It was an app called Highlight. Using your phone’s location, it would help create serendipitous meetups by pointing out people nearby who had a mutual friend or shared your interests. When he explained it to venture capitalist Andrew Chen in 2012, the VC was impressed not just by the idea but by the person pitching it. “It took me about 10 seconds to realize that he was one of the most charismatic, energetic founders I’d met in a long time,” Chen later wrote in a blog post. (Though he did not invest.) Highlight, then all of six weeks old, was the darling of that year’s South by Southwest conference, just as Twitter had been five years earlier. In an interview at that event, Davison extolled founderhood. “It’s so satisfying to come in and say, ‘This is my company and it’s my job to make it succeed, and what I do has such a huge impact on that,’” Davison said, visibly giddy. Clearly, he thought he had made it.
But Highlight’s growth sputtered. (One problem: Leaving it on to hunt for nearby friends drained the iPhone’s battery.) The app shut down in 2015, and Davison sold what was left of the company, including his own services, to Pinterest. He left after three years, determined to start another venture. He took meetings with anyone who might help him brainstorm. One of those people was Rohan Seth.
Seth, 36, is the technical force behind Clubhouse. He shares Davison’s sunny demeanor but is less effusive. (During the company’s weekly town hall meetings, he is generally silent—the Teller to Davison’s Penn.) He had come to Silicon Valley by another well-trodden path: Born in India, he went to school there before jumping to Stanford to collect two engineering degrees. In 2009, while still a student, he joined Google’s then tiny mobile team. He worked on Android and location infrastructure, which was later integrated into Google Maps. His passion, though, was building a personal digital archive. “I’m one of those people who likes to record everything about his life, and I love obsessively journaling,” he says. In 2014 he founded a company called Memry Labs, which made an app that compiled people’s photos and journals. He sold it in 2017 and worked for the acquiring firm for two more years.
In 2019, Seth’s life changed when his baby daughter was born with a debilitating and rare genetic disorder, springing from a mutation in a gene called KCNQ2 that controls brain function. He began a project to fund research into personalized treatment for such diseases, and he reached out to Davison, whom he knew through the startup scene. They met at a coffee shop that summer, and their conversation naturally drifted into brainstorming ideas for companies. By the end of the meeting, they decided to find a project to work on together. They didn’t know what it would be, but they agreed on what to avoid—the roller coaster of a social app. Whatever they did, it would not be a consumer product.
“We’re older,” Seth explains. “We had families and wanted to work on something a bit more predictable.”
“And boring,” Davison adds.
Over the next few months, they batted around ideas: Productivity? Education? Marketing? Nothing grabbed them. Then they started talking about audio. Toward the end of his time at Memry, Seth had come up with an idea that didn’t quite fit his company. It was an app called Phone a Friend. “You would press a button, and it would notify all of your friends on the app,” he says. “The first one who was free would get connected to you in an audio conversation.” Other people could join in too. One night, after watching an episode of Game of Thrones, Seth pressed the button and spent several hours debating the plot lines with his GOT fanatic friends. It was a rare moment of conversational syzygy. “It didn’t work all the time, but when it did work it was pretty magical,” he says.