A new voice-based social app that cites Clubhouse as its biggest inspiration offers a playful new way to stay in touch with close friends and family. Zebra leaves video out of the equation altogether, inviting users to snap on-the-fly photos and send them off paired with casual voice updates.
Zebra focuses on asynchronous sharing, but it also lets users call one another if they're both already hanging out on the app. The result is a fun and casual way to stay in touch for anyone who doesn't feel like accidentally getting sucked into Instagram's endless, ad-strewn feed every time they want to give a friend a quick update.
For now Zebra is a two-person team consisting of CEO Dennis Gecaj, a product designer based in Berlin, and Amer Shahnawaz, Zebra's head of engineering, who previously worked on Snap Maps at Snapchat. The pre-seed funding was led by Alexis Ohanian's fresh early-stage venture firm Seven Seven Six, which the Reddit co-founder announced in June. The app will launch formally in August but is now open for preorders through the App Store and as a beta in TestFlight.
"It’s no secret that we are in the midst of an audio revolution, one that has ushered in a series of new audio-first social platforms and content vehicles," Ohanian said, noting that Zebra's unique blend of photos and voice is what caught his eye.
Gecaj sees voice-based social networking as a much richer alternative to text-dominant platforms. While products like Instagram allow voice messages and technically let users make voice calls by disabling the camera, voice usually plays second fiddle to video. But video calls are more taxing and require more commitment — it's no coincidence more and more Zoom cameras blinked offline as the pandemic dragged on.
Unlike Clubhouse, which Gecaj calls a "huge inspiration, Zebra is social audio designed for your inner circle. "With everything opening back up we saw an incredible opportunity for an asynchronous format for that," he told TechCrunch.
Gecaj hopes that Zebra's "talking photos" can capture the collective imagination in a way that makes early growth natural. Anyone who downloads Zebra can invite friends individually without needing to share their full contact list (and they'll need to -- you can't do anything on the app without friends). Because Zebra's interface is so clean and streamlined, this process is painless and doesn't necessitate any extra digging through menus.
The idea of a "zebra" — naturally, Zebra is trying to make "zebra" happen — is that people like to see what they are talking about. On a different messaging app, this would require sending a photo and then sending a voice message in quick succession. But on Zebra, sending a photo is the main thing you can do. The app opens right to the camera where you snap a picture. You then hold the photo to record a snippet of voice to go along with it and send it off to friends and family, who appear in a row beneath the camera.
Zebra isn't worried about the prospect of talking people into downloading another app. Gecaj sees a natural split emerging as creators and audiences increasingly become the focus of social platforms that were initially designed to help friends stay in touch.
"I think the trend is a division between creator platforms where you go to be entertained and platforms you go to hang out with your friends," Gecaj told TechCrunch.
On top of that, he hopes that Zebra's dual focus on voice and photos, two aspects of social networking that platforms either don't prioritize or are actively abandoning, can make it appealing for people who aren't as interested in video.
"We really also think that text messaging doesn't have the same emotion as voice... and voice has been really neglected," Gecaj said. "There's really a richness to voice, a power to voice that nothing else has."