On a recent weekend, Todd McLees was part of a “room” discussing the future of transportation on Clubhouse, a social audio platform that is rapidly growing in popularity. He searched the platform for people with expertise in autonomous vehicles and tweeted a link to the room to six of them. Before long, three of them joined the room and came on stage to join the discussion.
These weren’t just any experts, they were top-of-their-field experts, including heads of transportation for countries, and people working at high levels of emerging transportation companies.
“It’s so much better than sitting here with one expert and six people who want to convince the world they know what they’re talking about. You get a person who spent years on Hyperloop, you kind of get out of your depth very quickly and just go into learning mode,” said McLees, principal at Full Circle Innovation.
Clubhouse launched in the spring of 2020 and requires an invitation from an existing user to join. For now, it is only available on Apple’s iOS but has reportedly topped more than 10 million downloads globally. In early April, Bloomberg reported Clubhouse was raising funding from investors at a $4 billion valuation.
At the heart of the app are “rooms” where users communicate via audio. Users only see a picture of other users but can get more info by clicking in to a user’s profile. Speakers are on a virtual stage with their photos in a separate area from listeners. Moderators can then bring listeners who “raise their hand” up on stage to join the conversation.
That ability to seamlessly bring someone from the audience into the conversation in real-time is part of what differentiates the platform from others. True, users on Twitter or Facebook can engage in back-and-forth conversations, but on Clubhouse the users are actually talking to each other and the conversation is moderated.
“It reminds me of the early days of Twitter, when social media was fun, or the early days of Instagram, when everything was exciting and fresh,” said Ryan Thompson, co-founder and president of Mention Marketing. “It’s like a paradigm shift, like, ‘wait, I don’t need to doom scroll on my phone or I don’t need to watch video all day? I can actually be driving a car and be part of the conversation?’”
Thompson joined with friend and former co-worker Chris Luecke to launch an MKE Tech room. They’ve since added Kathy Heinrich, chief executive officer of Milwaukee Tech Hub, as a member and are working to hold a series of discussions over several weeks involving founders and C-suite executives from around the community.
McLees said he was hesitant to join the platform when innovation author Greg Satell, a friend and occasional collaborator, invited him to join. He said in the past he hasn’t been able to sustain any dedication to social media platforms, but on Clubhouse he was quickly hooked on the opportunity to learn and then found himself connecting with people from around the world.
“I’ve met incredible people,” McLees said. “I mean, I hang out with incredible people all day and all night now.”
Thompson and McLees both said they like the way the app can be on in the background as they go about their day, replacing a role previously held by talk radio or podcasts. McLees acknowledged he has to turn it off completely at times to focus in on his work and avoid being distracted by interesting points raised by speakers.
The platform draws a wide range of discussions including advice for startup founders, religious discussions, motivational rooms, debates about the future of work, interviews and more. On a recent evening, users could quickly go from an interview of Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph to hearing Vice News chief political correspondent Liz Landers discuss gun legislation to listening as the founders of newsletter platform Substack discussed the rise of solopreneurs.
McLees said there are lots of different uses for the app and it is possible to go down some “dark alleys,” as is possible with any platform. As Clubhouse grows, privacy and security will likely become even bigger issues, especially when the app expands to Android users, where it might be easier to fake a phone number, he said.
For now, the app uses phone numbers and other platforms to tie users to their real identity.
Thompson and McLees both said users are generally expected to add value to the conversation when they join other speakers on stage.
“Offer value or if the situation calls for, ask an honest question,” Thompson said. “There’s hucksters, there’s self-promoters, there’s all of that. It’s great to hear on Clubhouse, almost all those people get shut down and sometimes the whole room will lay into somebody.”
“The part of the community I’m in shuns sales pitches,” McLees said.
Thompson said he finds democracy, decency and opportunity on the platform.
“When you put all those things together, that seems like a pretty sure bet that, if not the specific platform, that the medium is going to shine,” he said.
Other social media platforms have moved quickly to add similar social audio features to their platforms. Facebook is reportedly working on a competitor, Twitter has launched Spaces already, and Spotify recently acquired Locker Room, a sports-focused social audio platform. There are also audio platforms that pre-date Clubhouse like Discord.
McLees said that from a business perspective, Clubhouse offers the opportunity for “hyper-learning and hyper-connectivity, especially outside of the region.”
“I think we have a tendency, in the region, to focus on building the region, and that’s cool … but I believe in infusing our thought processes with global perspectives and that’s what this offers,” he said.
McLees recalled a recent discussion on education accessibility with people from the U.S. and Canada. About 40 minutes into the conversation a woman born in Kenya but now living in Minnesota chimed in to point out how western the focus of the conversation had been and how dramatically different accessibility issues are in Africa.
“It just helps you zoom out a little bit and gain perspective,” McLees said. “That doesn’t mean every conversation needs to be about accessibility and the underserved, but it also gives me perspective that there are underserved communities in Milwaukee, there are also extraordinarily underserved communities around the world and it helps frame the challenges with a better perspective.”
If you’re looking to build a business within Wisconsin, the platform’s opportunities may be limited to learning for now, he said.
“If you’re looking to build regionally, nationally or globally, I can’t think of a better place to have authentic conversations with tremendous transparency and learning and access to experts and people who want to help,” McLees said.
While the platform allows users to consume the conversations passively, engaging in the discussions is a key part of getting the full potential out of it.
“You have to contribute,” McLees said. “You have to be willing to raise your hand and go up on stage, either as a guest and ask great questions and contribute great content or work your way into a moderating role. Take risks because there’s very little to lose. It helps you sharpen your skills in terms of critical listening, deep listening and brevity.”