The audio-only social app was once the buzziest thing in tech and real estate. Is going wide enough to save it?

Clubhouse, which last winter exploded onto the scene as one of the buzziest apps in the world, announced Wednesday that it is removing its biggest barrier to widespread adoption: the exclusive invite.

The question now is if the change is too little, too late.

Clubhouse officially launched in 2020 and quickly captured the attention of the technology world. The app offers a kind of Zoom-like conversation experience, but without a visual component. It attracted big names — famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and business guru Grant Cardone have both been frequent users — and it maintained an air of exclusivity by requiring people to get on a waitlist or score an invite if they wanted to use the app.

When invites became somewhat more available last winter, Clubhouse saw a surge of popularity in the real estate community. Agents used the app to discuss everything from lead generation to breaking brokerage news, and prominent figures such as eXp World Holdings’ Glenn Sanford frequently popped up in conversations.

However, the company announced in a blog post Wednesday that “we’re thrilled to share that Clubhouse is now out of beta, open to everyone, and ready to begin its next chapter.”

“This means we have removed our waitlist system so that anyone can join,” the blog post explained.

The switch means the company is officially out of its beta stage, and the post went on to say that the invite system was an “important part of our early history,” and allowed the company to “grow in a measured way, and (mostly 😬 ) keep things from breaking as we’ve scaled.”

In that sense, Clubhouse was following the tech startup playbook. Facebook, for instance, was initially only available to Harvard students, then gradually expanded to other schools and demographic pools before becoming widely available to everyone. Which is to say, moving out of an early and limited beta stage is an important milestone for a technology company with big ambitions.

And Clubhouse does appear to have big ambitions. In April, for example, the company revealed that it had raised an undisclosed amount of cash in a Series C funding round. That round valued Clubhouse at a whopping $4 billion.

However, despite that funding victory and a mountain of breathless news coverage, more recent months have raised the specter that Clubhouse may be past its prime. For example in April, Vanity Fair cited unnamed sources who claimed Clubhouses “numbers are slowing across the board.” The piece chalked up the app’s success to the pandemic, and with vaccination numbers rising bluntly concluded “the Clubhouse party is over.”

Weeks later, research revealed that the app was seeing a sharp decline in its number of monthly downloads, leading technology news website Gizmodo to declare that Clubhouse was “losing steam.”

Perhaps even more troubling for Clubhouse, around the same time media coverage seemed to be souring, Facebook announced that it was launching a Clubhouse clone called Live Audio Rooms. The move was well within Facebook’s modus operandi; Facebook famously cloned rival Snapchat, which didn’t kill the upstart social network but did take a significant amount of wind out of its sails.

Clubhouse now finds itself in a similar position, and the question is if moving out of a beta stage will help it follow a Facebook-like trajectory or if it’s already heading down a less promising path.

An even more fitting parallel could be with flash briefings, which were very short audio segments — sort of like mini podcasts — that could be shared via Amazon’s Alexa devices. In late 2018 and early 2019, flash briefings were all the rage as content producers looked for new ways to reach consumers. They also became especially popular among real estate professionals, who used them to share market insights and to build a brand name.

But the novelty eventually faded, and by late 2019, observers were effectively writing obituaries for the medium. Flash briefings still exist today, but in terms of influence and mind share, they’ve mostly disappeared.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Clubhouse, and the company itself acknowledged in its blog post that “there will be many more ups and downs as we scale.” But the firm was, in the end, optimistic.

“We believe the future is created by optimists,” Clubhouse’s blog post added, “and we’re excited to build something new on the Internet — a place based on human connection and lively conversations, where you always feel welcome and free to be yourself.”

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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