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Hopin rides high on pandemic-led videoconferencing wave

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Johnny Boufarhat made himself a promise in November 2019: if his six-month-old company, Hopin, was not the fastest-growing start-up in the world the following year, he would fire himself as chief executive.

“I really, obnoxiously, said that,” Boufarhat recalled, wincing, in an interview at the VivaTech start-up conference in June. “Unfortunately, a global pandemic made me look smart.”

Hopin’s platform for “virtual” events had not even launched publicly when the first Covid-19 lockdowns forced conference organisers to tear up their plans.

The company, which was incorporated in London in June 2019, had just a handful of employees by the end of that year. Today, it is approaching 1,000 staff globally, supporting millions of attendees at virtual conferences held by more than 100,000 customers, including consumer goods group Unilever, advertising agency WPP, and IDG, the tech-focused media and events company.

“We are optimised for speed,” says Boufarhat, who by Sunday Times Rich List estimates is the UK’s youngest self-made billionaire. He says that, when raising capital, he told prospective investors: “If you can’t do this within two weeks we will probably take [investment from] someone else who can.”

Even in today’s hyper-accelerated start-up world — with almost 250 new billion-dollar “unicorns” minted in the first half of 2021, according to CB Insights — the speed of Hopin’s ascent has set records. In November 2020, it reached a $2bn valuation faster than California-based Slack and Bird, the previous record holders. By this August, its price tag had hit $7.8bn, catapulting it ahead of more established London tech companies, including Deliveroo and Monzo. It has now raised more than $1bn. “It’s far exceeded our expectations,” says Jules Maltz, a Hopin board member and a partner at Silicon Valley-based venture capital group IVP, which first invested in June 2020.

The next challenge for Hopin is whether it can adapt to a “hybrid” world of events that take place offline as well as online, and whether its 27-year-old founder can keep control of the rocket ship he has launched.

Boufarhat first had the idea for Hopin three years ago, when he found himself in the same position of most of his customers of the past year and a half — unable to go out and mingle at real-world events. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a degree in mechanical engineering with management, he returned from a holiday with what he describes as “really bad food poisoning that lasted a little bit too long”. Even eating simple food or being exposed to sunlight would trigger a physical reaction.

Eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, Boufarhat mainly stayed at home for two years, working as a tech consultant. But he struggled to network his way into jobs without attending events and meeting people.

“In real-life events there is concurrency” and a shared subject to chat about, Boufarhat told the FT in March 2020. “Online, everything is asynchronous. Even on Slack or Facebook, it’s not a real community — there is no video, no real connection to it. I wanted to solve that problem.”

Traditional videoconferencing software such as Zoom, works for smaller gatherings but struggles to scale to dozens or even hundreds of attendees, Boufarhat has argued. He has outlined an expansive “mission” for Hopin to help people “feel closer”, no matter where they are.

To do this, Hopin’s software borrows ideas from a variety of consumer internet products, including Chatroulette’s random pairing of individuals for video-chat, Twitch’s live text chat alongside a keynote broadcast, and quick audience polling such as you might find on Twitter or Reddit. It also draws analogies from real-world conferences, such as expo booths, keynotes and breakout rooms. It combines them into a one-stop shop for corporate events that customers say makes for a livelier and even a more theatrical experience than a traditional webinar.

Gretchen Newman, marketing and events manager for Canada at BDO, the accounting and advisory firm, became an early adopter when the pandemic forced her to rethink her event plans. She says she realised early on that she needed something more capable than Zoom to do virtual conferences. After assessing the options last summer [2020], she found Hopin “hit everyone out of the park . . . the timing was impeccable”.

Newman likes the way Hopin’s software encourages the audience to post comments or respond with animated gifs, making keynote sessions feel interactive. More than just a pandemic stop-gap, Hopin is “inventing a new way of doing a conference”, she says.

This year Newman has hosted 60 BDO events on Hopin, from internal departmental gatherings to industry sales conferences with as many as 1,500 attendees. “A lot of the conferences we did in person before . . . there’s no way we’d go back,” she says, with some offline events costing tens of thousands of dollars to produce. “The cost savings [from Hopin] are incredible.”

Virtual events do present challenges, Newman says: attendees can forget their passwords, moderators play an important role in maintaining momentum, and producers must be creative to ensure keynotes are not boring. That means some conference organisers can take some time to get to grips with the platform.

“Hopin came the closest to giving our event attendees an engaging and intimate experience,” says Annematt Ruseler, communications director at WeTransfer, a Dutch collaboration software company, which launched its annual Ideas Report using Hopin in 2020. “However, it does take some figuring out. If you want to deliver a Hopin event well, you’ll need to put in the time and resources.”

While Hopin is less expensive than a physical event, that does not necessarily mean it is cheap. Hopin offers a free tier for two-hour events of up to 100 people, although it takes a 15 per cent commission on tickets sold, while longer events start at $99 a month and prices rise depending on the number of registrations or event organisers.

Yet the strength of Hopin’s business model has excited investors. “They have one of the most efficient business models, from a growth standpoint, that we have ever seen,” says Maltz, who previously backed Slack, Dropbox and Wise. “A lot of the capital they have raised is still in the bank.”

Part of that efficiency comes from the company running as a fully remote team, with no physical head office. Where Hopin has invested heavily, however, is executive talent. Those two go hand in hand. In the same way that virtual event organisers have pulled in top speakers who might not otherwise have wanted to fly to, say, Las Vegas to give a speech, flexible working has helped Hopin poach executives who might otherwise have been unwilling to relocate. “It’s a huge benefit because we give flexibility — that’s how we have attracted a lot of people,” says Sarah Manning, Hopin’s vice-president of people.

Hopin’s leadership team includes Silicon Valley heavyweights such as chief operating officer Wei Gao, formerly of Amazon, and chief customer officer Rosie Roca, previously a customer experience executive at Salesforce.

Hopin has been more acquisitive than a typical start-up of its age, making six purchases over the past year. These include paying $250m in cash and stock for StreamYard, which develops video-streaming software.

Hopin’s dealmaking has also helped it expand its tools for delivering in-person events, such as Boomset, for on-site event management, and Topi, a networking app. The acquisition spree is designed to help Hopin continue to grow even as physical events return. “Hopin can bridge the gap around making virtual attendees feel part of the [physical] experience,” says Maltz. “One of the advantages of the Hopin platform is you really feel like you’re a participant, no matter where you’re dialling in from.”

With Hopin operating at such high speed, the inevitable question of when it might go public arises. An initial public offering is an ambition for Boufarhat, who has already cashed in more than £100m of his own shares privately.

But despite Hopin’s London roots, any stock market debut seems more likely to occur in New York. “I would love to IPO in the UK but, at the same time, there’s a strong negativity around it,” he told the FT in August. “I feel that a lot of them flop because investors are much more conservative.”

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