China has joined the world tech-set clamoring for the elite group chat platform Clubhouse, an invite-only, audio-based social networking app. Few know the technology powerhouse behind this Silicon Valley startup is based in China.
Clubhouse's tech provider is Shanghai-based, Nasdaq-listed Agora Lab Inc.'s Tony Zhao, Agora's chairperson and chief executive officer. He was a founding engineer at Cisco Webex and former chief technical officer of YY Inc.
The app has gotten attention recently as its valuation rose from $100 million Dec. 20 to crossing the $1 billion mark Jan. 21., according to public records.
Some China users said the real-time audio chat room was nothing new. It is reminiscent of the multiplayer online platform, YY, which was a pioneer of technology similar to Clubhouse and was a popular communications tool among gamers, influencers and fans.
As a software developer for more than 30 years, Zhao helped both companies build technology that enabled real-time video and voice engagement, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in June.
"Clubhouse was created using Agora's toolkit in a week," said Agora in a recent statement. "Clubhouse's explosion is just one of the catalysts to Agora's growth."
Over the past few days, China's social media platforms have been flooded with the hashtag "Clubhouse Invite Code" as netizens sought invite codes.
Reuters reports that there is a market for Clubhouse invite codes on platforms like Reddit, eBay and Craigslist while in China invitations are being sold on Alibaba's second hand marketplace Idle Fish.
Prices of invite codes on Idle Fish and e-commerce platform Taobao range from 50 yuan to 626 yuan ($7.73 to $96.75), according to public information.
Agora's shares have increased more than 30% since the start of this month. The company said its Yalla is another audio-social app that is on fire in the Middle East market.
Clubhouse is like tuning in a podcast but live, and that group chats only accessible with users being invited to join by an existing member.
The frenzy in China ensued after Tesla founder Elon Musk's debut Sunday by hosting an audio-chat on Clubhouse with Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev. Musk has a major fan following in the country. The event maxed out the app chat room limits of 5,000.
The app is only available on iPhone and users have to use the U.S. app store for registration. Each activated user is only initially allowed to share two invite codes.
Chinese users are largely elites, including tech investors, professionals, social media opinion leaders, dissidents, activists and journalists both in China and abroad. One of the big topics is politics, as the country's censorship has been tightened on domestic social media platforms.
"Different from all other entertainment-focused social media apps that you have to send gifts to hosts, Clubhouse provides a relatively simple social media environment where you just need to listen in to the conversations, " said one user on microblogging platform Weibo.
As a new foreign service that was just launched in March and has garnered 2 million users as of Feb. 1, Clubhouse still has not been blocked by China's "great firewall." Whether Clubhouse will be banned like Facebook and Google remains a hot topic on social media.