Student Startup Bringing a Sense of Real Life to Virtual Meetings
Earlier this year, third-year Georgia Tech computer science (CS) student Piyush Kancharlawar and his teammates were on the verge of crushing it with a 3D scanner that reveals a person’s muscle mass and body fat.
The students – many of them friends since their days at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia – had launched their company as part of CREATE-X Startup Launch, a Georgia Tech program that has helped launch more than 100 companies founded by students.
“We were doing well, meeting a lot of people in the startup community, and talking with a lot of prospective customers,” says Kancharlawar.
“But then the pandemic hit.“
When Covid-19 became a reality in the US, the team’s prospective customers – primarily gyms and fitness centers – closed across the country in an effort to limit the spread of the disease.
“When that happened, we knew that if we wanted to be successful, we had to move on to another concept,” says Kancharlawar.
Like just about everything else at the time, the team moved its meetings online. They were also attending classes and other events virtually. From here, it didn’t take long for a new direction to emerge.
“As part of the CREATE-X process, teams are encouraged to identify and address existing pain points for customers rather than building something new from scratch,” says Kancharlawar.
“We were experiencing the pain points of virtual meetings firsthand, and we immediately recognized that there was a lot of room for improvement in the space.”
With this notion, Kancharlawar, mechanical engineering student Khyati Shah, industrial engineering student Carl Liu, and University of Pennsylvania student Christopher Cherian co-founded Gatherly, a new virtual meeting platform that the founders say is more familiar, natural, and engaging for online users.
Gatherly is one of nearly 50 primarily student-led teams showcasing their business startups this week at CREATE-X Demo Day.
Welcome to Hotel Gatherly
The Gatherly platform, which has been commercially available since April, uses a novel spatial approach to online meetings. It allows users to move within virtual two-dimensional conference and event spaces. Here, they can move their icon around 2D maps to engage with different tables, sessions, speakers, and other virtual attendees. At the edge of each map is a bank of elevators.
“Real-life conferences don’t take place in just one room. Some events are spread out across fifty rooms or several floors,” says Amaan Pirani, Gatherly co-founder and Columbia University CS student. “That’s why we think of Gatherly as a hotel.”
Within this hotel, which is customized to meet each client's particular needs, virtual attendees are first directed to a PDF for a listing of what’s located on each floor. Attendees then use the elevators to move between floors.
For a virtual career fair, the floors might be for different industries and business sectors. For an academic fair – like the one Gatherly hosted recently for 2,000 first-year students at Rice University – they could be for different colleges and disciplines.
To achieve something similar to this on other platforms, event organizers end up having to create potentially dozens of unique event URLs. The URLs are shared in a spreadsheet with attendees, who must then navigate the list to listen to different speakers, meet with different company representatives, or attend different workshops.
“The beauty of Gatherly is that we can work for groups as small as 5 to 10, but I also just spoke with a group that has 9,000 people that wants to use the platform. So what’s really interesting is how we scale up using the 'floors' concept,” says Pirani.
Escaping the Fishbowl
The team’s approach allows event planners to move beyond a one-to-many communications model to plan more engaging, fulfilling, and successful meetings using a many-to-many model. It’s this feature that Gatherly customers seem to be responding to most, according to Cherian, Gatherly chief financial officer.
“Being unable to actually interact with people means most online meetings fall flat, and there ends up being this weird fishbowl effect that’s really uncomfortable when, say, for instance, everyone watches as one person says goodbye to another during a large meeting,” says Cherian.
Gatherly’s many-to-many approach to virtual meetings addresses this issue by allowing one user to connect with another simply by dragging a line between their respective icons. Once together, the two are instantly in their own “face-to-face” meeting. Others can join if they like, or the impromptu meeting can be locked for privacy.
“We spend a lot of time talking with our clients about their needs and pain points. We also study how people interact with and move around within the virtual space in order to optimize the user experience,” says Lulu Gao, Gatherly user experience designer and Georgia Tech industrial and product design student.
Hosting Demo Day
Along with pushing its user experience forward, the team is “focused on internal metrics, bumping up revenue, raising our net promoter score, and generally trying to make our product as great as possible,” said Cherian.
The team, which also includes Georgia Tech CS student and co-founder Sohan Choudhury, is particularly focused on these metrics this week. Like the other participating startups, they are being judged, in part, on their metrics during Thursday’s CREATE-X Demo Day showcase.
Unlike the other teams though, Gatherly has a bit of added pressure; not only are they participating in Demo Day, Gatherly is also hosting the high-profile virtual event on its platform.
“We hosted a poster session for CREATE-X in July that went well, so the organizers are confident that the platform will perform well for this event. We’re honored and pleased to be able to do this for the program,” says Kancharlawar.
“The CREATE-X provides an invaluable opportunity to learn from so many people with shared experiences. It’s a tremendous way for students to connect with the startup community of mentors and investors.”
Adding a Vegetarian Option
After Demo Day, the Gatherly team says it will continue work to make its platform – built with Amazon Web Services – more reliable. They are also planning a self-service model. The goal is to give clients the freedom to build out their events, add logos, and customize event spaces and maps without having to work directly with a Gatherly representative.
“We know we can’t be good at everything. The event space is gigantic, happy hours are so different from conferences, and we really think that these differences matter,” says Pirani. “So over time, we’ll likely focus more on supporting a few types rather than trying to be all things to all clients.”
Although the company was founded to meet the immediate challenges of the pandemic, the Gatherly team sees a bright future for its platform in a post-Covid market.
“One of our clients put it best. ‘If you run events after the pandemic and you don’t have some kind of online offering, that’s sort of like running a diner that has no vegetarian options;’ it’s just a ridiculous concept at this point,” says Cherian.
“There are tons of benefits from meeting in person, but having an online option gives a huge bump up in accessibility, and will allow organizations to attract more people from remote communities.”