These ex-Facebook employees just raised millions for a new startup that can help virtual conferences be as useful and interesting as real-world events, amid the spread of coronavirus

  • Run the World is an online-events platform that seeks to replicate the experience of meeting in-person at events and gatherings.
  • The company launched out of stealth mode last week, announcing its platform and backing from investors including Andreessen Horowitz partner Connie Chan. 
  • As the coronavirus outbreak has upended the tech industry and prompted companies to move or delay conferences, CEO Xiaoyin Qu told Business Insider that demand for the platform has spiked. 
  • But the platform also provides a solution to a longstanding issue faced by people with less access to international conferences and events, Qu said. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A wave of concern around controlling the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, is thrusting startups offering solutions in the form of remote work and digital events into the spotlight. 

Run the World, a startup that’s only a few months old, raised $4.5 million in a round of seed funding led by Andreessen Horowitz at the end of last year. The company came out of stealth mode last week and announced its launch, noting that it would waive set-up fees for companies impacted by the spread of coronavirus. 

The product essentially allows customers to run the online equivalent of an in-person lecture, conference, or festival: Speakers can present slides or videos, and the audience can interact with the speaker and independently message other attendees. 

Concerns over the outbreak of coronavirus have driven tech workers back to their homes over the past few weeks. And Wall Street analysts have predicted that the services of companies like Zoom and Slack will pick up, as companies like Twitter begin to recommend that their employees work from home.

Meanwhile, these concerns have also caused demand for Run the World’s services over the past few weeks to spike, Run the World CEO Xiaoyin Qu told Business Insider, even as companies like Google and Salesforce cancel in-person conferences in favor of online events. “I think the virus is really kind of accelerating adoption of it,” Qu said. 

Connie Chan, the Andreessen Horowitz partner leading Run the World’s seed funding, described the platform as hybrid of a number of existing companies, like Zoom, LinkedIn, Twitch and Eventbrite — essentially, a combo of videoconferencing, streaming, networking, and event management. 

But Qu adds that Run the World isn’t meant to be a mere placeholder for real-world events: the business difficulties created by travel restrictions and work-from-home policies point to a more longstanding issue that is already faced by people who live in less geographically-accessible locations.

At its core, the digital space created by Run the World is about improving access and equality to these kinds of events, Qu said. She points at the experiences of her mother, a pediatrician based in China, for an example of why this is so important. Attending a medical conference in Chicago last year meant taking valuable time off not only for the trip itself, but also to arrange her travel visa.

Stories like that, Qu says, serve as inspiration for what Run the World is trying to accomplish — making events easier to access can also create more opportunities for the people who can then attend them.

“I have friends who are from Stanford Medical School and doctors that I know who just needed to walk downstairs to meet the top experts in their field. That’s it,” Qu said. With Run the World, she hopes to lend that same ease of access to people from all over the world. 

The potential for live-online events to connect people beyond the bounds of physical space has been drawing increased attention from the entertainment world for some time now. Last year, more than 10 million players logged onto the popular video game “Fortnite” to watch a 10-minute virtual concert performed by the electronic dance music star Marshmello. 

“What makes me happiest about today is that so many people got to experience their first concert ever,” Marshmello tweeted after the event. 

Lessons from Facebook 

RTW

Run the World

Qu, a former product manager at Facebook, seems to have taken many of the social network’s lessons to heart, like creating meaningful social networks and building a community. 

“I loved my time at Facebook, I met a lot of cool people” Qu said, pointing out that she met her co-founder at the company, as well as much of her founding team. But questions hitting the social network supporting 2 billion users are also shaping how she thinks about the company. 

Take Run the World event sizes, which Qu says typically runs between a hundred and a thousand. 

“From a technical standpoint we can support like 10,000 people,” she said. “But how is that different from social media, where you’re posting some emoji and not actually meeting anybody?” 

The platform makes event attendees create profiles by which they can be identified when attending talks, attend “cocktail hour” mixers where they can meet each other, and have built a Facebook Messenger-like platform to message each other afterward. The idea is to keep the quality of the discourse high.

“How do you make sure the quality of the community is good?” Qu asks. “When you have the opportunity to grow something from the ground up, what are some of the pitfalls you could probably avoid? And what are some of the challenges that you can predict and build into your system? Those are some of the things that I think a lot about.” 

And of course, Facebook’s overall mission to connect people around the world is one that speaks to Qu personally. She notes that its global appeal is one thing that Run the World hopes to emulate. 

“I think Facebook does a really good job of engaging people worldwide. And I feel like that’s one important thing that we can learn from that experience — how to make sure that the product experience can translate and travel around the world,” Qu said. 

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