Ep. 229 – Xiaoyin Qu, Founder of Run The World, on Launching a Virtual Events Platform in Covid and Beyond

Ep. 229 – Xiaoyin Qu, Founder of Run The World, on Launching a Virtual Events Platform in Covid and Beyond

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Xiaoyin Qu. Xiaoyin is the founder of Run The World, the new virtual events platform startup. This interview took place at our IO2020 New Innovators’ Summit in October. Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help new innovators navigate what’s next. Each week, we’ll give you a front-row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today’s world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It’s time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Xiaoyin Qu, Founder of Run The World

Brian Ardinger:  My name’s Brian Ardinger. I’m Director of Innovation at Nelnet and Founder of Inside Outside Innovation. And I wanted to have Xiaoyin on, obviously, as I started trying to think about what we’re going to do with this particular event now that COVID hit and we weren’t going to be able to have it live.

I started looking at a lot of different platforms out there and I ran into Run The World and Xiaoyin and I was really impressed with not only her, but what she’s pulled together in a very short amount of time. And so, I figured I’d invite her to the conference and expose her to what we’re building on this particular platform and give her an opportunity to showcase what they’re doing and tell you the story of what it’s like as an early-stage founder, to go from seven failed ideas, to raising $15 million in the middle of a pandemic and launching and scaling and building a business.

Xiaoyin Qu, Founder of Run The WorldSo, with that Xiaoyin Qu is the founder of Run The World. She used to work at Facebook and Instagram as a product manager, she was an MBA at Stanford before she decided to start Run The World. And went out and raised $15 million, I believe, from Andreessen Horowitz and a number of other folks. With that, I will turn it over to you to give your story.

Xiaoyin Qu: Yeah, thank you so much for having me and thank you so much for coming to Run The World. I’m Xiaoyin, the founder and CEO of Run The World. You mentioned one fun fact. I actually didn’t finish my degree at Sanford. I dropped out after a year, to start Run The World. It was actually around July last year. We started the company.

Initially the idea came because my mom was a doctor in China. She still is a doctor, and she has never been to an international conference before, until last year. So, she had an opportunity to fly to Chicago. And that was a great experience. She met another doctor from Dubai. Turns out they share the same, like rare patient case, but because she’s from China, it’s really hard for her to get visa.

Xiaoyin Qu, Founder of Run The WorldShe had to fly to Beijing just to get visa and it’s getting unpredictable because Trump has a new policy, you know, every now and then. Basically, it’s just really hard for her to travel all of that and really expensive. So, she told me that she doesn’t think herself can make it to the next conference. You know, even though that was a great experience.

So, the original idea was really like, how can I help my mom? And meet other doctors like her, if she cannot really travel herself. So, we figured the only way it will be, we have to like digitize the whole experiences, especially the social part, so that my mom can meet other doctors.

Obviously at that time was before COVID, so saying that you have an online event was consider stupid because people thought, Oh, I’m going to fly to Vegas for fun. My company’s paying for it. You know, why do I have to do this online? Doesn’t really make any sense. So we do have sell pretty hard, but we actually then decided to run our own event to see if people can actually show up.

So at the very beginning, I am a product manager. I knew a lot of product managers. I just got a bunch of product managers from Google and Facebook. When we did our first PM conference, I was the organizer back then. We. just wanted to see if people will buy the ticket to attend it.  We just promoted in some Facebook groups and it turns out in a week, we sold like 300 tickets in like two weeks. The people who bought the ticket are not people necessarily from Silicon Valley. Those are people from 20 different countries in 20 different States.

And by that time, we didn’t have anything still. We hack around like Zoom and Slack and like even Brian, it was a jaunty experiences, but people like it because they couldn’t get it elsewhere. You know, they couldn’t have access to other people elsewhere, but it was still pretty broken. You have to share like six different links. At the right time, you know, at least we proved the concept.

That’s when we started raising from Andreessen was October last year. And then obviously when we launched, it was February, March time this year, that was our alpha version. We immediately saw a lot of demand and interest. So now we have around 45 people in the company now across three times, Europe, Asia, and US, and we had around six people at the beginning of the year. It’s kind of been crazy, trying to scale a team and hiring everybody.

Brian Ardinger: I can attest to that. I mean, when I was looking for different platforms out there, I think I got to you guys really early. And I think what I was most impressed with is you said, well, here’s your roadmap. You were very transparent with here’s what we’re building and where we’re going with this. And then every week I’d go to the next demo and find the next platform feature that was put into it.

And so, the ability to move that fast was pretty interesting to me. One of the things that you wrote about in a LinkedIn piece, your story and that. And you talked about how as a founder, you iteratively mapped out different ideas. And I think you said that you had seven failed ideas before you came upon this particular one. Can you talk a little bit about that journey of looking at ideas, iteratively, figuring out if you’re on the right path, and then eventually getting to the path where you’re on right now?

Xiaoyin Qu: When I first wanted to start a company, it was probably a year before that. I mean, I kind of want to start a company even when I was a Facebook. And so, it kind of took me, I will say, in total of a year, to try a bunch of different ideas to see which one I’m interested in. I would say like, there’s like seven ideas and as I tried more and more, I think I’m getting better and better. And just engaging if the idea makes sense or not.

But the first idea was I still think that’s a good idea. I just, I thought at that time, mental health was a huge problem. Have a lot of friends, who’ve got pretty stressed out, burnout at work. And so, we’re just thinking what if we can have some kind of an AI system that will help people whenever they want to talk to somebody, you know, there’s some kind of AI system, they can talk to them.

That was kind of the intention of the idea. And then I guess what we did is we tried to figure it out, like I’ve no idea how people like with depression or anxiety, so we basically read some books and are trying to build something, and then we thought, you know, when you’re anxious, or when you’re depressed, you just want to hear certain things.

And as soon as we tell you how to think, then that will work. So, then we try a bunch of different things. We were trying to build some kind of bot. Then as the more we delve into that, the more we realize that when people are actually feeling depressed and lonely or anxious, when they go to a therapy is less about the knowledge of how to control your mood that are important. It’s more about the fact that there is somebody who understands you, that are listening to you as full attention. That is something that is truly important.

So, I guess what we have learned is that we could use some AI to give people some wording. But that was not like the entirety of it, but that was basically an idea where it was not really a, I mean, I guess it’s not really solving the problem in the right way.  But we didn’t actually end up building it, because we were just doing a lot of research and realize that that was not the right one. So that was probably an idea that we decided not to do. Even during the research phase.

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Brian Ardinger: The process that you used, basically you’d build a prototype, you’d get it out in front of people. You see if, what resonated, what didn’t resonate. And then you would build a business model around that and say, yes, this is something we continue to do. And then you’d say no. We’re going to try something different. Is that the process you used or…

Xiaoyin Qu: Well for that one, actually, yes, we do a little bit, but I think for that one, we’re just trying to understand, what is exactly, do you really need? You know, when you’re feeling anxious, we’re depressed. We did have a prototype; we didn’t capture the whole picture. And then we basically talked to a lot of like therapists who actually know what they’re doing. And then they were just talking about the fact that the sense of belonging is something that you kind of need to create. So, at that time we don’t believe that the AI prototype we created, was basically hard-coded, can create that kind of experiences.

So that’s kind of when we decided that’s probably not the right direction. And then there’s a few other ideas that I tried, I guess I didn’t end up trying. Maybe I should have tried, but there’s a few ideas I tried. I came up with the idea of some kind of presentation that I should share to my friends who are VCs, who are people in the space. And they normally say whether it’s like, this idea has been tried before, but failed. Can you figure out why they fail? Then I went to the other company, figure out why they failed.  Whereas they will say, Oh, there doesn’t seem like there’s a market.

So I would say the first, like three ideas, four ideas. I’d like to talk to other people who are like VCs or investors or who are experts. And I tend to trust their opinions a lot. So, when they say is about idea, I tended to say, Oh, I guess pretty disappointed me. That’s a bad idea. I should move. And then until like probably the four ideas in, I realize that wait a minute, every single idea, people think that was bad.

Basically, all of the ideas, some of them are like, you know, people have tried it, but didn’t succeed. Then the pushback I got is like, why can’t they succeed. Then why can you succeed? You know, there must be some reason that they didn’t succeed.

Or some ideas I tried that I’m like, no one has ever done this before. So, then the question is like, Oh, how big is the market? Do you have a market report? There’s no one that has done this, before there was no market. But there’s no proof that there is a market. For them, the pushback is like, Oh, there’s no market for it. There’s no demonstrated need. No, it doesn’t seem right. So, as I go get that, that does make sense.

Then we have like some ideas where people have tried it and, but also succeeded. And obviously the pushback, we got is like if they have succeeded already, why can you compete? How can you compete with them? And why can you be successful. For the first time I heard about those kinds of pushback was like, Oh, wow, that makes perfect sense. So maybe we should change a different one.

Then I realized, wait a minute, all the ideas. In the world can be categorized in the following three categories. People have tried it. Succeed. People have tried it, not succeeded. Or people have never tried it. So, it was basically, by that logic, I will never be able to find any ideas. And that’s when I say like, you know what, maybe I should just ignore those people first, just like try something and test it out and really based on the results.

Brian Ardinger: So, with Run The World, you start out, I believe with a mobile application and one particular feature set, which is the cocktail party, instant mixer. And we’ll get into, actually we’re going into that session right after this, where I think that’s one of the unique features that you guys created. The opportunity for attendees in an event like this, to be matched with somebody for a five-minute virtual video chat, you started out with that.

Obviously, the platform has changed and engaged in morphed, even in the short amount of time. How did you go from that initial concept? Get some traction, get user feedback, and then to where you are in a very short amount of time. I mean, even scaling to 50 employees in a, in a matter of six months, that’s challenging. Tell us a little bit about how you did that.

Xiaoyin Qu: So, we actually had the ability to, so what we had the first version, was we have ability to set up an event with like an agenda. You know, you can run a multiple session back then, but it was mostly in mobile. Cause at that time there was no Covid. We thought that’s the best way for people to access. So, at the very beginning we had a desktop version and for management and running speakers and share presentation. And we’re focusing our efforts on the mobile.

You know, we have the abilities for people to consume and contact everybody mobile. That was our first hypothesis. Then when we launched the first version, it was a little janky in terms of video quality and everything. And we also realized that people are just like, not really using mobile as much as we thought.

And so, at that time we saying, you know, at a cocktail party is still a social thing. We should have it in mobile. I was a little stubborn on that. I still feel like it should be in mobile. So, then we’ll make people download the app in the middle of the session. And then we still realize that people were just not downloading the app.

Then I was like, okay, that doesn’t seem to make sense. So, we then start adding more web features and enabling people to meet each other, like during the events, mostly in web, but we still keep the mobile app so that they can keep in touch, you know, if they want to after the event. So that’s something is more like a test in progress.

And then the cocktail party was initially. We never thought it will be like this popular. Cause now it’s like the number one thing that people come to us for. Originally, it was just more like, we think that if you’re just passively consuming the content, it seemed pretty boring. There must be some way, like, you know, my Mom can her meet doctors, can meet other doctors. There must be some way then that you can meet other people online.

We did like have a really long conversation and deeply thought about the idea of like meeting other people. And that’s when we come up with the cocktail party. It was just like, it was kind of like a speed networking. You can meet a new person, every five minutes kind of thing. So, it was like every five minutes, you meet a different person. You choose if you want to keep in touch with that person later. But even if you enjoy the conversation and we didn’t enjoy the conversation is always five minutes.

So that’s basically something that we probably thought about for like a few months, because the idea is that you need to have a social experience that does not make people feel rejected. That came from my Facebook world. I know that, you know, if you make people feel good, they will stay longer. So, if you make them feel rejected, they will leave.

Then the idea is like, okay, how do we make people not feel rejected? Because in fact, in the real world, they are feeling rejected. A lot of the times you hold your cocktail drink and you’re like walking around, you’re trying to figure out which table you want to sit on. And then you’re observing other people and you don’t know if they want you to sit next to them or not. There’s a lot of question marks. And then you sit and, you know, they’re a little nervous and trying to, and you’re like, okay, I have to shake my hands with other people. They’re like, Oh, hello, they’re a little cold. And you’re like, Oh, they don’t want to talk to me. You know?

And then you were trying to like move tables. And when do you leave the conversation? Or if the conversation is really bad. Can you leave? I mean, the physical world that you cannot really, you have to like make some bullshit excuse like, Oh, I need to get more drinks, you know? Or like, Oh, I want to use the bathroom. But we really want is want to leave the table. Basically, we’re thinking, okay, we need to figure out a way where people can be easily turned into the first sentence, can be easily a match. We need a way where if you really, really don’t like the conversation, you can leave the table with style.

We also need a way where you don’t feel like you’re being judged by other people when you first sit down. So, then we figure, there needs to be a way where you get matched with somebody. And then we just match you. You don’t choose, you just wait there, because in that case you don’t need to be judged like Tinder people swipe left and right. When you don’t, you don’t want to do that. You can just sit there. There’s going to be probability that you’re talking to people that you think is a complete waste of time. Then there needs to be a way out, but then when you, when you get out, you’re going to reject the other person. So the other person’s going to feel bad.

The best way is to blame the matching part on our platform is you can say, Oh, Run The World only let me match five minutes. Run The World matched this person who is so stupid to me. Like it’s not my fault. It’s like bad match. We thought that was the only possible way to shift all the social pressure onto the platform and give them a few minutes so then they can do this without much rejection.

Brian Ardinger: I’ve done a number of these, obviously, as we were getting ready for this and attending particular events. And actually, we met a couple of speakers in this particular process. I had five-minute matches with folks and they were interesting enough to start that conversation that we could then later on, tell them about the conference and bring them in.

What I found interesting about it. And I’ve talked a lot of both introverts and extroverts about the platform. Both seem to like it, introverts are a little bit more hesitant at first, but what I found is the introverts are like, this gives me that safety zone to have that conversation or be in an environment that is less stressful than walking up to a table of extroverts or something like that.

So. We were really like this particular platform. That’s what we’re going to again, test it out for those who came to the event last night, we did it. And so, I’d be interested in the chat if who attended last night’s instant mixer, who did you meet that was interesting, or what did you think of that? And we’re going to go to that at 10:30am here.

So, before we do that, let’s open it up for questions from the audience. Any questions coming in that you want to ask Xiaoyin about the platform or about her journey as a founder? One of the questions I saw was do you see the platform moving more towards like a second life model? Or where do you see the platform going?

Xiaoyin Qu: For us, you know, the most important thing that we think that events are for, is really to meet other people. So, we are really focusing on giving more excuses for people to meet. We believe that all events are all about providing excuses, even the long line and Starbucks that you’re waiting for coffee back then. Was an excuse because you’re like, Oh the line, so long, huh? I’m like, Oh yeah. Yeah. I’ll be waiting for a while and then you’re like, what’s your name?  So, it was like a great excuse or just sitting in the launch, like whatever.

And then you’re trying to charge your laptop or like, sorry. Do you mind moving your legs a little bit so I can use my charger, right? So that’s an excuse. There’s some and then the social lounge, there’s different social expectation, right? And the social lounge you can talk, or you can just chill and that’s fine. In the cocktail party of a physical setting, you’re expected to socialize with other people.

So, if you really want to meet other people, if you’re shy, you just go to the cocktail party. You know, everybody is at least supposed to talk to you and then you can just like sit and talk and everybody has the same exact social expectation. I think with the beauty of an event is that it offers many different types of nuanced, a social context, where there are different social expectations.

But, and then, you know, when exactly do people want to talk to you, when exactly they just want you to leave them alone. In the online space, you know, we need to kind of create similar type of social excuses that helps people connect. So that’s where we are right now. Like, you know, we’re trying to invent more social excuses for people to meet. Personally, I don’t really believe that it has to be the replica. I don’t really believe we need to add a waiting in line feature online. That’s will just piss people off. So, there must be other ways that we can offer excuses in a way that makes sense. You know online?

We’re just thinking, what are the best ways possible to connect the most relevant people together. And what is the best way possible to connect people with similar type of social expectations? Meaning I’m here to definitely want to meet somebody or I’m here just to consume the content and be able to kind of divide the right people to the right people. And what will be the right way to nudge them into the first conversation.

Like I really believe that our goal is to help ease the first conversation. Then once you have the first conversation or not, you guys will figure out what to do. So, our job is just be the, kind of the Tinder for like many people, just to make them connect. So that’s kind of the way we think about that.

Brian Ardinger: Some of the questions are, what did you build it on? Did you build by, or did you start with any no-code tools or how did you actually go about building out Run The World?

Xiaoyin Qu: When we first do on prototype, it was hacking around doing a Slack, which was definitely a no code tool, but everyone knows that we were using students Slack. But then after that, we just built everything ourselves. We did use, we are using a third-party like video streaming infrastructure, but we are building everything ourselves. Like, I guess this is too complicated to use no code tool. There are some kind of stuff you could, but we didn’t it’s way too complicated. Well, basically I had a native app and that’s entirely built. In-house. And then we have the entire experiences built in house as well, so that we do have a lot of engineers.

Brian Ardinger: Who’s the first person you hired once you decided to move forward with the project?

Xiaoyin Qu: Me and my co-founder back then, my co-founder is the CTO. So, she’s an engineer at Facebook and then we hired another engineer from Facebook. So that’s kind of the third person.

Brian Ardinger: Question on, could you talk more about your experience pitching Andreessen and what would you advise founders to receive funding from top VCs like them. Any founder stories from the investment side?

Xiaoyin Qu: It’s really, really important to get kind of the first check. When we pitched Andreessen, we actually already got our first offer. It was more like a conversation that’s towards our favor. It was more like, you know, look, we already got an offer. If you want to chat, chat with us in the next day or something. And otherwise, we’re not going to make it or whatever. We were just like using those kinds of stuff. And then I guess they bought it. It was a good leverage point at that time.

When we got our first offer like, we had some traction. Like, I actually got some VC friends to say, Hey, I can give you like a few hundred thousand dollars just for you to try your idea before this idea. But I kind of always hesitant in getting money before I know what I’m doing. So, we actually did everything ourselves. And the traction point at that point was we ran our first event. It was successful. We help five other people run their events, using the Zoom/Slack, whatever hybrid. It was successful. They all made great money and people like it, that was the attraction point at that point.

And then we just like, basically raised money with that. And I noticed a lot of the VCs that I know they changed their opinion. Like when I first say we’re doing online events, it was like, Oh, it was kind of stupid. I’m like already flying to Vegas every year. But then when you say, you know, here’s traction, you have real events and people like it. And then it was like, Oh, that’s interesting.

And I was like, sometimes their opinion may change too. So, it’s not like when they say that’s a bad idea. It’s definitely going to be like never changed. Sometimes they could. So that’s kind of how we got our first check.

Brian Ardinger: Well, and I imagine obviously now with COVID, I mean, the entire space blew up as far as everybody starts to look for these new ways to engage and connect with people in the virtual world. So, I applaud what you’re trying to do here, and I want to thank Xiaoyin for joining us at Inside Outside, the summit here to tell us a little bit about what she’s doing and her journey as a founder.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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Ep. 229 – Xiaoyin Qu, Fo...