Ali Jiwani (CEO, Rally Video)

Ali, one of 3 co-founders of Toronto based video startup Rally, joins StartWell’s CEO Qasim Virjee in our Hybrid Event Studio for a chat about how his company is trying to make online video more social.

In a rush? Here are some highlights from this conversation

  • Adapting to COVID-19 pandemic in event planning. (0:00)
  • Social video platform rally's development and financing. (2:13)
  • Validating startup idea through Y Combinator's virtual program. (7:14)
  • Product validation, pricing, and growth for a video conferencing platform. (12:16)
  • Virtual event platforms and their impact on the industry. (16:44)
  • Virtual event planning and video conferencing tools. (20:26)

Spend time with this conversation - here's the full transcript

Qasim Virjee 0:00
All right, welcome back to another installment of a new normal from start well, in this video we're going to be talking to rally video. I'm seated here in studio at start Willis King West hybrid event space in downtown Toronto, with Ali from rally. I love the rhyme. And I like that that was prompted by ally from rally. So without further ado, I'll tell me a little bit about what rally is in a nutshell. And then we'll jump into some history and then paint the context for people. Because this series a new normal is really all about kind of looking at how really the response to the pandemic has evolved in the last few months. And how entrepreneurs are working within the constraints or the opportunities that they see in front

Ali Jiwani 1:04
of them. Skeleton. What's rally before you even do that, man, this is a wicked space. Like I love the setup. I love the lighting. I love everything you've done here, man. Thank you very much. This is this is fantastic.

Qasim Virjee 1:17
I'm glad you're happy.

Ali Jiwani 1:18
And you did this in a turnaround time right like either this right when COVID first hit? Yeah, I gotta Yeah, these changes advancing

Qasim Virjee 1:25
our stage and preparing particularly for like hybrid events. Because we are for anyone who's watching this. You can go to hybrid event To learn a little bit more about this pivot. I hate that word. But we're in a 2500 square foot event space, right? It's beautiful. Like you can see streetcars going past on King Street. It's an unobstructed view. It's a wonderful space. But yeah, when we were faced with this, this issue of like not being able to host big groups in one room, we had to digitize and run forward and quick with it. So yeah, I'm glad that you liked the result. Yeah,

Ali Jiwani 1:58
the wicked was really, really wicked. So similar to you, when COVID first said, so when the NBA first shut down. About a week later, we got together on a 20 person zoom call, realize that this is a terrible experience. And then we built rally. And so rally is this video software video application where you can see and hear all the people around you, as if you're in the same space as them as you would have been with them in real life, but now on video, but you can decide who you want to talk to you have freedom of movement. And it really feels like an online social or an online lounge or bar like experience. And the whole idea is when everybody is like stuck at home, this is an easy way to network and to mingle and to just hang out with people.

Qasim Virjee 2:44
It's funny, because this is definitely something I think even pre pandemic that we were getting into with video conferencing, it felt kind of a little too, like, robotic I'm facing you, you're facing me. And that social element was definitely not something like you could use videoconferencing since 20 years, I remember to communicate with someone anywhere in the world, but that communication felt kind of constrained. So tell me a little bit about that. So the impetus for it, in terms of your team's inspiration for socialized video, and then how you set about kind of creating experiences that are unique to your platform?

Ali Jiwani 3:23
Yeah, totally. So there's three of us, three of us, co founders, myself, Amy and Anson. And it was answers birthday party. And he was thinking to himself, how do I make a fun birthday party take place? And answer to a lot of friends. He's got like 3040 friends. And he was like, I want to bring them all into one place. And I don't want to do a gallery view on Zoom. So initially, it was like, how do we make this so that 30 people can enjoy themselves? Maybe it's a game, maybe it's like some sort of way to like, raise some money for like the causes that are happening around COVID? Sure. But he was like, No, I want to make this like a fun video experience. And so we like hash out a bunch of ideas. And all of a sudden rally was kind of born. And our first version like I think we probably have it somewhere on like Wayback Machine or something. But it was just like, completely unstructured. Like, you could join any video conversation you wanted to. You could see everybody, even if you're not talking to them, you could see them move around, just like you wouldn't like a bar, right? Like, if I'm talking to you, but somebody else is in the corner. Yeah, I can still see them. And I can still decide if I want to talk to them. Sure. And so we built that kind of experience. And people loved it. They were just like, floored by how seamless it was. Yeah. And we realized right away that what's your point, nobody has really worked on social interactions in video for ages. Right? And to that this is probably the best time for it because everyone's at home and everybody wants to hang out still. And that need for social interaction. It's just It's human. Right? If you look at the evolution of any software, it's gotten more and more social. Like we had text messaging and then we now have like, emojis and GIFs and videos are sending each other right Right, you had like business communication, then you have slack, right? So the evolution of all these technologies is going to be more social. And ironically, social makes things more productive and more useful. And so it was a no brainer that someone is going to build something like rally at some point. We were lucky enough to just be there, I guess at the right place at the right time.

Qasim Virjee 5:19
So okay, so I totally agree with you on all those points that, you know, the impetus has been there. I liked that story of a very kind of personal need to say like, we just want to get people together, we wanted to be fun. How do we do this? Paint the picture of kind of starting a company in the in this kind of post pandemic reality that we're all trying to figure out? What did it mean to you, as a team of friends, to start a company leave aside the product and the service just thinking about it as this thing needs to make money? And we also need to pay for our time, hopefully? How did you kind of like, face those things?

Ali Jiwani 5:58
It's really good question. So I've known Anson for probably about 10 years, I've known Amy for about four. And during the time of knowing and talking to Anson, we've always been brainstorming ideas. In fact, the way that we met, we work for competing businesses. So there's always this kind of our relationship is yeah, we want to make sure we each succeed as friends. But we also want each other's businesses to succeed. Now, if you have that from the get go, and you work on the same business, then it's like, hey, I really want our business to succeed. So it makes a lot of sense, right. And with Amy, it's been very similar. Like we've been to a bunch of parties together, we've hosted a bunch of events, pranks, etc, together. And it's like, we want to make sure that the social experience the experience of being at a party with us, there's been a lot of fun. So when you combine those two things, the experience of like setting an event together, and the experience of building a business together, you combine it together, it's makes a lot of sense to work together with these guys, for sure. And then

Qasim Virjee 6:56
in terms of like financing story, or race, you know, if you're bootstrap to figure out kind of like who your customers are, that will pay for an MVP, to help you develop it and keep working on it. What's that side of the company look like?

Ali Jiwani 7:10
So there's two sides to this question. The funding side, which we got really, really lucky on. We were about two weeks old, and we applied to Y Combinator and Y Combinator saw, like they emailed us, I think, like Sunday night. And they were like, we want to try the product. And we were like, we're not ready. We're not ready, not just for yc. But like anyone Exactly. We just run this one birthday party on it.

Qasim Virjee 7:35
We need an accelerator. We're at 0.5 to get to hero.

Ali Jiwani 7:39
And Exactly, yeah. But we were at like 30 people came on the platform, and they like had all these glitches and issues. And then yc is like, we want to try the product. And we were like, Okay, we'll give it we'll give it a shot. And so we like gave them access to it. But we didn't have any analytics. So we have no idea what they tried, what they clicked was the issue. You weren't in on it with them. No, no, it was just like, here's her baby, you know, like, Please don't ruin it. And then they they checked out the product. And luckily, they were like, Okay, you're gonna get an interview. It seems like it's a cool product. And then once we did the first interview, initially, and this is to answer your the second part of the question, we thought we were going to be a tool for comedians. Because the cool thing about rally is you can hear the people when you're on stage, right? And when you're in the audience, so it isn't like mute everybody, right? You're not fighting the View toggle for for space. So we're like, this is gonna be a great platform for comedians, we're going to be the zoom for comedy. And we pitched that to yc. And they were like, take another four weeks. Think about what you just said. You're You're thinking too small, like there was no money. What do you mean? Yeah, Netflix. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so we were like, okay, thinking too small. What's bigger than comedy? Yeah. And then we were like, what about all sorts of events, anything virtual, from things that like, we're not virtual before, like career fairs, all the way down to things that are have always been virtual, like webinars or conferences? How do we like Target all of those markets, and all of a sudden, we're like, holy crap, we could like literally just be the video solution for anything social. And so a month later, yc is like, okay, pitch us what you've learned to pitch us your traction. And the four weeks that we had between the two interviews, we ran, I think, like a dozen comedy shows, we ran a dozen birthday parties. We hosted like very small, intimate gatherings. Some of them paid, some of them unpaid. And we went to yc. And we're like, look, we've like, made like, $1,000 we've hosted all these events, traction is like unstoppable. And we're still not like open to the public. We're still just like talking to friends about it. And when then yc is like, what are you trying to build? And we're like, we want to build the video solution that incorporates all sorts of social interactions. And they're like, perfect. And and so that was the first stage of getting validation from a company that was giving us sort of accelerated was giving us some money. Yep. but also initially getting some of the customers who would eventually become larger customers and pay us monthly or annually for like subscriptions to us. So it was like, a dual win in that sense.

Qasim Virjee 10:09
And then what's the I guess I've got a couple of questions with this story. So the first one, let's just get out of the way Y Combinator, those virtual, what does it mean?

Ali Jiwani 10:18
It means you get more time with partners. And as a trade off, you get less time with more founders, I'd say, right, so you get you get time with specific founders that you get to know really well. But maybe if I was like, sitting at a hot desk with like, 200 other founders, I'd probably get more time with founders, they would have never met, right. And YC has done a decent job, I think of making that a little bit more accessible. And I think events on rally and events on donut, or slack or whatever have been useful. But it hasn't been has been same as in person. But you got more partner time, which is obviously great, right?

Qasim Virjee 10:53
And how is the virtual? Cuz we're talking about this, like video conferencing, you know, different flavors of it. How is the virtual education delivered through Y Combinator?

Ali Jiwani 11:07
It's, so I'm not really sure what the actual Y Combinator program would be like. But virtually it was two days a week of essentially classes, Tuesdays and Thursdays you'd get like a talk. In the mornings or in the afternoons. For us that's like, broadcast, basically, yeah, to pretty much to your entire section. So you have the entire YC cohort, then you have like four different sections, each section gets like a couple of different partners. And then you have groups, which is basically your specific group, if you will, okay, maybe you have like 1012 companies, and you get really close to those 1012 companies, they become like your buddies, or what are you using to do is like zoom? Or? Yeah, yeah, the communication, the classes, all of it is done through zoom. And sometimes they would use rallies, sometimes they would use previous video platforms. So there's switch it up to kind of support the groups. Hmm.

Qasim Virjee 11:59
Very cool. Yeah. And then so the other question, I guess, I have is coming out of an accelerator program, with your idea kind of like vetted, tested a little bit now with some different use cases. And also some product validation in, in the form of bucks in your pocket, from customers? What, what's the story that you had kind of I know, this is very short period of time in a weird context of post pandemic madness. But how have you settled on pricing? If at all? And how have you tried to settle on or get to the point where you can actually tell someone a price for this?

Ali Jiwani 12:41
To be very honest with you, we're still working on pricing. For like, one time events, it's a little bit easier, because we can accommodate

Qasim Virjee 12:48
all of it, right? It's like, yeah, what do you want to pass, like, how much you got veto?

Ali Jiwani 12:56
Well, this, the smart thing we've done is we had a, we had a bunch of free trials, and then we'll like assess based on the free trials, how much people want to use our product. And then we like charge, basically a little bit of premium on top of that. And then once we had some paying customers, we saw how usage change and usage did change, because they use it a whole lot more. And then we were like, Okay, so maybe for the next set of customers, we'll charge them a little bit higher. And so we're still doing that. It's just creeping slowly, higher and higher until we finally get the right middle ground. And in for events, like it's usually like a couple of bucks a day per person. So it all just depends on what kind of event it is. But that's usually the price point. And that's usually what the industry is charging anyways,

Qasim Virjee 13:34
I think this is something that people don't talk about enough unless they talk about it, you know, in the kind of like software startup in India, people talk about rapid prototyping. And its failures along the path to chasing glory, right? If not the success at the end of the rainbow. But people don't really talk about the kind of the micro triumphs. And I think that's maybe a geeky thing. You know, like when you're hacking code, and you're solving problems every day is this adrenaline rush of needing to solve this little thing that to anyone outside of your really your house or away from your screen. It's just meaningless, right? So I think it's kind of interesting to look at micro triumphs from code examined from the business lens as well. So in the last few months, difficulties and triumphs, both any anecdotes that you want to share about this journey to kind of like launch this product that brings people together while you're distanced from them.

Ali Jiwani 14:38
For for a long time, I've believed that you should get your MVP out as soon as possible. And just, you know, put out there a product that anybody can use. And the more I've gone into see products that are in market that are really strong, really robust and really beautiful, like Apple products or Nike products. It's very much like you mandate, it takes a really good amount of time to build a great product, and you shouldn't try to rush the MVP. And so I'm actually coming around on the idea that like, an MVP is a good thing. But ironically, it is COVID. And people need video solutions, right? And so if anybody's gonna come and become a customer, use our product, give us feedback. Now's the time. And, you know, this is why I think we've been lucky enough to get such high growth numbers, because people need a product like this. And I'm sure other video companies feel the same way. I think it's, the market is getting bigger and bigger every single day. And so everybody who's building a video product, I think he's seeing some level of interesting success. So to specifically answer your question, I think one of the one of the biggest ones we've had recently is being able to scale to more people. We used to fit about, I think, 30 people in a room, we can now get about 50 people inside a rally room. And we used to be able to do like 200 people at once on rally. Now we've probably like 20, or 30x not. So we can probably get 5000, maybe even 10,000 people into into rally sessions together. So this allows for bigger events and bigger opportunities to actually kick off. A lot of things are actually like, a lot of really cool wins are like the simple wins, right? Like, it's making sure that we change some of the maybe like the username, for example, add like an emoji to your name. So it's a bit more personable. So it's like, ally with a rocket ship, as opposed to just ally. Yeah. So things like that, I think are really nice. And so there's, between those small touches and large touches, I think it's been really, really great. It's

Qasim Virjee 16:34
interesting, because I think, I think your product, of course, is applicable in so many contexts, as you're discovering. I mentioned at the beginning of this some content that people can check out on hybrid event conference calm. It's also on Star Wars magazine, digital magazine. But it's just, you know, videos from this event that we hosted, that I think is going to become a series. And it complements a podcast that we recently launched, called to gather, which is oriented for the hospitality industry is specifically looking at different angles, on events, meetings, entertainment, hotels, the whole gamut. And within all of those industries, and all of those types of company, there's a great questioning about bringing people together and creating a high quality level of service for people when they come together. And it's something that I've been talking a lot and at that conference, we talked a lot to events professionals about is this idea of kind of, I guess, produced experiences through virtual events. I think there's a lot of head scratching with the conventional events industry about firstly, about tech. Secondly, about you know, their relevance with platforms, are producers being replaced by software is a big fear, the whole AI robot question, Will it kill us? And it's a valid question for a segment that may not want to remain relevant. But how do you see community organizers or event producers, people who bring people together as a job using platforms like yours, to do an amazing thing for the people that they want to bring together by bringing them together on a platform like this?

Ali Jiwani 18:26
I think I think you're seeing, again, two different things taking place. I think you're seeing anybody who wants to bring people together, host a meet up or a community or an event, being able to do that, right. And I think things like rally are allowing that. So you have an HR professional, who would maybe host like a pub night or quiz night at a bar, which would probably be a lot of work in terms of like getting people together and making sure that it's the right kind of quiz. Now they can just do that on rally. Right? And so you have them being more empowered, and being more as what's the right word, like, easily able to set these events up and being enabled by the platform? Exactly.

Qasim Virjee 19:06
I think that's a great point. That's a great point, the idea that like, the platform takes the infrastructure away, especially around like, it's easy to send someone a link. And it's easy to send them a follow up email, or a call or whatever you need to do to say you need to be at this thing, when they don't need to do anything other than press a button to be in the thing. Absolutely. Yeah. Are you seeing that in the adoption already of the platform? Are there people who are like bringing you mentioned birthday parties? It's an interesting one. Especially because they're such loaded personal experiences. Are the people organizing these parties the people hosting their birthday party, or is it someone hosting it for someone else?

Ali Jiwani 19:49
So we've had both but with birthday parties, it's usually the person hosting themselves. Same with like reunions, same with like family gatherings. We've actually hosted a couple of weddings. So on our platform, that's very

Qasim Virjee 20:00
interesting. We're now doing that, right? We're doing micro weddings from our building on Niagara. Yeah, yeah. So we should definitely recommend this to one of our clients. Yeah.

Ali Jiwani 20:11
Have the core group come in for an in person and then do the rest of the wedding on rally. Like we've had a bunch of these weddings. And it's, it's always interesting, because the event organizer contacts us, we tell them how easy it is to use for the platform to be set up and whatnot. And then they've kind of just been like, Okay, well, this is not something I got to worry too much about that. Focus on the other stuff. Right, right. Right. The in person stuff is very hard. You got to figure out food, you got to figure out safety, you got to figure out all sorts of logistics and stuff. The online stuff is super easy, right? And I think the trickiest part about all these applications that are coming out even even zoom, is the fact that you have to teach people how to use these products. Right? Right. It's less of a like, when you have somebody to come in at like a physical wedding. They know that there's going to be food, they have an agenda, they kind of know like, what's going to happen when on zoom on rally on other video platforms, you got to show them what to click where to go. And once they get it, they have a great experience. Right. But the event planners role has now gone from planning before the event, to spending time in the event, making sure things are okay. It's

Qasim Virjee 21:18
a very interesting shift. But you're absolutely right. And I think I think Phil, I mean, the onus can lie on software designers as much as possible to try and create innate products that are immediately usable. But the value that someone can bring as an organizer to making sure that everybody's comfortable with getting in the room, virtually or otherwise, is immense. I think. And I think that is that kind of answers, the question I asked, which is, I think that's a huge role for them to still play for event producers and programmers to play is you're not just bringing people together, you're producing the experience. And a lot of that experience, unfortunately, deals with things that you might be able to explain, but are out of your control. Yeah. That's very interesting.

Ali Jiwani 22:05
And I think what's lacking in these video tools is you get into a room with somebody or call it somebody, you don't really know them. Yeah, you don't really have an understanding of who they are, or what they like or hiring and interact with them. And in most cases, nowadays, especially people joined with their video off, so you can't even see them.

Qasim Virjee 22:23
Oh, it's become a big thing, right? And I have to ask every column like so guys. Exactly. Should I turn my video off? And then everyone's awkward for a moment?

Ali Jiwani 22:31
Exactly, exactly. And then what you notice, and maybe you noticed this, but in zoom and other applications, the minute that everyone's video goes off, you What are you looking at? There's nothing to look at. It's a call. Yeah, exactly. And then so it's like, are you even on screen? Like, why did you join this with your desktop? Like, it just your experience just gets completely augmented in just a pure audio situation? So can you maybe add ways to interact? When it's just audio? If I knew who was speaking to before the call? Would I be more prepared? Would it be more excited? Would I have less soon fatigue? Like, those are the kinds of things that we want to think about, so that each interaction becomes a whole lot more fun, right? But that's probably further down the line.

Qasim Virjee 23:11
Very interesting. I love the idea that you guys are focusing on social interaction. And thinking of ways to kind of like to that and make privacy, about really the power of conversation. I think it's very unique. So as a company, what's what's on your horizon in terms of hires team growth?

Ali Jiwani 23:34
Yeah, we definitely want to hire at least one, maybe two more engineers, ideally, like full stack engineers, and probably a designer who can help us build a really cool looking product. I think the design of these video products is super important, and how it looks how it feels, all needs to be like really, really well done. And if people spend, you know, hours on video calls, a good well designed product, I think will have a huge impact on how excited and energetic they are in the call. Absolutely. I'd say those are probably the main hires. I think from a sales and business and product standpoint, we're pretty good. In terms of finances, we've raised a bit of money, so we should be good for the next 18 to 24 months. Exciting.

Qasim Virjee 24:21
So as a company born in this 2020 new reality. It's very interesting to hear that you've gone through a virtual accelerator program that's like top tier accelerator in the world. developed your product, tested it with potential customers found them despite not being able to go to you know in person meetings to make introductions, and so on. Demo the product virtually to do develop those relationships and are growing the company virtually as well. I'm glad we were able to sit down in

Ali Jiwani 24:56
person. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to this place. This is began really awesome. An absolute

Qasim Virjee 25:01
pleasure, man. So for people that want to try rally, invite them to, to where they can learn more and see it in action and use it and what's the whole

Ali Jiwani 25:11
How does it work? Yeah, you can just go to right on video, sign up for a room, invite, you know, six or seven of your friends, maybe more, get them all together and just hang out. So you can use the product for free. Totally. Yeah, exciting.

Qasim Virjee 25:22
wicked man.

Ali Jiwani 25:24
Thanks very much. No worries.

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