CC#18: CEO of Hopin - From $0-5.65b valuation in under 3 years

The company had 6 employees before COVID hit and now has over 400.

The GOOD TIME Show by Sriram and Aarthi tonight brought us an incredible interview with Johnny Boufarhat, CEO/Founder of Hopin, a virtual events platform. The stage was also shared with the usual suspects, Marc Andreessen, Steven Sinofsky, Garry Tan and a newcomer who is also a GP at a16z—David George.

Sriram started the interview by asking Johnny how Hopin got started.

Johnny: “I had traveled abroad and returned with pretty serious food poisoning. For 2-3 years, the symptoms got really severe. It led to a lot of autoimmune symptoms—for about 2 years I couldn’t really leave my house often. I spent most of that time building stuff and doing some tech consulting. I was staying at my fiancé’s house cause I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent otherwise. I started recovering using a very strict diet (autoimmune paleo diet). Towards the end of that 2nd year, I began feeling a bit antsy—I wanted to attend events, I wanted to interact with people. I tried slack but it wasn’t a great way to meet people. I tried Linkedin cold messages and that also didn’t work well. Online events were typically webinars, and those were not an effective way to meet other people either. I thought there should be a great way to network online. Initially, what we built was a “Chatroulette” for slack communities. It was quite popular from the start. We started to build out more “spaces for the venue.” In January 2019, I kinda recovered and built a prototype of what you see today. We began raising a seed round in June 2019 and at the time, I didn’t know a single thing about venture capital.”

Sriram: “How did you see the world shifting when the pandemic hit?”

Johnny: “In February of 2020, we were a team of 6 people and hadn’t launched yet. We had a waitlist and this great idea to do a big launch in September. We were letting in more and more events. We were worried about scalability. People were basically rewriting the shitty code I wrote. I remember on a Friday in February, one of our customers said we need to hop on a call with this other company. They said they had an event on Monday and they were going to have to cancel it, but wanted to use our platform. We decided to go for it. Shortly after, we decided to open up the flood gates and that was when the hiring craze started. We needed to hire for customer support / engineers and many other positions. We went from 6 people to over 200 in a 9-month span.”

Sriram: “Did you guys have an office at that time (before COVID)?”

Johnny: “The first venture fund that invested in us, Seedcamp, allowed us to use a part of their office because only 2/6 of us were based in London.”

Aarthi: “How has scaling remotely been?” 

Johnny: “Well, I think, there’s no doubt for me that remote is the future. If you’re a hyper growth startup, I am absolutely certain that going remote is a huge advantage for you. If I take on a meeting at 1am for 3pm the next day - I can hire people quicker than anyone else and I can onboard them quicker. When you bring someone to an office, you need to figure out the intricacies of musical chairs. For example—are there enough seats?; do we need to move anyone around; when do we need to think about getting a bigger office, etc. I thought culture would be a big problem. Until we had an internal assessment done and our score was 96. I don’t know if it’s the honeymoon phase, but so far it’s been really great. If you have a startup where you don’t have a clear direction yet, being remote is not good because you want to be constantly meeting and discussing things. But for just about any other scenario, it’s advantageous to be remote.”

Sriram: “What do you believe would come as a surprise to any startup going remote for the first time?”

Johnny: “I think they’ll notice that efficiency of the company (speed of development / design) increases. I have a theory: people are more comfortable in their house, so when you have 1 or 2 meetings a day, you’re getting the best 2 hours of those people per day. As opposed to an office, where you might be groggy from lunch and zoning out. The other thing is, all you’re measured on is impact. Lastly, People who are remote end up working more. There’s no doubt about it. It sort of forces you to take work everywhere with you.”

Sriram: “Marc, how do you feel about working remote?”

Marc: “We could be living through one of the great civilizational transformations. The reason I say that is because for thousands of years, economic opportunity has been linked to economic mobility. There’s this hierarchy that if you can get to a big city, you have access to tremendous culture and high quality jobs. And if you can’t get to those places, you don’t have access to that. When the internet first went mainstream, there was this idea that we can finally disconnect economic opportunity and geographic location (there’s a book called depth of distance that illustrates this point). Then suddenly we saw this boom in the Bay Area and it actually mattered even more where you lived. If you would’ve asked all these tech CEOs 2 years ago if being remote would work, they would have said no. But then the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone just did it. There was this giant epiphany “wow, we can actually run a company like this.” If we think carefully about the culture we want to have, the software we want to have, the processes we want to have and what does it mean to have work-life-balance, etc. — then I think the way business is done 5 yrs from now could be radically different. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Sriram: “Have you enjoyed not having in-person meetings?”

Marc: “I don’t know about you guys, but I am somewhat introverted, I don’t like small talk and conferences, but I do like being around people. I was mostly locked down since the pandemic hit and just recently started doing things in open air. I’ve started getting a buzz from meeting with people in person, it’s as if I’m high for 4 hours after talking to someone face-to-face. There’s gonna be a big snapback, people will throw big parties and large events. I think people will be thrilled to be back in the office but it won’t be the same as pre-covid. I think people will start thinking in our individual lives: How do we want to live? Where do we want to live? I think going to a restaurant or sporting event will become a bigger deal. We may start to allocate more of our discretionary spending to optimize our home environment. And also, one little thing that turns out to be huge: commutes. The 2 top things that determine quality of life beyond having your basic needs met are your spouse/partner and your commute. People who have short commutes are fundamentally happier than those with long commutes. I know people who commute like 2-3 hours each way because they have to, and they hate it.”

David: “What do you think are the SaaS platforms needed to optimally run a remote business? I don’t think we could’ve done this without zoom & slack but those tools are definitely not perfect.”

Johnny: “I think we’re still on the path of searching for the right tool. It really defines the team culture. If you use slack vs email—one you expect longer response times and less engagement. We recently heard of a new product called quill; it’s more threaded, and it might change the entire dynamic of how our company interacts. You change something like that and it changes the culture completely.” 

Aarthi: “What is it like hiring remotely?”

Johnny: “We were based out of London until 4 months ago. When it comes to hiring executive talent, you should probably consider moving to San Francisco, cause most of the best talent for executive positions is in San Francisco. Hiring remote has been very powerful because it has widened the base. There’s great talent in NY, London, & San Francisco. From day one, it was easy for me to hire anyone. None of the execs even complained when asked if they could fly over to London 2 or 3 times per year. Working remotely, you also become a lot more aware of what’s happening around the world.” 

Sriram: “What are the benefits and downsides to doing an event remote?”

Johnny: “Remote events are 20% better and 20% worse than physical events. You can attract more people - Hopin allows for more networking, which is what made the platform so popular. From an organizer’s perspective, you can expect the serendipity / random networking you would at a real event. Let’s say Marc was attending an event, they’d make it hard for him to get to the stage so he would interact with people, and make it so he would have to interact with sponsors on the way there. But then the people who do walk to the booths at an in-person event are a lot more interested than in a remote event.”

Sriram: “Marc - how do you think the future of work looks like?”

Marc: “The big thing is we need to design all of this. We need to think hard about what this is, and how people should act about it. What really should be done in person? Onboarding employees? Business reviews? Handling HR Issues? Strategy sessions? Maybe these are things that happen in person, or maybe we do do it all online. I think the big thing is we’ll be able to think from scratch on how to start businesses. Every CEO and management team has the ultimate excuse for why to re-organize how they run things right now, because they can use COVID as an excuse. Now we have the ultimate reason, excuse and motivation to do this. The fact that we could all think from scratch about how this all works is pretty awesome.”

Sriram: “Johnny - what would you say to new startup founders trying to grow in a remote setting?” 

Johnny: “Speak to your customers as much as possible. Find PMF (product-market-fit) as fast as possible. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got to move faster than everyone else. Always be asking, what can I do faster? What can I do better than everyone else? I do have one opinion, today’s startup founders are a lot better than 40 years ago. The quality of people, there’s a lot more knowledge being shared. Anyone anywhere can learn and improve quickly. All startups need to be super aware that it’s a super competitive world, so it’s very important to play to your strengths.”

Hopin has continued its rapid growth and now has over 400 employees. It’s crazy to think they had only 6 just 13 months ago. The company just announced a $400m series C round led by Andreessen-Horowitz & General Catalyst (GC) at a $5.65b valuation.