How I pulled off the world’s largest virtual conference

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Sai Hossain

· 12/03/2015

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One year ago, on December 1st, 2014

It’s 8:30 AM. I’ve been preparing for months. Thousands of people are about to flood my site for what could be the worlds largest virtual conference. Ed Roman, CEO of Hackhands, is 30 minutes away from broadcasting to thousands of people on Crowdcast to introduce them to the first ever Hacksummit. We’ve lined up 36 speakers, from the vice president of Microsoft to the inventor of CSS, for a 4 day conference. These are the best of the best, the summit for hackers. And, it’s all happening virtually on Crowdcast (a highly interactive video conferencing platform) my solo-project.
We open the doors by emailing everyone the link to the event. Attendees start to trickle in. All good so far.
100 live attendees arrive — The chat starts to get a little busy, people start queueing up their questions, and answering the polls. Awesome, everything is working.
500 attendees — It gets busier, lots of action on the page.
1000 attendees — Even busier, the chat messages are pouring in and servers are keeping up.
5000 attendees — Shit. Spoke to soon. Servers start crashing, I increase the number of server instances to 5 to handle the load.
10000 attendees — Servers still crashing, increase server instances to 27. Even worse, thousands of people chatting simultaneously is freezing up everyone’s browsers. Fuck.
8:45 am — The clock is ticking. The Hackhands team has poured in hundreds of hours of work to get the speakers, market the event and partner up with charities. We need to go live in 15 minutes. Everyone’s reputation is at stake and it’s my job to make sure the event goes smoothly.
How the hell did I end up here?

Let’s rewind

It’s the start of 2013 and I move to SF after a failed LA startup with nothing but a backpack and duffle bag. I team up with a friend, John Davison, to take a stab at building a business. We’re tired of consulting and our goal is simple, what can we build that people will pay for? With our ideas on the board, we rate each one based on some random variables we thought were important. We decide to build a tool to interact with a live physical audience. We call it “Crowdsound”.
So we build a prototype and start trying to get our first users. Months pass by and not much happened. John eventually leaves to work on projects that actually pay. Over the next several months I learn what true customer development means. I talk to conferences organizers, speakers, and meetups. The organizers are broke, the speakers have pre-written presentations, and audience members can’t do much.
Frustrated, I put the project on hold while I work out of Lake Tahoe on some projects with angel investor Paige Craig.
 
 
Along the way, I start noticing that people were combining a chat widget with their Google Hangout to allow viewers to interact. Here’s an example with Nathan Barry.
Hmmm… is it possible to combine what I’ve already built with Google Hangouts to turn it into an interactive live-streaming platform?
I don’t know, so I run a test. It turns out, you can but very few people had tried.
So that’s exactly what I do and things start to pick up. Months pass by as I reach out to some people like Sacha Greif to try it out. That’s when my friend Ed Roman got in touch.
“I want to pull off the largest virtual conference in history” — Ed
He tells me he wants to convene the leaders of the tech industry for a virtual conference online. The goal is ten thousand people from all over the world.
We didn’t know if it was possible.
I spend the next two months rebuilding every module, one-by-one, to catch every possible way the site could crash at scale. I set up a way to have multiple sessions so that viewers can easily navigate between the talks. Ed and the Hackhands team arrange speakers, sponsors, and PR. We even team up with a set of coding charities and allow attendees to either donate or tweet to attend.
We manage to get 36 word-class speakers, here’s just a few:
  • DHH — Invetors of Ruby on Rails
  • Jennifer Pahlka — Founder, Code for America
  • Tim O'Reilly — Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media
  • Hakon Wium Le — Inventor of CSS
  • Qi Lu—Vice President of Microsoft
Two weeks before the big event, we get Tom Chi (one of the creators of Google Glass) to do a large Crowdcast to push the platform. Unfortunately, only get 200 people signed up. Meanwhile, our “donate or tweet” strategy took off and we had more than ten thousand people already registered (thanks Damian Madray for the idea).
Yes, the largest virtual conference in history was run from a San Francisco apartment.
It’s now the morning of December 1st, 2014. Me and two members of Ed’s team arrive at his home in San Francisco at 8am. It was the best place we could find for its quiet space and fast internet.
We send out the link to Crowdcast and people start pouring in… 15 minutes before we go LIVE everyone’s browsers freeze up from all interaction between ten thousand participants.
Well, now you know how I got here. The world is watching and the clock is ticking.
I notice that the browsers were crashing primarily because people were chatting too much. So, ten minutes before we go live, I make the executive decision to cut the chat off completely.
I get laser focused to do live code edits to the site, knowing that 10 thousand people’s browsers were most likely crashing too.
Five minutes before we go live I push my new code to the site and trigger a refresh on everyone’s browsers.
Ed restarts his broadcast to go live again and….. IT STARTS WORKING!!!
Phew.
That night I stay up till 5 am to scale the chat. After 2 hours of sleep its time for day 2. At 9 am, thousands start chatting again but this time the browser is buttery smooth. The solution worked!
By the end of day 4, we end up with over 30,000 attendees from 157 countries. We close the event by bringing up everyone who helped from Hackhands, Crowdcast, and the PR team. The gratitude of the attendees makes it all worth it.

The Aftermath

A week later, with $50 left in the bank, I’m sitting in the airport waiting to board a flight.
Ed and I are on the phone. He’s still in awe of the response to the Hacksummit. He wants to turn my solo-project into a company and steps up as my first investor.
A few weeks later I meet up with Paige in NY. He’s on board too. And a few more weeks later, I launch the company on stage at Jason Calacanis’s Launch Festival:
Crowdcast has come far from its humble beginnings. We’re actually a real team now and we’ve built an amazing video streaming experience that replaces Google Hangouts. There are many more stories to be told but we’ll save that for another time.
If you enjoyed this story please shoot me a tweet. If you are looking for a tool to hold online virtual conferences or webinars checkout Crowdcast.
Till next time.