Another virtual events platform is launching with $12 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins, serving as further evidence that the global pandemic may leave an indelible mark on the trillion-dollar business events and conferences market.
Welcome emerged from stealth today after just 7 months in development and 3 months in testing, with the promise to allow any single person to “throw an experience that feels like an Apple keynote,” according to Welcome CEO and cofounder Roberto Ortiz.
“We saw that there was a big gap in the market, especially looking at high-end events, high-end experiences, and high-end production,” Ortiz told VentureBeat.
For the likes of Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies with endless resources, the transition to online events may have been relatively painless — but for companies without the expertise, technology, or budget, trying to replicate quality physical events virtually was likely no easy task. As such, this year has been monumental for virtual events startups, with social distancing measures and remote work forcing some of the world’s biggest conferences to seek new ways to stage events through livestreams and similar virtual alternatives.
Last week, London-based virtual events company Hopin raised $125 million at $2.1 billion valuation just over a year after it was founded, having grown from 8 employees and 5,000 users to 200 employees and 3.5 million users in a post-pandemic 8-month period. Elsewhere, Mountain View, California-based Run The World raised two rounds of funding this year, including a $10.8 million series A round in the midst of the global lockdown, similar to India’s Airmeet which closed its seed round in March followed by a $12 million series A round not long after.
Welcome, for its part, is betting firmly on the enterprise market. Rather than charging on a per-event or attendee basis, Welcome wants annual contracts, whereby companies go all-in on the Welcome platform and use it for everything. The idea is that if a company is paying a hefty fee, Welcome becomes the go-to tool for every remote event or meeting. It’s also not going after the big conferences that may only happen once a year — what Welcome wants is frequency.
“We believe that’s [big conferences] fool’s gold — you have to reacquire that event every year,” Ortiz said. “When we build a relationship with the enterprise customer, they get to use us for all their all-hands-on every week, for their board meetings, for their sales events. For us, it’s about getting the frequency and adding value week-to-week to that customer.”
Welcome to Welcome
As with other virtual events platforms, Welcome positions itself as a virtual venue, meaning that it strives to replicate the various spaces that you would get in a real venue. For example, there are breakout rooms and a “green room” where speakers can congregate before going on stage, for example.
Above: A Welcome Green Room
Elsewhere, Welcome allows users to mix live and pre-recorded video, and create graphical overlays with additional information, or include questions that are being asked from the audience. Next year, Welcome also plans to introduce what Ortiz calls a new “dynamic overlays” feature, which will allow companies to generate new text and colors in real time, without having to upload fresh graphics.
Above: Welcome: Overlays
Welcome is also positioning itself as a white label platform, with companies able to customize the look-and-feel with their own branding, colors, backdrops, logos, and so on, while plans are also afoot to introduce custom domains so that companies can host Welcome-powered events on their own online properties.
Over and above the specific feature set, however, Welcome essentially want to be seen as a HD video broadcast studio, backed by white-glove support. This means that as part of its annual contract, it provides companies with the training not only on how to use the platform, but how to run impactful events. In turn, Welcome hopes this will transfer into word-of-mouth recommendations so that event participants go and tell their bosses.
“Our key marketing channel is our customers events,” Ortiz said. “If our customers know how to host next-level experiences that blow everybody away, then that’s going to be our sales pipeline.”
Things could have been so much different for Welcome had the COVID-19 crisis not struck. The company was technically founded last year, but with an entirely different focus — the Welcome team even went through an entire Y Combinator program, but come March it was clear that it wasn’t the best time to sell software to restaurants.
“We had to pivot — we either pivot, or we die,” Ortiz said. “So we sat down and went back to the drawing board and we turned a complete 180 to events.”
Welcome’s path toward today’s launch is reminiscent of Hubilo, an Indian virtual events startup that had to pivot its entire business model back in March from physical events, and went on to nab some notable investors. Also similar to Hubilo, Welcome’s founding team had years of relevant experience to draw on which would make the pivot just that little bit easier.
Ortiz has served in numerous roles over the past decade with some overlap, including product design lead at Google. He also cofounded a fantasy sports startup called Bignoggins Productions, which along with his current cofounder Jerry Chen he sold to Yahoo in 2013. As a result, Ortiz became senior director of mobile design at Yahoo for three years. Sandwiched in between all of this, Ortiz was also involved in what he calls a personal “passion project” called Eleo, which involved putting on high-production meetups and conferences in the Bay Area aimed at teaching key skills to entrepreneurs. Although this was not a profit-making venture (all proceeds were donated to charity), it was a fortuitous turn of events, so to speak, given what the future would hold.
“We got first-hand experience on [things like] ‘how do we handle speakers?’, ‘how do we handle stage?’, ‘how do we make sure the branding is on point and the user experience is there’,” Ortiz said.
This strong technical and product background, combined with specific experience of putting on events, served as a potent combination for what was ultimately a rapid pivot to virtual events back in April.
“So we doubled down, and we spent three months, basically in a cave working on this thing,” Ortiz added.
A hybrid world
With several vaccines now on the horizon, much of the world will be eagerly awaiting a return to normality, which will mean people gathering together in large venues to discuss all-things work. However, a widely held belief across the technology and venture capital world is that even when physical events do return, the digital incarnation is going nowhere. Hybrid is very much the name of the game, due in large part to the extra value they bring to the mix.
“Our customers are seeing more growth by going virtual,” Ortiz said. “One customer of ours typically hosts one event at 500 people, she went virtual, and now she has 2,500. So now she’s growing her demographic much more broadly than a physical event would allow. [When things go back to normal], she says it’s going to be a 100% hybrid approach — this is what we keep hearing from event industry leaders.”
Data is also a major factor at play here. In a physical venue, aside from registering the fact that somebody has turned up at the event, it becomes very difficult to track what that person does, how engaged they are, or quantify the success in terms of desired outcomes such as a new connection or sale. Now that more companies are dabbling in the virtual events sphere, giving up that measurability will be difficult, which is why the hybrid model could be here to stay.
“The design approach we’ve taken at the company is, instead of thinking about this from a physical-first experience and saying, ‘this is how events work in the physical world, how do we do them in a virtual world?’, we flipped it and said: ‘How do we do things in the virtual world that it’s impossible to in the physical world. And that’s allowed us to design key features pipelines of data that improves the stickiness and the ROI for our customers.”
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