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By LACE NGUYEN
Inside the quest to engineer a virtual tech conference
The word ‘virtual’ comes from the Latin word ‘virtus’ (meaning excellence or efficacy), and since the 15th century, it has denoted “being something in essence or effect.” As tech crowds meet in virtual environments out of necessity and, increasingly, out of preference, we may have a shot at arriving at the essence of why we come together.
In terms of virtual events, Level 1 is to livestream offline events and turn them into online sessions, often to underwhelming effect (“Can someone mute?”). Level 2 is to play the virtual environment to your advantage, using rich-media tools to attempt things impossible in a freezing conference hall. Level 3 is to transcend not just location, but time–entering a semi-synchronous mode that’s fertile ground for both real-time interactions and lasting connections.
As distributed teams adjust to working from home due to Covid-19, the tech world also reaches Peak Virtual Conference. According to Eventbrite, business and professional online events increased 1,100% in April 2020 compared to April 2019. If venture capitalists (VC) had a penny whenever they were invited to a virtual conference in 2020, they would have returned the fund. Zoom burnouts ensued, with participants gritting their teeth through lukewarm interactions.
This is certainly not the case if your VC fund is Zoom-native. With staff in 11 cities across Europe, America, and Asia, SOSV has been a distributed fund since it was founded by the inventor and entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan.
SOSV has been running its mobile-focused program, MOX, partly virtually for the past five years. While being online for most of its existence, MOX convenes its portfolio founders a few times a year in India, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia for modular training programs. One such module is a week-long training program for its companies’ engineers and product managers, known internally as Growth Week.
For Growth Week, MOX flies to Taipei, a diverse cast of serial entrepreneurs, early employees at Big Tech, and battle-hardened business veterans who live to tell the tale. Feeding the fire are copious amounts of Kavalan and Taiwan’s finest craft beer–the catalysts for afternoon happy hours and conversations that last past midnight.
This year’s Growth Week was planned down to the minute when the deadly pandemic broke out, taking lives, massacring aspiring unicorns around the world.
“These calls will not be cold.”
When the team decided to go ahead and run the growth week virtually, TR Harrington, MOX’s program director based in Los Angeles, was adamant about playing the virtual factor.
A super-connector with war buddies worldwide, Harrington cut his entrepreneurial teeth in Silicon Valley in the late 90s before diving into the wild east of China during the early 2000s. After his digital marketing startup got acquired, Harrington decided against doing another startup to join SOSV. Twelve years in China had taught him the importance of guanxi, a Chinese social concept based on the exchange of favors, in which personal relationships reign supreme.
“These sessions will not be impersonal. These calls will not be cold,” Harrington pledged. To this end, he looked to MOX’s network of over 350 mentors for help.
The Internet: The ultimate realm that transcends physicality
Freed from the need to make travel arrangements, the mentors were enthusiastic about the virtual meetups, as they were under lockdown anyway.
Among the first to extend a hand was Yu-Kai Chou, the creator of the Octalysis framework, a gamification mandala that encompasses behavior psychology and comparative mythology. Having packed lecture halls at Stanford, Google, Tesla, and global conferences, Chou dialed in from his home for a 90-minute “jam session” with only a handful of SOSV founders.
From Bali, Indonesia, Tao of Startups author James LaLonde talked about building a “pitch club” to instill a culture of empathetic communication, intellectual passion, and roaring fun. One of his previous ventures is Yodo1, China’s largest private mobile game publisher, whose games have been played by 1 billion people.
Yara Paoli shared her experience growing a small startup called Skyscanner into the leading travel search engine valued at £1.4 billion from Singapore. From Taipei, Colin Hodge recounted acquiring 6 million users for his startup before its acquisition.
With the all-star speaker lineup, the MOX team brainstormed on how to level up, making the interactions richer.
The future of virtual: rich in format, part podcast, part live demo
Before recording, Harrington eased the speakers into the session with a 10-minute chat. The task asked of the speakers was not to give a speech, but to “recount the moment of sensing something great happening and impart that sparkle of passion.”
A highlight of Growth Week this year has been the design workshop by Paolo Ertreo, a product designer focusing on growth at Dropbox, who drew up wireframes while walking participants through his design-thinking process. Here we peered over the shoulder of “the artist at work” and also had him explain all his cloud-based tools (Figma wins).
For concrete know-how, MOX also ran live demos with product managers from AppsFlyer and Mixpanel, analytic engines that churn data into insights. From technical to universal, the sessions constituted a Growth Week that “was like drinking out of a growth fire hose,” as one founder puts it.
Here we may have a glimpse into the future’s tech meetup. On Zoom, speakers freed from the burden of speaking on stage can give candid and revelatory answers from their workspace. Tech founders who don’t usually raise hands can type in their questions, footnoted with links and images. On treadmill desks or from their front porch, people will be tuning in from all over the world.
The Internet has been the ultimate realm that transcends physical locations, the kingdom beyond cartography. Here sprout self-organized communities whose bonds are more robust than, say, friendships that form out of necessity. How excited were we about AOL chat rooms and Clubhouse? How excited will we be when new technologies for better human connection emerge?
Virtual meetups have rekindled the excitement of meeting like-minded and different-minded people online. Out of the new normal, a chance for new epic experiences emerges.
About the Author
Lace Nguyen is a PR manager at SOSV, a deep-tech venture capital fund pioneering hardware & robotics, life sciences, blockchain, food innovation, and cross-border Internet. She’s based in Taipei with MOX (Mobile Only Accelerator), an SOSV program for consumer internet and mobile.