Gathering and celebrating have always been important at Blend. Our kickoffs over the years have functioned as an important moment in time to foster the connection that being present with one another can bring. In the spirit of inclusivity and bringing the whole company together, starting in 2019 we moved to a fully in-person event in San Francisco.
We flew employees in from across the company: our second hub in New York City, our Blend Insurance office in Southern California, and our remote team members from across the country. Over three days we covered the company and sales kickoff, booked over 40 reservations for employees to connect at dinner, recognized employees and celebrated the past year, and built excitement for the year to come.
And then the pandemic hit.
We knew we had to adapt to the needs of the moment and change to a virtual event. In response to this new way of engaging — in addition to huge growth at Blend, as we hired over 300 people in 2020 — we had some big questions to answer. Where do we begin? Will it be on Zoom? How many people can fit on Zoom? What will be covered? How do we keep everyone engaged? How do we make it fun?
With clear objectives and an extraordinary planning team, we set out to answer these questions.
The Blend approach to planning and executing a large-scale virtual event
Our primary objectives for the 2021 Kickoff were threefold:
- Focus intensely on our customers
- Re-invigorate and recommit to our vision and strategy
- Generate serious momentum — with a ton of excitement, energy, camaraderie, and unity
Kicking things off with collaboration
To start, my planning partner Amanda Delaney (who leads our employee experience efforts) and I pulled together a kickoff committee from different departments and started to brainstorm. It helped knowing we didn’t need to completely reinvent the wheel — not only were we able to keep many of the tried and true features of our in-person events intact, but we also were well-practiced at remote interconnectivity at that point. To gather inspiration and ideas, we researched, joined webinars, and read blog posts to see how other companies were doing their virtual kickoffs.
Balancing education and engagement with the agenda
First on our checklist was an agenda. Through a series of meetings, feedback, and back and forth, we finally landed on the perfect theme: Customers First. Our dedication to our customers is fundamental to how we operate — so much so that it’s the first of our Blend Way cornerstones. Using this as the starting foundation, we began to build out the rest of the agenda.
At this point, we were all too familiar with the realities of online meeting fatigue, so we made sure the event was spread out over five days, with a manageable two hours of content each day. Days one and five focused on the company at large, while days two through four were go-to-market team focused, honing in on our unique product strategies. All of Blendkind was invited to attend the entire event — a unique perk of hosting a virtual event.
Finding the right tech to foster connection
Our next goal was to find the perfect platform for our unique needs. We host our weekly All Hands using a traditional web calling provider, but we wanted this event to feel different — and special. After doing some research, we learned that the provider we typically use couldn’t support the interconnection and engagement we were looking for.
We leaned on Emily Davis and Liz Bravo from our Field Marketing team to help us evaluate a tool, since they were in the process of evaluating options for our annual summit, Forward. We found our match and decided to use Hopin.
Similar to many companies this past year, connecting in the virtual space has been top of mind. The element we liked most about Hopin is their “Connect” feature. Using this feature, individuals were able to click a button, randomly match with another employee, and chat for up to three minutes. With so many new faces joining this past year, finding space to meet and greet was really important, and we’re happy it was such a hit.
Building excitement with swag, speakers, and socializing
Finally, it was time to infuse the digital space of the kickoff with some of the energy and interactivity we typically achieve during in-person events.
Our Brand Design team blew us away (as always) with designs for our swag package. We sent everyone at the company a custom mailer with an event passport, stickers to mark which event you attended, and a bingo card to play throughout the week. At the end of the week, we hosted a raffle for those who attended every event, and prizes also went to bingo winners throughout the week.
To add some music therapy to the event experience, we were so excited to welcome DJ D Sharp, the DJ of the Golden State Warriors to days one and five of the kickoff. DJ D Sharp rocked our virtual office and “can we start every day with a DJ?” was asked by many, myself included.
A company kickoff built around the Customer First theme wouldn’t be complete without the voice of an actual customer. We had the great privilege of welcoming the Chief CX Officer from one of our fantastic customers, who joined Head of Blend Nima Ghamsari for an engaging conversation about the future of customer-obsessed financial services.
For something a little different, we also welcomed Annie Duke, a renowned thinker on the science behind decision-making, as our keynote speaker. This was a nice throwback to Nima’s former online poker days and offered a special treat to all of our employees.
And to kick things off with the energy we needed for such a marathon event, we brought in Prince Brathwaite from Trooper Fitness. He offered Blendkind a bootcamp style workout that got everyone’s blood pumping.
What we learned from our virtual kickoff
Our virtual kickoff for over 600 employees was a huge success. We did many things well, but there are of course some things we would do differently for 2022. Here are some tips and tricks that you can implement if your team is moving toward a remote-first future:
Be clear about attendance expectations
We never said attendance was mandatory, which ended up negatively impacting our attendance goals. It’s really easy to assume everyone will show up in person, but we learned it’s different in the virtual space.
Move from "planning committee" to "steering groups"
Huge committees sound like a good idea — what better way to collect all of the great ideas out there? But we relied on several smaller steering groups, each focused on specific portions of the event. This allowed us to concentrate committee members’ specializations on the most relevant areas.
Don’t make assumptions about your budget
We (incorrectly) thought a virtual event would be much less expensive than our in-person events were historically. Do your research early and make sure to account for digital costs you typically don’t need to account for.
Virtual practice makes perfect
We learned that virtual dress rehearsals are just as important, if not more, as in-person events.
Hire production experts to help with logistics
Similar to how wedding coordinators are there to make your event as seamless as possible, production contractors can help make your life much easier. We used Pixl Production, and they were amazing.
Get a DJ
You won’t regret it.
Final takeaways from our virtual company kickoff
We set out to focus on our customers, generate serious momentum and excitement, and recommit to our vision and strategy. We did just that — and had a ton of fun while doing it. As more and more companies evaluate the future of work, it’s becoming clear that remote is definitely here to stay. If your company is looking to offer a fantastic virtual kickoff experience, we hope that our lessons pave a smoother path for you. We learned so much, and we can’t wait to plan an extraordinary 2022 event.