The first step would be preparation! Having all the attendees prep for the event such as wearing a costume or changing their space is a great way to break them out of the trans state they’re constantly in. Noise cancelling headphones can also help with breaking the everyday mold of what they’re hearing at home. This step has to be communicated to participants prior to the event by means of the invitation or event description so as to not take away time from the event itself.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abraham Shafi.
Abraham Shafi is an American entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of IRL, a Social Calendar helping people come together and meet over shared interests and events. IRL is one of the top social networking platforms and the only one designed to encourage users to spend time off of the platform and engage with their network “IRL.”
Prior to founding IRL, Shafi dropped out of Berkley in 2012 to co-found the highly acclaimed social recruiting platform getTalent.com. GetTalent’s software powers some of the largest employers in the world, including Walmart, Jetblue, Kaiser Permanente, and Viacom. After getTalent was acquired by Dice, Shafi became VP of the Product Team for Dice.com and led the launch of Dice open web, Dice’s first consumer mobile app, and the integration of deep data analytics into the product to increase engagement and conversion.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Hi! My name is Abe and I grew up in San Francisco with my mom and dad. My dad moved from Egypt and dedicated his life to building restaurants while my mom was an artist. I was also very close with my uncle, who lived in the Bay Area as well. He was always very interested in technology and computers and I remember we used to spend a lot of time together building computers in our garage. This was one of the first times I remember building something and having that feeling of accomplishment and pride because it was something I built. Besides that, my childhood was pretty normal!
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
One of the guiding principles I have always told myself is, “whatever you work on you become.” So the main questions I asked myself early on were:What do I want to become? What can influence me as much as I influence it? What will have a meaningful benefit to society? My biggest obsession has always been helping people deepen their relationships with others, so building a consumer focused social company made sense. It allows me to pursue my passion of human connection while also providing me with a fulfilling career path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on when IRL only had a few thousand users, we accidentally sent out five of the same notification to every single user. It was super embarrassing at the time and all I could think was that I had ruined my life’s work and that it was over. But, at the end of the day no one cared and didn’t impact the company. So, the biggest lesson I learned from that was “don’t do it again!”
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“The Art of Power” by Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Vietnamese buddhist monk. In his book he wrote a poem called “I Want It All” which is about his brother who lost everything and moved to one of Hanh’s monasteries. Hanh let him stay there for a few years so he could release emotionally and find stability. One night, Hanh burned his brother’s hut and watched him cry as the last stable thing burned in front of him. At the end, Hanh’s brother wanted it all just as much as he did.
What struck me most from that is “wanting it all” wasn’t an act of greed. It can mean wanting everything from your life and that the illusion of stability can hold you back. If you can let go of the illusion of stability and do everything in your power to live a genuine life, you can live life to the fullest. Only you can provide yourself with stability, rather than material and external things because they will ultimately hold you back.
This forced me to think: how can I live my fullest life? I wanted to turn this powerful concept into a tangible product for others to find meaning in their life and that’s ultimately what IRL is all about.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Survival of the fittest”- Charles Darwin. He says it’s not the strongest beings but those that are most capable of adapting are the ones who survive. I think about that a lot and how adaptation is really everything- our ability to adapt to our environment, minds, bodies, and of course, COVID. To constantly let go and learn is probably one of the most important things that I work on everyday. That insight really sticks with me because I constantly ask myself “How am I not letting myself adapt? How am I holding myself back? How can I exercise my adaptation muscles?” These guiding questions have helped me both personally and professionally because in our ever changing world, adaptation is key.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
I love organizing events. Because of my deep interest in human connection and shared events, I’ve always gravitated towards event planning. One of the more specific examples of event planning that kind of birthed IRL was when I used to organize after-hour sober parties in San Francisco. They would run from when the clubs closed around 1am until the sunrise and often happened at local yoga studios. We would text the location to people last minute and what I found is that there is no easy way to text 200–300 people an address or event details without doing it manually on my phone or writing code. So the initial code I wrote ended up being the first genesis of IRL.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Since COVID hit back in 2020, the majority of our millions of events promoted on IRL have been virtual. Personally, I have not single handedly organized any myself. However, I’ve helped with plenty of our events, notably one with Tiktok and Jaden Smith where we drove over 200,000 to people to a virtual concert. My position as founder of IRL has shifted me away from the planning process a bit and more into the business side of the platform. Although I’d love to be on the ground more and organizing like I used to, I also love this other side of planning where I get to collaborate with big corporations and drive partnerships for IRL.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
There’s a company called “Eschaton” and they host online experiences such as virtual nightclubs and theater. It’s all on Zoom and what impresses me the most is how immersive it is for participants while being remote. Using what could be a simple conferring tool, they’ve found ways to engage people and be creative. I’m excited about it because I like their creativity and, as we all know, things can get so bland on Zoom. Because they use Zoom, it is extremely replicable, it’s more the creativite aspect that can’t be duplicated. Thinking outside of the Zoom is the new thinking outside of the box!
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the biggest mistake people make when trying to run a live virtual event is not giving themselves enough time to promote the event and drive actions. It’s easy to get excited about organizing fun events but when there’s a lack of time and things are rushed, the event can ultimately fail. The number one thing that can be done to prevent this is proactivity. What can we plan now and control now in order to limit the amount of unpredictable factors later on?
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
IRL! IRL is the perfect solution for bringing everyone together virtually. It allows users to browse, invite, RSVP and chat about all the events they’re interested in, both virtual and in-person. Besides IRL, Zoom has proven to be a very effective and useful platform for both professional and leisurely experiences. Zoom is user friendly and offers other features such as chat, breakout rooms, as well as the ability to personalize the background and control your viewing experience.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I’d like to think my entire professional life has been about building my own tools rather than using external tools, especially for event organization and promotion. To me, IRL is an essential tool for any event organizer who wants to promote their event on an event specific platform, rather than other sites such as Facebook events. The reason IRL is so essential is because it’s all event focused. Where Facebook Events tries to leverage the success of Facebook to help with events, IRL is strictly for events, like Instagram is for photos. As a dedicated platform for a singular action, it allows us to refine how events are organized and how we can promote them.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
While it is very difficult to replicate the energy you’d get from a live event, there are things event organizers can do to translate that energy into a remote environment.
- The first step would be preparation! Having all the attendees prep for the event such as wearing a costume or changing their space is a great way to break them out of the trans state they’re constantly in. Noise cancelling headphones can also help with breaking the everyday mold of what they’re hearing at home. This step has to be communicated to participants prior to the event by means of the invitation or event description so as to not take away time from the event itself.
- Second, the main reason events are so great is because they’re typically shared experiences with friends or family. If the event is set up in a way that allows for these shared experiences to still be lived on a screen, it will make the experience that much better for the participants. Whether that be asking attendees to join with a family member or pairing single participants with someone else to solve an escape the room, sharing the experience will add a level of energy needed for an engaging event.
- Third, it is extremely important to leverage the screen space as a way to break monotony and maintain attention. Whether that be getting creative with visuals, creating custom backgrounds for participants, or spicing up how it’s being hosted, this is a great way to keep attendees engaged and interested.
- Fourth, creating intimacy between attendees is essential to the event experience. When you go to a concert, it’s easy to talk to new people and connect over your shared love for an artist. But when you go virtual, those kinds of connections are hard to find. By utilizing tools such as breakout rooms or any kind of smaller setting within the larger context, it can add a whole new level to the virtual experience.
- Lastly, community feedback is an extremely imperative aspect of any event. Although virtual events are not new, they’ve obviously been utilized much more in these last months because of COVID. Just as live events have evolved over time, so will virtual events, thus generating feedback and learning what can be done to improve the experience will only help organizers down the line.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
First, make sure the event they’re interested in is meaningful! This can be a great opportunity to take an audience poll to gauge interest while also engaging with potential attendees. Second, create an RSVP landing page using RSVP tools such as IRL, Event Brite, etc. In order to successfully run any event, an organizer needs to know how many people will be attending. The same goes for virtual events. Also, pick a video platform to host your event and make sure it has all the capabilities needed. For example, if you know ~500 people are attending, maybe don’t use Zoom! There are so many options available so make sure to do ample research while organizing. Next, time to figure out timing! It may sound trivial, but having a plan of what’s going to happen prior to, during, and after the event has proven to be an extremely helpful tool for planning.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the most valuable aspect of events is meeting new people and since we’re in that theme, I hope to inspire people to see everyone as human and erasing the idea of “otherness”. I don’t believe in the saying “divide and conquer” because it exposes a huge wound in our society, being one of individuals rather than a team. However, if we can recognize that we’re all connected and all human, we can transition from an “I” society to a “we” society and promote this feeling of “oneness”. Through events, I hope to bridge this gap and forge connections to help people realize the humanity in others and all around.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Elon Musk. I feel a kindred spirit with his full spectrum ability to be a deep nerd as well as eclectic weirdo who has an insane maniacal focus that I identify within myself. I’d love to have a deeper conversation with him about what it means to live that kind of life.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.