Roger, a walkie-talkie-style voice messaging app that launched in late 2015, has landed a $1 million seed round led by Social Capital.
Voice messaging — known as push-to-talk — is nothing new. It originated in China in response to the complexities of punching out Chinese characters for text messages and the rise of blockbuster chat app WeChat. Voice messaging feature is supported in almost every mainstream messaging app — including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Line and more — but the habit hasn’t really stuck with smartphone owners outside of Asia.
That’s where New York-based Roger, which was founded by ex-Spotify engineers Ricardo Vice Santos and Andreas Blixt, hopes to make a dent. (The founders’ past employment also explains why the six angel investors who also took part in the round are all former Spotify executives.)
The app — which is initially for iOS with an Android version in beta — is beautifully designed and made with simplicity in mind. You select a friend to message and then simply click the large button to begin recording. That’s how the basics work.
Vice Santos, who is Roger’s CEO, said the company has deliberately built the app to ensure that the experience is spontaneous. For example, you can’t cancel a recording once you start. While users can’t hear their own voice, since people often detest doing so, while you can’t save messages that are received from others. In a nice touch, the service can link up to iMessage to send messages to those without app, they can listen to your message via a link that loads a web-based recording.
“The overall objective is how do we get people to talk more often,” Vice Santos told TechCrunch in an interview — using Roger, of course.
“There are already [push-to-talk] solutions [available], but we weren’t using any of them. So we asked ourselves: ‘Can we do this dead simple thing to talk and reach anyone with an app?” he added.
The idea literally hit Vice Santos when he bumped into a pole while walking and texting a friend in Sweden. Roger isn’t saying how many people are using the app right now — Vice Santos said upwards of “thousands” in over 60 countries — but he stressed that the key metric is usage and conversation threads, rather than sheer numbers.
As for making money, that isn’t a focus at this point.
“Monetizing too early can damage the platform. We want to grow the platform and return to this topic late,” Vice Santos explained. “More than the money, having Social Capital involved [is important.] The things that [CEO Chamath Palihapitiya] has been doing are about behavior changing — creating something people aren’t asking for, yet you change. We’re about getting people to use voice again.”
“Phone calls are declining as communication increasingly moves to messaging, but texting lacks nuance and context,” Palihapitya said in a statement. “With Roger, Ricardo and team have built a beautiful app that takes the best aspects of these two mediums, creating a conversation platform that’s far more dynamic and personal.”
One area where we can expect Roger to make changes is around the contextual information inside of the app, known as glimpses. Right now, the app can display the location, weather and an indication of the time of day for the person you are messaging with, and the team plans to develop this concept further. That’s important, Vice Santos told us, because this information can be a real “conversation starter.”
He added that the company’s multi-national team — which includes people from Portugal (Vice Santos), Sweden, Singapore and India — and the need to communicate with family overseas puts the company in a good position for future product development and ideas.
“We have family in lots of places and are big consumers of the app so we know it how it could be better and what opportunities there are,” Vice Santos said.
(Bonus: If you just downloaded Roger, you can set up a profile page with your own greeting message — mine is here, for example. Simply choose a username in the ‘Settings’ menu inside the app, then go to the ‘People’ tab and search for “greeting.” Once your new friend loads, leave a message for ‘greeting’ and that will be set as the default recording for your online URL, which will be rogertalk.com/<your username>. )