Make a Virtual of Necessity: Inside the Quest to Engineer a Virtual Tech Conference

Clockwise from top left: Yu-Kai Chou, gamification pioneer and author; Paolo Ertreo, product designer at Dropbox; James LaLonde. co-founder Yodo1; Yara Paoli, Chief Growth Scientist at Growth OS.

A version of this article appeared on Jumpstart Magazine on July 3, 2020.

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 organization 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. 

Selectively social: networking for engineers

Dan Shao, a former NASA engineer, joined SOSV over a year ago to educate its portfolio companies to read data, run postmortems, and learn from process-driven failures. Stationed in Taipei with MOX, he is ambivalent about Growth Week. Twice a year, 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. Keeping the fire going are copious amounts of Kavalan and Taiwan’s finest craft beer, the catalysts for afternoon happy hours and conversations that lasted till midnight.

The son of a US diplomat, Shao graduated from UC Berkeley College of Engineering before he was legal to drink, and has different ideas about socializing. Like many other smart, logically minded engineers, he could be described as “selectively social,” but not a lone-wolf ronin. Engineers like Shao do enjoy bouncing ideas off a worthy counterpart. The 10x tech workers have often excelled in pairs as binary stars. Just as a brick derives its meaning from its place in the dam; at a startup, one derives meaning from being a part of a team of endurance athletes. This is elemental to work: the meaning-making, self-affirming foundation that dwarfs all bean bags and open bars.

That said, engineers, in general, prefer to keep to themselves. Working on a maker’s schedule, they value emails over meetings, flow sessions over jam sessions, live demos with colleagues over going to conferences. Yacht parties for engineers? Forget it. Conference hotel bars? Spare me. Some measure each other through the elegance of their codes: one’s codes can be social, crystal clear, and conducive to collaboration; despite the personality of the coder. Networking at conferences is so painful not because engineers don’t want to mingle, but because the physical settings don’t suit their high-wattage brains. 

Shao was agonizing over this year’s Growth Week when the deadly pandemic broke out, taking lives, massacring aspiring unicorns around the world.

“These calls will not be cold.”

When MOX entrusted Shao with the task of running the growth program online, he thought first about its reasons and essence. Why do we get together? What are the elements of a transformative encounter, and how can we reverse-engineer that? For this, he enlisted the help of TR Harrington, MOX’s program director based in Los Angeles.

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, he decided against doing another startup to join SOSV. (“I got lazy,” he said.) Harrington was adamant about using the virtual factor to their advantage. 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, now that they were bored at home 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. Rated #1 among the “Gamification Gurus Power 100” by RISE, Chou has helped Porsche, Uber, Microsoft, and LEGO alike understand the core drives of human motivation. “Core drive number one”, in his human-focused design framework backed by 16 years of research, “is epic meaning and calling.” Companies that understand this can go beyond points, badges and leaderboards to create a transcendental purpose beyond themselves.

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. 

Other speakers included The Tao of Startups author James LaLonde, who dialed in from Bali, Indonesia to talk 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. 

From Singapore, Yara Paoli talked about the elements of a growth culture and how she scaled a small startup called Skyscanner into the leading travel search engine valued at £1.4 billion. From Shanghai, Paul Lin talked about the strategy for viral growth loops he developed for world-class agencies such as BBDO, Wunderman and Saatchi. Elsewhere, Colin Hodge shared his experience growing Asia’s top consumer apps without speaking any of the local languages: by the brute force of data—a lesson he learned after acquiring 6 million users organically at his previous startup. 

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, Shao and Harrington eased the speakers into the podcast-style 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 highly technical to profoundly universal, the sessions constituted a Growth Week that “was like drinking out of a growth fire hose,” as one founder puts it. The program culminated in an AMA with the speakers and virtual happy hour, when everyone kicked back and enjoyed the banter. At 9pm Friday night in Taipei, as Shao poured another drink, Harrington also finished moderating the lively panel and waved goodbye, his face lit up by the LA sunrise.

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.

Special thanks to all the speakers for your wit, wisdom, and good wifi:

  • Yu-Kai Chou—Gamification pioneer, the original creator of the Octalysis framework, author of “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards”
  • James LaLonde—Co-founder of Yodo1 Games, Author of “The Tao of Startups”
  • Yara Paoli—Chief Growth Scientist at Growth OS, former VP of Growth at Skyscanner
  • Paolo Ertreo—Product Designer focusing on growth at Dropbox
  • Colin Hodge—Co-founder of Down, former Chief Growth Officer at M17 Entertainment, MOX Batch 1
  • Aurelien Rigart—Co-founder of IT Consultis and Urban Thai
  • Edward KongHead of Channel Alliances, APAC at Mixpanel
  • Wenn ChenCustomer Success Manager at AppsFlyer, Greater China Region
  • James LindsayDigital Director at Master Concept Group
  • Paul LinStrategic Advisor at Xavor Corporation, former Chief Strategy Officer at OMD and WPP’s Possible.