How Howard Akumiah’s Locker Room transformed live audio at $42 billion streaming giant Spotify

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 2, 2024 1:33 PM EDT
Howard Akumiah. Photo credit: MSU Research Foundation

The internet has become the new third space, with daily conversations and synergies being transferred online. This has created a boom in the technology market for innovations that simultaneously broadcast live.

In 2021, Spotify acquired Howard Akumiah’s Betty Labs and its sports-focused social audio app Locker Room. This technology transformed live audio at the $42 billion streaming giant.

“I think of the growth in audio not from the consumption side, but actually from the creation side. The average person is realizing that they don’t have to prepare any materials. They don’t have to convert their thoughts to type. They don’t have to create a video. They can just begin speaking what’s on their mind,” Akumiah said about the unique aspects of live audio.

Akumiah has been a tenacious entrepreneur from the start. He established his own company and chaired the student entrepreneurship institute while pursuing his undergraduate at Michigan State University. He juggled his entrepreneurial ventures with a robust debate career, work at the Behavior Information and Technology Lab, and internships at TechSmith Corporation and Google. Akumiah successfully worked at social media networks Facebook and Pinterest after his graduation.

When the Supreme Court legalized sports betting across America in 2018, Akumiah knew he could create an exciting innovation around sports betting. He started Betty Labs in San Francisco to make sports wagering more accessible to a broader audience. It operated as a personified sportsbook with users texting a particular number and receiving insights bets to make during a live game. The product grew and Akumiah had to plan for its future.

He consequently quit his job as product manager at Pinterest, raised money and moved to Los Angeles. He got connected to people who understood the product he was building and would ultimately use it. In 2019, Betty Labs launched Sideline, an app which offered live in-game predictions for sports betting. Although the predictions aspect did not take off, Sideline’s social features were a hit. Akumiah and his team realized that fans came to the app to talk to others about live games on television which made audio a necessity.

Following a $9.3 million seed round, Betty Labs released Locker Room to enable users talk to each before, during or after games. The COVID-19 pandemic soon broke out which gave the app early momentum. With no games to watch, Locker Room was the perfect place for people to converse about sports. Akumiah strategically partnered with big sports podcast networks like SB Nation and Blue Wire and journalists to grow the product. The marketing endeavors attracted new users to our platform, who quickly grew engaged, creating network effect and improving the conversations.

For Akumiah, the next step was to scale the business and he led the acquisition of Betty Labs by Spotify in 2021. The music-streaming service was the perfect partner as it was looking to accelerate its move into live audio and avail live formats to the numerous listeners and millions of creators on the platform. Spotify had already invested hundreds of millions of dollars to boost its podcast range and debuted a podcast advertising marketplace. Locker Room complemented this push into podcasting.

Akumiah views the sale of his company to Spotify as a victory:

I’m a very competitive person. I knew we’d built a great product, but we were always seen as being a niche community product, and it began to grate on me. I really wanted to win the space and become the premiere tool in live audio. Partnering with Spotify gave us the best chance to become the number one company in the space. Obviously, a lot of factors go into making sure an M&A deal is the right one. But from a first-principles perspective, I just wanted to win.

Spotify expanded the app’s offerings from sports to music, cultural programming and live discussions with professional athletes, musicians and other public figures. The company launched the app as Spotify Greenroom, accumulating over 250, 000 installs by July 2021. It rebranded to Spotify Live a year later. The streaming giant later began cutting back on its live programming and shut down the live audio app in 2023.