Off Brand

How Clubhouse Won the Elon Musk vs. Robinhood Faceoff

Silicon Valley’s new favorite social platform just had a breakthrough moment

Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

Sorting out winners and losers in the GameStop spectacle and the related meme-stock market mess is getting confusing. Is the little-guy investor crushing the Wall Street establishment? Is Robinhood still a villain or more popular than ever? Will any of this affect GameStop’s actual future as a business?

Who knows? But amid the absurd chaos, one unexpected winner managed to sneak through with a slam-dunk self-branding moment: Clubhouse, the invitation-only, audio-centric social networking app.

Previously known mostly to the rarified tech elite and investor class — who seemed to like it, but for reasons that eluded many mainstream observers — Clubhouse suddenly found itself cited by the New York Times, CNBC, and everybody else as a key source of information about the hottest story going.

There’s a roughness to the exchange — Musk bluntly butting into answers, Tenev’s vaguely ragged yet somehow earnest tone — that’s accidentally fascinating.

That’s because Clubhouse is the venue where — somehow — in the wake of the GameStop drama, Elon Musk grilled Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev in one of the most bonkers “interviews” in recent memory.

To take one step back: Clubhouse has generated lots of buzz among the technorati. But the descriptions of the service have often made it sound like a big, weird conference call or maybe a live podcast with sketchy sound quality.

And that was pretty much the vibe for most of Musk’s appearance on The Good Time Show, a recurring event conducted via Clubhouse that in this case happened at 1 a.m. Eastern time on Monday. There was a hint that things might get interesting when Musk asked, “By the way, can you let in Vlad, from Robinhood?” But what followed was a bunch of boring chitchat about Mars and self-driving cars or whatever and Musk puzzling his way through questions about memes, while his dog (or someone’s dog) occasionally piped up in the background.

The potential value of Clubhouse abruptly seemed a lot clearer: It’s a place where the truly unexpected can happen without warning.

It was nearly an hour and 20 minutes in when “Vlad the stock impaler,” as Musk jokes, was welcomed to the call. The session’s final 15 minutes were taken up by their back-and-forth, with Musk deploying such interrogation tactics as “Give us the inside scoop!” and “Spill the beans, man!” Tenev (mentioning that it’s his first use of the Clubhouse app) still seemed pretty careful; it’s not like you’re a fly on the wall privy to some private conversation. But there’s a roughness to the exchange — Musk bluntly butting into answers, Tenev’s vaguely ragged yet somehow earnest tone — that’s accidentally fascinating.

Certainly it’s difficult to imagine this exchange occurring in any other existing forum. And clearly there was enough substance to make the back-and-forth a widely cited source in traditional media accounts. The upshot is that the potential value of Clubhouse abruptly seemed a lot clearer: It’s a place where the truly unexpected can happen without warning. And since Clubhouse events have limited capacity, there’s an exclusivity factor that must have made it thrilling to hear all this goes down.

It turns out that, as Casey Newton reported in his newsletter, The Platformer, this particular Clubhouse event doubled as the debut installment of a16z Live, a podcast of “Clubhouse chats and other event audio.” (Clubhouse is backed by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which also produces the a16z podcast and podcast network and is an investor in Medium.) You can hear the whole exchange yourself here.

If your business depends on Elon Musk showing up, dragging in some bedraggled figure from the current news cycle, and completely commandeering the entire situation, well, does that actually scale?

Still, the attention this brought to Clubhouse surely makes the platform more attractive, and comprehensible, than it was a week ago. Then again, maybe this was a grand harmonic convergence: If your business depends on Elon Musk showing up, dragging in some bedraggled figure from the current news cycle, and completely commandeering the entire situation, well, does that actually scale?

For the moment, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it now feels like Clubhouse is a world where anything can happen, and you better get on board if you don’t want to miss out. Serious fortunes have been built around propagating that feeling.

Newton, a seasoned tech business observer, offers his take on this Clubhouse moment in his newsletter: “The only social-networking moment I can compare it to in recent years would be the 2015 South by Southwest festival, when the streets of Austin were briefly overrun by people broadcasting themselves on Meerkat. Then, as now, the once-stable field of social networks hummed with a fresh sense of possibility.”

Indeed. But as always, even the most breakthrough branding event can only go so far, and much depends on how it’s followed up. As a reminder: Meerkat was an app designed to enable live social media video broadcasts. About 18 months after that SXSW triumph, it shut down.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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