Harvard Business review

Building a Multibillion-Dollar Company in 18 Months (with Hopin’s Johnny Boufarhat)

AZEEM AZHAR: Hi there, I’m Azeem Azhar, and you are listening to the Exponential View podcast. Now, every week I come together with a brilliant mind to explore just how exponential technologies are shaping on your future. The thesis behind my newsletter and this podcast is laid out in my new book. It’s called The Exponential Age, or if you’re outside of North America, it’s Exponential. I break down this exponential age, a new period of human affairs catalyzed by accelerating technology platforms that exist across four broad domains, computing, energy, biology, and manufacturing. If you like this podcast, you’re going to love the book and you can get a copy from wherever you get your favorite books. Just visit www.exponential-book.com.

AZEEM AZHAR: Now, today’s guest, Johnny Boufarhat, helms one of the fastest growing companies in history. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, his small video conferencing startup had just six employees. Today it has more than 1,000 and is valued at almost $8 billion. Johnny has had to adapt quickly. He’s gone from an at-home entrepreneur to the CEO of a leading events platform in a little over two years. On the way he’s had to learn to delegate higher and manage at an unprecedented rate. In this episode, he and I discuss seizing opportunities, the future of the metaverse, and why he hopes the future of entrepreneurship will be truly borderless. Johnny Boufarhat, welcome to Exponential View.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: Thank you so much Azeem. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AZEEM AZHAR: So in December 2019, just as I was starting work on my book, I was introduced to Johnny. And so we spoke at the start of January, 2020, and in September ’21, my book came out and I’d spent 18 months writing a book and publishing it, what Johnny had done. He’d gone from two employees in his little company, Hopin, to now today, more than 1,000. He’d raised around $1 billion in venture capital and the firm was valued at $7.8 billion at the same sort of time that my book was published. So Johnny, our history is that you and I both had an exciting 18 months and I’m wondering who spent their time more wisely.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I would look at the headlines to find that out.

AZEEM AZHAR: But you’ve had an incredible 18 months. I was actually writing about you a number of times, and I kept having to go back and make edits because you kept on with another milestone, another acquisition, another customer, another way of looking at the world. What an 18 months.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: It’s been quite intense, but I’m very grateful because I think as a team and as a company, we’ve kind of weathered the storm in some ways together, and it’s been a really great journey to be honest.

AZEEM AZHAR: I think it’s worth us spending maybe a minute to hear from you what you thought Hopin was back in 2019 as you put it together, and what that idea was, what that itch you wanted to scratch was.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: For me, it was quite personal actually, the building of the platform, everything in regards to the mission because I had an autoimmune illness that developed about four or five years ago. I wasn’t able to keep a job down due to the illness. I spent about two years kind of stuck in the house. One of the things that I had done as I had started to recover is I kind of promised myself in some way that I would try and make a bigger impact because I was kind of floating before that, before I got very ill. Luckily for me, I did start to get better and it was due to a strict diet, but it was in that last year that I was trying to basically network with people because I should be able to network essentially the same way I did when I would attend an in-person event. And so I used to go to React conferences and anything to do with developer conferences. That’s where I built a lot of my network, et cetera.

AZEEM AZHAR: React is a kind of code library that has emerged out of Facebook a few years ago and is used to develop mobile and web apps. So Johnny, you’re a pretty technical coder in that respect.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: My team would say I’m the worst coder in the company. So I won’t say that, but in my head I am. So the point is I started building this platform that allowed people to network from home. And one of the cool things about that is that for people who are sick, for people who have family members who maybe that’s why they can’t travel as much, or for people who don’t have the same equal opportunities globally, I started to piece it a little bit more with my history and my family’s history and I felt that that’s a real mission and that’s a real product that I’d be proud of and I wanted to make more and more of an impact by the product by allowing people to connect from wherever they are. The mission kind of expands as your imagination expands for what impact you can bring. And so if you asked me before the impact I could bring, I would be very happy with just a virtual event product. I think there’s a lot more problems that we can sort of tackle in a lot of different things.

AZEEM AZHAR: And we’ll get to those in our discussion. I’m curious about what it is in your family history that made you feel some relevance with this kind of virtual networking platform.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: Well, my parents were in Lebanon and they immigrated to Australia during the Civil War. And I was very lucky that I was afforded the opportunity to be born and raised in Australia where there was public health system, where there was a great education system, where I was able to chase opportunities because of that. But I have family members that I think are just as capable or even more so had they had equal opportunities in Lebanon, but they weren’t able to leave. That’s where I connect from me when I start to look back and I get excited about the possibility that it shouldn’t matter in 10 years from now where you are in the world. We’re seeing it in remote work, and that’s why the company is set up for remote and why I love remote so much is that why shouldn’t I be able to hire the best talent wherever they are? It shouldn’t have to be that they needed to move to San Francisco or an amazing city like London in order to get this opportunity. If we want to hire someone, it should be the best talent and the people most excited about the opportunity. And the internet is kind of leveling out that opportunity for everybody. And I think that’s what’s going to happen more and more over time.

AZEEM AZHAR: If we come back to Hopin itself, when I first spoke to you, we talked on the 5th of January 2020. At that time, Taiwan had just shut its borders to flights from China. And I remember you telling me about this virtual events platform and you were looking for early customers to come and use it. And you had a really clear picture about what a hybrid virtual event might look like. And for me, one of the pennies about where Hopin was likely to go dropped in March or April where I had two back to back calls with really senior execs from very stayed companies in different industries, both of whom were raving about how Hopin had saved their marketing plans for the summer of 2020. So your timing plays a large part in the success of Hopin so far and the loyalty that customers show you, but I’m curious about your vision versus the opportunities afforded by the timing that the world shut down just as you started to go out to market.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: COVID obviously was very much an accelerant for the remote and also the virtual events. There’s no doubt. And I think we were ready to take our… I don’t know if we were ready at the time in February, we were like six people, but we were mentally ready as a team to take on the whole market, everybody that needed to run events. There was a lot of platforms, virtual events as well that were there and were available, but I think from a company product building perspective, before November of 2019, I remember that the viral rate was about three percent. And three percent of anyone who would attend an event on Hopin, any type of event, would convert into an organization as an average. And that viral rate I think was the reason why there was so much excitement around the potential growth of the product.

AZEEM AZHAR: So in the internet marketing, word of mouth marketing, the idea of a viral rate is the extent to which you can convert someone who’s exposed to your product to becoming a customer.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: Yeah, the viral rate in terms of being able to scale super quickly.

AZEEM AZHAR: Yeah.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: So one of the most insane B2B viral rate anyone had seen at least from the venture world. And that comes down to the product because the thing I had noticed very early on is there was no virtual events platform. A lot of them were like these 3D platforms or they were webinar. And you know what I mean by 3D was like this 3D virtual world, more like a game in some way, or you’d end up with like a webinar experience. And both of those were not very good. And so they’re not very viral and that’s why people didn’t like it. The experience wasn’t good, but within a virtual event, you could bring 10,000 people to one event. And that’s what quickly grew us is that we would have one event, 10,000 people would attend for a big enough event. And tons of them would say, “Well, this product is a great experience compared to what existed prior and we should host some of these.” And that’s what happened. And our pricing was low enough. So we target the right market because typically you’d pay about $30,000 for one of these like 3D events that people would host. Just as the virality plus the ground up play plus the COVID plus like a few other things just made it so fast growing. And we were ready. I remember it was in March, we were still in like a private beta with a wait list. We were planning to launch in September of that year, 2020, but because we were only six people, all of us were… Developers were getting on sales calls to be honest at the time and recruitment was everybody. But we went from six to 27 people like the next month. It was let’s go higher, let’s do this. So there was like a combination of things when I look back at it that ended up making it happen and being ready to take on an opportunity is a big one. Everything was there, everything was aligned. The product was there and different and differentiated and good enough to really scale, but there was little micro decisions we made that allowed us to get in front of competitors and everything else.

AZEEM AZHAR: Can I just sort of dig into that a little bit because companies scale. Many companies have scaled. It’s the mantra of the internet business. There’s a kind of constant drumbeat that you have to go through. You go from six to 21, but then you have to go from 21 to 50 and then from 50 to 150. How have you felt your role change and your capacities grow or feel stretched by that process?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: Well, and that was one of the great things about having early angel investors. For me, I remember speaking, I think it was Daniel Dines. So founder of UiPath, which is, I think it was the fastest growing tech startup in history and Daniel Dines was one of our early angel investors before COVID round. And I remember he told me very early on and it stuck with me that as a founder, don’t be afraid to delegate this. Well, the one thing that stops founders from executing, they’re unable to basically delegate because they feel like they need to be the smart person in the room, or it takes them a while to learn that delegation and working with and hiring the best talent and all this sort of stuff is the way to win. And that’s the best way to scale. And I did have those hesitations. I remember feeling it because it was my first scale. My previous startup had four people and they were all friends because that was like my trust circle. Learning to trust people, learning to hire the best talent, learning to let go of things. I think just I was… Luckily for me because of that advice, I did it very, very quickly.

AZEEM AZHAR: So looking back at that, what was a particularly bold task or activity that you delegated to someone? Now you look back and you think, wow, that was a milestone step for me when I said you take care of this for me.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I can name like 15 of these. First one that happened was I was in charge of making all the tech decisions. And combining that with me earlier on saying that I was the worst and worst engineer on the team, it was definitely not a good decision. It was partly to do with controlling my interest. But the moment I hired a VP of engineering and also passed on the mantle to them, that was huge for the company. We were able to make a lot of decisions faster. They didn’t have to wait for me to get context or whatever on a decision to make decisions because there was hundred other things going on that I’m looking at as well. The same thing happened with recruitment. I was the principal recruiter when we went from six to 27 and 27 to 50. I was on Twitter and LinkedIn trying to find candidates anywhere. And we hired a recruiter then and that’s freed up time to focus somewhere else. And even more recently, I just hired a COO, Wei, who was fantastic and has taken up multiple things, including like looking at company analytics and making sure we’re hitting targets and [inaudible 00:12:45]. Almost at every stage, there’s been one of these decisions and I’m very grateful that we made them.

AZEEM AZHAR: You’ve obviously got a chance to understand how other startups have grown and you’ve read the literature and you are moving and meeting investors and other founders. What are the things that you have not done that other startup founders have done and that you can perhaps attribute some of your speed to?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I think a lot of companies prefer to stay 50 people, 70 people, or prefer not to deal with the enterprise early on. Hopin partially grew so fast because we needed to hire customer success, we needed to hire sales people, we needed to hire a security team, all this staff that we wouldn’t have needed to hire and all this revenue we would’ve missed had we not targeted enterprise. But a lot of companies, especially nowadays startups, much prefer to deal with $99 per month type customers or $10 to $99 per user type thing, stay in that world for as long as they can, and then eventually move into enterprise four or five years later when they realize that’s where all the revenue is. For me, it was let’s take both on approach from day one, which again, if you don’t have the same momentum behind you, then it would be a bad decision because you’ll get less focused and you don’t start learning how to basically grow individual markets well enough. And actually, that’s what happened. We focused a lot on the enterprise and we stopped looking at all because we noticed, whoa, majority of our revenue is coming from B2B, heavy B2B now. So we stopped focusing on B2C. For about nine months, I don’t think there was a single person in the company that was assigned to looking to our B2C or let’s call it our small business product. Nobody had time to focus on it. And so that was a clear one for us.

AZEEM AZHAR: Just turning to you as the leader of an organization, what is different about Johnny today to two years ago? How have you grown as a person in that time?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I’m a lot more empathetic I would say because previously I hadn’t been a manager and I think there’s certain things you learn. If you’re someone who manages people, you start to pick up and learn about how people like to operate. The same environment that works for you doesn’t work for someone else. And so there’s a lot of things about open-mindedness and being more empathetic. And so I think that’s one. Two would be I’m a lot more experienced. So I’m more patient waiting for data to make decisions, et cetera. I was much more intuition based, which is a positive and a negative, but today I do care a lot more about getting the data right and et cetera, cetera, but I’m a lot more impatient in terms of get me the information as quick as possible because there’s multiple things going on. And I think that’s also in some ways very negative because I start to enjoy less things that you deal with day to day, i.e., hang out with friends that you used to hang out with and a lot of these sort of things.

AZEEM AZHAR: Hopin sits at the intersection of two major trends. One of the big trends is the future of work and this idea of remote work. And you’re a remote-first company. You enable remote working. And the second is the idea of the metaverse and in some sense, this new space that is being created combining virtual and remote technologies with more immersive graphics and techniques. Do you think of Hopin as a company that’s playing in the metaverse space?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I think it would really depend on your definition of the metaverse, but let’s use Facebook’s definition of it, which is their Workspace app or whatever it is that they’ve created like 3D world. I think we are going to integrate with it and you can already launch a VR session from within Hopin, but I wouldn’t consider us today a metaverse company. But we’re fully remote and our product does enable lots of different types of experiences.

AZEEM AZHAR: There’s a history of human-computer interactions and that they essentially start to get richer and richer. I was thinking back to the late ’90s where one’s interaction was a text message, an SMS, 140-character text message coming black and white with a bing and a two-minute delay and no typing indicator. And there’s the technology is getting more mature, more capable, more distributed. Our portfolio of interactions gets richer and richer. So we send WhatsApp messages with animated images with them. We can jump onto quick voice calls and video chats without thinking about it. The Hopin conferencing experience is much richer than the remote conferencing experience was three or four years ago. So there is this path towards greater richness, greater interactivity. So without hanging off on particular marketing terms like metaverse, how do you imagine that richness will shift over the coming few years? Are you expecting there to be more immersive experiences? Are these things that people will actually want?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I’ve changed my mind about it all the time. Today I believe that society at some point will look for less technology. At some point I think we need to, and we will look to regulate technology because there are dangers. And I think we’re starting to notice that technology’s good for us, but sometimes it can be bad for us. I think products that are like virtual meeting, I think there’s very little bad about that product in terms of it. If you can’t meet in-person, this is a great way to have the same meeting online, but regarding social media, regarding online gaming, those things are pretty addictive.

AZEEM AZHAR: Let’s take a look at something like Hopin though. You’re explicitly a work product right now and you have immersive extensions, but it’s not yet an immersive-first product, but one could imagine that there might be more of that as people get used to the idea and bandwidth gets better and prices of devices of augmented reality and virtual reality equipment comes down. Would you imagine that that might extend your remit outside of work into more of a social platform in the way that Facebook has gone the other way around? They started as a social platform, they now have a work toolkit. Could Hopin find itself saying, well, then we actually have the platform that enables it and we’ll bring a social or a non-work dimension to all of this?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I think so. We already have yoga conventions on the platform. We already have lots of different types of use cases. I’ve seen comedy shows, et cetera, et cetera. And I think over time, yeah, we’d probably look to be in entertainment, but we’d probably stick within the remit of events or meetings or digital experiences, et cetera. Events are concurrency and time based. I.e. they don’t happen every day. You can’t just come into an event and be in the same event 24/7. So I do think it’s different from what I was describing before in some ways.

AZEEM AZHAR: When I look at what’s happening within VR, for example, I was lucky to spend some time with some VR developers last year and I had this fascinating experience where I actually hurt my knee running, so I couldn’t go out and run anymore. So I had an Oculus to headset and I played a boxing game called FitXR just to kind of maintain my cardio while I was recovering from the knee. And actually it was a really important intervention in my life for those five or six weeks. I still look at that technology and I say, it feels to me that it’s not quite ready for mainstream use. When you look at technologies like that, which are sort of closely connected to where your business is like VR and presence and so on, how mature do you think they are and how long do they need to mature further?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: We are definitely always going to look to integrate with this product. I.e., gamification works, you could consider gaming as a close adjacency to events because you can see Fortnite running types of events using games, right? We’re never going to be a game company though from a product standpoint, but what we would do is integrate. I.e., if someone wanted to plug Fortnite into Hopin and still receive all the data analytics, we have no problem doing that if they wanted to do it. And we actually do that with quite a few games like Poker, et cetera, cetera, for certain types of business events or events as a whole. When it comes to VR, my view around VR is the same when it comes to the business and how Hopin will view VR and integrating very, very well. Personally, I don’t think that VR, other than gaming and like digital entertainment experiences, I don’t foresee it becoming something we do. And you and I meeting each other rather than going for a walk, attending some VR walk together, I don’t foresee it happening.

AZEEM AZHAR: You find yourself at a really interesting point in having founded and built and grown one of the fastest technology companies ever. In fact, I use a chart of Hopin’s valuation, which is basically a straight vertical line to describe the exponential age. That does put you at an interesting point as a founder. What kind of inspiration do you want to leave other people who go down this journey? What is the sort of the Johnny message?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: I truly believe that other than meeting the investor in London, I could have been anywhere when launching Hopin. If I could make the impact that you mentioned as a entrepreneur that leaves something, I want to make the point that you can build a business from anywhere. My hope is that all over the world, we start to see more and more companies that are just completely built without all the barriers that their location typically gives them. I taught myself how to code online. I didn’t go to university to learn how to code. And a big shout out to indiehackers.com, which is a forum that people who want to build businesses learn from others who want to build businesses online. There are people from all over the world there. And I think the information spreading and all this sort of stuff I think means that we’re going to have global founders. And I hope to be one of the first global founders.

AZEEM AZHAR: What are the barriers that you think need to come down? What are the hurdles that need to be removed?

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: So, number one would’ve been the availability of internet all around the world. If you can eat, you can shelter, and you can have internet and you can start to learn, right? And you can start to think about a online business that you can create. Second part is the educational content or community that are available online. And those are now available. And then the third would’ve been the availability of investment and network globally. And I think those are coming. So those three have been knocked down in my opinion. We’re going to have global companies jumping up and down. Now, I’ve never been to Silicon Valley. And I think five, six, seven years ago, I think one of the big things was you want to do a tech business, you have to go live in Silicon Valley or at least spend a good three months here doing the road show over there whenever you want to raise money, et cetera. I’ve never been there. Maybe I won’t go there just to say that I haven’t been there, but it’s cool.

AZEEM AZHAR: Johnny, Hopin has been an essential part I think for many businesses during the pandemic, during the lockdown, and you’ve mapped out a vision for future entrepreneurs to be able to do this without being tied down about constraints of geography. It’s an exciting vision. Thank you for taking the time today.

JOHNNY BOUFARHAT: Thank you so much, Azeem, for having me. I hope it was quite interesting.

AZEEM AZHAR: It was more than quite interesting. If you enjoyed this discussion, please check out the podcast feed. You will find my discussions with Reid Hoffman and with Elad Gil in particular, really interesting on the topic of rapidly scaling entrepreneurship. You can also hear from Reshma Sohoni of Seedcamp, who was one of Johnny’s first investors.

AZEEM AZHAR: To become a premium subscriber of my weekly newsletter with a special 20 percent off for listeners of the podcast, just go to www.exponentialview.co/listener. That’s www.exponentialview.co/listener. This will give you access to my writing community and regular member discussions for less than $10 a month. To stay in touch, you can follow me on Twitter. I’m @azeem. That’s A-Z-E-E-M. This podcast was produced by Fred Casella, Marija Gavrilov, and Mischa Frankl-Duval. Bojan Sabioncello is our sound editor.

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