Have you ever been in a Zoom meeting with more than four people? If you’re like most workers weathering the pandemic, you probably have. You’ve likely also witnessed the awkward pauses and stammers when more than one person tries to speak in a meeting of that size. Despite technological advances, virtual workplaces still don’t feel like the real thing.
Hong Kong-based founder, Hoyin Cheung, created his startup, Remo to make virtual workplaces that feel more real. While he designed it to emulate an office, Hoyin also used it to host one of the world’s largest virtual work expos in 2017.
After the event, Hoyin realized people wanted a virtual event facilitator, not an virtual office. He switched his business to running remote events and was in the right place at the right time when offices around the world went fully remote. By the end of 2020, he had 100 employees and brought in seven figures in MRR.
I got on a call Hoyin to talk about what got him into virtual office spaces back in 2017, three years before the pandemic struck.
Why Virtual Offices Don’t Work
To date, Hoyin has founded or cofounded nine businesses, running lean remote teams long before the pandemic.
“Not all of them have been successful,” admits Hoyin. “It’s about fifty-fifty. Before Remo, I ran a social media SaaS tool with about $60,000 in MRR and I liked to use remote contractors to keep the business flexible. This gave me a good foundation for managing small remote teams and the challenges that come with it.”
After managing his remote team successfully for years and speaking with other founders doing the same, Hoyin wanted to take his virtual office a step further. “I wanted to bet on a long trend,” he says. “A bet on something that no one else saw at the time but we saw. We tried to solve the hallway conversation problem before anyone else.”
Hallway conversations are everything from exchanging pleasantries with a normally busy CEO to quick project input without scheduling a meeting. The casual conversations that make an office an office.
To solve the hallway-conversation problem, Hoyin designed a virtual workplace people could interact while working remotely. “At the time, we created this map where you could see people in your workplace and jump in and out of video calls with them based on your proximity,” he says.
However, Hoyin noticed that businesses didn’t understand the problem enough to know what they wanted. He couldn’t find buyers despite hefty market research.
“I interviewed 20 remote teams,” he says. “They all said their problem was that they wanted to have a better connection with their teams. I’d try to sell them my product which was supposed to solve that problem, but they didn’t want it.”
Hoyin was perplexed. He knew he had demand for his service but he was missing something that these businesses craved. He discovered what it was when he agreed to host an online virtual work summit using Remo.
“The remote work community back then would put on these annual events called Virtual Summits. Usually, they were a bunch of prerecorded videos on remote work topics. I thought ‘Why don’t we make this a live event and make people come into the space to connect?’”
For three days, Hoyin emceed the 2017 Virtual Summit. He let attendees use Remo for viewing his presentations and for group discussions. Ten thousand people used Remo over those three days. Hoyin says the feedback was overwhelming but not how he expected.
“People came up to us and said, ‘Dude, your product is amazing. We love it!’ and I would say, ‘Great. So do you want to buy our virtual office?’ They would say ‘No, we want to use the feature you used for the conference that we attended.’”
Hoyin realized the demand for Remo was in virtual events, not offices. “I realized those VR office conversations felt forced because when you work remotely you want to do your work. Most people get to know their coworkers during lunch breaks and after work. We just changed a few things to make Remo specifically for events and we had buyers.”
They started growing steadily and began 2020 with $6,000 in MRR. After the pandemic hit, they ended that same year with seven figures in MRR. Remo had struck a nerve.
How to Make Events More Human
Remo’s modus operandi is creating conversations that drive meaningful relationships. It does this through carefully-planned virtual event environments. “Events have a purpose. Events ring authentic,” says Hoyin.
When creating virtual events, Remo follows a few core principles: “One, conversations need to be small – about four to five people,” says Hoyin. “Two, there needs to be a level of serendipity to it. You have to be able to move around to talk to people and have the freedom that allows random interaction. Three, you need to have a contextual and immersive background. It doesn’t necessarily need to be three-dimensional but it needs to be convincing.”
Finally, Hoyin pushes his team to create virtual events with humanity at their center. “To do that, I think about what I would do at an event if I was offline,” he says. “First thing is I’d probably look left and right and speak to the person next to me. From there, you ask questions like, ‘What’s an intimate conversation, and what does a crowd do to that?’ We did a lot of testing with different event types to find what translates well from the real world and what doesn’t.”
For that Virtual Summit in 2017, Hoyin built the bones for Remo today and has used the same concept since.
“Imagine you’re looking top-down at a map of a floor plan with a couple of tables in a room,” he says. “Our platform has a map like this where each table represents a conversation between two to six people. We also have a presentation mode that looks like a normal, large-group Zoom call. Throughout the presentation, the speaker can ask participants to speak with each other and then switch the meeting to table mode. You now have all the ingredients for a great event.”
Remo offers two payment options: a one-off fee per event or an annual subscription. “For the one-off, we charge by the number of guests so that price changes a lot,” Hoyin adds.
Naturally, Hoyin hired a remote team from all over the world to work on Remo. “The team has about 100 people now,” he says. “A lot from India, Europe, and South America. I believe in hiring great people to work with other great people. I also try to find people in places where most think good hires are hard to find.”
Changing large companies is very difficult so they end up paying for things that can pull them ahead.
This year, Remo has returned to virtual offices and internal office events for larger, Fortune-500 companies. “Customers that like Remo a lot tend to be those larger businesses. They believe in what we’ve been able to provide them and they need our platform the most. Changing large companies is very difficult so they end up paying for things that can pull them ahead.”
How Virtual Work Will Evolve
As some companies return to real offices, virtual work platforms might die off. Even so, Hoyin thinks the pandemic laid the groundwork for a growing number of remote offices.
If you think about any bubble, many companies die off but the good ones stay.
“If you think about any bubble, many companies die off but the good ones stay,” says Hoyin. “My favorite example is the railway bubble in the early 1900s. Although some of the companies folded, many left train tracks for businesses to build on. People will continue using existing infrastructure to make better products.”
Hoyin also thinks hybrid work may never be solved adequately – and that’s okay. “People will be struggling to figure out hybrid work for years to come. Some people like to do office culture one way and others in another. I don’t know if there will ever truly be best practices for it.”
I asked Hoyin what he wished he had known when creating Remo:
“I wish I knew how fast it was going to grow in the first year,” he says. “During the pandemic, when things were growing fast, there were certain things I wish I’d pushed more on. I would have changed the pricing earlier and been more aggressive with our marketing.”
Finally, Hoyin has a reading list he’d recommend any founder building a SaaS business and some parting words of advice:
“For anyone interested in developing a product you need to read Lean Startup 101 and Getting Acquired by Andrew Gazdecki. In general, a product is a commodity. With no code where it is today, Everyone can create a CRM. Business acumen, marketing channels, and distribution are where you differentiate.”
For many businesses, remote work is still a black box. It’s hard for us to visualize all the possibilities we have at our disposal while thinking in the context of a traditional office. Whoever solves the puzzle of creating a fulfilling virtual work environment will change the face of business forever and make a lot of money doing it.
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