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March 25, 2021

Looking Back at a Year of Transformative Growth

A year in review by Alex Howland, president & co-founder of Virbela
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When we started Virbela in 2012, our mission was to help people thrive in a remote-first future. Now, a year into the pandemic, the future is here. 

A recent Glassdoor survey found that nearly 9 in 10 workers want to continue working from home at least part-time, even after it's safe to return to the office. And when it comes to remote learning, higher education students see the benefits too: 70% of students said in a recent survey that they would consider taking more virtual classes in the future. 

Over the past year, we’ve helped a growing number of global businesses, event organizers, and educational institutions not only adapt to a work-from-anywhere environment, but thrive within it. But the road here wasn’t without its speed bumps. When COVID-19 hit, we weren’t prepared for the influx of interest in Virbela. At the time, we were primarily operating as an engineering function, and we had to build out every part of the organization—from sales, to IT, to operations—and we had to do it very quickly. 

As we onboarded new customers to Virbela, there were growing pains. We experienced connectivity issues as our system strained to accommodate additional customers. Sometimes our net promoter score (NPS) went up, and sometimes it went down. We doubled down to address issues quickly, and our technology has come a long way. But there are still improvements we want to make. 

Looking back, it’s been a year of transformative growth for our company, and for me as an entrepreneur. There have been many highs, and many lows, but today, I’m incredibly proud to share that the past year has been one of record growth for Virbela. 

Here’s a snapshot of some of our major milestones in 2020: 

  • Added over 300 new customers, including global brands like HTC, PwC, MIT, NBA, the World Bank, American Cancer Society, and many more
  • Experienced 45x growth in new users and over 50x growth in international users
  • Grew monthly recurring revenue by 15x
  • Expanded our team at Virbela from 20 to over 170 employees

I want to share a deeper look at how Virbela is creating immersive, virtual world experiences for work, learning, and events that are building stronger communities and culture. 

Enabling Work From Anywhere 

As the traditional office evolves, businesses are taking a hard look at their organizational culture and realizing that it isn’t defined by free lunches, yoga rooms, and other perks. It’s about how your employees feel and interact. And while Zoom, Slack, and other collaboration tools are important for communication, that sense of community people feel from working together side-by-side is missing in a virtual work environment. 

Through virtual world technology, our team at Virbela is helping a growing number of organizations replicate the real-life office environment. These virtual worlds offer a sense of community and connection, with spaces that encourage serendipitous interactions — just like the office watercooler. 

Companies of all sizes are embracing virtual world technology. Take our sister company, eXp Realty, for example. Since they began using Virbela in 2016, they’ve grown more than 10x, with 49,000+ real estate agents around the world, and they’ve been named one of Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work for four years in a row.  Since the pandemic, they’ve been able to turn this early investment into a strategic competitive advantage.

Even as employees begin to return to the office and a hybrid work environment continues to take shape, virtual world technology can help level the playing field. Virbela’s platform can create a central headquarters for team members, where important meetings and conversations can take place in a virtual environment. Team members who aren’t in the office won’t feel left out, which can help promote more equitable interactions within a company.

Creating Virtual Events That Make You Feel Like You Went Somewhere 

One of the industries hit hard by the pandemic was the events industry. Last year, conferences, trade shows, and other events were postponed or cancelled altogether, causing organizations to lose significant revenue. We wanted to help, and so we built an entirely new product line within Virbela to enable organizations to host virtual events. We designed a variety of immersive virtual spaces — from The Virbela Speakeasy, a live entertainment and music venue, to an expo hall for conferences, and a variety of other spaces and scenes for socializing and networking. 

In 2020, more than 450 events were hosted by Virbela and its partners, including conferences, career fairs, holiday parties, film screenings, award ceremonies, and more. Our partner Laval Virtual hosted 6,500 attendees from 110 countries in Virbela for its annual flagship event, while The Economist used The Virbela Speakeasy more recently to host an afterparty for guests during its Innovation@Work Series, with DJ Jazzy Jeff on the turntables. 

Now, attendees can experience conferences and trade shows without travel, in an engaging, immersive virtual experience. Even as restrictions on large gatherings begin to lift, event organizers can leverage virtual world technology to host hybrid events that bridge the gap between in-person and virtual attendees. 

Solving the Challenges of Remote Learning 

Education has always been core to what we do, and we’ve come a long way since our start at University of California, San Diego. The broader education landscape has, too. The shift to distance learning over the past year has brought new challenges for students, who may be juggling distractions at home, missing in-person connections, and struggling to stay engaged. Even before the pandemic, schools that were sticking to a classroom-only education were losing ground in our increasingly tech-driven world. Virtual learning options are critical for older students who have inconvenient work hours, parents who are juggling caregiving with education, or students who don’t have the ability to move to a new city just for school. Virbela is helping solve these pain points and more. 

Educational institutions including Arizona State University, Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford LEAD), University of California, San Diego, and many others, have turned to Virbela to create immersive learning environments. Within their virtual campuses, student engagement, retention, and course participation has increased. For example, after a semester using Virbela at Cal Poly Pomona, 60% of survey respondents reported feeling more engaged with their professor than when using Zoom. 

What’s Next?

While we’ve always believed in a remote-first future for work and learning, the pandemic accelerated the timeline in a way we couldn’t have anticipated. Looking back over the past year, I couldn’t be more proud of Virbela’s growth. And I couldn’t be more excited about our future. 

As we look ahead, we want to continue to make Virbela more inclusive, adding even more languages to support our international customers, as well as diversifying our range of avatars and providing greater access across devices. We’re also focused on improvising the user experience. In the last year, we introduced new spaces like a support center for real-time consultations and services, as well as new tools to help people work together more effectively, including in-world video streaming, webcam support, and screen-sharing. But there’s more we want to do with our UI and onboarding of first time users. And, we’re working to increase scale. Last year, we surpassed technical milestones of more than 2,500 concurrent users in one virtual world and over 1,500 users in a single environment during EXPCON 2020, the industry’s largest virtual real estate event, hosted in Virbela. This year, our goal is to support 10K users in a single environment. 

We have a big opportunity to help people understand the value of virtual world environments beyond just gaming. We have an opportunity to bring fun and playfulness back to the way we work and learn. And we have an opportunity to play a strong role in shaping what the future of work, learning, and events will look like. We’re more than up for the challenge.

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