Vaibhav Jain is settled into the lounge. It’s spacious, open, with sofas placed strategically for business meetings. It is also completely digital. The sofas are graphics on our screens. The attendees are avatars they can move at the click of a mouse.
This is the world of Hubilo, the event platform aiming to recreate and enhance interactive experiences and build real-life connections in the virtual world.
As the company celebrated a recent $125 million injection of Series B funding – an important second round of financing by private equity investors or venture capitalists – its CEO and founder spoke about the real-world challenges of building a virtual events business, why the right connections are critical to success and which podcasts he’d recommend for aspiring, Southeast Asian entrepreneurs.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I always wanted to start something of my own. When I was in college, I dabbled with a lot of ideas and built the college’s first social media network.
Building a college social media network: sounds very Mark Zuckerberg!
I think that’s the idea everyone starts with if you’re a techie in college!
How did the idea for Hubilo develop?
I was preparing to go for my MBA but didn’t go through with it. I met a person at an event, who changed my life in a way, because he pushed me towards the route of entrepreneurship. And I thought, I met this person at an event. Let me try to do something similar for other folks at events, try to connect them to people that they should meet.
That’s how we started an attendee recommendation platform in 2015. That was our first venture into the event space and we struggled initially, for about one and a half years, we weren’t able to get a product market fit at the right cost. Then we pivoted into an event management software for enterprises.
We did that for about three and a half years [but] it didn’t grow to a level at which a start-up should grow at. And in February 2020 that business got completely decimated because of Covid.
When Covid had decimated our business, we thought, “Okay, let’s try to wing it one last time.” And we kickstarted this second journey or second innings of Hubilo when we thought of creating a virtual platform for the world.
Where is the main value in virtual events platforms?
You never really know which person would be able to help you out. [On] platforms like Instagram you follow influencers. Facebook, you follow your friends and family. LinkedIn, you follow people whom you know or people who you’re inspired by. But a virtual event platform is a place where 1,000 people come in with a common purpose with time that has been set aside to attend that particular event. So once you are in a group of these 1,000 people, there are a lot of opportunities created within one day. And these are the business connections that you’re able to make, which you can take advantage of later on in life.
From “winging it” to recently receiving $125 million in Series B funding. How did Hubilo attract investor attention?
Series B funding for us was not as difficult as a seed funding. It took us about six months to get the money in for our seed round when we started pitching, but [with] Series B, it took us only six weeks. I think fundraising, if you have the right product market fit and some type of revenue and traction, will not be that difficult.
But choosing the right partner is going to be immense. You need a partner who believes in the space in which you are in who brings aggression, ambition. We were quite lucky to choose the right partner for us, and who became an architect for our Series A round. And the person who got on board for our Series A round was the one who helped us in our Series B round.
Business connections are integral to Hubilo and your personal journey. What have you learnt from your colleagues?
What I’ve learned is that we were a bunch of pirates and whatever you could give to us, we’ll just go ahead and achieve. But now that the team is much more mature. I’ve understood the importance of hiring incredible talent at every level. I’ve learned the value of documentation, have learned the value of overcommunication! Also, some of the leaders that have come on board I consider, how do they think differently? How do they think about the vision? Because these are guys who have worked 15 to 20 years in the corporate space.
You once gave colleagues 26 days to brainstorm a new direction for the business. How do you inspire and motivate employees and get results?
I think we had nothing to lose at that point of time. We had about months of runway inside the company. So when your back is against the wall, you try to give everything. And that is what happened in those 26 days, plus four to five months after that as well, where every hour of every person was extremely important.
How important are agile business models in today’s unpredictable business environment?
They’re pretty important as the market is shifting and large-scale companies are not able to adopt that agile methodology, which actually makes them vulnerable [compared] to young start-ups. There are multiple books, podcasts, blogs that everyone should go ahead and read. “Masters of Scale” by Reid Hoffman is a pretty good podcast series that someone from the Southeast Asian region could start with.
As live events restart, how is Hubilo preparing for a hybrid meetings landscape?
Hubilo is already prepped for physical and hybrid-based events as that was the business that we were in before the pandemic. But as we are growing in this particular space, we think that there’s a ton of opportunities still there in virtual events.
How role have Southeast Asian markets played in the Hubilo journey?
I think Southeast Asian markets have been pretty agile in terms of adopting new technology that comes through, and they understand what goes in making that technology and are very patient with product. We started our market with Southeast Asia and were able to gain a lot of traction over there. We still have a very strong hold in Singapore and other countries.
Whatever we learn from here, whatever product experiments that we do, we share it globally, because people are more open to using new technologies [in Asia], whereas people in the West [think], “We want to see what’s working, and we’ll just stick to that.”
APAC gives us about 27% of our total revenue. And that is going to expand further. Most of our enterprise deals are from the APAC markets, where people trust us not only for one [year], but they are also signing multi-year deals, so it’s a very important market for us. We have also opened up multiple positions in Singapore.
What is the biggest challenge of the entrepreneurial lifestyle?
An entrepreneur thinking that he’s busy, when he’s truly not busy. Just blocking calendars and keeping [a] day completely packed. As an entrepreneur, it’s pretty important to take a step back, realise where we are and where we want to go, because no one else in the company is going to do that. You are someone who brings 360-degree context. Your duty is to capitalise the company better so that it doesn’t fail.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.