There aren’t many founders who, just five months after founding a company, would feel optimistic enough to think:“If we aren’t the fastest growing startup in the world next year, I shouldn’t be CEO.” But Johnny Boufarhat isn’t just any founder and Hopin isn’t just any company. Born out of Johnny’s own need to network remotely after he was diagnosed with a serious health condition preventing him from leaving home, Hopin has indeed become the world’s fastest-growing company since it was founded in 2019.
In just two years, Hopin has become synonymous with virtual events and a team of a few dozen in mid-2020 has grown to more than 900 people across 47 countries, with more than 100,000 organizations using the platform globally. And while the pandemic and global lockdowns helped fuel the live virtual event company’s meteoric rise, Johnny’s ambition, intuition and his ability to pull together a formidable team has been key to the company’s success in becoming the leading shared experiences platform for virtual, hybrid and onsite events.
Johnny and I sat down together (virtually) to discuss how to build and maintain company culture when you’re going through hypergrowth and have people in 47 countries, the challenges of being a sole founder, how he approaches acquisitions, ensuring hires are a cultural fit and more…
Although everyone assumes it started when you got funding, you started building Hopin in early 2019. What kept you going before you started receiving feedback around the problem you were solving with Hopin? How did you know this was going to be a thing?
I knew because I’d been running events while I was building Hopin and could see what people were using and how they were using it. We had a high K-factor, or virality - for every 100 people that attended a Hopin event, about three of them would convert into paid organisers. People could see how easy it was to set up a virtual event on Hopin – something that just doesn’t happen when it comes to in-person events. A lot of it was instinct too. I knew there needed to be a way for people to network online – they want to network online - and events are a great way to network.
Then the pandemic hit. We had 22,000 organisers by February 2020. The virality led to us having so many people entering the door it blew up the funnel!
A lot of people talk about how Hopin’s market timing was right. It undoubtedly helped, but there was a lot more at play. How do you distil what else there was?
I put it down to momentum. Even when I met the Accel team for the first time I thought we were going to be the fastest growing company in the world. I think I even said that in a Business Insider interview in November 2019 before COVID-19 hit. It’s about belief and momentum. When I hire people, I share that energy and they feel like they can do it.
We take on a little bit more than we can chew, we move faster and our expectations are higher, so when COVID-19 came along, I felt like we were already rolling. People were prepared, taking calls at the last minute. Everything just fell into place.
Let’s talk about risk taking. When you made the decision in early 2020 to move faster, the product wasn’t quite ready, you were in the middle of a redesign and had scaling issues to consider but you still went for it. What was your mindset?
The mindset for me was that we have to grow and missing an opportunity altogether is far worse than taking an opportunity when things aren’t perfect. You don’t want to completely miss the train altogether. We had to go for it.
You’ve grown from around eight people back then to more than 800. How would you describe Hopin’s culture?
Our culture is based on the fact that we value a strong work ethic. We want people who can solve things quickly and move fast, people who are trailblazers, with their own ambitions. We also have a culture of respect and low ego.
It’s OK to be ambitious, but be low ego about it and don’t stomp on others to get where you want to be.
You have to support others, and get them excited. You have to do everything you can to support the team.
What do you think made it possible for you to do everything we’ve discussed so far? Does being a remote-first company have a lot to do with it? What are the benefits and what bits need work?
There are some real pros and cons to being fully remote. It allows you to scale fast and be more productive at scaling. Obviously, there are a lot of intricacies in having a physical office and hiring people. You can’t grow from eight people to 900 in less than two years with physical offices. Imagine what you’d have to deal with. You’d be playing musical chairs, working out where everyone was going to sit, and making sure people were close to their managers; you’d have to switch from office to office as you grew; and you’d have a limited talent pool because you’re in a specific location. Having a physical office adds so many blockages. So we hired the best people wherever they were. Being remote removes all the boundaries – not just in terms of hiring, but also with all the onboarding intricacies that come with it.
There are some negatives. In some cases, you get slightly less creativity, for example. But the technology’s getting better. 10 years ago it would have been impossible to run this company just on email. We now have better video conferencing, and tools like Miro that allow you to whiteboard.
From a culture standpoint, we have a culture team that uses our own product to host internal meetings and even things like yoga events and trivia nights that bring people together. But we don’t shy away from the fact that we have people in 47 different countries, and it’s natural for people to want to meet in real life.
We want people to be happy with where they work and be great to work with. We give people the chance to spend time with their kids in the morning and then work later on in the day, if that’s what works best for them. As long as they fit in with the ambitious culture of the company, we don’t mind how they do it. I think people truly appreciate not spending a third of their business day commuting, and being able to prioritise the things that matter most in their lives.
However, there are lots of things you don’t appreciate when you’re in an office. Bumping into someone and sharing something just doesn’t happen online. The company has to have a structure around how to interact. Otherwise, there’ll be people who aren’t aware of things, and who’ll miss communications. After a while, things will break down.
Do you think you’ll ever have an office? Hopin is a company that people look to for how to do remote-first, and scale while staying remote. What does physical means for Hopin as a company?
We’re a truly flexible company, and I think this shocks some people. We’re remote-first now but we remain open to how that may evolve in the future. It’s working well right now, and has definitely been the biggest advantage in our scaling, but I’m by no means stuck to just one way.
You’ve hired some great people. What have you learned about hiring? When assembling a leadership team, what advice would you give to founders?
The most important thing to consider when hiring is whether people fit with the culture you have in the company.
If your company moves at a fast pace, and you want fast-paced people, you should look to see if that person is really ambitious. If they’re not, they’re not going to blend with the culture – and if enough people negate the culture, it’ll change. For us, aligning with the culture and low ego are the most important things. So most of my questions to candidates were around ambition, but also how they talk about themselves. It’s all about authenticity and the human being.
Moving on to acquisitions. Hopin has trail blazed in many ways, but particularly on the acquisition front. You’ve persuaded top founders to join you when they had clear independent futures, great trajectories, and VC backing. How did you manage that? And could you have done it if you weren’t remote?
It’s about looking at why people want independence. Typically, it’s because they have a strong vision for their company and want to see that through in a big way. We’ve found, if the founders’ mindsets are closely aligned to the company’s values - for example, at Hopin they’re ambition and low ego - you’ll know they will fit perfectly with your culture and they can probably be convinced to join you on a shared goal to scale their original vision.
On the remote point, I run a remote business acquiring mostly remote companies and we have been pretty successful with five acquisitions to-date. Most of this was done remotely but of course, we’re always flexible and sometimes take a hybrid approach. Several important meetings have taken place in person, like meeting with the StreamYard co-founders several times in Vancouver which was a big part of building a relationship with them and bringing them on board.
Looking at the space you’re in and the fact you’re a product-led founder, in such a large sector, how do you join the dots around a product for a category as disparate and fast-moving as events?
I guess I like one less click than most people when I’m using a product. Hopin’s playing in the $1.2 trillion events industry that’s currently broken up into many different parts, each of which could be its own product. With so many different types of events, we needed to build a platform that fit with the majority. So, although people use Hopin for entertainment, it’s built more for the B2B side which accounts for 60 percent of the huge TAM.
We needed to be opinionated in the way we built the platform, but also ensure it was extensible, brandable, and easily integrated in order to handle all the various requirements. We had to consider how many events would want trivia, for example, and decide whether to build that capability in-house or build an elegant architecture and platform into which trivia products could be integrated in a simple manner. When you integrate a product into Hopin, the experience lives within the product. But the base product, and the templates we offer, are so extensible, you can continue building them out.
Consider our acquisition of StreamYard. Hundreds of thousands of people use it to improve the quality of the content they produce – especially important for events when you can’t afford a massive production studio. The Hopin integration with StreamYard effectively furthers our reach into the area of broadcasting.
Events is a huge market, and we have to think about each individual level, allowing our product to be as extensible as possible but with a core experience that can be used for everything.
It’s not easy being the sole founder - it can get pretty lonely. And Hopin is probably the fastest growing company in history, so you can’t call up people who’ve done it before and ask them what to do. How do you make tricky decisions and get advice?
I try to get as many opinions as possible, while giving people a reasonable amount of context about the company and the situation. But I also try to understand their context. As an example, if I’m getting advice from someone who ran a multi-billion dollar retail SaaS company in 2008, I need to consider what happened in 2008 and how this may have shaped their views and their journey.
It’s important to get two sides to an opinion. it’s not just about taking the advice someone shares and applying it to your company, you need to apply the context within which it was given. And get advice from absolutely everyone. As a founder, you should always try to get information from 360 degrees around you and make your decisions based on that. Almost every decision I make is based on a combination of things I’ve read on the internet and advice I get from other founders and investors.
What advice do you give to founders and entrepreneurs on funding and building a company when they come to you?
I give them the context about being a fast-growth company that’s remote. I tell them our situation, and why we’re remote, and that I don’t know if I’d have done it differently in a different situation. I warn them that they’re going to have to make the decision for themselves, and apply their own context to it.
On to some more personal questions now. What do you think is your leadership style? How do you think your team talks about you?
I’m very consensus-driven. I feel that if I can’t convince someone of something - when I feel like I should convince them - then I haven’t done a good job. People are surprised by this. We have to make a lot of decisions quickly, but I typically try and get everybody to agree before I do anything. What I don’t want to do though is create a bunch of “yes” people, though. That would be terrible!
The team can see I get very excited. I am – I bring the energy of two people. But I also think they think I’m raw, vulnerable, and authentic. I think they appreciate these things.
What’s the hardest thing about running a company?
Without doubt, the hardest decisions to make are around people – like whether someone can scale up in a position, or whether they should actually be at the company. Everything else, in my eyes, is much easier. A product-based decision is logical – you can A/B test most of them. But you can’t A/B test a member of the team.
People decisions are emotionally taxing, and definitely the hardest thing about being a CEO.
How do you deal with health – especially with your personal background? What are your life hacks for staying healthy?
There are people in my life who bring me great stability. They don’t know exactly what’s going on in the business, but they’re around me constantly in other parts of my life. It makes me feel able to take bigger hits and bigger falls, to make tougher decisions. They’re like a cushion, so when I do something that’s emotionally difficult, it doesn’t feel like I’m alone on the journey or it’s the end of the world.
How would you like this business to look in a decade from now?
I’d like people to look at Hopin and say “wow, they solved the problem social networks were trying to solve, but in a meaningful way that actually made us feel more connected.” That would be amazing.
Johnny and Sonali will be on stage at Slush in Helsinki on 2 December
Read our Secrets to Scaling interviews with:
- Avito’s Jonas Nordlander here
- Spotify’s Paul Vogel here
- Humio's Geeta Schmidt here
- Zepz' (formerly World Remit Group) Ismail Ahmed here
- Snyk's Guy Podjarny here
- Personio's Hanno Renner here
- Chainalysis' Michael Gronager here
- BlaBlaCar's Nicolas Brusson here
- Supercell's Ilkka Paananen here
- Miro's Andrey Khusid here