Anyone, an audio app that's building a "marketplace for advice" one five-minute phone call at a time, is launching new versions of its iOS and Android apps today* and beginning large-scale onboarding after operating in a limited closed beta for the past six months.
The app -- which was founded around 18 months ago (so pre-pandemic) -- has a simple premise: Advice is best delivered verbally, concisely and one-to-one, in a time-limited format.
Video is distracting and a hassle to fit into busy people's schedules. Text is time-consuming and prone to misunderstandings. But a simple phone call can -- quickly and usefully -- cut through, is the thinking here.
Hence the decision to hard stop at a five-minute phone call. The app automatically terminates each call at the five minute mark -- no ifs, no buts (and, well, hopefully fewer time-nibbling "ums" and "ahs" too).
To fund development of the marketplace, the team has raised around $4 million in total to date -- mainly comprising a $3.6 million seed round led by Berlin-based Cavalry Ventures with participation from Supernode Global, Antler and a number of high-profile angel investors (contributing angels include Atomico's Sarah Drinkwater and Sameer Singh; and ustwo's Matt "Mills" Miller, among others).
Broadly speaking, online audio has shown its staying power through a sustained podcast boom and, more recently, a buzzy moment for social audio, via developments like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces -- which speak to a general sense of pandemic-struck "Zoom fatigue" as remote workers max out on video calls at work yet still crave meaningful connections with other people at a time when opportunities to mingle in person are still limited versus pre-COVID-19.
A lot of social audio can still be very noisy, though, and Anyone wants to be anything but. This is short-form, topic-specific audio.
Why five minutes? It's short enough for a busy person to almost not have to think twice about taking a cold call from someone they've probably never spoken to before -- while being just about long enough that some useful advice can be distilled and imparted across those 300 seconds of one-to-one connection.
Naturally the short format does not allow for group/conference calls. It's one-to-one only.
Anyone's CEO also reckons this "intimate," short-form audio format could help drive diversity of advice by encouraging people whose voices may be underrepresented in traditional mentorship to feel more comfortable offering their time and knowledge to others. (He touts a current 50:50 user-split between men and women offering expertise through the app -- and 25% people of color.)
"It's not about taking long-form meetings and compressing them -- it's about taking those conversations that would never have happened … and making them happen," says CEO and co-founder David Orlic, pointing out that mainstream calendar apps have a default meeting slot that's set to half an hour or an hour. So the wider thesis is that our current tools/infrastructure just aren't set up to help people give and grab bitesized advice. (And, well, on the internet anyone can claim to be an expert -- but of course you can't rely on the quality of the "advice" you find freely floating around online.)
"Our belief is that there are a lot of five minute problems that we could be solving -- whereas there are a lot of 30 or 60 minute problems that have solutions designed for them already. So we're kind of building this for those conversations that aren't happening," he adds.
Orlic hints that the intention is also to leave Anyone's callers a little hungry for more -- to feed demand for more five-minute conversations and so fuel transactions across the marketplace.
"If you look at the demand side -- the callers -- there's always multiple calls involved. So people will call a lot of people and ask them basically the same question or bounce ideas. And then they will aggregate those insights into something that's much more valuable than one conversation," he continues. "So it's like building an advisory board for yourself."
The idea for the platform came after Orlic and his co-founders realized they could trace key career decisions to a handful of short conversations -- brief moments of advice that ended up profoundly influencing the trajectory of their working lives, to the point where they were still looking back on them years later.
"None of us in the founding team had any networks to speak of when we were growing up. And we had fairly little exposure to opportunity. Alfred is from a small village in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, I grew up in an immigrant family, and Sam is a working class bloke from Leeds. And looking back at our careers we could track them back to this handful of conversations -- these haphazard moments when someone gave us a piece of critical advice," he tells TechCrunch. "For them it was just another five minute chat but for us it turned out to be life-changing."
"For Alfred it was some quick advice on how he could land a job at Google which he managed to do and spent almost a decade there working as a growth guy on Google Chrome and other stuff; for Sam it was how to start a company; for me it was the suggestion that I as a creative should pursue an MBA -- which I ended up doing. So we started thinking long and hard about the concept of advice, and we became obsessed with opening up these closed networks."
The aim for Anyone's marketplace is to make similarly pivotal moments accessible to all sorts of people -- by giving the app's users the chance to call any expertise provider on the network (provided they can afford the fee) and ask their question.
A slogan on its website poses the question "imagine if you could call anyone in the world" -- which is certainly a poetic-sounding moonshot to be shooting for, although the size of the user base remains far off that global vision at this early stage.
"What we're building is really the phone book of the future," says Orlic, slotting his elevator pitch into our ~30-minute phone conversation. "We're building a place for unique, one-to-one, five minute experiences -- which is something really different from most social audio plays."
He points to a trend of other apps intentionally applying limits to change/define the user experience in behavior-shaping ways (like Poparazzi, a self-styled "anti-Instagram" photo-sharing app that doesn't let you take selfies to make you take more pics of your friends and vice versa; or the dating app Thursday, which limits users to one active day of use per week to prevent endless swiping and nudge matches toward going on an actual in-person date).
The marketplace component of Anyone's app is another intentional limit too, of course. Calls are not free by default.
Putting a price on Anyone's one-to-one advice is one way to try to weed out unserious (or indeed abusive) users from those genuinely seeking others' expertise on specific topics.
But primarily it's there to provide an incentivize for people who have expertise worth sharing to make themselves available to take cold calls (even very short ones) from strangers/those outside their existing contact networks.
Pricing for a five-minute call is set by Anyone users. So the call fee can vary from nothing at all (if the user distributes a free voucher code) to as little as $5 or all the way up to $500 (!), which does sound pretty crazy expensive. But Orlic notes users can choose to donate their fee to a charity if they do not wish to financially benefit from the advice they're dishing out (so there may be instances where a high fee includes a philanthropic component).
With such highly variable fees, the app will need to have a good safety mechanism to reconfirm a user really does want to be charged the specific fee. (And, god forbid, to avoid the risk of butt-dialling … 😬)
"If you want to connect with someone I think it's reasonable to put a cost on the scarcest resource on the planet which is someone's undivided attention," Orlic argues, suggesting that plenty of mainstream tech confuses transient "access" with attention. "We can 'access' people everywhere -- we can listen to them, read them, follow them. But that's not the same as attention … Someone's undivided attention is a remarkable, remarkable thing. And the five-minute cap forces you to be very clear and to the point about what you want to chat about."
With its intentionally attention-slicing infrastructure -- which manages ephemeral contacts into precisely measured and billed units -- "all of a sudden you have all of these conversations that wouldn't have happened happening thanks to this manageable way of connecting with people," is the claim.
Anyone users wanting to list themselves on the marketplace to sell one-to-one advice will need to create a profile that specifies their availability to take calls and some basic details (name, career details, location, etc.), as well as setting their five minute fee.
They also need to provide details of the "conversation topics" they're comfortable giving advice on.
Co-founder Alfred Malmros' profile includes examples such as: "Make the leap. Quitting a dream job to make it on your own"; "Rising quickly in a large organisation -- politics vs. talent"; and "It takes a fool to remain sane. Thriving as an employee" -- so topic steerage looks intended to be not only specific but maybe also give a flavor of the individual's personality to further help advice-seekers decide if they want to shell out for five minutes of that particular person's time.
The risk of imposters or low-quality advice is being managed by "vetting and verification" processing all advisers have to go through prior to being able to sell, per Orlic. "Beyond verification, we put a lot of work into making sure that everyone on Anyone understands what constitutes good advice, how to avoid projection and biases in conversations, etc.," he adds.
The platform also incorporates a rating system -- again, in an attempt to keep quality up across the marketplace.
Anyone's early users are a blend of creators, founders and investors, per Orlic -- including a lot of first- and second-time founders, as you might expect, with the pandemic having limited in-person startup networking opportunities.
He also says they've attracted a lot of people midcareer, looking for advice on how to quit their jobs and pivot into something totally new -- again, likely fuelled by the pandemic reconfiguring many things around how we work (and, more broadly, how we may be thinking about work-life balance).
"When you're doing that kind of big life decision you really want to connect with a lot of people and ask around," he suggests on the interest from established professionals looking for advice on a career switch. "Also there's a high willingness to pay, I'd argue, when you're in that position."
"Business is a huge thing as a marketplace for advice," Orlic adds, noting that a record number of businesses started in the last year too. "Investors -- by the way -- love this for deal flow because they can speed date a lot of founders and then pick who they continue with."
Parents are another community of early users he highlights -- saying they've been both offering and soliciting advice during the early test phase. He says one of the best pieces of advice he's personally gained through the network was a conversation about parenting, adding: "I've had some really profound conversations with other dads. People that know a lot more about parenting than I do -- where I've gotten really actionable advice and support. So that has been a big thing for me personally."
Orlic also says he's excited about potential in the area of mental health -- suggesting the short-form format could be helpful to get people to have conversations about therapy which, since they're so bitesized and bounded, may be a non-intimidating introduction toward taking up more sustained support.
He also mentions that he's excited about the potential for civic society to make use of the platform as a tool for driving public engagement and awareness around issues and campaigns.
Appropriately enough, Anyone's team has been dogfooding by using the app to get advice to help build the startup. Orlic admits he asked someone on the network how to get TechCrunch's attention and was advised, by the unnamed investor, to pitch this reporter -- so it sounds like he got some solid advice there ;)
The app has had around 1,000 test users during the closed beta period -- with some 12,000 on the waitlist that Orlic says they'll be onboarding over the coming weeks.
Network building -- so growing the size of the user base on both the expertise and demand sides -- is clearly going to be a key challenge here. (And notably Orlic emphases the network effects expertise of its angel backer, Singh.)
Anyone's five-minute format may be bitesize enough to encourage users to spread the word of any good experiences they have on the platform to their (wider) social graphs on mainstream social networks. Although the calls themselves must surely remain private between the two interlocutors -- so there are some hard limits on the app content being able to go viral.
At the same time it's not hard to imagine a platform like Twitter (or, indeed, LinkedIn) seeing value in offering a similar one-to-one user call capability -- and bolting it on as a feature on an established network where users have already built up extensive social graphs. So If Anyone's idea really takes off the risk of cloning could get very real -- which means it will have to balance network building/growth with attention to the quality of the community it's building and innovating to keep its users happily stuck to its own (inevitably smaller) network.
Commenting on backing the app in a statement, Claude Ritter, managing partner at Cavalry Ventures, said: “What sets Anyone apart from other audio apps is the quality and connection of 1:1 advice. The team saw the potential of audio and the emergence of the creator economy long before the hype. We’re impressed by what they’ve accomplished to date and by their mission to build the phone book of the future.”
Around 9,000 five-minute calls have been made via Anyone's platform so far, per Orlic -- who says the goal they're shooting for as they open up access now is to get to 100,000 calls within a year.
The business model for now is to take a straightforward 20% cut of the advice fee.
On the fee side there's also potential for things to get bumpy if momentum builds around the concept -- given that platform giants have been known to take a predatory approach to pricing when trying to close down creator-supporting upstart competition via their own fast-following clones. (See, for example, Facebook's recent dive into offering a newsletter platform -- for which it's both paying writers upfront for contributions and, at least initially, not taking any cut of their subscriptions.)
It's clear that Anyone will need to pay particular attention to the quality of the advice and community it's building. It may even end up needing to hone in on serving particular niches and specialisms in order to leverage differentiation versus larger, more generalist networks that have the advantage of larger user bases should they decide to move in on the same "quick call" turf.
At the same time, there are signs that some of the buzz around social audio may be fading away to more of a hmm as the hype dies down and app users tire of all the noise. But again, that's why Anyone keeping the audio side intentionally short looks smart.
"We feel that we are part of a movement that is rebuilding the internet as we know it and building something that is more sustainable and healthy -- and really creating value," says Orlic, discussing the changing landscape around social apps. "Closed social is a topic that I'm really excited by. We've seen this for years, with Slack channels and WhatsApp groups. We've seen social closing off because of a tonne of different reasons -- and with Geneva and a lot of new really cool startups and platforms we're seeing everything focus around communities. People building communities around specific verticals and then monetizing them in different ways. So we're definitely a part of that wave.
"A lot of our most active users are people who have built audiences around specific topics and want more meaningful connections with those audiences -- the Substack writers that use us as a way to both connect with their existing readers but also gaining new superfans, if you will, because when you've had a five minute chat with someone and then sign up to read their Substack, you will read everything they write after that kind of intro. So we're definitely a part of that closed social. But as a business we are a marketplace -- because again we're obsessed with that idea of someone's undivided attention being a very scarce resource and the fact that we're seeing the 'Cameo-ification' of everything and everyone. And that is also here to stay."
"Monetization -- in one way -- sounds like a really crass and cynical concept but at the end of the day we want people to build income streams around things they're passionate and know a lot about. At the end of the day that is a wonderful, wonderful thing," he adds. "A creator middle class is a very exciting concept because looking at all the big platforms, old social media, we know where the money is going -- it's going to the top 0.1% of influencers and creators. Whereas small and midtier creators are not making money to sustain themselves off their passion. For that you have all of these cohort-based courses through Maven. And platforms like us -- that enable people to connect directly with each other in a one-to-one setting.
"We think it's very cool that we're doing an opinionated, one-to-one, five-minute, audio-only platform because that gives us a unique positioning. And this is what excites the team. Seeing these stories come out of it -- and those stories would not come out of it if it was just another broadcasting or Clubhouse thing."
There is of course no small irony that it's exactly because of the proliferation of mobile connectivity and apps -- which have driven increased utility by providing people with on-demand access to so much data (and people) -- that the traditional 'quick call' of old has been derailed, creating conditions where a startup feels there's an opportunity to build a dedicated marketplace for scheduled quick phone calls. (Albeit, one that's aiming to scale to a far wider network that the average person would have had in their phone book back in the 1980s, say.)
But as software and connectivity keeps eating the world, enforcing tech upgrades and reconfiguring learned behaviors, it's clear that the resulting disruption can recreate the right conditions for new tools to come in and repackage some of the old convenience -- which maybe got a bit lost in the noise.
*App Store review gods willing