Squad used to be an app that connected people with similar interests for in-person meetups. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. While most social apps thrived under these conditions — people craved digital connection more than ever — Squad couldn’t operate.
Founder Isa Watson didn’t know how long the world would be in shutdown. Instead of waiting for a return to normalcy, she shifted the scope of the app entirely.
Today, Squad relaunches as an audio-based social app that aims to help users deepen their relationship with their existing circle of close friends. Squad is an audio-only app, but don’t worry — it’s not another Clubhouse wannabe. Instead, it functions as a news feed of voice message updates from your closest friends, which expire after 24 hours.
You can add up to 12 friends to your “squad,” and once you post an update, your squad members can emoji react or send a private voice message in response — these also expire after a day, encouraging users to be more open about what they share. Soon, Squad will support phone calls, but there currently isn’t functionality for group calls or group audio messaging. But, users might be incentivized to talk on the phone via Squad rather than a typical call, since you can add a title to your call. That way, your squad member knows why you’re calling before they pick up.
“There’s a big gap in the social landscape, because most of the tools are discovery platforms, broadcast platforms and personal branding platforms,” Watson said. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to come in and help people maintain stronger connections with the people that they enjoy the most.”
Posting a voice update feels more genuine than a curated Instagram shot or a crafted Facebook status update (and Facebook is decidedly uncool among Gen Z and millennials). As the popularity of apps like Dispo show, young people are responding well to ephemeral, authentic social media experiences. But the audio-only medium could be a hard sell for people who aren’t already sending voice messages on WhatsApp or iMessage. However, while Squad’s initial rollout will be domestic, there’s great potential for an app like this outside of the U.S., where voice messaging is more popular.
“A lot of the conversations that would happen on text message are now happening in an asynchronous audio type of way,” Watson added. “So we expect that to continue to penetrate further into our habits.”
Watson raised a $3.5 million seed round in 2019, and she was featured on TechCrunch with advice on raising venture capital as a woman of color in Silicon Valley. Despite changing the direction of her app, her investors — which include Michael Dearing (Harrison Metal), Aaron Levie (Box), Katrina Lake (Stich Fix), Jen Rubio (Away) and Stewart Butterfield (Slack) — remain supportive. Watson secured another million dollars of funding after the seed round, bringing Squad’s funding to a total of $4.5 million to date.
“One thing [the investors] said to me was, ‘Isa, you’ve been talking about this shift in social for years now, and people told you you were crazy, that social was all figured out and there was nothing that was going to happen,’ ” Watson said. “Now, people are buying into that change.”
Even though Squad isn’t a Clubhouse competitor, the rise of audio-only media is a good sign for the app’s ability to crack a saturated social market (so many social apps are trying to compete with Clubhouse, it’s a miracle we don’t yet have audio-only Tinder speed dating). In Squad’s beta test, 87.5% of users completed the onboarding process. Still, Squad falls victim to the same accessibility issues that plague Clubhouse and many of its clones. As of yet, Squad doesn’t support captioning, though Watson says this is something the company has discussed and hopes to implement down the road. Not only could captioning broaden Squad’s audience, but it could also further differentiate the app from messaging giants like iMessage and WhatsApp.
Still, if you’re someone who loves to send voice messages in your group chats, you might want to get your friends on Squad. Currently, the app is invite-only with a waitlist. Once you’re off the waitlist, you get three invites. If you post for five days straight, you get three more invites, and if someone you invited signs up, you get two more invites as well. This continues until you round out your 12-member squad.