Encourage attendees to have their videos on. No one wants to stare at a screen full of black boxes! Seeing people’s faces and reactions is what creates the energy. The host should encourage people to turn their camera on, regardless of whether they’re still in their pajamas or haven’t done their hair.
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 Lilian Chen.
Lilian Chen is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Bar None Games (https://www.barnonegames.com), a virtual game competition platform. She started her career on Wall Street, working at some of the top firms such as J.P. Morgan and The Carlyle Group, where she focused on investing in and advising consumer and technology companies. Following that, she attended Harvard Business School, where she started her first company, and subsequently worked on launching start ups as an Entrepreneur-in- Residence and Investor at venture capital firm FJ Labs.
As the COO of Bar None Games, Lilian works to bring joy to family, friends and co-workers everywhere when they can’t be together in person. The company has hosted 800+ games for 16,000+ people and 350+ companies, ranging from Fortune 500s to emerging start-ups.
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”?
Growing up, my family moved around constantly. As a child of Chinese American immigrants, I spent my youngest years in various Midwestern states, and when I was twelve, my family moved back to China to the city of Macau, also known as the Vegas of Asia. At the age of fifteen, I underwent a massive move again when I attended boarding school back in the United States. As a result of moving around so often, I found myself adapting to new people and cultures constantly. Living away from home and living in so many different places as a young age is a big part of why I love building a community so much. Even when I’ve been away from my family, the communities that I’ve found all over the world have made many cities feel like home.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I began my career in finance, working at various firms on Wall Street. I learned a lot in my years working there, and I always had the itch to create something of my own. When I went to Harvard Business School, I knew that I wanted to explore starting my own business. That’s where I met my co-founder Spencer Fertig, and we created our first company in business school. While that company no longer exists, the experience made me realize that I loved entrepreneurship. After a few years of working with a venture fund to explore new business ideas and launch startups, Spencer and I joined together to start Bar None Games.
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?
There’s been so many mistakes! One mistake that many entrepreneurs can relate to is trying to save on every cost in the beginning, sometimes in the wrong places. When we needed a lawyer to put together some paperwork for us, we decided to use a third-party marketplace to hire a lawyer to do project-based work for us. At $950, we thought we got a steal for these services! In the end, it turned out we got bad advice, we scrapped everything that we got from that lawyer, and hired a full-service law firm who could give us well-rounded and custom advice. Luckily, we realized all of this pretty quickly when our spidey-senses started going off. Hiring a full-service law firm cost a lot more, but even as a scrappy start up, there are certain things that are not worth it to cut corners on!
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?
Before I pursued entrepreneurship, I went through a phase where I binged every single season of the Gimlet podcast Startup. With every episode I listened to, my entrepreneurial itch got stronger and stronger. The startup follows closely the day-to-day of what it looks like to start a company from 0 to 1. While there are a lot of resources out there that provide a big picture view of lessons learned, I loved this unique point-of-view of the ground level.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All you can do is do your best.” In life as an entrepreneur, you will inevitably face failure and rejection. This quote represents my constant mindset as a founder: all that I can control and expect is for myself to put my own best foot forward. Failure is always disappointing, but so long as I know that I’ve done my best, that’s all I can hope for.
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?
My company Bar None Games works with companies and organizations of all sizes to plan virtual team events. Since we were founded in summer 2020, we’ve worked with 450+ different groups to plan virtual holiday parties, team-building activities, new employee orientations, new student orientations, fundraisers, baby showers, birthday parties, and more. We have a variety of live-hosted, interactive games that we use to facilitate these events, and we can customize our events for a group’s specific needs.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Virtual events are our bread and butter, and they comprise 100% of our business. We have been lucky to host a wide variety of virtual events, including: virtual fundraisers that have raised tens of thousands of dollars (the largest fundraiser to date successfully raised $75,000 for the nonprofit for a one-hour event!); a corporate’s annual holiday party for hundreds of employees all over the world; and a pre-wedding virtual celebration with hundreds of the couple’s loved ones.
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?
I’m biased, but I honestly think that our live virtual events are top-notch! Because we have a live host who emcees the event, the event is guaranteed to be engaging and interactive. Our hosts are professional entertainers who ensure that the event attendees are having a great time. Second, the content that we use for our games are designed to be inclusive and create an easy conversation starter. This means that everyone has something to contribute, and you avoid awkward small talk. And third, because we have hosted nearly a thousand virtual events, we can ensure that everything will be seamless and we handle all the logistics, so the organizer does not have to break a sweat.
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?
The number one mistake that I see made is not having a structure that is interactive for the guests. It’s hard to have engagement when everyone is on a laptop in different locations, and that puts more pressure on the format and content of the event to keep attendees focused. Great ways to make a virtual event interactive for guests is to break up a long day of virtual events with a fun game that everyone can participate in or have ways to call out or feature attendees in a fun manner.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We use a variety of platforms, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. Our preferred platform of choice is Zoom, as due to the proliferation of the software during COVID, most people that we work with already have extensive familiarity with using Zoom, which helps significantly with potential technology questions. Zoom’s features work extremely well to facilitate the action and engagement that we design our events around. We utilize Zoom’s breakout room and chat features to keep the virtual event exciting.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
For our event planning process, we use Airtable to keep track of all of the details, including time, date, contact info, and special requests. Part of the reason why all of our events are so seamless is because of our detail-oriented nature and having a good system set up to ensure that no detail gets lost. We also utilize tools like Zapier to help us automate tasks that would otherwise take a very long time to execute manually. When hosting a high number of events, automating tasks also enables a greater accuracy and prevents human errors.
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.)
This is a great question! Here are my top five tips for throwing a successful virtual event after running nearly a thousand virtual events:
- Encourage attendees to have their videos on. No one wants to stare at a screen full of black boxes! Seeing people’s faces and reactions is what creates the energy. The host should encourage people to turn their camera on, regardless of whether they’re still in their pajamas or haven’t done their hair.
- Enable chat and encourage attendees to use that to engage with each other and the event organizers. The host of the event pay attention to the chat function and respond to what people are saying. This makes the people who are using the chat function feel like they’re actively engaged with the experience! Depending on the size of the event, you can also encourage people to unmute themselves and react in real-time out loud, but for large events, this does not work well.
- Make the experience multi-media. Just like in a college lecture hall, it is hard to stay engaged if someone is just talking at you for a long period of time. Ideally, your virtual event can incorporate a variety of other multi-media effects to keep the audience engaged, whether it’s through playing music, sharing a slideshow, or incorporating a game.
- Be prepared to help with technology troubleshooting. No matter how detailed the instructions are that get sent out beforehand, tech issues are inevitable. Be ready to have a system of helping people — whether by having them use a private chat feature or giving them an email or phone number to reach out to. Be sure to be familiar with the tech platform that you’re using on multiple devices, as the interface may be different across laptops, iPads, and phones. Include some buffer room at the beginning of the event before the formal agenda starts to help with troubleshooting.
- Have an engaging emcee for the event. For a virtual event, the host or emcee is even more important than for in-person events, as this person is the face that is appearing large on everyone’s screens and setting the energy. A bland or low-energy emcee only makes it easier for your virtual event attendees to turn off their laptops.
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, write down a run of show and how you’d envision the event to occur. Then, evaluate at what points you can make the event interactive for the audience so they can feel like they are active participants, instead of simply watching a video recording. Next, figure out which technology platform is best to use to facilitate this event based on the features that you need. Finally, gather up a list of people who you think would enjoy this event and spread the word far and wide.
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 would love to inspire a movement that could make sure that no one goes hungry. In my neighborhood, there is a local good Samaritan who regularly buys out the street corner tamales vendors (they’re extremely common where I live in Chicago!) and then turns around and donates the food into food pantry fridges that are free for anyone in need. While local efforts like this may seem small, it makes a huge difference and there are ripple effects for the community, both for the street vendors as well as for the hungry who are fed. I’d love to see more localized movements like this take place across the world.
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.
It would be incredible to have a private meal with Vice President Kamala Harris. She has paved a new path for women and people of color and has inspired millions around the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for your time!