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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Clubhouse Is Booming. So Is the Ecosystem Around It

About a month ago, Marcin Brukiewicz scored an invite to Clubhouse and started spending hours on the audio app. Brukiewicz, a Polish physician, joined rooms discussing the future of health care and medical technology, and met people from all around the world in spaces like the Healthcare Innovators Club and the Global Health Club. Brukiewicz sometimes talks, but he mostly listens. “I’m an introvert, so I don’t like to speak up,” he says. He’s also not a native English speaker, and sometimes finds the language barrier intimidating. Then a friend complained that it’s difficult for moderators to know who to call on in a large audience, and Brukiewicz had an idea: What if there were a Clubhouse feature where you could type your thoughts?

Over the weekend, Brukiewicz built Ask Clubhouse, a simple web tool for managing audience Q&As on Clubhouse. Moderators can set up a “board,” link it to a Clubhouse room, and invite audience members to type their questions or comments, which the mods can then see in real time. Brukiewicz launched the site over the weekend; on Monday, he said, people had created about 50 different boards. He thinks some moderators will use it to manage large audiences; other people might find comfort in typing rather than talking, which could also make the platform more accessible. Brukiewicz hopes Clubhouse one day builds a version of this feature natively. For now, though, people can use his workaround.

When Clubhouse launched last spring, it served as an intimate gathering space for the early adopter crowd. But in the past two months, the invite-only app has exploded in popularity, and now has over 10 million users according to the researcher Vajresh Balaji. Many of those new users are arriving on the platform with ideas about how to make it better, or how to maximize functionality with existing features. Brukiewicz’s tool is just one of many that have been invented in the last month: Clubpad offers a free soundboard for use in Clubhouse rooms: a drumroll, a sad trombone, the timer from Jeopardy!, a DJ horn. Host Notes gives moderators a space for links, meeting agendas, and discussion summaries. Clubhouse Recorder is a Telegram bot lets people record audio from a room. ClubLink, Clubhype, and shorten.club each shorten links to Clubhouse rooms to make them easier to share on social media. There are at least four apps for adding a colorful ring around your Clubhouse avatar.


Other users, eyeing Clubhouse’s staggering $1 billion valuation, see a way to make money. There’s another soundboard—this one sold for $2.99 in the App Store. Direcon offers analytics for power users who pay a monthly fee; it’s already raised a seed round. “There’s this cottage industry of people now getting on the platform who are trying to capitalize on the moment,” says Chris Messina, a product strategist and early Clubhouse user.

Messina, who was also an early adopter on Instagram and Twitter, says this kind of symbiosis happens once platforms reach a certain level of maturation. Some users end up building functionality that make their own experience better: Imgur, for example, started as a workaround for sharing photos on Reddit, seven years before the platform introduced a native image-upload feature. Messina himself is well known for creating the hashtag on Twitter as a way to organize the platform into groups of ideas; Twitter later took the idea and ran with it. “People solve their own problems,” he says.

On Clubhouse, it’s no different. People have been working within the constraints of the app to make it work for them. For example: There’s no way to share images, so some people use their avatar to show charts or other visuals that may be relevant to a room. There’s no way to share notes or links, so some people add link trees to their bio where more information can be found. Clubhouse does not have the UI to show which rooms are on-the-record, so people add red dots, in emoji, to the names of rooms that are being recorded.

Some have taken that kind of creative problem-solving further, to build their own businesses. YoYo Club—advertised as the “Eventbrite for Clubhouse”—gives moderators a way to plan and promote future Clubhouse rooms, cutting through the noise of Clubhouse’s notifications. “You follow people and then you end up getting 60 Clubhouse notifications every hour,” says Peter Swain, YoYo Club’s cofounder. “So I’m not actually getting notifications from the people I’m interested in anymore. And meanwhile, people come into rooms saying, ‘I wish I’d known about this a few hours ago.’” Recognizing the need, Swain and his cofounder prototyped the app in a few weeks. Right now, moderators can use it to show audience members when they have upcoming events scheduled.

YoYo Club is currently free to use, though Swain hopes that power users will eventually want to pay for it. As he sees it, there are already people with millions of followers on the platform, and an emerging set of influencers who host dozens of rooms a week. Those people will likely need premium features to enhance their businesses, as full-time Clubhouse hosts. He’s also aware that Clubhouse is still in its early days and could easily put the kibosh on his idea by building it natively. “If you want to base your business model around somebody else’s platform, that’s a risk,” he says. “Will Clubhouse build what I built? Probably. Can I stay one step ahead of them? Also probably.”

Direcon, the so-called “Tweetdeck for Clubhouse,” is already monetizing its suite of tools, by charging users a $50 monthly subscription fee. It can measure the total number of listeners in a room, average time listened, number of hands raised, and the average "stickiness" of the room. Direcon began as a tool for Instagram users, but found itself in an already-saturated market. This month, its cofounders—a group of five Turkish entrepreneurs—reinvented the app for Clubhouse.

“The lack of insights on Clubhouse makes it really hard to understand the campaigns’ performance and we thought it should be developed as soon as possible,” says Buğra Kaan Ayaz, one Direcon’s cofounders. Already, he says that a few thousand moderators have started using the service. The goal is to become “the most advanced analytics platform for Clubhouse.” That could either mean a steady stream of subscription income, or an acquisition: Recall that Tweetdeck was purchased by Twitter in 2011, for a reported $40 million.

It’s not all smooth sailing for would-be Clubhouse entrepreneurs. The company does not have an official API, or application programming interface, which allows outside developers to “plug into” a platform. Without that, third-party apps like Direcon rely on workarounds for their functionality. When it first launched on February 22, Direcon asked users to log in with their Clubhouse username and password, in order to access room data and provide analytics. After people pointed out that this method presented security issues and a risk of users being banned from Clubhouse altogether, Ayaz says the app changed tack and no longer requires people to sign in with their Clubhouse credentials. “All the live features related to analytics will remain the same,” he adds. “Our incoming moderation feature will be slightly different.” In comments on Direcon’s blog post and on Twitter, some users claimed they were having trouble with their Clubhouse accounts. Ayaz says this was due to a bug with Clubhouse, not Direcon; another post by the company was updated overnight to say the issue had been resolved.

“Clubhouse now has to make an executive decision: Do we want to allow other people to build apps?” says Messina. Other social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have used their APIs to encourage whole developer ecosystems that made their products more useful to even more people, enabling that much more growth. Third-party apps can also be a risk, however. For a young company like Clubhouse, it means giving up some control of a platform and business model that has yet to be fully established. And while APIs can enable users to try third-party apps without handing over their passwords, history has shown that doesn’t always mean users are more secure.

Other social platforms, like Twitter and Instagram, have also faced these questions. The only difference, Messina says, is the timing. “Clubhouse has been out for less than a year, and we’re already seeing what it took five to six years for Twitter to go through.”

Clubhouse did not respond to requests for comment. The platform is still in closed beta, and has been fairly guarded about its plans. If you’re still waiting for your Clubhouse invite, though, there’s a burgeoning ecosystem of profiteers to help with that, too.

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