that exist because of it. (TikTok sent some creators to Capitol Hill this week to raise awareness about that.)
“There are so many other horrible things happening in the world right now, why are we talking about [a ban]? Why are we focusing on an app? I don’t understand.”
“We have to have tough conversations on: Who is using it now? What kind of value does it bring to them? What does it mean if we just, like, rip it out of their hands?” Chew, the TikTok CEO, said in a recent interview.
“I’m the creator, and I’m the face of what you see, but there’s still so many moving parts in the background that you don’t see—and so much work that has to happen before I post a video,” said Robert Lucas, who left his IT job installing Wi-Fi around Georgia to build a cake decorating business on TikTok. Since a video he made in his living room went viral two years ago, the 29-year-old has drawn an audience of 2.5 million and hired a manager to oversee relationships with advertisers, one assistant to help with video editing and another to prep ingredients for each recipe. (He’s now looking for a second full-time editor and someone to shop for groceries and bake for him.)
Beyond his direct employees, Lucas has also worked with an outside team helping him start a product line of cake decorating and cooking utensils, and dozens at a company producing the show he’ll soon be starring in for a “major streaming platform,” where he’ll be coaching individuals who don’t know how to bake on how to become top cake artists. He said he’s gone from earning $65,000 setting up Wi-Fi to bringing in half a million dollars a year through the various moving parts of his business that stemmed from TikTok.
A potential ban “would definitely be a great blow to everything that I have going right now,” Lucas said, adding that he wouldn’t be able to employ the small army of people working for him. “They’re supporting me, but I also have to support them financially. And if that happens…I may have to basically lay off [or say to them], ‘I’m sorry, I’m not able to keep you around like I initially planned.’”
Many successful creators have a handful of staff helping them, while others have turned their internet stardom into million-dollar companies and careers. The 50 Top Creators identified by Forbes last year made a combined $570 million in 2021.
MrBeast, the world’s top earning creator who’s on track to become the first YouTuber billionaire, has at least 60 full-time employees—more if you count contractors—working behind the scenes on his social media, candy bar brand Feastables, restaurant chain MrBeast Burger, merch and other projects. (And don’t forget his bodyguard, life coach and private chef.) He told Rolling Stone he has “literally worked with over a thousand people” and that he’s angling to turn creatordom into an entire industry in his home state of North Carolina.
Mahzad Babayan, a digital talent agent at United Talent Agency, which works with creators like TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Nick DiGiovanni, said that of the agency’s digital talent roster, about half have full-time employees like assistants, editors and producers—and that the volume of creators with more than a dozen employees is growing.
“It takes a village,” said creator Drew Afualo, whose audience of 8 million on TikTok has helped her land paid gigs and brand partnerships, and most recently, ink an exclusive deal with Spotify for a podcast. Afualo estimates her stable of workers—from the literary team, merch company and tour manager to her stylist and hair and makeup artists—includes more than 30 people.
Asked about a ban on the app that put her on the map, Afualo added: “There are so many other horrible things happening in the world right now, why are we talking about that? Why are we focusing on an app? I don’t understand.”
TikTok has moved the needle just as much for small businesses, industry insiders say.
As more and more people use the app as a search engine—Google last year conceded that it’s seeing a growing share of 18 to 24-year-olds using TikTok and Instagram in lieu of Google search—it’s becoming a quintessential discovery tool for small sellers, no-name brands and niche products. The #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt hashtag, with 47 billion views, is emblematic of TikTok’s power as a commerce platform as much as a vehicle for entertainment. (The app has driven approximately $1.8 billion in U.S. consumer spending to date, per analytics firm Data.ai.)
“Because TikTok’s a discovery engine, it’s giving power to these small brands to be able to get discovered if they have great products. Instagram is not based on discovery, it’s based on connections, so it really favors the existing big brands that have money to dump into it,” said Eric Dahan, cofounder and former CEO of Open Influence, a top creator marketing firm based in Los Angeles. A ban “could potentially wipe out a whole host of new emerging brands— some as they’re getting started, and some before they even get a chance.”
TikTok has also flooded the economy with even more creators, which means small-time entrepreneurs just starting to sell a product are more likely to be able to afford viral marketing on TikTok that wouldn’t have been attainable in the past. For much of the last decade, that marketing was done largely through mega influencers and social celebrities that mom-and-pop and mid-size players “couldn’t afford to tap into,” Dahan said.
Some also fear that banning TikTok would exacerbate the antitrust issues that U.S. regulators have for years been struggling to address, eliminating arguably the fiercest competitor of Meta, Google and Amazon—all targets of antitrust scrutiny.
“The pressure on YouTube and Facebook goes away, and that’s really important for driving innovation and shifting some of the power back to brands and small businesses and creators,” Dahan said. “We’re creating less competition, and whenever you have less competition, no one wins except for the one who’s not having to compete. That’s what I would say the biggest loss is gonna be.”
AZ Taco King is another small business that, like Evertsen’s Bin Blasters, struggled on Facebook before exploding on TikTok. Owner Jaz Sears said she is “scared” of what a TikTok ban could mean for her family.
“If it were to go away… it would be so hard for us,” she told Forbes. “Facebook is not doing what TikTok is doing for us. Instagram is not doing it, Google. I’ve been paying for ads all over social media for the last five years, and I don’t have to pay for an ad on TikTok—TikTok does its thing for me.”
Before the pandemic, Sears made a living cleaning houses in her small Arizona suburb. She and her husband, who had a warehouse job at a local mail company, were supporting their family of six on less than $60,000. But when Covid hit and they lost their jobs, the couple set up a food stand on a street corner outside the neighborhood liquor store. A month later, a customer posted a short TikTok of the taco stand. The next day, 300 cars showed up.
“Literally for the next month, people were just pulling up from all over Arizona waiting three hours in line,” Sears said. “Crazy amounts of people were showing up every day.”
Sears and her family in September 2020 moved the viral taco stand into an abandoned bar, where she personally cooked 300 pounds of birria de res every day. Since then, the family business has evolved to a team of nearly 30 employees across three locations and a food truck.
When Sears isn’t posting AZ Taco King’s kitchen happenings on TikTok, she is running its e-commerce arm shipping tamales to customers around the world. She said AZ Taco King had $1.8M in revenue last year, which brought in almost $200,000 for her family. “Everybody here in our town is like, ‘Oh my gosh, tacos did that? You sold tacos?”
“TikTok just is like, going beyond all platforms,” she added. “If I didn’t have that platform, I would not have the business I have today.”
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