Zencastr raises $4.6M as its beta video offering goes live for all

Founded in late-2014, Salt Lake City-based Zencastr has become a kind of lifeline for many podcasters, as the pandemic pushed formerly in-person podcasts online. The startup is hardly a household name, but the company says it’s used by around 6% of all podcasts, based on an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million active shows in the world.

I can certainly say, anecdotally, that just about every podcaster I’ve spoken to has tried the service, which offers a more specialized solution than video chat programs like Zoom and Skype. Some have managed to retrofit the latter to their needs, but Zencastr’s solution offers, among other things, high-quality audio recordings saved both locally and in the cloud.

As of last June, the company has also been testing a video feature. That’s long been a missing piece of the puzzle. I know I’ve moved over to Zoom since taking my show online during the pandemic. As pretty much any person can tell you a little over a year into the pandemic, video chat is no replacement for in-person interactions, but it works in a pinch. At the very least, it creates an additional dimension of human interaction you don’t get with voice alone.

Up to now, the video offering was only available as a closed beta. Today the beta opens to all users, bringing with it HD video recording, coupled with the already high-quality sound. I’ve been toying around with the feature for my own podcast and find it to be less straightforward than services like Zoom, but more customizable. It leaves you with HD video files you can edit into a tighter show or simply go with the split screen. There’s also a live chat, footnotes and a soundboard, much of which seemed aimed at essentially editing the shows in real time.

Along with the broader arrival of the video feature, Zencastr is announcing a $4.6 million seed round — the service’s first major funding since launch.

Founder and CEO Josh Nielsen tells TechCrunch that Zencastr has thus far been, “bootstrapped, self-funded and really just kind of a grassroots company in the podcasting space. A lot of people are getting interested in podcasting right now and we feel like it’s important to have a company like ours continue to represent our creators. They’re our North Star.”

As interest in podcasting has grown, Zencastr’s use has expanded with it. The company says it has seen around a 147% growth in podcasting hours since the beginning of COVID-19. The seed round is led by Utah-based Kickstart, with participation from former Flipagram executives Brian Dilley and Farhad Mohit and former Skullcandy CEO Jeremy Andrus, among others.

“This company started off pretty small and didn’t have a lot of resources,” Nielsen adds. “But we’ve always been profitable, we’ve always been growing. We still are, but we’re raising money to accelerate that growth. This is also a rebrand and a step forward in the reliability and stability of the platform.”

Stability has been something of an issue in the past with many of the Zencastr users I’ve spoken to. Spending more time with this service ahead of this news, I certainly found some nits to pick, including an audio delay I haven’t experienced with non-devoted services like Skype and Zoom. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s the kind of thing that can really throw you off your rhythm during an interview. The video presentation is also lacking in sophistication, but that’s to be expected in a closed beta.

The funding will go to smoothing out some of those wrinkles, as well as hiring.

“Headcount is one of the primary reasons for raising this round,” co-founder and CPO Adrian Lopez tells TechCrunch. “We were a fully distributed team before COVID existed. We have people in 11 different countries around the world. That was a very conscious choice. We believe that distribution allows us to work with some of the best people, regardless of where they are.”

Today also sees the launch of “Digital Nomad,” a podcast series produced by Zencastr that explores its own origin story. Though, the company is quick to add that this isn’t the beginning of a major push into producing original content.

“We believe strongly in podcasting as a medium that connects people,” says Lopez. “We formed the company around that. We’re fully distributed so we can put our money where our mouth is and put people all over and connect via this medium. We want to start telling that story.”

Zencastr has seen a fair bit of increased competition in the category, including the likes of SquadCast and Riverside.fm. The company’s solid growth over the past year could also see some regression as more people feel comfortable recording shows in person, as the vaccines have been sufficiently distributed.

“We’re going to see some retraction, I think, as things and people go back to work,” says Lopez. “But I think it will all come out in the wash, because there’s just a much bigger-growing interest in podcasting over all. It happened before COVID and it will continue after COVID.”