Where top VCs are investing in remote events

The novel coronavirus pandemic has rapidly moved companies into a remote-first world.

Nearly all of the world’s largest events have been canceled, put on pause or pivoted to online-only. In the tech world, event cancellations thus far have included SXSW, GDC, Mobile World Congress, Google I/O, Facebook F8, E3 and others.

As more and more hosts consider staging fully remote events as possible alternatives, we decided to take a deeper look into the venture-backed startups focused on supporting large-scale virtual gatherings, like Hopin and Run The World. To further understand the impact of COVID-19, we asked five leading VCs who have invested in or have knowledge of startups focused on remote events to update us on the state of the market and to share where they see opportunity in the sector:

Sarah Cannon, Index Ventures

Which trends in remote events/conferencing excite you the most from an investing perspective?

I am bullish on democratizing access to the content that has been limited to those able to attend in person. For decades we’ve relied on physical events to get together, make connections, be inspired and share information. And while this type of activity provides a lot of benefits, its format puts a lot of constraints on the number of people that can attend, the ability to engage with presenters, the timing of the event, accessibility and more.

As interest in remote working has continued to grow over the past decade and as productivity tools have become more sophisticated and accessible, we’ve seen an increase in alternative formats, like digital conferences and events. With remote digital conferences, more people can participate, engagement is higher and real time and the topics are more relevant and timely (we can get events up and running and marketed in minutes).

This emerging area represents an interesting opportunity for investment. While we have seen a lot of successful tools in this area (like Zoom and Slack), we have yet to see a broader and more powerful platform that could mimic a big physical event at scale like a Dreamforce or a Google I/O.

Content has been easier to disseminate to date, but we have yet to see a tool that could replicate the networking and community aspects of physical events. Technology that enables real-time collaboration at scale is a difficult challenge to take on and therefore an opportunity for a talented entrepreneur.

How much time are you spending on remote events/conferencing right now? Is the market under-heated, overheated or just right?

With the rise of distributed teams, and talent being disseminated all over the world, remote events have been happening for a while. A lot of this was reflected in the very strong performance of a company like Zoom in the public markets.

And with COVID-19, we are definitely seeing a massive acceleration of this trend, as many companies are shifting their events and other marketing activities online. What is different now is the scale. We’re definitely expecting to see more innovative ideas from startups and founders to enable larger scaled events with creative mechanisms for real-time engagement.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

We have yet to see a design-first, performant and scalable conferencing tool that could replace a big physical conference like a CES or SXSW. So much of the value of the physical events comes from networking and community sharing. There is an opportunity for such a tool to provide that functionality in addition to functionality that is not available in a physical conference.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

This current environment will turn out to be a good test case for the next generation of collaboration tools. With companies forced into remote work behaviors, this will be an unparalleled opportunity for innovation, trial and adoption in an accelerated time frame. The future of work starts today.

Connie Chan, Andreessen Horowitz

Whether we like it or not, remote events and remote conferences are a reality that’s arrived — but the silver lining is, when done right, remote events can still provide the same great networking and relationship building that we have come to cherish from in-person meetups.

In fact, as we all get a taste for online remote events, it’s probable that a lot of us may actually prefer the new format. Why? Remote conferences offer a plethora of opportunities that we are just beginning to explore. Not only is it likely a cheaper ticket for attendees with zero travel time, but remote events can also be more fun and effective than IRL.

Imagine attending an online event but chatting with all the other attendees before the speaker session — with full context of who they are and why they’re there. Imagine listening to a speaker from a different country and using real-time translation, and then with one tap signing up for her newsletter. Imagine being an extreme introvert and finally feeling the freedom and courage to participate in conversations with other attendees using just your keyboard.

I personally know plenty of friends who are terrified of attending a cocktail hour IRL but feel perfectly at ease in a chat room. More attendance, more access, better conversations, longer-term relationships and more money for the event organizers are just some of the benefits of remote events.

Online events offer new ways for people to connect and meet one another. They can be fantastic for large events, medium ones and small community gatherings, as well.

I believe conversations can persist well beyond the scheduled event, and lasting relationships can be formed online. Additionally, the formats that creators and speakers can now consider are endless! Imagine adding augmented reality to speeches, or watching a live-streamed fashion show where you can know the fabric, the size the model is wearing and even place a reminder or pre-order for when the item is on sale.

Creators could upsell virtual VIP tickets that allow for smaller group conversations and more intimate access, like an online backstage pass. With remote events and conferences, it should be easier for all of us to access new communities and gain more knowledge from the comfort of our homes.

We are excited to be investors in Run The World, a live online events startup founded by former Facebookers who deeply understand how to recreate online gatherings without sacrificing the networking. The world of remote conferences and remote events is still in early days, and I’m excited to see the many use cases — from nonprofits to political fundraisers, neighborhood meetups to support groups, academic conferences to industry trade shows, let’s continue to invest in this space so that no matter what is happening in the world, we don’t give up our human connections and we don’t stop making new meaningful relationships with like-minded people.

Andrei Brasoveanu, Accel

We see a lot of opportunity in collaboration software specifically geared toward remote events. While existing video-conferencing solutions like BlueJeans or Zoom have already gained mass-market appeal, we see an additional growing need for purpose-built platforms for hosting large-scale online events, which can handle all relevant dimensions such as attendance, ticketing, networking, main and side stages, sponsors, etc., in essence re-creating and enriching the experience of a physical conference or meet-up. Such a platform also needs to have the right level of flexibility to support many-to-many and few-to-many communication, across channels like video, voice or text.

While this space is still just emerging, we’ve recently backed an early leader addressing this problem called Hopin. They’ve built a scalable platform for running live online events for up to 100,000+ simultaneous guests and this is just the beginning. They can address the full spectrum of online conferences, workshops or internal company all-hands.

While this is certainly a top-of-mind topic at the moment, given COVID-19, we see the growth of remote events as a structural trend that’s here to stay. For one, there are incredible conferences that have reached full capacity, but in turn have global recognition and could leverage such a platform to reach a broader audience.

Second, more and more attendees are concerned about the environmental impact of their conference travels and are considering switching to online participation. Lastly, with the rise of remote organizations, there’s a growing need for tools to connect large groups of employees spread across the world. Adding all of this together, the future of remote looks bright!

Ryan Kuder, Techstars Anywhere

Techstars has a lot of experience with remote working and virtual events. We have more than 300 employees in 22 countries, most of whom are remote workers. And while it takes the right tools and technology, which we have, our culture of collaboration also contributes to how well remote operating models work for us.

Our embrace of remote collaboration extends to our accelerator programs as well. A year ago, we made the company-wide decision to conduct all final interviews virtually in order to ensure the greatest amount of inclusivity among candidates.

More recently, our expertise at remote events and working provided the resilience we needed to face the unexpected challenges COVID-19 has raised. In very short order, we pivoted to a virtual Demo Day for the Eastern Pacific Accelerator, powered by Techstars in Singapore, with great success.

We’ve been delivering events and programming virtually for years. Our Techstars Anywhere mentorship-driven accelerator program is in its fourth year and we’ve seen great successes. So much so that we recently launched another completely virtual program — the Techstars Allied Space Accelerator.

In the Techstars Anywhere program, there are 24 alumni companies and 10 more currently in session. Our focus is to deliver the same high-quality, high-value Techstars experience for founders, mentors and investors — all remotely.

It’s important that the participants feel the same energy you experience in-person and tap the full power of how the Techstars Network can support them. While we run most of our sessions remotely, we do meet in person three times during the program.

Our Demo Day has always been and always will be remote as well. We use a number of tools to deliver this experience and maintain meaningful connectivity. Our main tools are Zoom, Slack, Parabol.co, Google Drive and airplanes.

We don’t have a specific vertical focus for this accelerator, but we have invested in 10 companies that touch on remote work in some way. We know that this trend will continue and the way we all work is changing.

Startups, especially outside the Bay Area, increasingly begin with remote working, and we’re seeing that increase represented in our application pool. It gives founders access to a larger pool of talent at a lower cost. Given our remote-first program, software companies that make it easier for companies to manage remote work and build high-performing remote teams are very interesting to us.

We’ve made a number of investments in companies addressing challenges related to new work paradigms. How is hiring different (Filtered.ai)? How is retention different (Speedwell & Yarrow)? How is team building different (Xmetryx)? How might internships be different (Symba)? How do meetings work (Parabol.co)? Where do people physically work from (Workfrom.co)? How do remote workers find jobs (Pangian)? Do people even need to live in a particular place (Sekr)?

As far as what’s ahead, we’re really interested in exploring how people will interact with each other and how that will change. How do they collaborate? How do they develop relationships with their teammates? What role might VR play in presence?

Techstars Anywhere is continuing to actively invest in companies addressing problems like these related to the future of working remotely. As a largely remote company and specifically a remote accelerator program, we’re bullish on companies addressing problems and solutions related to people connecting remotely.

Paul Murphy, Northzone

Which trends in remote events/conferencing excite you the most from an investing perspective?

The industry surrounding events is massive, over $1 trillion globally with double-digit growth. It touches literally every sector, with many millions of people attending events every year.

There has long been a need for a sustainable and efficient solution to attending events and — on a bigger scale — running a global workforce more flexibly. A remote event solution not only presents obvious benefits from a time and carbon perspective, but it also democratizes access to the content and networking one receives from these events.

For these reasons Northzone is extremely bullish on this space and has been looking for a bet to make here for some time.

That’s why we invested in Hopin, an online event startup that wants to redesign the entire events industry. Hopin can be the answer for the enterprise with a distributed workforce that needs to plan a company offsite, the event organizer that needs to coordinate a conference with stages, workshops and networking, or a subject matter expert that wants to generate revenue by hosting a high-quality, paid experience for those interested in learning.

How much time are you spending on remote events/conferencing right now? Is the market under-heated, overheated or just right?

The events market overall is growing across every category — music and festivals, sports, industry conferences and corporate seminars — and every organizer we spoke to while doing research on the space recognized the future was digital. So there is a very big prize for whoever wins in this space.

While there is a temporary “heat up” of interest because of today’s global health emergency, we developed our investment thesis on remote event solutions a while ago. I’m confident in this view well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic because this is how we will all expect to work in the future.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

Events over the past month and the resulting need for many to work remotely have given most people first-hand view into how suboptimal remote working is today. There are some great tools out there, but you can tell in the UX that they were built on metaphors from a different era.

The last two companies we invested in are fully distributed teams, and they are hacking products together to create a functional “virtual office” that works for them. I would love to see more startups building solutions just for distributed teams, as I believe that will create entirely new ways of working.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share with TechCrunch readers?

Northzone’s been around for 24 years, so we’ve unfortunately seen our share of industry-shaking events. Our learning is that the show must, and will, go on despite these uncertain times.

In fact, our best investments were funded and grew through global recessions. And not being able to travel will never stop us from backing an entrepreneur.