Behind Clubhouse, the Invite-Only App Connecting Hollywood and Silicon Valley During the Pandemic

Sean Burch
·9 min read

Forget The Nice Guy or Soho House. The place to find Hollywood and Silicon Valley powerhouses during the pandemic has been on Clubhouse, the invite-only, audio-driven app that’s quickly gaining steam as a networking tool for those looking to make it in the entertainment and tech worlds.

Hop on Clubhouse at any given time and you could stumble into conversations led by Wiz Khalifa, Tiffany Haddish, Ava DuVernay, Ashton Kutcher, Brian Koppelman or Scooter Braun, among several other celebs. Kevin Hart, in a story that’s already solidified in Clubhouse lore, recently took part in an hours-long conversation focused on whether he was, in fact, funny. And on the tech side, Clubhouse is packed entrepreneurs like former Twitter CEO Ev Williams, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and former Y Combinator President Sam Altman, along with a laundry list of angel investors and venture capitalists.

Clubhouse isn’t complicated: Users can go on the app and join a “room” where a particular conversation is going on. Often, these conversations are focused on business and networking topics; “Pivoting from live events to virtual events + sponsorships” and “virtual writing cafe” were two rooms pulling in users on Monday, for example. Once inside, users can listen to the discussion and, if approved by the room moderator, chime in and join the conversation themselves. It’s not uncommon to see rooms with a few dozen speakers and a few hundred users listening in.

Since launching in April, the app has grown to over 100,000 beta users, according to an individual familiar with the company’s internal metrics. The app’s early traction helped it land a $12 million round of funding from Andreessen Horowitz, valuing Clubhouse at $100 million.

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As the new, go-to spot to listen to (and potentially connect with) entrepreneurs and stars, Clubhouse has also become the audio version of LinkedIn for those looking to make connections in Hollywood. Even in normal times, making it in the movie business is tough enough. But for Sade Sellers, a 31-year-old screenwriter from Burbank, California, one of the many problems tied to the pandemic has been the end to casual networking events — coffee meet-ups with executives, conferences and post-work drinks with people in the film industry — that have helped her career grow.

“L.A. is all about lunch,” Sellers said. “And now that we can’t do that, it’s just like, Where am I supposed to get to know people?”

The answer, for Sellers and many others like her, turned out to be Clubhouse. “It is amazing for networking,” she said, “especially in a pandemic, when I can’t leave and they’re not hosting networking events.” Within her first three days on the app, Sellers said several big-wigs she’d been dreaming of connecting with for years followed her on Clubhouse — and she gained 1,000 new followers across both her Instagram and Twitter accounts. Now she spends several hours a day on the app, she said, routinely hosting her own rooms or just sitting back, listening to discussions in other rooms as if they were podcasts.

“Executives are more accessible there,” Sellers said, without naming anyone in particular. “Some execs I’ve been chasing for years have followed me on Clubhouse. I’m like, ‘What, that’s all it took?’ After 10 years of chasing you down.”

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A look at a Clubhouse room with a handful of users in conversation (via Clubhouse)

She’s not the only person in entertainment who’ve joined the Clubhouse bandwagon. Leah Lamarr, an actress and stand-up comedian based in L.A., said Clubhouse has become her go-to place to network during the pandemic. “Clubhouse is the app we’ve all been seeking,” Lamar said. “It facilitates real connections in real time, while eliminating barriers to entry that many face in their respective industries and on other platforms that intentionally diminish your visibility.”

She also joked that it’s nice to have reached the “point of the pandemic where we’ve moved from Zoom to Clubhouse and can now judge people solely based on their opinions, rather than their appearance.”

Still, networking isn’t the only reason Clubhouse has been gaining steam. For one thing, the novelty factor of being in the same conversation as an A-list celebrity or top tech exec hasn’t hurt Clubhouse’s reputation. Perhaps most important, though, is that users are free to talk about anything they want on Clubhouse — and that can lead to some interesting rooms.

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Last week, after audio leaked of Tom Cruise berating crew members on the set of the latest “Mission Impossible,” a room dubbed “Let’s discuss Tom Cruise’s epic rant” quickly popped up. That conversation went on for several hours, with users in the room touching on everything from the rant to their favorite Cruise film ever to the decline of Hollywood nightlife to the odds live music and sports venues will bounce back in 2021. The conversation underscored Clubhouse’s appeal compared to other social media apps: It’s built on audio, rather than text, conversations, which gives rooms a more organic and spontaneous feel. Hearing another user’s voice also adds a level of intimacy that isn’t found in text-based “conversations” on Facebook and other platforms.

That’s by design, Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison told TheWrap. “Audio is the oldest medium,” Davison said. “Everyone knows how to talk. It’s a really organic thing.”

Prior to Clubhouse, Davison was an entrepreneur who sold Highlights, an app allowing users to share contact information with people near them, to Pinterest in 2016. He said starting a consumer-facing app wasn’t the first thing he had in mind when he met with co-founder Rohan Seth to spitball new ideas, but he kept coming back to audio. A longtime fan of podcasts and audiobooks, Davison said there was an opening to help foster “meaningful conversations” online — without people needing to learn how to set up their own podcasts to do so. As Davidson put it, “You shouldn’t have to know what RSS is in order to talk to someone and have a conversation.” So in April, Davison and Seth launched Clubhouse, aiming to make it a one-stop-shop for anyone looking for interesting conversations.

“Human connection is so important to us,” Davison said. “The idea that technology can allow us to have meaningful conversations and deep, human connections with friends and interesting new people around the world, any tim we want, instantly from our living rooms — that’s amazing to me. That’s the potential we get really excited about.”

Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison (courtesy of Clubhouse)

The cherry on top, Davison added, was that audio offers those benefits “without any of the anxiety of video. You don’t have to worry about what you look like, or how messy your house is, you can just talk.” Moving away from a focus on “likes” and content curation toward “human connection,” he said, has been a driving force behind the app.

Some users, though, have pointed out what makes Clubhouse great has also made them question if they’ll continue using it. Travis Grier, a 29-year-old social media manager and online magazine editor from Baltimore, said he uses the app on average one or two hours per day since joining in September. Grier agreed that Clubhouse has helped him network and connect with people throughout the tech and media worlds. “The best aspect of Clubhouse to me,” Grier told TheWrap, “is that I’m exposed to different types of people, and I was able to find my tribe of people that I connect with everyday now.”

At the same time, Grier said his Clubhouse experience has been marred by some “blatantly racist” comments directed at Black and minority users. (Sellers, who is African-American, said she had not dealt with racist comments in her short time on the app.) Grier said he enjoys how easy Clubhouse makes it to network and jump from conversation to conversation, but that the unexpected racist comments make him “50-50” on whether he’ll keep using the app moving forward. He’s been frustrated in the past, he said, that there have been times when he’s “raised his hand” to push back against a comment, but that room moderators never called on him — leaving the speaker unchallenged.

Some might argue that’s the inevitable tradeoff that comes with an app built on real-time conversations with a diverse set of users; some offensive comments are bound to seep through. As Davison put it, when you’re dealing with live conversations, “you never really know what’s going to be said next.” Still, he said Clubhouse is adamantly against racist comments and has tools in place, including the ability to block and mute accounts, for users to leverage. Users are also able to report comments that violate Clubhouse’s rule book, which prompts a review that can lead to either a warning, suspension or ban based on the offense.

“We unequivocally condemn any form of hate speech, racism, abuse, [and] bullying, and we have very clear policies and procedures to take action if that’s ever reported on the service,” Davison said.

Looking ahead, Clubhouse will likely remain a key cog in entertainment networking, at least until the pandemic subsides. But Davison said the goal has never been to be an exclusive, celebrity-driven networking app — that’s just how things have unfolded so far. Right now, Clubhouse has a team of eight employees, working remotely around the Bay Area, looking to bring the app to the masses.

“We are building clubhouse for everyone, and we’ve had that mindset since day 1,” Davison said.

The goal, he said, is for a wide rollout sometime in the next few months. Until then, though, you can expect people in the entertainment industry like Sellers and Lamarr to continue using Clubhouse to network while on coronavirus lockdown.

Read original story Behind Clubhouse, the Invite-Only App Connecting Hollywood and Silicon Valley During the Pandemic At TheWrap