In June 2019, Johnny Boufarhat incorporated a company called Hopin with the UK's Companies House register.
His idea was fairly straightforward. Online conference and events were bad and the software was worse, so why not create something better?
So Hopin was born, offering conferencing software to make it easy to run everything from trade expos to social events online, starting at $99 a month.
It was a prescient idea.
Less than two years on, large-scale conferences have moved online, and Hopin is already worth an astonishing $5.6 billion. Alongside heavy-hitters such as video-conferencing firm Zoom and Netflix, it is a winner of the pandemic and the shift to remote work.
"I always believed I would do something impactful," Boufarhat told Insider in an interview. "With Hopin, we want to be the biggest tech business in Europe, I've always looked at the market and wondered why a massive business hadn't been created."
Johnny Boufarhat founded Hopin after falling ill
According to publicly available filings, 26-year-old Boufarhat remains the majority shareholder in Hopin, making him an extremely wealthy man on paper.
Born to Lebanese parents in Australia, he had a semi-nomadic childhood living in Dubai, Papua New Guinea, and Los Angeles.
He says he was always been interested in software and coding and built his first business as a mechanical engineering student at the University of Manchester. The app, Universe, was a social platform which helped connect students to restaurants and eateries in the city to get discounts.
Boufarhat felt university, and subsequently work — including roles in mechanical engineering and management consultancy — weren't positive uses of his time and he considered dropping out.
When he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease early into his career, the idea for Hopin was born.
Illness prevented him from leaving the house — a feeling most of us are now familiar with — and seeded the idea to make better software for online events.
It's been a wild journey since, according Boufarhat, who is highly bullish about his firm and has repeatedly claimed it's the fastest-growing startup in the world.
In February 2020, around eight months after Hopin's incorporation, Insider reported on Hopin's first big funding round of $6.5 million, and that it was already drawing considerable interest from investors.
In the background, Boufarhat and his small team were trying to keep the product together. "From nought to 20 people on the ground, I was writing most of the code," he said. "At nought to 40, I was having to do the revenue marketing, etcetera."
The company was built fully remote, and the team grew from six people last February to more than 400 today.
It is only a year on, and the company has gone on to raise a total of $571.4 million in 13 months. And Hopin has attracted a high caliber of investors for an early-stage startup, including IVP, Salesforce Ventures, Tiger Global, Coatue, and most recently US investors Andreessen Horowitz and General Catalyst.
Unusually, Boufarhat is a sole founder, going against a preference among investors for larger founding teams.
Piloting the firm solo, growing it remotely, and trying to learn about leadership have all made building Hopin uniquely tough, he said. Having to make big decisions with short turnaround times have led to some sleepless nights.
"It's very hard for me to get good advice, no one has been through this before," he said. "There isn't a comparable corporate structure I can look at, we are one of the fastest-growing companies ever and it's been remote. No one has done that before."
Despite being the sole founder, he added, hiring strong talent has been key to growth. "I think a lot of CEOs my age are concerned about a loss of control over the business but I wanted to trust my team so that I could skip some mistakes I might otherwise have made," he said. "I want to be dumbest person in the room and I want people to tell me things, so you hire the best people to do that."
Hopin's wild valuation
Hopin's spiraling valuation has grabbed headlines.
As recently as November 2020, Hopin was valued at $2.1 billion by investors. The company went on to almost triple that just a few months later. Sifted, citing Dealroom data, reported that the valuation growth made Hopin the fastest-growing startup in Europe of all time.
Venture capitalists value software subscription startups like Hopin by benchmarking them against similar public firms, then calculating an appropriate multiple of annualized or forward revenue and other metrics. Zoom, the other major beneficiary of the pandemic, is valued at 26.6x its annualized revenue, or ARR.
Hopin says it boasts around 80,000 customers, $70 million in ARR, and around 440 employees. That revenue has been bolstered by acquisitions, enabled by its huge capital injections. Hopin acquired streaming platform StreamYard at the start of 2021, its second acquisition after it bought events company Topi in December.
A $5.61 billion valuation puts Hopin's multiple at 80x its annualized revenue, an astonishing number even amid the current high multiples for public software firms.
"Johnny was early in spotting this opportunity," Sonali De Rycker, partner at Accel and early backer, told Insider in an interview. "The speed of growth we've never seen before but there is still a long road ahead and a massive total-addressable market."
"A month in Hopin time is like a year in usual time," added Jules Maltz, general partner at IVP. "I don't think we've ever invested in so many rounds in such a short space of time and I think Hopin is one of our largest ever investments."
Tech startups have seen valuations rise across the spectrum as investors pile into bets which have better growth prospects than traditional assets. It has driven hedge fund and private equity interest in tech companies and fueled the growth of SPACs in the US.
The question is how long any of this can last, especially as a world tries to resume normal life amid vaccine rollouts and the resumption of international travel.
Boufarhat insists the company is profitable and being sensible in its growth. Hopin's financials are not yet publicly available, and the startup will file its first results in June 2021.
Maltz believes the valuation will outlast the pandemic.
"The market has increased valuations yes but that doesn't count for nearly all of it," he said. "Hopin was three months old when we invested and had a revenue run rate of $3 million, now revenues are above $70 million and have grown faster than the valuation which is normal, but still a high multiple. That multiple will likely go down in the future but we believe this is a lasting phenomenon.
"The world has accelerated forward three to four years in terms of digital adoption," he continued. "From what we know of Johnny, we would have invested in Hopin because we think this is a special company, regardless of the pandemic."
Prior to the pandemic, research indicated that the global events industry, valued at $1.1 trillion in 2018, would grow to $2.3 trillion by 2026. Subsequent reports estimated that the online events space would grow from $78 billion in 2019 to $774 billion over the next decade, according to Grand View Research.
"It's very clear that for special companies there are special rules, Hopin is a very special business," De Rycker added. "Johnny is special and he's assembling a multiple-product company in a major space that's never been done before. When there is a lot of demand for special companies, this is the market price."
This bullishness will be tested this summer, at least in the UK, which is anticipated to lift COVID-19 event restrictions in May.
Boufarhat himself anticipates and is keen for a return to normal, or something like it.
"I'm excited for the world to return and I think it will be a better world," he said. "People will be excited to return to in-person events but organizers we've surveyed want to stay remote and I think there will be an increased understanding of the value of virtual events."
He may be right. Companies are considering new hybrid models of working, and it's clear the 9–5, five days a week in the office doesn't work for everyone. Events too may look quite different.
"Accessibility is very important to me, life was inaccessible to me when I was ill," Boufarhat added. "The impact I wanted to make on the world significantly increased with my illness.
"Hopefully in the next few years people will believe that we have created the next generation of products."