In early February, ON24 (NYSE:ONTF) pulled off its IPO and the stock price jumped by 42%. The company raised about $ 428 million in the offering.
ON24 operates a platform for webcasting and virtual events. And yes, the growth has been accelerating because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first nine months of 2020, revenues shot up by 59% to $ 103.7 million. There was even a profit of $ 11 million.
Keep in mind that the company was actually founded in the heyday of the dot-com boom, back in 1998. Since then, it has raised $ 72 million, which is fairly modest for a tech operator. The last round came in 2016 when ON24 raised $ 25 million from Goldman Sachs, Rho Ventures and U.S. Venture Partners.
So how did the company build its platform? What are some of the lessons along the way?
Well, I had a chance to interview the founder and CEO of ON24, Sharat Sharan. Here’s what he had to say:
Tom Taulli: Tell me the backstory on founding ON24. What was the inspiration and vision?
Sharat Sharan: Audience engagement and creating compelling digital experiences has been core to our vision since I founded ON24 more than 20 years ago. It was the early days of the internet in 1998, but it was clear that digital was going to completely transform how businesses reach customers and engage their audiences.
That was the inspiration for ON24. Interactive, live, and always-on multimedia digital experiences were new ideas back then. The ability to scale audience engagement and reach thousands of customers at the same time had tremendous potential. This was the power of digital and why we focused on helping companies deliver digital experiences to their customers.
So, our origin story started with the foundational idea that every business could one day use digital channels to engage their customers directly. I remember feeling that we were onto something because no one was really doing it.
Fast forward to today and the market has finally come to us. Digital transformation across every industry has been years in the making. And it only accelerated during the pandemic. Last year, we saw ten years of digital transformation in ten months.
Now digital-first and remote everything is here to stay.
Taulli: What were the major transitions for the company? How did you navigate them and what were some lessons learned along the way?
Sharan: The biggest lesson learned over the past 20 years has been that agility is key. The reality is that most startups fail. Markets change and different opportunities emerge. So, where you start isn’t always where you end up. In the early days of any company, you’re just trying to stay in business. How you navigate and deal with change early can be a predictor of future success.
For us, we started as a digital broadcast company and financial news network in the late 90’s. ON24 was one of the first digital media companies. We saw very early the power of using digital to engage audiences. This type of scale wasn’t possible before. In those days, companies used traditional media to reach their buyers. But digital gave businesses a way to connect with customers directly.
So, when the dotcom bust happened, we made our first pivot and went all-in on webinars. There was huge potential around video and live events back then. We’ve certainly come full circle on that, with video applications and online meetings emerging as clear winners during the pandemic.
But video is only the tip of the spear. We realized that nearly 10 years ago, which is why we made our next pivot as a company to focus on building a Digital Experience Platform. First-person data and insights are key to customer engagement. We created a platform that is delivering a full suite of compelling digital experiences–from webinars to virtual conferences to curated content hubs–that drive engagement and generate the data that powers personalization.
Taulli: How was the IPO process?
Sharan: Going public was an exciting time for everyone at the company. There’s obviously a lot of momentum around everything virtual and digital because of the pandemic. Our IPO in a lot of ways was a huge validation of the vision we had decades ago. So how fitting was it that our IPO was virtual.
Taulli: Talk about the future of ON24. How does AI factor in?
Sharan: ON24 is at the epicenter of two irreversible trends: the business world is going all-in on digital and more B2B buyers are doing their own research online. The era of digital engagement is just beginning. There’s no going back. The question is: Where do things go from here?
Covid-19 accelerated the need for online meetings, virtual events, and video as a primary way to connect with customers. But that’s only the start. Video is just the door opener. It’s the immersive, interactive experiences that video enables and, most importantly, the data these digital interactions create where the real opportunity lies. What’s really needed is a system of engagement. This is where ON24 is focused.
Our Digital Experience Platform delivers digital engagement experiences such as webinars, live virtual conferences, and multimedia content, as well as the rich data from those experiences to drive the next best action with customers.
Consider that the average ON24 experience lasts over 50 minutes, engages 200-plus attendees, and delivers more than 20 data points per attendee. The deeper the engagement, the better the data. And with improved data, companies can better personalize each individual experience.
This is where AI comes in. It’s key to creating this personalization and informing the next best experience. Audience engagement, including polls, surveys, and other engagement during an experience, is at the center of our AI engine.
This digital body language is what informs the intelligence. We’re able to capture all the unstructured data during an ON24 experience to understand behavioral signals. It’s all based on first-person data. Our AI engine then distills this into an individual’s interest to inform the next best action, which could be another digital engagement or piece of content.
This is the power of our platform. We are pushing the ability to go beyond what’s predictive to what is known about individual customers. It’s really human intelligence. This intelligence can then be integrated with marketing automation and CRM systems to help bridge marketing and sales engagement and better orchestrate digital experiences.
This is the future of ON24 and where we’re headed.
Tom (@ttaulli) is an advisor/board member to startups and the author of Artificial Intelligence Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction, The Robotic Process Automation Handbook: A Guide to Implementing RPA Systems and Implementing AI Systems: Transform Your Business in 6 Steps. He also has developed various online courses, such as for the COBOL and Python programming languages.