Sonoma man turns snippets of fun into impactful career
While it may be singing, dancing and silliness to the rest of us, TikTok executive Chris Sanders, 53, sees the popular social media platform as “a culmination of all that the internet should and could be for people.”
Working for the time being out of his westside home, Sanders is having “absolutely the most fun” he’s ever had in his relatively new job, which began at the start of the pandemic.
“The whole platform is about creativity and joy but TikTok is also a high performance organization,” he said “The perception might be that it's a bunch of young kids dancing, having fun over here. Well, there's some of that, but we’re working really hard trying to build something amazing.”
The Chinese-owned app launched in the U.S. in 2017 and there are now more than 100 million monthly active American users, according to the company. Ninety percent of users aged 16 to 24 use the viral video app every day to watch user-generated dance challenges for popular songs, memes, lip-syncing, comedy videos and more.
But TikTok is not all fun and games.
“While there are lots of simply dancing and lip syncing, it has also morphed into this amazing learning machine which it allows people to share their talents and their creativity in a positive way, without much of the negativity of other social media sites,” Sanders said. Since mid-2019, the hashtag #EduTok has received 37 billion views and the company has since initiated partnerships with edtech startups to create educational content on the platform.
As head of brand partnerships, his job is to help TikTok advertisers inject themselves into the entertainment experience in a “natural and native way. So it's not interruption advertising.”
And it is a career that Sanders both planned for his entire life and never could have possibly anticipated.
Born in Japan, Sanders was raised as an “Air Force brat” with eight brothers and sisters. He majored in economics and sociology at UC Irvine.
“One major was studying people and one was studying money,” he said with a laugh, adding that his young self figured that was a recipe for getting rich quickly.
“What it did do is give me a well-rounded background,” he said.
When he left college, the U.S. was in a recession and jobs for young people were few and far between. He focused on the hottest industry that was hiring – and that was tech.
“It seemed interesting and was growing fast,” he said. “Then I found I had an aptitude for it.”
The PC revolution turned into the internet revolution and that led Sanders to America Online (AOL), which may be a punchline now, but at the time was the most recognized brand on the web in the United States.
“I learned how to sell a complicated, new communications medium that no one understands or has heard of, and I’ve been doing a version of that ever since,” he said.
Sanders was working for AOL when he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Michelle spent a weekend in Sonoma attending a wedding in 2002.
“At the time I was working long hours in New York and the pace, the noise, was crazy," he said. "I vividly remember waking up in Sonoma after the most tranquil night’s sleep to total silence. I turned to Michelle, and said, ‘We're going to live here one day.” That idea rattled around in the back of their minds from that point forward.
After marrying in 2003, they came up to Sonoma to see friends, and found themselves looking at real estate. They found a place and during stints in which Chris was working for About.com and Facebook and Michelle for Inc Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, they managed to transition to living in Sonoma full time.
“Sonoma has it all,” Sanders said, with a big smile on his face. “We love the people, and the fact that our friends are from a lot of different backgrounds. There’s a real sense of small town but it's cosmopolitan because of the overlay of the wine industry.”
With their oldest child now a student at Sonoma Valley High, Sanders has been thinking a lot about young people facing their own nascent career decisions.
“They need to realize that their career is likely going to change multiple times and they should be open to change and to being a lifelong learner,” he said.
And if they are interested in a career at TikTok, the company is hiring.
“It’s not all about having the highest GPA, it's about being able to make impact,” said Sanders. “That can mean a lot of things from a real understanding of communications to demonstrated creative work.”
TikTok’s U.S. headquarters is in Los Angeles. When Sanders started at the San Francisco office a year ago, there were just 10 people assigned to it – today, there are more than 100. Because of COVID, he has yet to work out of that office and he said the company is looking at how COVID is going to change its thinking about its dependency on physical space.
“As a creative platform, there's all kinds of things we can do virtually and TikTok is the highest expression of that,” said Sanders. “But we also know magic happens when people are physically together. And that's why TikTok was so popular during the pandemic ‒ it was able to bring people together in a positive way.”