Innovation & Impact: An Interview with Virbela Co-Founder and President Alex Howland

ORIGIN STORY

In our effort to continue profiling cutting-edge leaders, Comparably spoke to Alex Howland, President and Co-Founder of Virbela – a company that builds deeply social, collaborative, immersive 3D spaces for remote work, learning, and events – about his background, how the company came about, and his vision for its future.

“Once we started using virtual worlds, we realized people are comfortable showing up as themselves. My co-founders and I worked together to create a virtual space that allows people the benefit of being located anywhere in the world and still have the same kind of social connections and emotional cues that you get from being on a physical campus or in a traditional office,” said Howland.

While pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, Howland carried out research on the impact of simulated training environments on individuals, compared to equivalent real-life scenarios. Alex’s pioneering work found that virtual training had an almost identical psychological effect on attendees as you’d expect after a real-life, in-person session. 

During this doctoral research, Howland and his co-founders discovered the key to high-performing remote teams: social and emotional connection. Their findings fueled a hunger to go further, starting work on an immersive, virtual world platform that focused on education and team development. This innovative approach to connecting dispersed colleagues and students caught the eye of a business enterprise body, who promptly awarded Alex a $50,000 grant to start what is today, Virbela.

“During our research of virtual assessment centers, we observed participants’ behaviors as they pertained to leadership, business acumen, and emotional intelligence,” he says. “After seeing how the participants interacted with one another, we began to realize virtual worlds could provide the same presence and emotional connection of being together in person.” 

EARLY TEAM BUILDING

Founded by a diverse team of organizational psychologists, artists, and engineers, Virbela was designed to recreate a sense of presence and community for remote workers and learners. 

“One of our early customers was The Honor Foundation, an organization that helps Navy Seals and special operators transition from military to civilian careers. Being involved with organizations like The Honor Foundation that were deeply aligned with our mission helped motivate the team in what we were creating.”

When sister company eXp Realty moved their entire office to one of Virbela’s virtual environments in the cloud, Howland says it reflected a facet of the original vision for the company, where virtual spaces might replace full corporate headquarters for some organizations.

“eXp Realty uses eXp World, their virtual campus powered by Virbela, as their corporate headquarters, doing everything from hosting C-Suite and board meetings to recruiting agents and training events,” he says. “It’s been very encouraging to watch them grow from 1000 agents to almost 70,000 agents since adopting Virbela’s technology, and shoot up the NASDAQ list to become a multi-billion-dollar company.”

DEVELOPMENTAL CHANGES FOR EMPLOYEES AND LEADERS SINCE COVID

Howland understands that CEOs facing the “new normal” are concerned about maintaining culture with employees spreading out into a potentially infinite diaspora – at least physically – of remote working environments. 

“We know that’s been a concern, and it’s something that we’ve been working to recreate in our virtual spaces. We find that virtual worlds can bring people together and foster a sense of shared space where they can continue to build relationships.” 

The pandemic sent profound shockwaves through the events industry, and Howland says providing alternative virtual environments for those events is another major priority for Virbela. Howland is especially proud of the work Virbela did with Blavity, a company that runs the AfroTech conference with reps from most of the Fortune 500 companies in attendance. 

“Brands like Google, Salesforce, and Pinterest were all virtual exhibitors at Blavity’s 2021 Afrotech conference. People could wander around and have real interactions. We got a lot of feedback saying, ‘Hey, you really empowered a group with a voice that isn’t usually heard.’”

“COVID accelerated our business, and we added over 300 new customers, including big names like PwC, who actually does its own recruiting events in the environment, as well as MIT, the NBA, and World Bank. So we’re starting to see a lot of bigger names recognize the value of virtual world tech and say, ‘We get it, we need this.’”

RAPID GROWTH IN REMOTE AND INTO THE NEW NORMAL

Virbela grew from around 20 employees to over 150 in just a year. As a remote company that deals in virtual space, this growth is exciting for Howland in multiple ways.

“Every week we do a full team stand up, and it started around a virtual boardroom table that could support about 20 people. Then, when we grew to 40, with just a click of a  button, we could rearrange the furniture to accommodate 40, and then 80,” Howland says. “After 100, we said, ‘I think we need to move to a different virtual room.’ Which, we did. There was no looking for new leases, no need to find new office space. It was there and available, which was quite helpful as we grew.”

Being able to recruit from anywhere broadened Virbela’s candidate pool. Howland says the company has had some success in hiring talent from the video game industry who felt a desire to work on something fresh and innovative. 

“I think we tried to distribute decision making in leadership, which is a helpful approach when you’re growing so quickly, because there’s no time to micromanage. So people tend to gravitate to that and take on new roles, including taking a helpful role in recruiting their networks despite it not being in their job description, which has been helpful.”

Howland says the company wants people who are hungry for innovation and impact. He wants people who are comfortable with change, as there are a lot of new ideas and updates that are in the works that need to be iterated quickly. He adds that there’s a ton of opportunity to grow into almost any kind of leadership role. 

“We think about people’s individual differences and how they can show up as leaders in a way that makes sense for them and taps into their intrinsic motivations. That keeps them excited to come to work and excited to see what we can do as an organization,” he says.

“I think people are seeing that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real and that we need to get more creative. I’m excited that people can really take a step back now and think holistically about the future and the implications of being fully remote or hybrid on their organizational culture,” Howland says. “I think we’ll continue to see lots of experimentation on our platform. We have a lot of different industries utilizing Virbela virtual world technology, including everything from church groups and nonprofits to support groups and tech companies, all offering feedback for product improvements and informing best practices within the platform that we will continue to be able to build upon. We are excited for what’s to come.”