If you’re on the internet and haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve heard about the startup Clubhouse and its explosive growth. It launched around the time COVID lockdowns started last year, and has been booming in popularity even with (maybe in-part due to?) an invitation gate and waitlist to get access.
The core product idea centers around “drop-in” audio conversations. Anyone can spin up a room accessible to the public, others can drop in and out, and, importantly, there’s a sort of peer-to-peer model on contributing that differentiates it from podcasting, its closest analog.
I got an invite recently and have been checking out sessions from the first 50 or so folks I follow, really just listening so far. Their user and growth numbers aren’t public, but from a glance at my follow recommendations I see lots of people I follow on Twitter already on Clubhouse.
They recently closed a B round led by Andreessen Horowitz, who also backed the company in its earlier months last year. Any time an investor does successive rounds this quickly is an indicator of magic substance under the hood, signals that show tremendous upside possibility. In the case of Clubhouse, user growth is obviously a big deal — viral explosion this quickly is always a good early sign — but I’m sure there are other metrics they’re seeing that point to something deeper going on with product-market fit. Perhaps DAUs are climbing proportional to new user growth, average session duration is super long, or retention is extremely high (users returning every day).
On the surface a skeptical user might ask: what’s so different here from podcasts? It’s amazing what explosive growth they’ve had given the similarities to podcasting (audio conversations), and considering its negatives when compared with podcasts. In all of the Clubhouse rooms I’ve been in, most users have telephone-level audio quality, there’s somewhat chaotic overtalk, and “interestingness” is hard to predict. With podcasts you can scroll through the feed and immediately tell whether you’ll find something interesting; when I see an interesting guest name, I know what I’m getting myself into. You can reliably predict that you’ll enjoy the hour or so of listening.
Whenever a new product starts to take off like this, it’s hitting on some aspect of latent user demand, unfulfilled. What if we think about Clubhouse from a Jobs to Be Done perspective? Thinking about it from the demand side, what role does it play in addressing jobs customers have?
Clubhouse describes itself as “Drop-in audio chat”, which is a stunningly simple product idea. Like most tech innovations of the internet era, the foundational insight is so simple that it sounds like a joke, a toy. Twitter, Facebook, GitHub, Uber — the list goes on and on — none required invention of core new technology to prosper. Each of them combined existing technical foundations in new and interesting ways to create something new. Describing the insights of these services at inception often prompted responses like: “that’s it?”, “anyone could build that”, or “that’s just a feature X product will add any day now”. In so many cases, though, when the startup hits on product-market fit and executes well, products can create their own markets. In the words of Chris Dixon, “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy”.
Clubhouse rides on a few key features. Think of these like Twitter’s combo of realtime messaging + 140 characters, or Uber’s connection of two sides of a market (drivers and riders) through smartphones and a user’s current location. For Clubhouse, it takes audio chat and combines:
- Drop-in — You browse a list of active conversations, one tap and you drop into the room. Anyone can spin up a room ad-hoc.
- Live — Everything happening in Clubhouse is live. In fact, recording isn’t allowed at all, so there’s a “you had to be there” FOMO factor that Clubhouse can leverage to drive attention.
- Spontaneous — Rooms are unpredictable, both when they’ll sprout up and what goes on within conversations. Since anyone can raise their hand and be pulled “on stage”, conversation is unscripted and emergent.
- Omni-directional — Podcasts are one-way: from producer to listener, or some shows have “listener mail” feedback loops. Clubhouse rooms by definition have a peer-to-peer quality. They truly are conversations, at least as long as the room doesn’t have 8,000 people in it.
None of these is a new invention. Livestreaming has been around for years, radio has done much of this over the air for a century, and people have been hosting panel discussions since the time of Socrates and Plato. What Clubhouse does is mix these together in a mobile app, giving you access to live conversations whenever you have your phone plus connectivity. So, any time.
Through the Lens of Jobs
Jobs to Be Done focuses on what specific needs exist in a customer’s life. The theory talks about “struggling moments”: gaps in demand that product creators should be in search of, looking for how to fit the tools we produce into true customer-side demand. It describes a world where customers “hire” a product to perform a job. Wherever you see products rocketing off like Clubhouse, there’s a clear fit with the market: users are hiring Clubhouse for a job that wasn’t fulfilled before.
Some might make the argument that it’s addressing the same job as podcasts, but I don’t think that’s right exactly. For me it has hardly diminished my podcast listening at all. I think the market for audio is just getting bigger — not a zero-sum taking of attention from podcasts, but an increase in the overall size of the pie. Distributed work and the reduction of in-person interaction and events has amplified this, too (which we’ll get to in a moment, a critical piece of the product’s explosive growth).
Let’s go through a few jobs to be done statements that define the role that Clubhouse plays in its users’ lives. These loosely follow a format for framing jobs to be done, statements that are solution-agnostic, result in progress, and are stable across time (see Brian Rhea’s helpful article on this topic).
I’m doing something else and want to be entertained, informed, etc.
Podcasts certainly fit the bill here much of the time. Clubhouse adds something new and interesting in how lightweight the decision is to jump into a room and listen. With podcasts there’s a spectrum: on one end you have informative shows like deep dives on history or academic subjects (think Hardcore History or EconTalk) that demand attention and that entice you to completionism, and on the other, entertainment-centric ones for sports or movies, where you can lightly tune in and scrub through segments.
The spontaneity of Clubhouse rooms lends well to dropping in and listening in on a chat in progress. Because so many rooms tend to be agendaless, unplanned discussions, you can drop in anytime and leave without feeling like you missed something. Traditional podcasts tend to have an agenda or conversational arc that fits better with completionist listening. Think about when you sit down with Netflix and browse for 10 minutes unable to decide what to watch. The same effect can happen with podcasts, decision fatigue on what to pick. Clubhouse is like putting on a baseball game in the background: just pick a room and listen in with your on-and-off attention.
Ben Thompson called it the “first Airpods social network”. Pop in your headphones and see what your friends or followers are talking about.
I have an idea to express, but don’t want to spend time on writing or learning new tools
Clubhouse does for podcasting what Twitter did for blogs: massively drops the barrier to entry to participation. Setting up a blog has always required some upstart cost. Podcasting is even worse. Even with the latest and greatest tools, publishing something new has overhead. Twitter lowered this bar, only requiring users to tap out short thoughts to broadcast them to the world. Podcasting is getting better, but is still hardware-heavy to do well.
There’s a cottage industry sprouting up on Clubhouse of “post-game” locker room-style conversations following events, political, sports, television, even other Clubhouse shows. This plays well with the live aspect. Immediately following (or hell, even during) sporting events or TV shows, people can hop in a room and gab their analysis in real time.
Clubhouse’s similarities to Twitter for audio are striking. Now broadcasting a conversation doesn’t require expensive equipment, audio editing, CDNs, feed management. Just tap to create a room and notify your followers to join in.
I want to hear from notable people I follow more often
This one has been true for me a few times. With the app’s notifications feature, you can get alerts when people you follow start up a room, then join in on conversations involving your network whenever they pop up. I’ve hopped in when I saw notable folks I follow sitting in rooms, without really looking at the topic. For those interesting people you follow that you make sure to listen to, Clubhouse expands those opportunities. Follow them on Clubhouse and drop in on rooms they go into. Not only can you hear more often from folks you like, you also get a more unscripted and raw version of their thoughts and ideas with on-the-fly Clubhouse sessions.
I want to have an intellectual conversation with someone else, but I’m stuck at home!
Or maybe not even an intellectual one, just any social interaction with others!
This is where the timing of Clubhouse’s launch in April of last year was so essential to its growth. COVID quarantines put all of us indoors, unable to get out for social gatherings with friends or colleagues. Happy hours and dinners over Zoom aren’t things any of us thought we’d ever be doing, but when the lockdowns hit, we took to them to fill the need for social engagement. Clubhouse fills this void of providing loose, open-ended zones for conversation just like being at a party. Podcasts, books, and TV are all one-way. Humans need connection, not just consumption.
COVID hurt many businesses, but it sure was a growth hack for Clubhouse.
Future Jobs to Be Done?
Products can serve a job to be done in a zero- or positive-sum way. They can address existing jobs better than the current alternatives, or they can expand the job market to create demand for new unfulfilled ones. I think Clubhouse does a bit of both. From first-hand experience, I’ve popped into some rooms in cases when I otherwise would’ve put on a podcast or audiobook, and several times when I was listening to nothing else and saw a notification of something interesting. Above are just a few of the customer jobs that Clubhouse is filling so far. If you start thinking about adjacent areas they could experiment with, it opens up even more greenfield opportunity. Offering downloads (create a custom podcast feed to listen to later?), monetization for organizers and participants (tipping?), subscription-only rooms (competition with Patreon?). There’s a long list of areas for the product to explore.
Where Does Clubhouse Go Next?
There’s a question in tech that’s brought up any time a hot new entrant comes on the scene. It goes something like:
Can a new product grow its network or user base faster than the existing players can copy the product?
This has to be at the forefront of the Clubhouse founders’ minds as their product is taking off. Twitter’s already launched Spaces, a clone of Clubhouse that shows up in the Fleets feed. That kind of prominent presentation to Twitter’s existing base adds quite the competitive threat, though Twitter isn’t known for it’s lightning-quick product innovation over the last decade. But maybe they’ve learned their lesson in all their past missed opportunities. What could play out is another round of what happened to Snap with Stories, a concept that’s been copied by just about every product now.
Clubhouse is doing a respectable job managing the technical scalability of the platform as it grows. The growth tactics they’re using with pulling in contacts, while controversial, appear to be helping to replicate the webs of user connections. The friction in building new social interest graphs is one of the primary things that’s stifled other social products over the last 10 years. By the time new players achieve some traction, they’re either gobbled up by Twitter or Facebook, or copied by them (aside from a few, like TikTok). Can Clubhouse reach TikTok scale before Twitter can copy it?
There are still unanswered questions on how Clubhouse’s growth plays out over time:
- How far can it reach into the general public audience outside of its core tech-centric “online” crowd?
- Like any new network-driven product, when it’s shiny and new, we see a gold rush for followers. What behaviors will live chat incentivize?
- How will room hosts behave competing for attention? What will be the “clickbait” of live audio chat?
- What mechanisms can they create for generating social capital on the network? How does one build an initial following and expand reach?
Right now, the easiest way to build a following on Clubhouse is just like every other social network’s default: bring your already-existing network to the platform. It’s a bit early to see how Clubhouse might address this differently, but most of the big time users were folks with large followings on Twitter, YouTube, or elsewhere. It’d be cool to see something like TikTok-esque algorithm-driven recommendations to raise distribution for ideas or topics even outside of the follower graphs of the members of the rooms.
Clubhouse (and this category of live multi-way audio chat) is still in the newborn stages. As it matures and makes its way to wider audiences outside of mostly tech circles, it’ll be interesting to see what other “jobs” are out there unfilled by existing products that it can perform.