Events technology company Delegate's co-founders, Melissa Lou (CEO) and Jacqueline Ye (CSO), relate how their quick pivot at the start of the pandemic helped the company survive the past year, and how seeking improvement and cultivating a growth mindset is helping them sustain the business moving forward.
What first sparked the idea for Delegate back in 2015 and how was business before the pandemic?
Lou: We started Delegate in 2015 as we saw a gap in the market for a self-serve event planning platform. My co-founder Jacqueline and I were both planning events for work and saw the opportunity to solve this pain point. We were also conscious that we wanted to be a tech-first company with our vision being to build tech products to serve the events industry.
Our core business Delegate is an online marketplace that connects anyone planning an event to a network of over 4,000 event vendors. We also launched a backend client management tool called Delegate PRO, targeted at event businesses to manage their sales leads, communications and engagement with end-users. Those two business lines existed pre-pandemic years and were focused exclusively on offline, physical events.
In 2019, we closed the year on a record high and had expansion plans to bring our marketplace and Delegate PRO to Indonesia. A majority of our users ( approximately 60 per cent) pre-pandemic came from the corporate space – we had a lot of users who planned their internal meetings and smaller-scale events on Delegate; the events that they didn’t have the budget to hire a PEO for. We spent the years from 2015 building up our community of users and vendors but alas, 2020 hit and we found ourselves having to start from scratch again.
How did you change your business to survive the pandemic?
Ye: In early 2020, we started receiving cancellations and postponement of events from our corporate clients. In turn, these same clients were also looking to us to help convert their physical events into digital ones. Even as early as March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, they were already looking at tools that could bring about more engagement and interactivity beyond the usual video and meeting tools around.
As a company centred around events and technology, we’ve been driven to innovate to cater to the demand for virtual and increasingly, hybrid events. With this in mind, we launched Delegate PLAY in September 2020, a 3D immersive virtual conference platform to host virtual events.
We have also made a concerted effort to shift our marketplace focus to weddings. Throughout the pandemic, we saw that users were still using us to plan their upcoming nuptials. This also led to the birth of the Delegate Virtual Wedding Festival, Singapore’s largest wedding expo that’s hosted on our own Delegate PLAY platform.
How useful is PLAY for corporate events planners?
Ye: Think of Delegate PLAY as a virtual convention centre that corporate event planners are able to hire for their exhibitions, tradeshows and conferences. It comes complete with a virtual lobby entrance, exhibition halls, exhibitor booths and an information desk. The platform’s exhibition halls allow the set up of customisable virtual exhibitor booths, with live presentations and real-time networking opportunities with attendees.
We also try our best to offer the best-in-class in virtual event experiences by offering attendees multiple touchpoints to interact with such as live chat, virtual meeting rooms, one-to-one attendee networking, parallel stages to view content and much more. It is also 100 per cent mobile-responsive, with a robust suite of branding and sponsorship opportunities.
What’s next after PLAY?
Ye: The appetite we see among our corporate clients is a desire for physical events to return but they are also cautious to do too much, too fast. Having been locked up for almost two years now has meant that a lot of event organisers and attendees are keen to return to networking and engaging with others at in-person events.
For the near term, it seems that our clients are still keen on virtual and hybrid event formats for their larger-scale conferences and events. The features that we have lined up in our product pipeline for Delegate PLAY are catered to the requirements of the event organiser to transition to hybrid formats, where they’re able to offer attendees a unified event experience.
We also have plans to expand the Delegate PLAY brand through the regionalisation of our Virtual Wedding Festival brand. Before the end of 2020, we will bring the show to Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
As an SME yourself, how badly impacted do you observe other SME event companies to be at the moment?
Lou: We’re deeply saddened by the number of event companies we’ve seen shuttered among our vendor community in the last year. However, we are also really impressed by the number of creative business pivots we’ve witnessed.
So many SME event business owners we know, ourselves included, have had to make some of the most difficult business decisions in the name of survivability in the last year. And we are proud to be in an industry that’s proven to be so resilient with lots of businesses now upskilling to improve themselves and exploring digital tools and channels as a means to gain more business and to stay relevant.
Do you see enough support both at the private and government levels?
Lou: There’s so much private funding in the events sector globally and we’ve seen companies raising millions of dollars based on sky-high valuations which are truly unprecedented. I don’t think there’s been a more attractive and also, more challenging time to be in the events industry as there is so much more interest and competition in our space now.
In terms of private funding, there’s a lot of interest in this space but investors are pickier with the companies they choose to invest in. They are looking at companies with proven track records, traction and product-market-fit with a clear route to profitability.
On the government front, we both feel incredibly lucky to be based in Singapore as we’ve had a lot of support as a Singapore-owned SME so we’ve been able to enjoy the support of job support schemes, rental rebates etc. We also know of the amazing opportunities that grant such as the Special Situation Fund for Startups which incentivises private sector institutions to co-invest in startups along with EDBI (a Singapore-based global investor) and Seeds Capital of Enterprise Singapore.
What advice would you give young female entrepreneurs, especially those hoping to foray into events technology?
Ye: I think the best advice we could give is to just start. If you find yourself interested in this space, it’s actually a really exciting time to be in events tech as there’s been such a seismic shift in how events are being planned, delivered and experienced. If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that events are here to stay and that they will happen. The future of events is looking hybrid and we’re excited to see what new products will be launched in the years to come.