5 minute read · Published April 15, 2024

Airchat: Why Naval Ravikant is building yet another social network

Latest Update May 10, 2024

Two veteran bank robbers got away with it all. They lost contact when they left their lives of crime and laid low for 15 years. Now they meet again in a seedy bar. After catching up on their lives anc commenting on gray hairs, one sets his beer on the table, mentions a sky-high medical bill and tells his colleague they need to do One Last Job. The other first resists, then agrees. Payphones ring, caches are retreived, targets cased.

Many great action movies start this way. Airchat, a new social media app, feels similar. Sure, the engineers are coders, not safecrackers.

But there’s a similar feeling: The co-founders Naval Ravikant (startup investor and AngelList founder) and Brian Norgard (startup investor and ex-Tinder CPO) are rich in both dollars and followers. They don’t have the first-time founder’s hunger for financial freedom, nor the rich-but-obscure person’s lack of dinner party invitations.

That’s why Airchat is fascinating: A new social network, in 2024? And the founders aren’t naive Stanford seniors? There must be something there, right?

When Airchat went out of beta yesterday, it made a splash. Twitter users clamored for invites and the media reported on the launch. But the big question in the room is simple:

What is Airchat? (and will it work?)

There are no moderately successful social networks. You either get outsized success or failure. The rewards are pretty bimodal (except for that goldilocks zone where Facebook bought every budding social network lol).

And the current narrative around social networks is that those rewards have been claimed. The last two contenders fizzled: Both Threads and Clubhouse have fallen from grace. So why should Airchat work? Before we analyze some of the product lessons, let’s dive into what Airchat is first.

How Airchat works

Airchat is an audio-first social network with automatic transcription. Its UI looks like a more conversational X/Twitter. It’s hard to describe the experience. It feels like a group chat meets listening to a podcast. You see a Twitter-esque feed that automatically plays as audio unless you stop it. You can jump into chats about all types of topics, open to anyone (except for DMs)

To add to the conversation, you tap a microphone icon. Once you let go, it posts and transcribes what you said and adds it to the chat. Your post will appear as text, but you can’t type to post.

There’s something ineffable about Airchat, which is the App uses a metaphor to describe the experience: “A social walkie-talkie.”

This metaphor captures the experience of Airchat:

  • It’s low-friction: You can drop in and share a message in seconds from your mic (not like voice calls, which require finding a time to talk).
  • Anyone might respond: Like a walkie talkie, you’re broadcasting on a public frequency and anyone listening can respond.
  • It’s voice-based: There’s something special about hearing someone’s voice. A phone call can revitalize a fallow friendship (or start one) the way no text message can.

But unlike a walkie-talkie, Airchat messages aren’t ephemeral: The app transcribes your voice and conserves them as playable text posts. If Airchat sounded like Clubhouse 2.0 so far, this is where Airchat starts to diverge.

In the beginning, Clubhouse prided itself on disappearing content. The founders posited that social media forced users to hide any flaws. Vanishing content could remedy this by creating a low-pressure, authentic environment.

This worked for a while: If you were lucky enough to have an invite, you could drop into Clubhouse and find yourself voice-chatting with Naval Ravikant, Elon Musk and Ben Horowitz. This propelled the company to skyrcoket in valuation, closing a 2021 Series C investment round at a $4b valuation.

But Clubhouse has only gone downhill. I just re-downloaded the app (after not thinking about it for years) and found the core experience totally dismantled. The product is now an audio group chat app none of my friends are on. Ouch.

Right now, Airchat mirrors the glory days of Clubhouse: It’s invite-only. Your favorite tech celebrities are easy to interact with. The experience is novel. But all of this was true for Clubhouse. Acquisition was never the problem, retention was. The bigger question is whether Airchat can hold on to its users and scale a new social graph.

This makes Airchat a different startup than most. In YC terms, Clubhouse made something people want. Airchat wants to make something people keep wanting.

Here’s how they’re doing it:

Why Clubhouse didn’t make it (and why Airchat might)

In this section, we’ll explore a few product principles and how they apply to Airchat and its chance of success:

Despite its falling out of favor, Clubhouse isn’t an abject failure. The gravitational pull Clubhouse had in 2020 doesn’t just happen. It hints at the audio experience tapping into a deep desire. What that desire is for is the real question.

In product management terms, this is the job to be done. For both Clubhouse and Airchat, that job is something like “connect authentically online”. Judging by the amounts of pivots and user numbers, Clubhouse didn’t fulfill that job.

In my opinion, that wasn’t because of the core audio experience, which was fun. But the app was inconsistent. The app was all live, no recordings. This made the experience inconsistent. If you were a Naval Ravikant fan, there were two ways to listen to him:

  • Get lucky that he’s online when you open the app
  • Turn on notifications and interrupt what you’re doing to listen to him

Both of these experiences suck. They forced users to either:

  • Let their schedule be dictated by Clubhouse’s notifications

or

  • Use the app without seeing anything you want to listen to

That’s why Clubhouse didn’t work: The experience itself was good if you caught someone you liked live. But Clubhouse couldn’t reliably deliver that experience, so people stopped using it.

The insight Airchat is built on, then, is a simple one:

Give users what they liked about Clubhouse, but make it reliable.

Given that people enjoy these audio experiences, Airchat’s task is simple:

  • Make more good content available
  • Make it easier to find good content

This makes the team’s product decisions obvious in hindsight:

Conserving the content and transcribing it makes it easier to find after it happened. While Clubhouse was only live, Airchat lets users asynchronously add to conversations, making it easier to create content others will enjoy. Transcribing both creates more content (for people who prefer to read) and makes it easier to find (you could skip to your favorite creator’s turn in the conversation).

So far, Airchat is popular as a shiny new thing in Silicon Valley. But for Airchat to work, it needs to cross the chasm into the mainstream. It’ll require sticky network effects and monetization. Will creators stay interested or just keep starting podcasts?

We can't draw any long-term product lessons yet, but I applaud building on the insights from Clubhouse (which Naval is an investor in). It shows how often new products simply find a job to be done that a failed predecessor didn't accomplish well—and then do it better.

Assuming Naval & Norgard are right and people love Clubhouse-style audio content if packaged differently, Airchat might get the retention Clubhouse failed to get, and may very well become the next big social network.

Copy icon
X logo
LinkedIn logo

Zero fluff.

Our stories 🤝 your inbox

Email Icon

Up Next

How to run painted door tests that don't piss off your users

Never miss another
fabulous article.

Weekly digest in your inbox.

Email Icon
Continue Reading

Up Next

What Clippy taught us all

Read Now

What's hot