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A Gen X Executive's Guide to Clubhouse, the New Social-Audio Network

                                                                                                                                                                                       February 5, 2021

If you haven't heard about Clubhouse, the social audio chat-based networking app, I bet you will soon, at least if you try to be tech-savvy. Even if you don't want to use it right away, you should go and reserve your name as a username on the platform. (It is invite only, so contact me if you would like to get in.) It is creating an entirely new type of online platform. To put its potential ground-breaking innovation in perspective, I’d put it in the neighborhood of these companies (and their innovation): Netscape (browser), Yahoo (directory portal), AOL (home access), Hotmail (webmail), MySpace (personal webpages), Facebook (social network), Twitter (microblogging), and YouTube (video). I say this as someone who worked as an internet marketing pro from 1999 to 2008, so I saw a lot of innovation through my ride from an internet boom (an IPO) and a bust (a bankruptcy) to a steady job at a Fortune 500 bank’s internet marketing team.

As a whole new platform, I think the best way to explain Clubhouse (app) to my fellow Gen X-ers is by using analogies to other channels we do know well. 

Like a Convention Center / Conference -But Online, Audio-Only, and Infinite

Imagine yourself years ago at your industry's annual conference in a huge convention center in some interesting new city. There are several pre-arranged breakout rooms to choose from during each time slot. You can drop in and out of each breakout room by slipping through the door in back and quietly finding a seat. The speakers are often a panel taking questions, with one speaker acting as moderator. If you get really engaged by the speakers, you could raise your hand and request a microphone to pose a question. But you can just be a passive listener too.

Clubhouse (app) is designed like a virtual replication of the conference experience, but with some big differences. First, it is online and audio only. (The audio quality is great and the handoffs from one speaker to the next are smooth.) Second, there aren't any whole-conference convocations to open or close - the breakout rooms are everything. Third, and most importantly, you can see and scan the online profiles of everyone else sitting in the room and on the stage in that room and follow them. You can even see their Instagram and Twitter links to message them that way. (The founders say direct messaging is one of next functions they need to build.) Finally, the biggest difference is that Clubhouse is like every annual conference in the world happening in the same place at the same time, and you can drop in anywhere by just swiping and tapping your finger. At least, that is what the potential could be.

Like a Radio Call-in Show But Infinite and Interactive, and Maybe Ad-Hoc

Imagine yourself back in the day listening to the radio and going through the dial to find something interesting in a talk format. Maybe you have one "program" you know is scheduled and go right to it. Maybe you are scanning the dial through many stations before finding one you decide to stay with. Maybe you get engaged enough to decide and call in via the phone to talk to the host. After 30 minutes on hold, you finally get through the queue and ask your question. You hang up when you are done and continue listening.

Clubhouse is like having every talk show in one online portal you can browse. Rooms you might like are curated to you in a feed that is based on the interests of other Clubhouse users you follow. Clubhouse rooms are like talk radio shows in that they are live, rely on audience participation, and have a pre-defined topic. Clubhouse's interaction is much richer though, in that you can click to the profiles of the host and all the people listening with you. You can also get a sense of how far you might be behind in the queue to have your question brought to the host. The host typically has other people sharing the microphone with them. They often invite people to co-host with them. They pull audience members up to the virtual “stage” when they have a question. Those transitions of moving people to the stage and moving the audio feed from one speaker to the next are surprisingly smooth.

A Podcast Super-Store – But Live and Socially Networked 

Podcasts are a rich audio experience that many people have grown to love since they took off about 15 years ago when Apple and iTunes made it mainstream. Some people think the podcast arena has plateaued as a niche and is ripe for innovation, though. They aren’t live or interactive or cataloged or linked well. 

The audio communication experience of Clubhouse is like a live podcast. If its user base keeps growing at current rates, Clubhouse is going to be a disruptive force for podcasts. It could simply eat away market share of people who like to consume audio talk. More likely, I think many of the content creators who use podcasts today will figure out how get their content on Clubhouse to take advantage of the power of the social networking in Clubhouse. To use an old analogy, I could see Clubhouse being to podcasts what Facebook was to MySpace. Myspace created mass demand for people, bands and such to have their own page on the web. When Facebook offered an online profile connected with social networking tools (like the newsfeed and apps like games), people made it the preferred place to have their online presence. Maybe Clubhouse will do that with podcasters. 

What Does Clubhouse Look Like Now?

The buzz is that Clubhouse has about 6 million users now and has doubled in the last month. If it keeps growing this fast, and avoids any huge miscues, Clubhouse will be too large to ignore soon for content providers who work well as voice audio.

The beta testers / early adopters on the app thus far have come in a few waves. The first wave seems to have come in early to mid 2020 from the tech community in California along with investors and influencers in the tech space. The goal was likely to show the concept. Then social media influencers, especially from Instagram, and social networking marketing specialists got in. Social media business building entrepreneurs started to come in as well. That started a land grab to garner followers and their own rooms and clubs. I got in last month and immediately saw potential. I’ve been using it as much as I can to learn how the technology and culture work. (That’s a big topic, so I’ll write more on that some other time.)

Clubhouse's profiles provide an interesting datum that you can stitch together to figure out how the audience grew - the join date in their invite-only system. The founders joined in mid-March 2020. One month later (mid-April) other people start to join. It seems like they were soliciting investors and influencers to drive audience. Chris Lyons from Andreeson Horowitz bit and got Marc Andreeson to join too. $12 million in venture funding soon comes through. (Actor Jared Leto also bit and now has 1.3 million followers on Clubhouse.) Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, and Mark Cuban join in early May. There seems to growth from an organic word of mouth over the next few months, with recognizable names dribbling in. One of those is Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook in June. There seems to be an increase in the rate of new members in mid-December. It's unclear if it reflects an opening of spigots or just geometric growth running its course. Then on January 29, there is a new chapter, as Elon Musk joins with a server-melting splash. Exactly one week later, Mark Zuckerberg joins with a different sounding splash. The rest of the story remains to be written, but the chapters seem to be getting shorter.

Some business-oriented “celebrities” are starting to join this week (30 January 2021) too. The biggest was Elon Musk, who joined a room last Sunday with about a day’s notice and virtually melted their servers with thousands of people in the audience. Since then, other people with some celebrity are dropping in to and opening a room, where they can instantly draw large audiences of people to listen to them, and maybe ask them a question. For example, I listened to Wharton Professor and popular author Adam Grant do an impromptu book event with Ashton Kutcher on the platform on Monday that garnered a room of thousands of attendees. I was on another impromptu call this week with Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary, where he stayed on for over two hours taking questions from an audience of thousands while he was relaxing at home playing his guitar. Jeff Garlin, one of the stars of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Goldbergs, opened an impromptu room last night and chatted with a large audience. He said he will do it again. The celebrities noted they are wowed and enjoying the experience and viewing it as lower risk and convenient because it is audio only and not recorded (at least officially, unless noted). 

So Where Does Clubhouse Go From Here?

That’s the big question, but Clubhouse seems to be on a hockey stick rate of adoption that reminds me of game chaging-type growth. They seem to have reached 6 million users this week, with much of that coming since the Elon Musk talk. You can also witness new countries coming online this week as the room titles start showing up in new languages. Most importantly, the users on the app, including me, are finding it exceptionally sticky and addictive. 

Clubhouse is reportedly valued at $100 million and funded by Marc Andreeson’s (of Netscape fame) venture capital fund. The amazing part of that is I am pretty sure I heard one of the two co-founders in a room last night say they were a team of “about 10 or so people.” With millions of users (and millions of valuation), that has been one amazingly productive team. They will be hiring as fast as they can as they have many new features (e.g., direct messaging, making it available on more than just the iPhone/iPad format) on their to-do list.

Of course, Clubhouse could also be acquired by an established firm and integrated as a complementary capability or standalone property. Facebook looms large as a social media buyer. Amazon could see the voice format as having synergy with Alexa. Apple could see it as having synergy with its podcast application. Spotify and other audio streaming companies could also be wildcards in the equation.

So What do Digital Business Leaders Need to Do Now with Clubhouse

Clubhouse may not have an impact at all on many existing businesses. It may go to a user subscription-based revenue model instead of an ad-based model. But it is likely to be a place where content owners and marketers will want to be, at a minimum. It will start generating lots of buzz that will likely start making it covered by media that business leaders read. My suggestion for tech business leaders (e.g., Chief Digital Officers) is to start figuring that out before their CEOs asks them. One way to do that is to assign someone on the team to get on it and figure that out. The hardest part about that might be snagging an invite, as only existing members can invite new members, and they keep them very scarce. Even better, consult an external advisor with Clubhouse experience who can help you figure that out. For example, I offer a one hour “Clubhouse app Business Overview” via a conference call that you can book here.

PS - If you are on the Clubhouse app, follow me at princevictor.