'More community, more content, less expectation': 9 venture capitalists say the future of audio-chat app Clubhouse depends on whether it's still appealing post-quarantine


clubhouse app

  • An audio-only chat app called Clubhouse has been the talk of Silicon Valley techies and venture capitalists on Twitter recently.
  • Although the app is still invite-only and in the development stages, early users are already obsessing over the app and touting it as the next Twitter or Snapchat.
  • Business Insider talked to some VCs who are using Clubhouse. While they spoke highly of the app, many said its future depends on its ability to draw in users when the coronavirus outbreak is over.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Silicon Valley investors and founders haven’t stopped talking about Clubhouse Clubhouse, a new platform where they’ve been tuning into audio-only chat rooms.

Clubhouse isn’t publicly available yet, but the app is already accruing hype from big names in tech and investors who spotted the early potential in successful social networks like Houseparty and Snapchat. The Clubhouse platform hosts multiple audio-only chat rooms at a time, and allows users to tune in and out of the conversations as a speaker or a listener.

The invite-only app, still in its early stages, is the product of cofounders Paul Davison, who founded a Foursquare-like location-based app called Highlight, later acquired by Pinterest, and Rohan Seth.

In the past, social platforms like Twitter, Houseparty, and Foursquare became breakout hits after debuting at the annual South by Southwest festival, which was cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Business Insider talked to nine people in Silicon Valley’s tech scene who’ve had early access to the app. Many were drawn to Clubhouse for its ease of use and the quality of conversations, and admitted they found themselves spending hours each day on the app.

However, some noted that the initial hype around Clubhouse could have to do with lockdown orders and work-from-home guidelines, which for many have led to more free time and a desire for personal connection. Many investors said that in order for Clubhouse to survive after the pandemic has subsided, it has to prove itself as an app that can provide value to users even after they go back to their daily lives.

SEE ALSO: Facebook is scrambling to squash online groups that are planning anti-quarantine protests in states that are in lockdown — but they’re popping up faster than the company can stop them

Ben Parr — Octane AI cofounder

How does Clubhouse compare to other social apps?

“This app is like if Houseparty was audio, and it was about people’s interests instead of your friend groups. It makes easy to go into a conversation, and to Irish goodbye from a conversation. It doesn’t feel like the same kind of pressure as video chats. It’s made better for introverts than other apps I’ve seen.”

Why are people in Silicon Valley so excited about this app?

“Everyone in Silicon valley is looking for the next great consumer app, no matter what people say. You find the right consumer app, you can do almost anything … They found a different model than any other app has done. It feels very different than Houseparty, or TikTok, or any other social app that’s out there. It feels like it has more intellectual curiosity, which always attracts Silicon Valley people.”

Masha Drokova — Day One Ventures founder

Why does Clubhouse stand out among the sea of audio platforms being launched (HearMeOut, Riffr, High Fidelity)?

“Audio will be growing a lot in the next few years, and investors have been very curious, looking closely at apps using audio. There haven’t been many platforms that allow for communication between lots of different people using voice. People are looking forward to creating content as fast and as effortless as possible. When you paste text or make a video, it can be very time consuming.”

What effect has the coronavirus outbreak had on Clubhouse’s immediate hype and popularity?

“It’s clearly happened so fast because of where we are now, because people crave places and opportunities to meet new people. But I don’t think it’ll go away when the crisis is over. People are going to make more cautious decisions about whether it’s worth to go meet people in person or not. People will go step by step. They’re not going to go from zero to 10 hours when hanging out with friends. This pattern of online habits won’t go away.

As soon as there’s cool conversations happening there, why would I leave? I would rather see myself spending less time on Facebook and Linkedin and Instagram, and designate more of my time on Clubhouse. You go to a platform not because of the platform, but because of the people.”

Sriram Krishnan — Kearny Jackson investor

How has Clubhouse fit into your day-to-day routine?

“It should not be understated that we all have time now. Between Zoom meetings, a lot of people can pop in and out of the app quickly. I do this in between meetings when I have 10 minutes. If it’s an interesting conversation, I put it on speaker in the background. It’s always on. There’s always something happening. Around 11:30 when I was going to bed yesterday, I logged in and I ended up having a conversation with three people until 1:30 a.m. It was pretty unique, and I did not consider it a time waste.

I check into Clubhouse more than 15 to 20 times a day to see what’s going on. I don’t do this with Facebook. I think it’s up there right now as one of the apps I use the most frequently. I’m there to learn and listen, and it gives me a good enough reason to be on the product. Like, ‘Hey, I can learn something here today.'”

How does Clubhouse successfully scale up beyond Silicon Valley?

“This is where a lot of million-dollar questions will have to be answered. I don’t know what the answers are. I hope they don’t rush into it because it seems like it’s in such a raw stage of product. It seems like they caught fire in a bottle.

In its current state and climate, it has all the legs to succeed. Post-COVID, its about finding some type of utility that can be interesting. If it’s still somewhat of a intimate environment, with people I know and some people I recognize, then personally I would still come in and out post-COVID.”

Jesse Middleton — Flybridge general partner

What’s it like using Clubhouse?

“I find audio to be a challenging format typically. After spending a little bit of time on there, I realized it’s an interesting way to fill the gap between the things you’re doing. Pre-COVID, that time was filled with music and podcasts. But [Clubhouse] fills a unique space that maybe podcasts don’t fill. 

Within about five minutes, I found myself wondering how appropriate it was to jump into a conversation that was happening. It’s a bit like ‘The Truman Show.’ It’s a never-ending feed. Those rooms don’t have topics, and those rooms don’t end until everyone leaves. The ephemeral nature of it makes it both interesting and a little uncomfortable to jump into.”

How does Clubhouse fit into the existing space of social networks?

“What community-driven products like this one do is they enable this interesting many-to-many dynamic. It blurs the lines between the creator and the consumer. The very nature of the many-to-many means everyone gets to dip their toe into being a creator and a consumer. Because there’s no structure, anybody can take the helm. Anybody can hold the microphone or megaphone at any time. The alternative to this would be Houseparty or Zoom. But in that, everyone is a creator whether you want to be or not.”

Kara Nortman — Upfront Ventures partner

What value could Clubhouse bring to people’s daily lives?

“It has to really hit that user experience thing, that it’s something enough people want to do daily. They have to figure out how to be something people think about when they’re doing behaviors they do in regular life. What are those things? Commuting is the kind of the audio utopia. I still do things like calling people when I get in the car.

Clubhouse’s place will be in the empty spaces where people are listening to podcasts or calling friends. That’s where I would find the value. The question is, what does this become? Is it the conference call of my teenage years, or is it more like podcasts and webinars?”

What are the benefits of an audio-based platform over video apps like Zoom and Houseparty?

“We’re all just wearing AirPods all the time. AirPods are a new platform that are in your ears when you’re moving from thing to thing. My kids call my AirPods my ‘fourth child.’ With audio, it’s much easier to jump in and out. Not having to do your hair and make eye contact. It’s almost like it’s socially acceptable to be distracted. We want moments in time where we can be distracted and give 60% of ourselves. There’s more community, more content, less expectation.

I think everyone is pretty fatigued on Zoom right now. On Clubhouse, people are excited to come into it and interact. We’re at the stage of coronavirus where we’re coming back to craving community, craving creativity, craving learning. Now, we’re sort of adjusting to our ‘Groundhog Day’ and we’re doing what we can to find it in the real world.”

Social platforms like Twitter and Snapchat first surfaced among us users in Silicon Valley. How has the reaction to Clubhouse compared?

“It was hard for VCs to learn Snapchat. Most people who got it early had young people in their lives who taught it to them. I had to sit down and get a lesson. Clubhouse is much easier to learn than Snap. 

Clubhouse is on theme, on trend for what VCs, from an investment standpoint, have been thinking for a while. I think everyone wants to have enthusiasm for Clubhouse. There’s an element of it being the right time for this. If you’re a VC, you’re always trying to learn and self optimize. We feel like we’re getting something professional out of Clubhouse, and we’re getting something out of it that we enjoy.”

Jeff Morris Jr. — Chapter One founder

What’s the appeal of an audio-based app?

“When people are speaking to each other live through voice, the vibe and the mood is a lot more friendly. People would never walk up to you on the street and say to you what they would say on Twitter.

Audio was growing pre-COVID in many different ways. I don’t think there’s a question of if people want more audio in their lives. I think it’ll keep growing. Obviously the explosion of podcasts has been happening for some time now. I think of Clubhouse as live interactive podcasts at this point.”

How does Clubhouse ensure it can be successful after the coronavirus outbreak has subsided?

“The big question is: Is this app trending because we’re in quarantine, and it has quarantine market fit? Or does this truly have a product market fit that we would see in a non-quarantine world? You’re having to make assumptions on behavior and whether this is a permanent shift due to the circumstances were in. It’s a new investment risk we’ve never had to predict before. All of us are using our instincts and our best judgment in what the world will look like.

When the world opens up, people are going to have less time at home to spend time on these things. It’s harder to participate in interactive audio during the work day. If you’re on Clubhouse and you’re talking, does that mean you’re not working? But one of the best parts of Clubhouse is, you don’t have to be on stage. And in that way, it does feel like just listening to a live podcast or a live radio show.”

Brianne Kimmel — Work Life Ventures founder

What value does Clubhouse provide?

“Having this synchronous audio-based format is a way to find community in a way that is passive, but can be active. You’ll have a large percentage of people who are on mute and just listening. It’s something where you could go on mute and you could listen, you can do your cooking and hang out at home.

Given the group format, it reminds me a lot of the microcommunities being built on WhatsApp, where individuals are adding each other to specific conversations. The unscripted dialogue can create serendipitous interactions. It feels like a real community-led initiative where, at least in having no agenda, individuals can drive the discussion in new and interesting ways.”

How can Clubhouse successfully scale up outside of the tech world?

“You have an early subset of users who work in the same sector. If anything, there is already a lot of commonality and existing first-degree connections. As something like Clubhouse starts to scale, you would have to imagine a world where there’s a use of profiles, where there’s more of an onboarding flow to make sure you’re placed in the right room. How do you avoid the app feeling random, and avoid where it becomes a group Chatroulette system? Does this become almost a conference replacement? Maybe this is more of a modern conference or a modern networking event.”

Nikhil Basu Trivedi — Shasta Ventures managing director

How does Clubhouse compare to other social platforms out there?

“It’s a bit like being in a conversation on Twitter while everyone else is online. The key difference between Clubhouse and other traditional social networks is that the communication is synchronous. From that perspective, it’s more like being in a chat room with others, like the old AIM days.”

Why is Clubhouse getting so much hype already in the tech community?

“Sometimes a platform gets this hype because it’s growing really quickly. That’s not the case with Clubhouse. The hype is not because of growth, but it’s because of the engagement — the types of people who are on there, how long they are on there for, the type of conversations they are having. Right now, there is something interesting about it because it’s small. You can talk to people you know and don’t really know. It’s a bunch of interesting people at the moment. I have opened the app everyday since becoming a user. That’s rare.”

Turner Novak — Gelt VC general partner

What makes you excited already about Clubhouse?

“One of the biggest questions for social platforms is, ‘Can people accumulate social capital?’ Getting followers on Instagram, getting views on TikTok. With all these social products, it comes down to empowering creators — Instagram empowered people to edit photos, Snapchat added face filters. People use it because it helps them express themselves better. On Clubhouse, there are little subtle things. It may be something silly, but people care about that.

There have been other people who have tried things in the audio space. What Clubhouse did best is make it public and make it easy to start these spontaneous conversations. There could be a new class of creators who rise up who are really good at this spontaneous audio conversation.”

How does Clubhouse achieve the same level of success as platforms such as Instagram or TikTok?

“With most social products, one of the biggest things is getting young female users. Those are the power users per se, who are the most important to get on board.

Silicon Valley is 0.0001% of the population. I’m thinking, ‘Can you get LeBron [James] onto the platform talking with Steph Curry? Can you get Ellen on here to interview Harry Styles?’ Then you get into the dynamic of: Can you get thousands of people to tune into this audio conversation? Does the 35-year-old soccer mom want to listen to her favorite food blogger interviewing a chef for 30 minutes? That’s what they have to figure out. You have to get tens of millions of people on this.”