Will Smith, Kevin Hart, a16z back virtual events startup Run the World

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Will Smith and Kevin Hart pose backstage at the 2016 MTV Movie Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on April 9, 2016 in Burbank, California.

Jason Kempin | MTV1415 | Getty Images for MTV

Xiaoyin Qu never predicted how relevant her app would become in a pandemic. The former Facebook employee originally set up Run The World, an online events platform, to reduce the barriers involved in attending big in-person conferences.

She caught a glimpse of the sudden surge in demand for virtual events back in February, as health fears around the coronavirus outbreak resulted in the cancellation of several big conferences. Around that time, Run The World managed to bag over $4 million in seed funding in a round led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Now, Andreessen Horowitz has returned to back a $10.8 million Series A round in the San Francisco-based company, co-led with Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. But some of its new investors aren’t your typical venture capitalists. Run The World also grabbed the attention of celebrity investors, with the venture funds of American actor Will Smith and comedian Kevin Hart joining as new backers in the firm.

Qu told CNBC she was connected with Smith and Hart through her existing investors. “They are passionate about the mission of using online events to connect people and build communities,” she said. “Both Will and Kevin are visionaries that create content that engages and resonates with people.”

“We believe their guidance can be very critical for Run The World to create this new category of engaging online events that the world is seeing for the first time,” Qu added. She said the pandemic, though a source of great economic uncertainty, was helping to accelerate a shift toward online events.

Another start-up taking on the online events space, London-headquartered Hopin, raised $6.5 million in a seed round led by Accel back in February. It’s seen a similar boom in demand thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Run The World said it would not be commenting on its valuation at this time, however an industry source familiar with the deal pegged its market value at around $50 million. The source preferred to remain anonymous as the information hasn’t been made public.

Betting on a shift to online events

It’s a sign of how venture capitalists and celebrities alike are betting on physical events shifting online as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have rendered mass gatherings impossible. Whereas companies would usually spend thousands of dollars on booking trips and accommodation to attend major industry conferences, digital platforms are offering an alternative that could help reduce those costs significantly.

“In-person events were being canceled every day but people still wanted and needed to connect,” Qu said. “There was a growing demand and interest from investors and users and, combined with the positive feedback, we couldn’t walk away from this diverse set of investors.”

While Zoom, YouTube and Twitch provide a platform for companies to broadcast talks live, they don’t offer the same networking experiences afforded by in-person conferences. Run The World says this is addressed by features like “Cocktail Party,” which matches attendees for several minutes at a time to simulate the experience of a face-to-face networking event.

Run The World’s app lets users host and join virtual events.

Run The World

Run The World says it’s seen a hundredfold increase in the number of users on its platform in the last three months, though it didn’t disclose its total user count. The firm’s headcount has doubled to 30 employees over the last two months.

Organizers have now hosted over 2,000 events on the app to date, with attendees joining from 40 different countries. Events organized on the platform have included everything from a hackathon for developers to build software to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, to a conference for tiny home enthusiasts.

Talks between Run The World and its investors began in late March and were done entirely through video conferencing, Qu said. She told CNBC that the additional cash would be “used to scale the business to continue reaching new verticals” 

“We believe the next Nobel Prize winner and Billboard artist will meet on Run the World, and our focus is to continue building features like Cocktail Party that will enable the rising artist in LA or the researcher in Romania to collaborate with other like-minded people.”

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