It’s been a while since people have met for coffee. Entrepreneurship is already often described as a lonely journey for individuals and co-founders. Throw in an ongoing pandemic, and it’s not hard to imagine how isolated community members can feel in a year without in-person events.

In the mix of live and recorded videoconferencing events across the state, a few Iowans are turning toward the new audio app Clubhouse to build a weekly check-in for local entrepreneurs. Called the Iowa Breakfast Club, the room attracts about 25 to 40 listeners from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on Fridays for a casual networking and listening chat hosted by Ben McDougal, Tyler Wyngarden, Liz Hubing and Simeon Talley.

“This was a total experiment,” said McDougal, entrepreneur and regional Midwest representative of the 1 Million Cups organization. “We miss out on some of the tightening of the tribe. We miss out on seeing the people that you would normally get to interact with, and the serendipity that happens in an in-person gathering, but the virtual environments have allowed us to connect outside,” McDougal said. “We’ve learned how to teleport. There’s no reason that someone from Storm Lake, the Quad Cities, Ottumwa, all the other towns in every corner of the state can’t participate.”

Clubhouse is an audio-only app — there is no video or text chat function for users — and room moderators have control over which audience members are invited to speak broadly to the room. Audience members, meanwhile, can choose to enter and leave the room at will without interrupting the live event, and there is no registration or cost required to join any rooms on Clubhouse. Platform users interested in following Iowa Breakfast Club events can join the Startup Iowa Club, which is searchable on the app.

Now in its ninth week running, Iowa Breakfast Club has invited both local and out-of-state experts to chat on topics ranging from venture capital, edtech, diversity and inclusion practices, and business in rural communities. Organizers recently hosted Dell Gines of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City one morning. The room has even hosted a small-scale “pitch practice” event for entrepreneurs to receive live feedback from investors in the community.

“There’s no reason why we can’t bring in someone who has some insight on one of these topics from anywhere,” McDougal said.

Clubhouse comes with some challenges for community event organizers. For starters, there’s no archiving events for users who missed it — recording and transcribing conversations are banned by the platform.

The app itself limits its audience. Clubhouse is still an invitation-only platform for iOS phone users, which means that as of April, prospective listeners need both an Apple device and an invitation from an already-active Clubhouse user to join the app.

Audience members in the first Iowa Breakfast Club session also pointed out the room’s lack of racial diversity to organizers back in February: With around 50 listeners tuning in, the room was overwhelmingly white. Along with holding a dedicated topic discussion on diversity, equity and inclusion, organizers have since prioritized mindful room invitations to diverse experts and participants.

“It was raised up during the conversation, and we looked at the different profile photos and went, OK, we need to learn from this,” McDougal said. “I think everyone has a sense of equality and is welcoming, but it takes the extra effort and proactive engagement to reach out to folks in other areas of the ecosystem that you might not have existing connectivity with.”

There’s also the question of permanence. Despite sky-high valuations, Clubhouse only debuted in March 2020 and is in Silicon Valley’s hot seat as companies like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Spotify all announce plans for competing products. In the platforms industry, there’s no guarantee how long one will stick around.

“You can’t assume that Clubhouse will be here in two years or a month from now,” McDougal said.

So why develop a community event for entrepreneurs in Clubhouse? Is there enough happening in the digital space to replace the pre-pandemic events built around Iowa’s entrepreneurs?

“No. But there’s a limitation to people’s attention, and we reached that a long time ago,” McDougal said.

Until live events are once again more common than sweatpants at a Zoom meeting, learning to be flexible with what’s available will be key in keeping a community together.

“I think the willingness to evolve allows you to use the tools when they’re needed to connect the folks interested in doing so,” McDougal said. “Whether it’s 1 Million Cups, whether it’s Startup Weekend, the Techstars accelerator … understanding the connectivity between them is what’s important. It’s not necessarily the platform at which it happens.”