Johnny Bourfarhat started Hopin through the frustration of not being able to find the rights to collaborate and network with larger groups remotely. Founded in 2019, Hopin helps people set up an event, whether it be a meetup, hackathon or conference for a large amount of attendees with speakers' live stream, breakout session rooms, showcase booths and networking matchups.
With the tailwind effects of COVID-19, according to TechCrunch the number of monthly attendees of events on Hopin has shot up massively from 16K in March 2020 to 3.5m+ in November 2020. Before COVID-19, Hopin already had a waitlist of about 80,000 over 9 months. Since the start of COVID-19, they grew from almost zero in Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) to $20million ARR in November 2020.
“We want to make sure everyone can experience the same great benefits of events — the connection you made bumping into someone in a breakout session, the potential customer you met at your booth or the awesome tip you got from a panel speaker – without having to physically attend.”
- Johnny Bourfarhat
Q) Who is Johnny Bourfarhat? What's the story of Hopin?
I've been a coder since I was a kid. I always used to work on community stuff. First forum was a WWF forum when I was 13. I was a big fan of wrestling when I was a kid, so I created the forum. It was the first time enabling a community of any type.
I went to university to study mechanical engineering here in the UK, but due to an illness I started Hopin. I was a mechanical engineer with a coding background. I had a sold a business for a tiny bit of money that I had worked on in university during my second year.When I graduated, I wanted to see what it was like to work in a full career. I didn't like it. I wanted to do stuff in IOT but I got really, really ill from an autoimmune disease, right after university and in the middle of my first job.
I was really ill so I couldn't really leave the house. I wanted to network with people and events are the real way to network with people. SaaS talks and events like that. I actually met my first investor who took a chance on Hopin in a meetup. Events are so important in the world, not only conferences but meetups such as dev meetups, finding a job, finding a community whether it be a book club or something else - keeps society together.
I was stuck at home all day. I wanted to network with people. I wanted to feel like a part of a community. I was new in London, only being here until then for about 2 years. I wasn't able to attend in-person events whilst I was recovering and there were these webcasts or webinars, but they were like live streams. They were like a registration wall on top of a YouTube video, nobody really pays for them because they aren't an event. LinkedIn is not an event. Slack communities are not events. They're, they're, they're all async and awkward. They're not the same as like bumping into someone service.
So I wanted to create a platform that allowed people to network, it looked like a chat roulette for events. It was a way for people to speed network and connect with each other. And that's expanded to what you see today, Hopin with a full experential factor from the stage.
Q) What's the difference between virtual events and Hopin?
Hopin's a virtual engagement platform. Virtual exhibit events have been around for 12 years and kind of always sucked. The existing offerings you kind of see websites with pictures of what areas in an event should look like. What we have tried to do is try to bring them online and we focus more on networking, engagement and interactivity for what you really go to an event for.
Q) What was the growth strategy? How did you drive people?
One of the cool things about events is you invite a thousand people to an event. A thousand people would see the event and see the logo e.g. Eventbrite and think that they may use it in their future for their event. We saw the viral effect. You get a thousand people in a funnel coming into one event. And then on the other end of the funnel, when they finish the event, if they have a great experience, it takes 10 minutes to set up an event on Hopin, and you can engage your entire audience, and this is what we're seeing, because we have virtual gym nights, people have conferences and so forth. We really consider ourselves just as a venue and allow people to do any type of event they want to do and we just give them the tools to do it.
We were lucky that we had a very viral product. Even in our private beta, someone would host an event and have a good experience, about 1,800 people would show up to an event and about 10% of attendees would go in to try fill in a form to host their own events.
It's also why in November , I told the people around me that when we launch, we better have a team because we're going to be in a lot of trouble to scale this functionally. This was when we started our private beta.
Q) Virality and scaling. When did you write the first line of code for the platform and start scaling?
2018. Initially, I built the product myself as a one person team over two years. By the time the product came out, I had data to show the virality in the private beta. The initial one, the prototype that I released in September  it was pretty clear that it was needed for the world.
Our first dollar of revenue was probably in mid 2019, we were in private beta for a long time. The first customer was for a speed dating company using it for speed dating events.
The events market is a $1.1 trillion market. It's very rare that you're creating a new segment of it and 400 million of that is business events. That's the part that we're competing in directly. We're more accessible, better for the environment, we make it easier to collect emails and data. There's so many reasons why its better to do events online or hybridise. I think for a lot of VCs there was a lot of excitement around our product.
Q) Do you think if COVID-19 didn't happen, Hopin would still be where it's at now or in two years time?
I can only be honest about what our plans were for business plans and my prediction for the market.
Let's split out the market. You have the trade shows, the expos, the big conferences etc. I didn't think they were going to move online this year. None of them, maybe 1%. However then you have the companies who are on their conferences like Drift, Netlify, companies that run conferences or workshops where events is not their business but they do for their business. I believe they were going to move this quickly. If there was a product out there that was more effective and tickets aren't their primary business, I believe they would have come onboard. My goal was to onboard all the communities, all of those sort of things like accessibility and those who cared about making a carbon footprint difference. They were already online and it seems to make sense for them - so we thought they would move very quickly and it would become incredibly viral.
With bigger trade shows, expos or events, businesses, or people that are like their business is events. We thought, um, our goal and still is our goal. With the end of COVID-19, I still think there needs to be physical events. It provides an experience and different feeling to online. What I suspected was going to happen, what I had for my business plan was to kind of come in and say:
"Hey, you run this event for a thousand people or 10,000 people, let's do kind of what we did with TV shows. Back in the day where if you're running a comedy show, the amount of money you made was based on the gate. How many people you can get through the door for the show. But then the gate revenue became less important as the TV revenue. The real money is on Netflix and our goal was to come in and do the same to physical events. You might get 10,000 people at your event but there's a hundred thousand people online that may not pay the same price for the ticket but they want to interact and are part of your community. You can collect their registration and even funnel them into your physical event".
That was our business plan. Hopin would have an incredibly viral side but we would also live side by side and hybridise with events. The organisers would make tonnes more money, be happier because they'll have a bigger community and it'll be more accessible. There might be a 10% kind of cannibalisation but in the end, you're making 2x, 3x as much money and have 4x as big a community.
Q) Favourite business book?
Lean startup by Eric Ries.
Q) Is there a CEO you are following or studying?
Q) Favourite online tool for building the company?
Favourite online tool is Notion.
Q) What tech stack does Hopin use?
Our current tech stack is Ruby on Rails, React, Postgres, Amazon - what you'd pretty much expect from a startup.
Q) What do you wish your 20 year old self knew? [Johnny at the time of the question was 25 years old]
That I should focus on skills that matter most earlier.
Q) What was the reason to be a solo founder? Did your investors have any concerns about being a solo founder?
I was definitely more of a coder, so I felt like I could code the MVP of the platform. And I had been doing that because it was part of my recovery. I spent two and a half years recovering and I spent a lot fo the free time coding and wanting to build things. So by the time I actually went to a VC, I already had a lot of data and show them that Hopin is a viral product and people were using it. It was almost black and white.
I would say VC is an interesting topic, especially now there's so much money in the market. If you build an MVP, you're going to get money. There's so much good talent across the world now that you don't need to give someone 50% of your company. You can figure out a way to collect $10,000 and you could outsource a bit of the engineering business somewhere else in the world. You could get a company to kind of build out MVP with you for very, very little amount of money compared to what it used to cost.
Q) Being a solo founder and hiring 50 people in such a short space of time, and a hundred by the end of the year, has it been a burden?
We have an amazing team. When you are going through hypergrowth, each minute of the day becomes something that's worth a little bit of your time. If you have an extra two hours, that's an extra 10 emails you can get through. That's possibly another person you could source who could join the business next week. That's the sort of time imperative.
So time becomes important.
When I used to hear about founders sleeping in the office kind of thing. I used to think why would you do that. But it really ends up being like that. You end up just feeling guilty because there is too many things to do otherwise the business will completely fall flat on its face. We've got to scale the product, scale the engineering team, make sure the customers are happy. Hundreds of things that you would have usually have a year to do, or two years and figure out. Or three years typically between rounds. We are doing it in a new month. Every month is like a new stage of the business. We're going to be a hundred people and probably by the end of the year, 250 and then the goal of 500. We plan to be at that sort of pace.
It's been a lack and less sleep but a lot of fun and excitement as well.
Q) What is your kind of process where you identify what roles to hire and build that team to support you with the growth?
We have skipped a few steps. One great thing that you can get from investors is that they have seen hypergrowth. We are now connected with lots of people who might have been at Dropbox or similar and have seen this, who have their learnings so we can skip a few mistakes that we are supposed to make.
So one of my goals was what does the executive team look like?
Who are the people that we are hiring?
Who's seen this hyper hyper, whether it's like someone at Facebook or someone else.
Who are some of the really great executive talents that have seen this sort of hypergrowth before and can set up the processes. Instead of doing it in one year or six months like they did it previously, can they kind of do the same thing in a month or a month and a half.
Q) Do you think there can be online experiences that trump in-person ones, where it can be better?
I think highly experiential events will be better in person. Like if you are going a face painting, online experiences won't be as good even if VR is included. But maybe.
I think that the majority of community building like email list generation, potentially revenue will be better online than physical. The physical events will be what makes the deep connection and builds a high quality brand. But I do see them completely side by side.
What's better online is accessibility.