Autio, a location-based audio entertainment app co-founded by actor Kevin Costner and formerly known as HearHere, has raised a $5.9 million seed extension led by iHeartMedia. The app uses GPS to narrate stories of landmarks, cities and towns nearby with the aim of fostering deep connections and understandings of the places users are traveling through.
Founded by CEO Woody Sears, Bill Werlin and Costner, Autio initially launched as HearHere in August 2020 with just 1,500 location-based stories. Autio now offers more than 10,000 stories across the entire United States and has more than 230,000 registered users. Although Autio is currently only available on iOS, the company is currently testing an Android app in private beta and plans to release it to the public soon.
The stories, which range from two to four minutes in length, are designed to give listeners informational tidbits about their surroundings, including points of interest they might not have known about. Some of the stories are narrated by notable names, such as Costner himself, along with actors John Lithgow and Phil Jackson. Free accounts come with five stories, while paid accounts cost $36 per year and come with unlimited access.
Once users enable location access, they can explore nearby stories when traveling. When not traveling, users can still access the map of the United States and find content to listen to based on their interests. Sears told TechCrunch that although most of its users listen to stories on road trips, many use the app on planes, while walking, and even traveling virtually from home. This was why the company rebranded, as Sears and the team believed that the name “HearHere” was only being associated with listening to a story at its actual location, whereas the company wanted to refocus on audio for travel.
Sears says the new funding will go toward expanding the app’s content library, reaching new audiences, and growing the startup’s team. The funding will also be used to continue expanding into additional regions throughout the United States.
“We’ll be launching enterprise integrations to surface our content in new and interesting ways,” Sears said. “We also have more community-focused features to encourage story sharing and discovery rolling out over the course of this year. Additionally, we’re piloting new markets for international expansion.”
The funding round included participation from Stonks, Cooley Law, Blue 9 Capital, Seraph Group, Eric Ries, and Kern Venture Group. The extended seed round follows Autio’s $3.2 million seed investment announced last year, which came a year after the company’s $1.6 million pre-seed round in 2021. The latest round brings the total amount of money raised by Autio to $10.7 million.
In addition to leading the latest funding round, iHeartMedia is also launching a marketing partnership with the startup. Autio says the partnership will allow it to reach new audiences through iHeartMedia’s multiplatform audio network, which includes broadcast radio, podcast, digital, social and live events.
The funding announcement comes during the same month that Autio appeared on Shark Tank. The company says that although Sears turned down a $1 million investment offer from Kevin O’Leary, the app did see an increase in downloads and subscribers immediately following the airing of the episode. Autio saw its app downloads increase by 464%, new subscribers increased by 105% and website traffic was up over 1,600%.
Autio also announced its first in-flight integration with JetBlue earlier this month, giving JetBlue customers access to audio content for 29 of their destination cities in the United States via their seatback screens.
In terms of the company’s plans for the future, Sears says Autio is going after a bold vision of becoming the global platform for local stories.
“It all starts with the power of a single story to delight a listener and connect them with a place or person,” Sears said. “On a global scale, we envision millions of these types of connections made every day as users get to explore the broader world around them through this very personal medium.”