The Big Read

Under the influence: As TikTok scales up its Canadian business, a group of influencers is working hard to boost a modest domestic scene

Illustration by Hanna Lee

VANCOUVER — Last December, some of TikTok’s biggest stars gave their followers a holiday present: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Tony Lopez, Addison Rae and a host of others, with a collective TikTok following of hundreds of millions, descended on a Los Angeles mansion, which they’d rented for the long term as a crash pad and broadcast hub. The teens would spend their days collaborating and filming in their photogenic new digs, in or near the pool, and sharing the resulting explosion of content on their social media accounts. Some planned to live full time in the sprawling, Spanish-style home, which boasts living-room ceilings high enough to house a trampoline park. Others, including the ultra-famous D’Amelio sisters, would float between the L.A. mansion and their Connecticut home, presumably with a The Charli coffee (Dunkin’ named it after the younger sister and TikTok’s most followed person) in hand. The original group of 19—some have since left—christened their enterprise the Hype House. They feature in each other’s videos and grow their fan bases, watching their star power and their bank-account balances rise simultaneously.

Talking Point

After some of America’s most-followed teens rented an L.A. mansion as a long-term crash pad and broadcast hub, copycat collab houses have popped up across the city and around the world. A group of Canadian TikTokkers grew irritated at the dearth of action back home and joined forces to start the Canada ClubHouse. They managed a trial run in Toronto before COVID-19 halted their plans. But their efforts to grow the social media scene in Canada mimic the company’s hopes. TikTok is on a mission to expand its presence here, growing its staff, signing a lease for a new office and running a national ad campaign.

The Hype House spawned a frenzy. Other famous TikTokkers broke off into groups and signed leases for their own mansion playhouses—sometimes to the annoyance of their posh neighbours, who couldn’t understand how these “screenagers” paid the bills. One notorious enterprise was co-founded by Josh Richards, an 18-year-old native of Cobourg, Ont., who has a following equivalent to nearly two-thirds of Canada’s population. In February, he packed his bags, flew to California and helped launch Sway House. 

Watching the action in the U.S., some Canadian TikTok users grew irritated. The appeal of L.A. is obvious—Hollywood!—but why not a collab house north of the 49th parallel? They believed the model could work just as well in Toronto. Andrew Mays, one such user who started out as an up-and-comer on Vine, connected with like-minded TikTokkers across the country and hatched a plan for Canada’s first collab house, starting with a trial run in an apartment in the city’s Fashion District, featuring some of the country’s most-followed young adults.

Their desire to grow the Canadian scene dovetails with TikTok’s plan to expand its footprint here. While its future in the U.S. is uncertain, the company is expanding quickly into other countries, and recently doubled down on efforts in Canada with a hiring spree, a new office and its first national ad campaign in the country. Perhaps most importantly for aspiring influencers here, it’s working on ways to help creators monetize their content, and is creating a local infrastructure that keeps up-and-coming stars on this side of the border. They hope the right combination of hype and corporate support can invigorate the Canadian scene and stem the flow of talent—and dollars—south.

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Carson Shmyr, an 18-year-old living in Saskatoon, joined TikTok on a lark. In August 2019, he and some friends held a competition to see who could get to 1,000 followers first. The aspiring musician hit the target easily, but kept posting covers and some original songs, and in January, a video of him sporting a hoodie, playing a keyboard and performing a spoken-word poem he wrote about a suicide attempt generated momentum. “And then I thought of her, my little sister and how she smiled at me that very same day. And how in just five seconds, I could make her entire life be ripped away. How in just five seconds, I could take her big brother away.” That video clocked 3.7 million views and counting.

@carsonlsa poem i wrote today #vocals #foryou #fyp♬ 5 seconds – Carson

Around the same time, a video popped up on a page recommending what he should watch. A Canadian TikTokker was asking teens to audition for an in-country collab house. “Make a vid showing who you are! Can be transitions, dancing, art, anything! Show you and have fun with it!” The only other requirement? Must be at least 15 years old. Shmyr, who was 17 at the time, responded. He highlighted his volunteer work, big-brother status and lacrosse prowess. “Hope that this works,” he said at the end, flashing the camera a sheepish grin and giving two thumbs up. A few days later, the organizers reached out to him and laid out their plans. “I was kind of just really excited for the opportunity, and ready to go,” Shmyr said.

One of those organizers was Mays, also from Saskatchewan and one of three co-founders of the Canada ClubHouse. He had started on Vine, an app for six-second videos that announced in October 2016 it was winding down, before moving on to, a platform for lip-syncing, mostly, which Beijing-based ByteDance acquired in 2018 and rebranded as TikTok. Mays took his accounts seriously, posting multiple times a day, and gaining about a thousand followers daily. When his personal growth slowed, he pivoted to another potentially lucrative option: management of other influencers. He and his partners reached out to some creators directly and held open auditions on the platform to find other members. The final list included fewer than two-dozen people. Some came with millions of followers. Others had hundreds of thousands, while some only cracked five figures.

They decided to start with a Toronto meetup in March to get all the influencers in one spot for a few days, make content together and hold some events. The idea was to generate buzz for the ClubHouse, enough to secure more permanent sponsors and a long-term lease somewhere.

Mays organized logistics for the Toronto event. He shopped the influencers and their cumulative follower count to businesses to gauge interest and land sponsorships. He secured paid-for flights for the group, whose members were spread across multiple provinces. Another co-founder arranged accommodations. It was a decidedly more modest version of the L.A. model: the young stars would share an apartment rather than a luxury mansion—though it was six rooms spread over several storeys—in West Queen West, which Vogue once dubbed the second-coolest neighbourhood in the world. Mays and his team partnered with Cineplex’s entertainment space The Rec Room for a meet and greet. Tickets for the four-hour event on March 16 would cost fans $75. Another event, built around some of the group’s most-followed members, would be held at Playdium in Brampton, Ont. It may seem a far cry from Beverly HIlls and late-night TV appearances (around the same time, the younger D’Amelio sister had a spot on “The Tonight Show,” where she hinted at a then-upcoming summer tour), but it was nonetheless a start in building a community—and a higher profile—for some top Canadian influencers.

With events booked, the group eagerly awaited their planned departure mid-March. But jumpstarting a hype-house ecosystem in Canada presented some difficulties, especially given the peculiarities of 2020. Anxiety about the spread of COVID-19 grew in earnest in Canada in the days before the meetup. Mays and Shmyr, who flew in about a week ahead of the others, rushed from pharmacy to pharmacy to find masks, soap and other suddenly-essential items. Despite the pair’s best efforts, some members chose not to come. Others’ parents didn’t let them attend. (The L.A. influencer ecosystem doesn’t seem as hampered by the same constraints. Singer Ariana Grande recently scolded TikTokkers for flouting social-distancing protocols and partying at a Western-themed L.A. restaurant—all documented on Instagram, naturally.) 

In the end, the three co-founders and about a dozen influencers came to Toronto, Mays said. Their events were cancelled due to the first wave of lockdowns. Still, the group achieved one of the main goals of a collab house. “We had, like, three days where we [were] making content basically the entire time. We were just hanging out, just having fun,” Mays said.

@carsonlsloving the @canadaclubhouse and Toronto :)) #fyp #foryou♬ Reckless – Healy

Shmyr shared a room with Mays and two other creators. He posted several videos with his new compadres, as well as a couple of him singing on a Toronto rooftop, sky and city stretching out behind him. “I think that it did really pay off,” Shmyr said. “I think obviously being able to kind of combine our followings … that’s the big appeal of the houses in general.”

Another ClubHouse member, Donae Baker, who has nearly three million followers, decided to join after seeing American collab houses generate momentum for their residents. “Look at, like, the Hype House,” she said, “[and how] big they’ve gotten and how big the individual people have gotten.” She hoped ClubHouse could accomplish something similar. The 18-year-old Torontonian spent one night with the ClubHouse in their downtown digs. She called the experience fun and the people nice. She said she “definitely made some good connections, and some videos did really well.”

But she found she benefited more from her time visiting an L.A. collab house—The Vault—earlier this year. Many members of The Vault boast millions of followers, similar to Baker. It helps when everyone has a similar follower range, she explained diplomatically, because people mutually gain from one another, rather than one person’s fame having an outsize impact. The app—and by default, its stars—is also more prominent in America, which Baker suspects means TikTok recommends their videos more often to other users. “If these influencers that I was with in Canada were in L.A., it would have been the same thing,” she said; their videos could have performed even better.

@original.don@thatwhitelatino hehe♬ RICKY DESKTOP JOSEPH BLACK I HOPEUMISSME FLIP – Ricky Desktop

The Vault extended an open invitation to Baker, saying she was welcome to return any time. She plans to do so again in the future, though not permanently, as she doesn’t want to leave her family behind. “Everything is there,” she said, of L.A.. Social media managers live there. Film and TV auditions abound. American creators also have access to TikTok’s infrastructure for making money. They can apply to access the Creator Fund, initially a US$200-million pool that the company announced in July “to help support ambitious creators who are seeking opportunities to foster a livelihood through their innovative content.” TikTok planned to distribute the money over the course of a year and grow it. A week later, however, it announced that due to “an incredible response,” it expected the fund to surpass US$1 billion over the next three years in the U.S., and US$2 billion globally. Currently, creators in Canada cannot access the fund.

Josh Richards, the Cobourg native who co-founded Sway House, arrived in L.A. before the Creator Fund launched, but still found an abundance of opportunity. He moved to the city in February to co-found TalentX Entertainment, a management company, and help launch Sway House. “I started Sway House with my friends so we can all grow together both as creators and as entrepreneurs,” he said in an email to The Logic. “The critical-mass effect we created is unparalleled,” he added, with an internet star’s swagger. The house has since gained some notoriety. The New York Times called its residents “famous for their party-boy antics,” which have “made life for the people who share the block a nightmare.” Richards eventually moved out and wrote a digital mea culpa on Medium. “I let the fame get to me; I allowed the LA partying lifestyle to consume me; and I lost my way for a bit. I forgot why I was here,” he wrote in June, explaining his hiatus from Sway House. He’s now chief strategy officer at Triller, an app that aims to compete with TikTok. He’s also an angel investor, a podcast host, an artist signed to Warner Records and a principal at Dog for Dog, a pet-food company partially owned by Snoop Dogg that donates a portion of its sales to shelters and rescues.

“Wherever there is working internet, there could be a Sway House,” Richards said. Still, he added, “I felt it was best to go to the States for a few years.”

Part of the challenge for TikTok Canada is to nurture a Canadian scene, despite L.A.—and the more established American infrastructure—being perpetually on the horizon. TikTok’s Canadian team wants to help local talent make money on the platform. As a first step, it’s working on letting talent and users know: we’re here and we’re growing. The company has grown from a few staff in Toronto last year to about 40 employees. That includes 10 recent hires, including some to fill out the leadership team—a former CBC executive director and the former editor-in-chief of Elle Canada among them. There’s a new director of marketing and one for content partnerships. “We thought, ‘This is the right time to start building up and staffing up, knowing that our focus is to grow this ecosystem and support creators,’” said Daniel Habashi, general manager of TikTok Canada since May. 

The company recently signed a lease on a new office space in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood. The office will have a production space and a team to educate and support creators. Currently, everyone is working from home, but the team plans to work in the office starting early next year—pandemic permitting, said Habashi. TikTok Canada is still hiring, and expects its headcount will be closer to 50 by the end of the year, said a company spokesperson in an email. It plans to expand in Canada beyond Toronto, said Habashi, but he did not disclose where or when. Reuters reported last month the company plans to hire some 3,000 engineers across Canada, Europe, Singapore and the U.S.

The company has also invested an undisclosed amount into its first national ad campaign. A 30-second spot features snippets of TikToks from several Canadian creators, and aired during NBA Finals and MLB postseason games, and there have been billboards and print ads in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.

All of this still leaves the big question: money. “We have teams of people that are continuously thinking of monetization,” said Habashi. He said “there is a chance, absolutely” the Creator Fund will expand to Canada. For now, an initiative called the Creator Marketplace, currently in a soft launch, allows brands to connect with creators and pursue sponsorships. Livestreams, open to users 16 or older with at least 1,000 followers, can provide earning potential. Viewers who meet the requirements for virtual items can send them gifts, purchased using real money. Those gifts are converted to virtual credits called diamonds, which creators can eventually withdraw as money.

These options may not satisfy the income desires of up-and-coming influencers, though. In addition to contemplating another trip to L.A., Baker has started posting more on YouTube, where she finds she can make money from advertisements. Colton Macaulay, a ClubHouse member who declined to travel to Toronto in March, said he manages to make a portion of his income through TikTok. The 23-year-old lives in Nova Scotia and shares a broad range of videos with his 8.2 million followers. One popular clip shows him pranking his friends on a camping trip. Dressed in fake moss and camouflage gear, he spreads fake blood on a stick. It ends on a cliffhanger as he approaches the unsuspecting group. The video has 37.2 million views and counting. Some of his TikTok payments come from followers sending gifts during livestreams, and some of his revenue is from brand deals—though he said he does not use the Creator Marketplace.

@coltyyDecided to prank my friends while they were camping!⛺️😈 This will be one you won’t want to miss!🤯 #surprise #foryou♬ Suspense – nikproteus

Macaulay, like Baker, is eyeing a stint in California. He feels he could now benefit from a collaborative environment, so in a few weeks he plans to move to L.A. for a couple of months. He’ll split his time between his manager’s home and an unnamed collab house. “I just know that I should probably be down there,” he said. “That’s where all the content creators are still making content.” Like any savvy businessperson, Macaulay also understands the importance of risk mitigation and, like his L.A. counterparts, he wants to grow his presence on Instagram and YouTube, increasing his earning potential and hedging his bets, should any social media platform shutter. The Trump administration has ordered ByteDance to sell its U.S. assets over alleged national security concerns; it recently extended a reprieve, granting a 15-day extension to the deadline and moving it to November 27.

Macaulay thinks he’d stay in Canada if the ClubHouse weren’t on hold, because he wants to represent his country. “But I don’t think anything is going to be happening this month or next month. So, until something’s going on up here, I’ll probably just spend some time down there, meet some new friends, enjoy the weather.”

The idea of Canadian talent emigrating to America, of course, long predates TikTok. “You see that with global pop stars, international athletes,” Habashi said. He declined to comment on the ClubHouse; TikTok is not officially involved in collab houses. His team’s focus, he said, is to ensure that local talent has the tools they need, so they don’t feel they have to leave to harness their potential. “I’m biased [in] thinking Canada is the best country in the world for sure, for a lot of reasons,” he said.

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Mays, the ClubHouse co-creator, feels similarly. His goal, shared by others, is “to turn Toronto into the L.A. of Canada.” That could keep influencer income and momentum at home, he said. He’s still hopeful a permanent house may be in the group’s future when coronavirus caseloads slow. “As soon as that happens, we’re gonna [be] full throttle.”

For more on TikTok in Canada, join reporters Aleksandra Sagan and Murad Hemmadi this Thursday for an exclusive, subscriber-only conversation about its Canadian operations, how major tech players are using the platform, and how Canadians are hoping to win in the Tiktok influencer economy. Register here.