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How Hubilo pivoted from physical to virtual events in 20 days (and nabbed big-name backers)

While some industries have enjoyed a boom during global lockdowns, others have floundered. Ecommerce and telehealth, for example, were well-positioned to thrive during the pandemic, whereas brick-and-mortar stores and businesses built around conferences, concerts, and other real-world events have teetered on the brink of collapse, or even toppled over the edge.

One event tech startup decided to pivot from offline to online events shortly after lockdowns kicked in, retooling itself from the ground up and reemerging with a minimal viable product (MVP) after a dizzying 20-day development period. Through salary deferments and mandatory weekend work, Hubilo not only survived, but went on to quadruple its headcount and hit its two-year revenue target in just six months.

Off the back of its pivot, which Hubilo said has led to a nearly $10 million run rate for bookings, the company revealed it has raised $4.5 million in a seed round of funding. The round was led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, the Menlo Park-based venture capital firm behind a number of notable startups, including Snap, Grubhub, AppDynamics, and Mulesoft. Angel backers include existing investor Girish Mathrubootham, who is also the cofounder and CEO of Alphabet-backed customer service software giant Freshworks, and SlideShare cofounder Jonathan Boutelle.

Founded in 2015 in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat, Hubilo launched as an event management software company with tools to help companies run events. It enabled customers to set up event websites and dedicated mobile apps for navigating, networking, and scheduling meetings, along with offering tools for managing registrations and ticketing.

Over its four-year history, Hubilo had become particularly adept at supporting large-scale events hosted by corporations and governments. But these functions were early casualties of the pandemic. “Those were the first ones to pull the plug for physical events — by February, we knew that all physical events globally were getting postponed or canceled,” Hubilo CEO Vaibhav Jain told VentureBeat.

A Hail Mary pivot

Hubilo initially agreed to extend its events contracts by six months at no extra cost in hopes of weathering the storm — but this wasn’t enough to retain the majority of its clients, who canceled their contracts or suspended them indefinitely. In February, Hubilo netted a grand total of zero dollars in revenue, and with cash reserves to last just three months and 30 employees on its books, the company had to make some tough decisions.

“We had to either shut down the entire business or come up with a Hail Mary,” Jain said. “It was not an easy decision at all, but we have always loved being in the events business and saw this as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and go for broke.”

Any pivot carries risks, but Hubilo didn’t have much choice. And it wasn’t exiting the events business, just changing the way it helped companies deliver events. It was also in a strong position compared to newer entrants, as it had an existing customer base it could garner feedback from, and hopefully transition to its new product.

“At that time, there was nothing much on the internet that allowed organizers to host events virtually, except a few webinar-based platforms,” Jain continued. “To test our idea, we sent out a mailer to our blog subscription list and got a very healthy reply rate, stating that they would be interested in hosting virtual events with us.”

To see it through its pivot, Hubilo had to reduce costs by 60%, with employees taking a 30% salary cut, a figure that rose to 70% for senior leadership. But then came the serious spadework: how to turn an offline events platform into one capable of hosting events remotely? Timing was crucial, as many companies were looking to move events online and a number of newer players were emerging.

“I gave my team a very short window of 20 days to come up with an MVP virtual event platform, as we did not want to enter the market very late,” Jain said.

The original Hubilo platform had a web-based networking tool for event attendees. According to Jain, customers had rarely used this feature, but it proved useful for Hubilo’s pivot.

“We used this as our base and started with a simple Zoom integration, wherein an event with multiple sessions could use us instead of sharing multiple Zoom links with attendees,” Jain added.

Hubilo hosted its first virtual event on March 16, 2020. And while the conference didn’t reap huge financial rewards, it served as the bedrock for Hubilo’s April launch.

“Post-beta, we got a lot of feature requests, and we just kept building them at supersonic speed,” Jain said.

Turning around a product so quickly required sacrifices beyond salary cuts. For the first 90 days, the entire company worked every day, according to Jain. This helped reduce Hubilo’s typical sprint cycle from two weeks to just five days as feature requests came in. Eventually, the company managed to give the whole team back pay, according to Jain.

“We came up with blogs, landing pages, sales collateral, product decks and videos, and support articles while the technology team was building the product,” he said. “We were ranking high on our SEO keywords, as we were quite early in this space compared to other competitors.”

Hubilo was well-positioned because it acted swiftly in the early days of the pandemic. It hadn’t had to make huge layoffs, which meant it had a workforce that could make the transition from its original offline-focused platform to the new virtual incarnation. Once the virtual events business began to gain momentum, the company had to actually grow its engineering team to build the platform out. At its pivot in March, Hubilo had around 30 employees, a figure that grew to 40 by the time it signed its term sheet with Lightspeed in mid-August. In the two months since, Hubilo has added another 80 people to its global headcount.

So, could this forced pivot have been a blessing in disguise for Hubilo?

“Yes, we were able to achieve our two-year revenue target in six months,” Jain said. “Though the revenue ramp-up has been exciting, what drives us the most is this opportunity to redefine and architect the marketing landscape that will emerge around virtual events and unlock massive value for key stakeholders, such as CMOs, event organizers, and sponsors.”

Engagement

Hubilo features several tools designed to replicate real-world event scenarios, including live sessions, breakout rooms, and virtual exhibitor booths.

Above: Hubilo: Virtual rooms

But the company hopes to stand out by employing gamification, making events more engaging for attendees who may be tuning in from their kitchen or garage. Its offering includes live polls and short quizzes, as well as a leaderboard to encourage competition.

According to Jain, the leaderboard is Hubilo’s most-used feature. Attendees can gain points by completing various “engagement” actions within the platform, such as watching a session, visiting a virtual booth, or messaging a fellow delegate. Attendees are given the rules in advance, and the most-engaged attendees can win goodie bags.

“We have seen organizers giving away free memberships, MacBooks, iPhones, and other stuff as part of the gifts for top engaged people,” Jain said.

Above: Hubilo: A leaderboard mockup

What could potentially make Hubilo and its kind indispensable for events organizers, marketers, and sales professionals is that it generates a wealth of measurable data compared to its offline counterpart.

“One of the holy grails in event marketing has been to track how attendees experience the event and what exact trigger leads to a preferred outcome, such as a sale, a media mention, a new connection made, and so on,” Lightspeed partner Hemant Mohapatra told VentureBeat. “Just like how offline media spend was digitized over the web and social media, we believe that much of the event marketing, branding, and entertainment budget will be brought online in the next 10 years once people see how much more [powerfully] and easily the return-on-investment for these activities can be tracked, measured, and attributed online.”

Hubilo said it has already attracted some notable names across a range of industries. Clients include the United Nations, Roche, Fortune, and Dubai-based consumer tech trade show Gitex.

Competitive landscape

At least three new virtual event startups have come to fruition over the past year or so, including Mountain View, California-based Run The World, which raised a $10.8 million series A round in the midst of the pandemic; London-based Hopin, which announced a $40 million series A round in June; and India’s Airmeet, which closed a $12 million series A round last month. Between them, they managed to attract some of the biggest names in the VC world, including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund, IVP, Salesforce Ventures, Accel, Slack Fund, and Sequoia.

Virtual events might look like a temporary response to lockdowns, but it’s clear that some of the biggest movers and shakers in the technology and investment sphere disagree. According to Mohapatra, Lightspeed’s position as a global franchise puts it in a position to observe other markets, which played a big part in its decision to invest in Hubilo.

“Lightspeed had the unique advantage of being able to peek into the future by observing what was happening in China post-COVID-lockdown through our Lightspeed China team,” Mohapatra said. “[It] turns out that even after many lockdowns have lifted, over 70-80% of corporate events stayed online. Not only that, once companies and organizers realized just how convenient and profitable online events are, many started to have a lot more events online or running both offline and online events in parallel — a new format called ‘hybrid events.’”

While it’s difficult for event organizers to charge as much for online events as they do for their offline counterparts, there’s no ceiling on the number of attendees for virtual events, so any shortfalls can be recouped.

“This additional volume of attendees is far more important to organizers, due to sponsorship and brand opportunities rather than ticket sales,” Mohapatra added.

London-based VC firm Northzone has invested in Hubilo rival Hopin twice in the past year, both at its series A round four months ago and at the $6.5 million seed round announced in February. Although that seed round closed just as the pandemic was taking hold, Northzone general partner Paul Murphy told VentureBeat that the deal was already pretty much concluded in November 2019.

“There has long been a need for a sustainable and efficient solution to attending events and — on a bigger scale — running a global workforce more flexibly,” Murphy said. “A remote event solution not only presents obvious benefits from a time and carbon perspective, but it also democratizes access to the content and networking one receives from these events. For these reasons, Northzone is extremely bullish on this space and has been looking for a bet to make here for some time.”

As more companies commit to remote working, virtual event platforms can also be leveraged to connect employees. Platforms like Hopin and Hubilo can be used for just about any virtual meetup, and companies and investors are waking up to this reality. Zoom recently launched an integrated platform for online classes and events, while Los Angeles-based Wave secured $30 million in funding to help artists stage live concerts virtually. And Tel Aviv-based Strigo raised $8 million for a platform that helps companies deliver software training to their clients remotely.

“Hopin can be the answer for a distributed workforce that needs to plan a company offsite; the event organizer that needs to coordinate a conference with stages, workshops, and networking; or a subject matter expert that wants to generate revenue by hosting a high-quality, paid experience for those interested in learning,” Murphy said. “Every organizer we spoke to while doing research in this space recognized the future was digital. So there is a very big prize for whoever wins.”

All of this suggests virtual events are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean physical events won’t return at some point. Before this turbulent year, the global business events industry was pegged at around $1.5 trillion, while recent figures from Grand View Research predict the virtual events industry will grow from $78 billion to nearly $780 billion over the next decade. How these dollars will be split between the physical and virtual worlds 10 years from now isn’t clear. But Hubilo is preparing for a hybrid world where data plays an integral part in bridging the offline and online divide.

“Virtual events are a new marketing stack wherein marketers will be able to engage their customers or audiences in a far more targeted way,” Jain said. “We have seen the power it has added to organizations in terms of collecting intelligent data, which wasn’t possible in an offline engagement (e.g., who spoke to whom at an event leading to what outcome in sales or brand outreach, and so on). When the world returns to normality, we believe the online world will live alongside the offline. Hubilo will build integrations that allow event managers to collect the offline data, pair it with online engagement data, and see it within a single pane of glass to make the best marketing decisions using Hubilo.”

Remote control

For Hubilo, another challenge in building a platform during lockdown was the fact that employees had to get used to working virtually too. “We built, sold, marketed, and supported the product remotely since we started working on the product,” Jain said.

Hubilo no longer has an official headquarters, instead operating remotely across the U.S. and India. But when restrictions start to ease, the company plans to transition its formal HQ to San Francisco, where it is already making hires across leadership, design, and product departments. The company will also retain a significant team in India, spanning engineering, support, account management, and sales.

While Hubilo has for now elected to keep its old name in order to reap the SEO benefits, the company confirmed that it will eventually showcase its pivot by way of a total rebrand, complete with a new name.

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