From working with Will Smith and Kevin Hart, to hosting thousands of events across the globe, Xiaoyin Qu's schedule has been packed lately.
In May, the 27-year-old Stanford dropout added the A-list entertainers to a string of big names eager to back her virtual events start-up with $10.8 million, as investors sought to ride the rising tide of coronavirus-friendly technology businesses.
Qu doesn't claim to have seen the pandemic coming. Far from it, in fact. This was simply the latest in a long line of failed ideas.
"I had enough failed ideas, or enough ideas people thought were stupid, I just thought well, maybe I'll give it (a) try," Qu told CNBC Make It.
Qu is the co-founder and CEO of Run The World, a California-based tech platform for hosting conferences and events online.
Since its app launched in February this year, it has been grabbing headlines, securing a total of $15 million from investors including venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. The platform has also hosted 8,000 virtual events in 120 countries, with its alternative to in-person gatherings.
Yet when the company was founded in June 2019, it was simply as a solution for people like her mom.
A pediatric neurologist based in China's eastern city of Qingdao, Qu's mother last year traveled to a conference in Chicago, where a chance meeting with a doctor from Dubai helped her identify a rare treatment for her patient. It was her mother's first time attending an overseas conference in her 35-year career and, in an instant, she gained access to the people and knowledge she had been missing.
That inspired Qu, a serial entrepreneur with seven failed business ideas behind her.
"That's why I started the company," she said. "I was really thinking about are there ways to help people like my mom, who have expertise in something, meet and meaningfully connect with other doctors who share the same expertise. And I guess I was convinced it had to be online."
So Qu, an ex-Facebook product manager on the hunt for a new business, set to work, experimenting with existing tools like Wix and Eventbrite to host her first online conference.
The event was a success — bringing in $30,000 in ticket sales and 300 online attendees from as far afield as Kuwait, India and Spain — and gave the serial entrepreneur the conviction she needed.
"That's when we realised this idea has potential," said Qu. "For those people, they have never had access to those product managers in Silicon Valley."
In the months that followed, Qu and her co-founder Xuan Jiang began ramping up, building out a team and developing their own platform to host everything in one place, with add-ons like meet-and-greets and happy hours.
Soon after, in October, her idea was validated with $4.3 million in initial funding from Andreessen Horowitz.
But it was in early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic brought in-person events to a virtual standstill, that the real value of the platform became clear. Qu and her team won an additional $10.8 million from investors, closing the deal in May.
"No one saw this coming, at least when we pitched it," said Qu. "It was more like this is a new way to gather people. And we're still doing that — Covid just makes it faster for us."
Of course, Run The World is one of several tech platforms tapping into virtual meetings. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack are among the various video conferencing sites to see a surge in demand under the pandemic.
However, Qu said her start-up's distinction lies in its ability to engage attendees. Its users range from educational institutions to large enterprises and special interest groups.
"The type of events we tend to do really well are those highly social, engaging events," she said.
Currently, the Run The World claims 50% audience engagement — a figure it hopes to raise to 75% in the coming months. To that end, it has developed a series of functions including "cocktail party," which matches attendees for short social engagements, and "virtual groupfies," which position attendees next to keynote speakers.
The company's focus on personalized, social interactions could also pave the way for new business opportunities, said Qu. Social media influencers, for instance, can use the platform to engage in two-way conversations with audiences and explore new revenue streams.
That's where the expertise of its celebrity backers comes in.
"Will Smith and Kevin Hart are our investors, so they help us shape our influencer strategy as well," Qu said. "(They) are masterminds in the entertainment world, so that can really help us tackle the entertainment piece."
Qu said she's hopeful those avenues will pave the way for a new style of events, which focus on bringing together like-minded people for frequent, virtual events — even once in-person conferences eventually resume.
"The long-term vision for our company is no matter where you are and what your interest and expertise is, you can have equal opportunity to meet other people and form relationships," said Qu.
But with various unsuccessful businesses behind her, she's quick to acknowledge the path may not run smoothly. And she's keen to encourage other aspiring entrepreneurs to manage their expectations too.
"It turns out it's not their first idea a lot of the time," Qu said of other entrepreneurs who seemingly find overnight success.
"It gives you this illusion that the idea just came to (them). I wish I knew that earlier," she said.
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