The future of working, learning and meeting is already here.
Virbela brings people together to work, learn, meet, and train in an immersive virtual world – from anywhere. Co-founder and UC San Diego alumnus Erik Hill shares his entrepreneurial journey building Virbela's virtual world platform.
What has been your experience with UC San Diego and its diverse entrepreneurial culture?
I came to UC San Diego as an undergrad in 2000, majoring in Mathematics-Computer Science in the Mathematics department with a Management Science minor. I received a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from UC San Diego in 2007, then worked as a graduate student researcher throughout grad school. I then became a staff researcher continuing the work we were doing in the Experimental Game Lab, now the Power of NeuroGaming (PoNG) Center.
When the initial grant came to UC San Diego for Virbela our team had offices at the Rady School of Management and made connections with faculty there which helped guide us in serving the MBA community with our initial offering as well as guidance for the company that spun out of the university in the beginning of 2015.
We found a new home at the Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space, which kept us in close contact with UC San Diego faculty and a network of innovative startup companies. It also allowed us to tap into the talent of the UC San Diego student body by offering on campus internships.
What excites you about your work?
Business and in-person experiences are brought to life in Virbela through immersive 3D spaces that are deeply social and collaborative, enabling remote teams to be more connected and productive. The human psychology around these worlds is very interesting.
People become passionate about how they represent themselves in the world, social cues and norms start to kick in around the appropriate places for your avatar to be and your distance from and behavior around other avatars. This sense of presence and agency our users have in our worlds is a great differentiator in the marketplace of remote work solutions.
In the era of Covid and social distancing, it has been especially satisfying to provide a platform for virtual social gatherings that can be done safely and shows off the advantages of virtual meeting spaces. We have just scratched the surface of what can be done. I look forward to improving the tools to facilitate effective meetings, support more activity based learning, using more data as a feedback loop to improve the user experience, etc.
Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?
When we were bootstrapping in the early days, time was our most precious resource and we had to provide the most value to our customers with the limited number of collective hours we had. We had to do constant cost benefit analysis when deciding what to put our limited resources towards to make the product as valuable to end users as possible.
When you just have a few people you each wear many hats. In those early days I had a few roles: software architect, front end engineer, back end engineer, web developer, mobile engineer, system administrator, database administrator, tech support, customer success, qa engineer, devops engineer, release engineer, product manager. My days would cycle between many areas based on the greatest need. It has been fantastic to see these roles turn into many jobs filled by the talented people I work with now.
How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?
Innovation in technology in the 21st Century needs to be nimble. Create and iterate! We started our product with a focus on business education, but the immersive 3D spaces we were creating appealed to a broader audience who saw the social and collaborative value in our environments. We shifted our focus, iterated, and enabled eXp Realty (now our sister company - Virbela was acquired by eXp World Holdings in 2018) to become one of the largest and most successful remote-first companies in the world utilizing our platform.
What role have mentors played in your success/journey?
Sheldon Brown, former Director at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination is a brilliant guy and thought leader in the founding of Virbela, our current VP of Product Design and Innovation. He gave me my first hands on experience in software which was an invaluable experience in conjunction with classes at UC San Diego.
Under Sheldon’s direction at the Experimental Game Lab, we were able to create engaging 3D virtual experiences with limited resources that were exhibited around the world. These small team projects laid the foundation of success with a bootstrapping small team in the startup world.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?
Bootstrapping. When we spun out of UC San Diego in 2015, we had limited funds. Connections that my co-founder Alex Howland had made led to some lifelines of cash in the early days. I was able to split time at UC San Diego and Virbela to keep a steady income.
We were working hard, long nights and weekends and I’d like to say we had some secret to success, but there was definitely an element of luck with Glenn Sanford, founder of eXp Realty, when he came to us as he was shopping for virtual world vendors in 2016. Once the partnership was made, we fueled each other’s growth.
What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?
You need the right partners with complementary skill sets that you get along well with. For us, we weren’t in it for the money. We had shared passion for what we were doing, it was fulfilling and we were having fun. We were driven to make Virbela successful, but if it had failed I would have still looked back at the venture fondly. We created something special together, learned a ton from the experience and each other, and made a positive impact on the lives of our users.