Start-ups aim to bring big conferences online as coronavirus triggers cancellations

Key Points
  • Several major tech conferences, from Mobile World Congress to Facebook's F8 event, have been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Start-ups Hopin and Run The World have built platforms for hosting events — both big and small — online.
  • Both companies say they've seen a big increase in demand as event organizers look for alternatives due to health concerns.
Workers leave the Mobile World Congress venue in Barcelona on February 12, 2020.
Lluis Gene | AFP via Getty Images

Johnny Boufarhat was alarmed at the number of inquiries his start-up was receiving, as health concerns around the fast-spreading coronavirus forced major tech conference organizers to pull the plug.

The British entrepreneur's platform, which is currently in "early access," lets users watch and interact with events virtually. Called Hopin, the London-based start-up's service broadcasts live events for up to 100,000 people and holds offshoot Q&A sessions and networking opportunities — entirely online.

"We want to help people that are being affected by the coronavirus and their conferences," Boufarhat told CNBC in an interview. He added that the company is fast-tracking some events "specifically to help with the coronavirus and help organizers run the events. Everyone else is on the waitlist."

"We're pushing out the product faster than we expected to," said Hopin's co-founder and CEO, who recently raised seed funding from venture capital firms Accel and Northzone.

Hopin CEO and founder Johnny Boufarhat.

Organizers of major industry events have faced a dilemma in recent months, as they weigh the risks of holding big events as the deadly COVID-19 disease spreads globally. The GSMA, which runs Mobile World Congress, was among the first to cancel its flagship event, while the Game Developers Conference was postponed to the summer. Both events attract tens of thousands of people.

Now, plenty of major gatherings hosted by big tech giants have also been postponed, altered or canceled outright. Facebook scrapped its annual F8 software developer conference while Google did the same with its I/O event where it typically shows off new product features. Microsoft, on the other hand, is due to run its MVP Global Summit this month digitally.

A global issue

In the U.S., San Francisco-based start-up Run The World works in a similar space to Hopin. The company, which has scored funding from Andreessen Horowitz, operates a mobile and desktop app for running events online. Xiaoyin Qu, the company's co-founder and CEO, said her firm has also witnessed an uptick in demand.

"This is my 20th call of the day," she told CNBC from her home in San Francisco. "It's incredible how international this issue is. It's not just a U.S. issue, there's a lot of demand all over the world as well. We are already in 31 countries."

Run The World co-founders Xiaoyin Qu and Xuan Jiang.
Run The World

Qu, previously a senior product manager at Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram, said she founded Run The World with former Facebook colleague Xuan Jiang to "help people build stronger relationships as well as knowledge." She said her experience at Facebook brought a "strong social aspect" to the platform.

But both Boufarhat and Qu said their products weren't built with coronavirus in mind. Rather, it was down to their own frustrations with how conferences tend to be handled — both online and offline. In Qu's case, it was the large sum of money and time her mom, a Chinese doctor, spent to visit a Chicago-based conference in 2018 .

Speaking about the increased interest in her product due to the coronavirus, Qu said she "did not see this coming at all." She added it was "one of those surprises that, at the same time, can accelerate our product and vision."

While apps like Zoom and Slack can be a good alternative to face-to-face interactions, and platforms like YouTube and Twitch allow for streaming live events, Hopin's Boufarhat said these don't satisfy the needs of large-scale events. For now, his platform can stream content for up to 100,000 participants, but in the future, he hopes the number will rise to 1 million.

'A new generation of events'

Boufarhat said that, three weeks ago, his platform had accrued 10,000 waitlist sign-ups after six months of being in early access. In the past month alone, it's seen another 8,000 registrations as the global health crisis takes hold. He added that "15% of the traffic, even though we're growing at an unbelievable rate, was due to the coronavirus."

A session on virtual events platform Hopin.

Boufarhat said events that have expressed interest in his platform have ranged from those hosting hundreds of people to a big tech conference attended by as many as 130,000 people, which he declined to name.

"We've scaled up, we're already scaling almost too fast," Boufarhat added.

In terms of monetization, Hopin takes a cut of all ticket sales on its platform, and for free events it charges a monthly software subscription as well as add-ons like the ability to customize branding. Run The World also takes a share of the revenues from organizers, and is exploring a per-head cost for free virtual gatherings.

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"Coronavirus is an accelerator," Run The World's chief said. Organizations signing up to her platform are "not looking for a solution to coronavirus, but a new generation of events that more people can access worldwide. They think it's going to be a trend."

Run The World targets smaller events than Hopin. As Qu puts it, the platform is more interested in hosting a large volume of online gatherings than big, 100,000-person events.

The service recently ran a so-called hackathon for a community of developers known as Wuhan2020, who are aiming to create new software to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some big brands have questioned the need to attend certain big conferences in-person even before the coronavirus outbreak. Sony took the significant step of deciding to skip E3, the biggest event in the gaming calendar, for a second year as the PlayStation maker said it wasn't the "right venue for what we are focused on this year."