Beams wants to turn collaborative audio clips into a social media biz

More fuel for social audio: Berlin-based social audio startup Beams, which is building a platform for sharing and consuming short-form audio recordings — as a sort of bite-sized/deconstructed and/or collaborative podcast format which it bills as “audio-based social media” — has doubled its seed funding, adding another $3 million to close out the round at $6 million.

“We raised $3 million in late 2020. While in the testing phase, we had very high interest and attention from investors. So in early summer of this year we decided to take on two new strategic investors — The Venture City and Kal Vepuri — bringing our overall seed funding to $6 million,” explain two of Beams’ four co-founders (and its co-CEOs), Alan Sternberg and Robert Kilian, on why it’s taking more funding now.

Per Crunchbase, the 2019 founded audio startup’s earlier seed and pre-seed investors were Mangrove Capital Partners and Redalpine.

Beams counts former Soundcloud, Spotify and N26 employees among its founding team — and its PR touts a “deep understanding of why people connect around voice”.

Its wider pitch is to create a platform where people can “come together and share diverse views on different trends and interests” — which is something we’ve heard from a variety of social audio startups, such as the (advice focused) Anyone and Wisdom, to name two others that also hail from Europe.

Users on Beams are encouraged to join interest-based groups and (asynchronously) listen or clip into topic-based threads — on, well, whatever you want to talk about, be it art or politics, fashion, food or music etc etc…

Topics on Beams are a real pick’n’mix — and the overall experience can feel pretty random. Like the aural equivalent of a splatter-painting.

“Real people, real voices” is the slogan Beams has come up with for its app-based alternative to switching on (and dialling around) talk radio. (Or, well, logging onto Clubhouse — or hopping into a Twitter Space to hear what some of your followers, or someone else’s, are nattering about.)

Finding the signal in the noise of social audio is turning out to be the real challenge.

Audio clips on Beam are hard-capped at 90 seconds but recordings can be shorter (although as threads build they work against that by stringing sound snippets together). So it’s using quasi-brevity as a device to try to cut through.

And if <90s is still not short enough for your attention span a button in the app let’s you speed up playback to up to 2x so it takes even less time for your ears to consume each audio tidbit. (You can also slow playback speed to 0.75x.)

A quick spin around the app suggests content creators are in fairly short supply on Beam. Some of the featured threads on the home page contain just one or two responses, for example. And a few minutes of browsing also turns up the same handful of faces contributing to a variety of threads — some of whom we confirmed to be Beams staff.

So organic community-building looks like a work in progress.

Beams says its early users comprise a real “range”, from young people exchanging stories/memories around cultural themes or past events; to pro audio content creators doing 60-second interviews for sharing elsewhere; to photographers using the form to give people on their art a voice; to citizen journalists recording events on the go.

Many of the featured groups/topics we saw appear to be obvious seeds to try to encourage content generation (“the best advice you have ever received”; “breakfast around the world” etc); or groups labelled “Open Mic” — which nudge users to share their stories around specific themes (like women’s “Uber Stories”, or “Tinder Stories”).

While the group we saw that had the largest number of members (~1,000) was an open pitch around podcast ideas and soliciting help for podcast projects.

In general, groups had far fewer members and seemed more focused/niche — say aimed at illuminating a specific local issues (“Police reform in Minneapolis explained”). Or narrating a specific perspective/experience (“20 years after 9/11”). Or trying to eke out travel/food tips (“Best Vegan Spots Las Vegas”). But quite why you’d need some of those sorts of content in an audio form vs text is one question to ponder.

One of the more interesting groups we encountered — “Young, Black & Fly” (59 members) — describes itself as “a micro podcast about art, film & music for all, through the lenses of young black creatives”, and was doing bite-sized back-and-forth interviews with creators across a variety of artistic mediums.

On the less interesting side there was the obligatory NFT daily news group (18 members).

Beams’ short-form audio format lends itself to holding Q&A style interviews between a group host and an invited guest. Which means the entire interview ends up deconstructed into discoverable/sharable chunks. But the downside of that is it’s less immersive than tuning into a full-fat podcast/radio show.

Open groups aim to recreate the Q&A vibe but without active curation by asking anyone who feels like it to chip in. Which means the resulting thread can be, well, a mixed bag in terms of interest/quality from the listener’s perspective.

Overall, Beams feels like it’s still very much in the experimental phase.

Nor is it yet clear whether it’s onto something with bite-size “micropods” for the attention-strapped (post-radio) generation. Or, well, adding to the social audio noise.

Asked how many users the app has, Beams co-founders hedge their response — saying “we know of more than 40,000 unique users participating in over 5,000 groups” — so presumably it has fewer active users (and the group metric is being actively driven by Beams’ own staff). Although it only beta launched in May 2021 so it is still early days.

Why focus on short-form audio as a social media medium? “The short-form recorded audio space needs innovation, from both a creator and consumer point of view,” Sternberg and Kilian suggest.

“To create good audio content with today’s options, the bar is very high. You need hardware, you need real expertise in speaking, and it simply is not built for the mainstream. The average person has a hard time making audio content because there’s just too much friction.

“When it comes to consumption, that too, isn’t really easy. For instance, the only way to know if a podcast or a live audio session is going to be useful or entertaining or worth your time is to listen to it! You don’t know how it’s going to turn out, you can’t navigate your way to ‘the good part’ and again, it’s just not a really easy thing to dive into unless you totally know and trust the person creating the content.

“We want to build innovative solutions for this — to help people enjoy audio recordings and hearing another person’s voice in a simple way.”

Clearly they’re not there yet on surfacing purely “worthy listens”, though.

Chunking up audio into 90s (meaning you inexorably have to listen to a lot of repetitive ‘hello/intro’ spiel) and providing a button for users to crank it to 2x speed of the human voice is a far cry from only airing amazing audio.

Indeed, it sort of implies you think a lot of the content will be skippable. And if your tools to help listeners cut through boring bits end up creating filler audio in the process — including by soliciting audio content from anyone, voicing thoughts and making recordings of any quality — the whole approach might be, well, a bit counterproductive… (Alternatively, Beams may just not yet have found its groove; Communities do take time to nurture and grow.)

The startup’s co-CEO also reckon that current audio platforms are lacking “intuitive ways for people to connect”, arguing: “There is no topic-related and equally interactive audio platform out there.”

Beams’ focus is on building tools that “let people easily record their thoughts in different ways and share them into groups and topics”, they say, emphasizing the goal of structuring audio.

They also describe what they’re building as “an extended audio player for people to be a part of voice threads — similar to the music streaming services”. And say they’re planning to add audio transcriptions and enable Beams’ voice recordings to be exported to other social networks for consuming there too.

Adding other forms of interactions around voice threads is also on their to-do list.

As well as focusing on building “simple and inclusive” tools for sharing and consuming audio, Sternberg and Kilian say the aim is to differentiate in a competitive space by being more open vs (more) closed competitors.

“While most other audio platforms put everything solely in their apps or behind logged-in walls, we don’t like to force people into a closed ecosystem to connect with each other,” they say, adding: “We really see ourselves as more of a platform for building audio solutions, not just as a social media network, since we are also available and open on the Web, where you don’t have to be logged in or even have Beams as an app.

“Our aim is to give people a way to collect and share voices on the street, provide journalists and media a way to easily embed and share stories, and let friends share their voices on the apps they prefer — whether that be WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal.”

What about monetization? That’s not even a conversation for Beams’ co-CEOs yet.

“We are all about building a platform, and a community around collaborative short-form audio. By looking closely at how different user groups use our product we learn and we are sure we will introduce meaningful ways for our community and us to generate revenue in the future.”

And moderation? “Moderation will be a big challenge but recorded audio content (which is transcribed into text as well) allows us to build more products to protect our community,” they suggest.