With a constant stream of social media apps, it can be hard to keep track of the latest rival to Twitter or Facebook. One app that has managed to stand out from the pack is Clubhouse.
The audio-based chat app has quickly captured people’s attention, including some of the most powerful tech gurus and world leaders. Elon Musk recently invited Vladimir Putin to a clubhouse chat.
The app launched in April 2020 during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. By summer, it was valued at $100 million and had just 1,500 users. By the end of January, it was worth over $1 billion and had attracted over two million users. As it prepares to launch support for Android devices, Clubhouse is expected to dramatically increase its user count.
So, who’s behind the latest chat app?
Clubhouse is the brainchild of Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Here’s the story of how an entrepreneur and a former Google engineer created a hit by focusing on the one thing people dislike most about phones – talking.
Developing the Right Skills for a Successful Startup
Paul Davison and Rohan Seth are not new to Silicon Valley. When they created Clubhouse, they already had the skills needed to bring the project to life. Seth is a Stanford graduate who went on to work for Google as a software engineer from 2005 to 2012.
Davison founded Math Camp in 2011 with Benjamin Garrett. The company released several social discovery apps, including Highlight, which sent users notifications when friends were in the same area, making it easier to meet up. In 2016, he sold the app to Pinterest.
Davison and Seth built Clubhouse as an alternative to the growing popularity of image-based and video-based social media apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Instead of images or video, the platform is voice-only.
Davison has stated that Clubhouse was designed as a voice-only app so that users do not need to worry about appearances. You do not need to worry about what you’re wearing or where you are.
Clubhouse was also intended to help encourage increased engagement and communication. When people text or post something, they hit send and go back to what they were doing. With Clubhouse, you engage with other users in real-time.
Recycling an Old Concept for a New Audience
Clubhouse combines features that appeared in various forms since the early days of the Internet. Before social media apps, millions of Internet users would gather in online chat rooms.
Many chat rooms were geared toward specific topics or interests. You could find a chat room to discuss your favorite movies, share recipes, or debate politics. Clubhouse recreates the same experience but replaces text communication with voice.
Clubhouse is a stripped-down, minimalist social media app. The interface is streamlined and resembles a standard chat app. The simplicity of the design allows users to quickly jump from one chat room to the next. As with Facebook and many other social media apps, Clubhouse asks new users to select multiple topics of interest. Based on your selections, the app presents you with recommended Clubhouse rooms.
After you join a room, the audio turns on and you instantly start hearing the conversation. However, the creator of the room has control over who can speak. If you want to speak, you press a button to virtually raise your hand.
Unlike other social media apps, there is no record, timeline, or feed. The live conversation continues until everyone leaves the room, at which point the audio is gone.
Clubhouse Quietly Launches During the Pandemic
The launch of Clubhouse was already planned before COVID-19 upended everyone’s lives. However, the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions may have helped Clubhouse during its initial release.
The app launched on the Apple App Store in April 2020. The following month, the Clubhouse received a $12 million Series A investment from venture firm Andreessen Horowitz. The total users had slowly grown to about 1,500.
Part of the reason for slow user growth is the invite-only business model. The app is only available through invitations. Each user can invite two more users. Part of the reason for slow user growth is the invite-only business model. The app is only available through invitations. Each user can invite two more users.
Due to the exclusivity of the app, most of the early users were tech professionals and celebrities. As the company started sending out more invites, the user base grew, reaching over two million users by January of 2021.
Free Publicity Helps Spark Interest in Clubhouse
Despite having two million users, Clubhouse was not yet a recognizable name. Things changed in February when Elon Musk began tweeting about it. As with most things that Musk tweets about, it went viral.
Elon Musk hosted several Clubhouse chats with prominent individuals, including Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev during the height of the GameStop fiasco. A little over a week later, Musk hosted a conversation with Kanye West and invited Vladimir Putin to chat.
Within a few days, almost every major news organization had released a story on Clubhouse. However, the exposure that the app received also led to a setback.
The app has hosted a wide range of conversations. People have used Clubhouse to form book clubs and discuss current events. Celebrities have also used the platform to share advice or interact more intimately with fans.
Clubhouse had become a popular place for Chinese citizens to discuss topics that the government tends to suppress on mainstream platforms. Users could openly talk about the situation in Hong Kong or the government’s response to COVID-19.
The invite-only platform gained enough attention in China that users were selling invitation codes for the equivalent of $23 to $62. However, on February 8, 2021, the Chinese government blocked the app. China’s censorship of Clubhouse is one of several reasons why experts wonder whether Clubhouse can scale its user base. It currently has over two million users but is still an invite-only app and not yet available on Android devices.
What’s the Next Step for Clubhouse?
Clubhouse hopes to eventually reach a wider audience. While expanding access to everyone is the main goal, Paul Davison and the rest of the team are not rushing the process.
From the beginning, Davison wanted to gradually carve out its space in the social media market. Instead of launching with big fanfare, the app has quietly and methodically grown its influence by targeting high-profile individuals.
Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Elon Musk are just a few of the recognizable names that have hosted conversations on Clubhouse. The company is gradually building its foundation, which also includes working out a few kinks and dealing with some controversies.
Stories of people being harassed in Clubhouse rooms have appeared in the news. People have reported instances of racism, sexism, and bullying. Journalists and people of color have witnessed some of the most extreme cases of harassment.
While each room has a moderator and users can report abuse, moderating a conversation in real time is not easy. Davison also hopes that his app can act as a platform for free speech and open dialogue.
Balancing free speech and content moderation is a challenge for any social media app, but it’s a challenge that Davison and his team are preparing for. After Clubhouse becomes open to the public and available on Android devices, entrepreneurs should pay close attention to how the rest of the story plays out.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.