Molood Ceccarelli of Remote Forever: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event
Taking advantage of the power of technology — In most in-person events, the audience is encouraged to post their learnings, takeaways and memorable moments on social media using a hashtag. Nothing stops us from continuing to do this in a virtual event. Not only would the audience find a sense of camaraderie through the connections made on social media, but it can also create free PR for the event.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Molood Ceccarelli.
Molood Ceccarelli is a remote work strategist and agile coach. She helps entrepreneurs and business leaders to transform their operations and development processes to become agile and scalable while empowering remote leaders and teams to work in people-centric workplaces.
Her work has been published in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc.com as well as Scrum Alliance and Shiftup. She is often referred to as the queen of remote work. She is the CEO and founder of Remote Forever and the founder of the famous online conference Remote Forever Summit that has since 2017 attracted over 10k attendees from around the world every year to learn how to work remotely while maintaining business agility.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Iran in a liberal family who always supported my advancement in life. At the age of 10, I took a national test which was aimed at identifying the top 2% highest IQ students in the country. I was selected. As a result, I got to study at the most prestigious school in the country, where the education was focused on mathematics and science and very little attention was given to social skills. That’s where I learned the importance of trying new things, failing and learning by doing. In school, I often led groups of students in organizing trips, seminars and conferences. Even though on the education front everything was fantastic, my life at home was very turbulent. There were times during my childhood when one or both of my parents were absent for several months at a time. I was lucky enough that in the culture I grew up in, grandparents and family were always there to take my siblings and I in. But emotionally, I felt that I had to step up and take responsibility for the well-being of my younger siblings. I also put on a brave face and never allowed anyone in school to know about my life at home for the fear that social services might separate my siblings from me. In retrospect, this probably would not have happened. But at a young age, I was often afraid. This fear however gave me the fuel and determination to do well in school, so that no teacher would ever have to call my parents.
Coming from a family where both my parents were small business owners who often struggled to make ends meet, gave me an entrepreneurial mind from a young age. This started as early as primary school, where I started to sell highlighters in class which later developed to tutoring my siblings, cousins and the children of the neighborhood on various subjects such as physics, mathematics, software programming, English, etc. I always found a way to make a little extra cash. I loved learning and teaching others so much that I sometimes tutored students a few years older than me by reading their course books and then teaching the subjects to them. I was selling private online courses before there was even an entire industry for it.
At the age of 21, exactly 5 days after I handed in my bachelor’s thesis, I was on a plane to immigrate to Sweden alone without knowing anyone or speaking the country’s language. I studied, worked and before I knew it I was voted president of my school’s International Reception Committee where I further developed my leadership skills and got to work with international students from all around the world. After my student years, I worked as an employee for a few years until I finally got my citizenship. Only a month after I got that citizenship letter, I quit my high paying job and started my own company Remote Forever which became the first and by far largest provider of remote work consulting services and education on remote leadership and distributed business operations with a focus on agile ways of working since 2017.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
During my time at high school, (with the top 2% IQ students), I had a lot of friends. I even had friends online who I regularly spoke to. But when I entered university at the age of 17, I found myself incapable of connecting to people who had not attended that particular science-and-logic-oriented education. People seemed to connect very differently in a way that I was completely new to.
For the first two years of university, I failed to make any lasting friendships. None of my old methods that worked perfectly for me in high school, seemed to work in the new environment. For the first time in my life, I realized there is more to human connection than the rational exchange of knowledge and intellect. This meant that during the first two years of my college studies, I became fascinated with understanding how human emotion works and the role it plays in creating groups, businesses and societies. Even though I was studying IT, I took several courses in organizational behavior, management and leadership. This interest followed me to Sweden after I immigrated and well into my career later on.
I started out in Sweden as a software developer, but my interest in people quickly led me in a different direction, to take on a leadership role. This new direction introduced me to a whole new world of organizational change management called agile coaching. I invested many hours and money in learning everything I could about this new world and I did so whilst working in various organizations. This allowed me to apply my learnings into practice. As I mentioned earlier, I have been wired since a child to learn by doing and what better way to learn how to create agile organizations by working in many different ones in various industries? I have worked in industries such as telecom, fashion, health care, gaming, insurance, banking, blockchain, AI, you name it.
In 2016, I noticed a contradiction in the field I was working in; every leader in the community of agile coaches in the world and every piece of literature on agile promoted collocation. Even the agile manifesto promoted face-to-face conversations. And there I was having lived my entire life communicating, collaborating and co-creating amazing products, services and events with people located all around the world. I had never been part of a fully collocated team and yet I had successfully helped multiple organizations transform their business processes to agile ways of working.
That is when I got the idea of putting together the first online conference of the agile world Remote Forever Summit.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started my company, I hired an attorney to help me with all the legal aspects of registering a business.
Once, quite late at night I accidentally sent the negotiation arguments and legal questions meant for my attorney to the person I was supposed to negotiate the contract with, the first name of my attorney was the same as the name of the representative of the client. I got a response to my email that read “I’m the other one. Oops!”.
We all had a laugh about it and everything went smoothly with the contract and the work. But this mistake made it so that I always double checked and triple-checked the email address and names of people I’m communicating with and I never send emails outside of work hours.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Absolutely. There are two books that made a big impact on me. 1- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and The E-Myth Revisited: Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do by Michael E. Gerber.
The first one was sent to me anonymously by a mystery man who is now my husband. I constantly told myself “what if I don’t make it as an entrepreneur”, “what if I don’t make enough money and my visa is not renewed”, “what if I have to leave this country”, etc. Anyone who is a first-generation immigrant understands this fear even when one is residing in a country completely legally and paying taxes. All these excuses were keeping me inside my comfort zone. I did not dare to leave the safety of having a monthly paycheck or being with the man that I was in love with. This book made such a profound impact on me that I finally admitted that I loved that man and moved in with him. And the day I got my citizenship, I gave notice and resigned from my job. This book helped me take a leap of faith to become an entrepreneur in my new country.
The second book was one that I accidentally picked from the bookshelf in our apartment. I have read it multiple times and have gifted it to several people too. The story of a person who is an expert at her craft and yet feels exhausted about running a business around her passion hit home for me. Because for two years, I was the only person in my company and I did not quite understand why I was losing interest in a business I had poured my heart and soul into. I was making money but the spark of passion with which I started the business was slowly fading. This book helped me clearly understand the different roles an entrepreneur has to play. I was so consumed by being a technician (creator of the craft), and a manager (organizer of the work) that I had lost sight of being the entrepreneur (the visionary). This book alone helped me take the next step in hiring my first employee and to step into my role as a CEO.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
”You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
As you know by now, I come from a unique but relatable background. Anyone in my circumstances could blame their parents, their country, their circumstances and bring a hundred different excuses for why they cannot do something they truly want. I however believe in living a life of no regrets.
I don’t look for whom to blame or what circumstance to use to justify the situation I am in. More importantly, I don’t judge myself for the gap between what I want and what I have. Instead, I define my vision, I set a goal and I get moving towards that goal.
Let me give you an example: When I was planting the seeds of my business whilst having a 9–5 job, I noticed that I was too tired to work on my business. So, I started waking up at 4:30 am every day so I could have a half day to spend on my business before my day job. Instead of bringing excuses for why I couldn’t, I found a way to make it possible.
I could spend my days regretting what I have lost or felt sorry about what I don’t have. I could spend my time wishing that I was born in a different country or family or that I had invested in bitcoin years ago when it was cheap, but instead of looking back, I build the future through the actions I take in the present.
What you do is what becomes your life.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
My love of events and bringing people together sparked as a student, as the president of my school’s International Reception Committee, where I had a team of 11 volunteer students. My team and I worked all year round sometimes together and sometimes remotely to create two full months of daily events, seminars, parties, trips, etc., for around 1200 new international students. I particularly enjoyed the aspect of bringing people together from around the world, from different backgrounds and cultures to share a common interest.
This line of thinking led me to think about the limitations face to face events has, only bringing together a privileged and small group of people with the same niche of ideas, who can travel and take time off work. The power of the virtual world could bring together so many people with the same ideas into one event, where everyone can share their opinions with their own individual experiences, there is so much we can all learn from people, from all across the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
As I previously said, I put together the first online conference of the agile world Remote Forever Summit. In its first year, my summit attracted over 2700 attendees in 2017 and has gone to attract over 10k people every year since. Despite the skepticism of the majority of the agile community, my online summit showed all these amazing people that it is indeed possible to truly connect to others online. Through my own experiences and learnings and that of the experts I invited as speakers, I helped this community not only to dare to address the big elephant in the room i.e. collocation being a prerequisite for business agility but also created a movement to embrace remote working in the industry.
Creating such a large event with so many people is not always easy and has come with its own challenges. You always have to expect the worst to happen and have a plan in place to make sure they don’t happen. But one year the worst did happen and I had to think and act fast so that no one noticed. During the Remote Forever Summit in 2017, I was preparing to start a live session when I saw customer support messages about the website being down and my CTO informed me that the reason was the data center in France where my summit website was hosted had lost power. While he was working on launching the backup hosted on a different data center in Australia, in a rather unlikely coincidence, my whole neighborhood lost electricity. It was suddenly impossible to even make a phone call let alone connect to the internet. I had about 20 minutes until the live session and no way to contact anyone in my team. I felt completely helpless for a few seconds but then my inner warrior took over. I picked up my laptop and ran out.
Stockholm, the city I lived in consists of 14 islands and I live close to the border of one. I saw that the lights were on in the neighboring island so I started crossing the bridge in pursuit of the nearest café that would have wifi. I remember the extreme joy I felt when my phone connected, I immediately placed a call to a team member in Germany and asked her to coordinate with the team until I found connectivity.
When I sat down at a table in the first café I found, my team had successfully attended to all the customer support requests, the next speaker was informed and ready and within a few minutes, the website was up and running again. Everything was back to normal. All of these events took place within about 10–15 minutes.
Thanks to the fantastic teamwork, the culture of self-organizing in my team, the thoughtfulness of my CTO in having backups on different continents, and the clear processes we had in place, most of our attendees were not affected at all. What they experienced in this rather stressful incident was a short period of the website being down while they could still engage and communicate in our online community.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I recently attended Tony Robbins’s New World New You challenge which was a 5-day virtual live event that I thought was really impressive. What impressed me the most about Tony’s event was the attention to detail that was put in. This resulted in high participation from the audience in the virtual space. Tony and his team made sure that there was music and bodily movement every 15–20 minutes. The team had also agreed with the attendees to have them be on camera which further increased the engagement of those who were watching the live stream of the event only and were not on the interactive platform. Anyone who is looking for creating high energy live virtual events, should plan to include energizing activities such as music, dance, or an educational session on mobility. And more importantly, keep them short. No one wants to sit in front of a computer for longer than 30–45 minutes at a time.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- The most common mistake that I’ve seen is using unprofessional equipment by the host, especially bad lighting and audio. There are a lot of affordable ring lights and microphones that one can purchase to avoid this mistake.
- Attention to the environment and background is very important. Choose simple and non-distracting backgrounds and try to avoid fake backgrounds if you are a host or a speaker at a live virtual event. Having a white wall behind you is better than having a fake beach. This goes a long way in adding authenticity and humanity to virtual events.
- Attend a course in virtual moderation or online facilitation to learn how to engage your audience on camera, on audio only and in writing. Each of these mediums requires a unique set of skills that one can learn whether by attending my courses or by observing how professionals do it.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Since I hosted my first Remote Forever Summit several years before virtual conferences became popular, I hired a team who created a custom-made platform for me. But 2020 brought a lot of innovative all-inclusive solutions to the market. In 2020, I spoke about remote work, remote leadership and online business operations at over 50 virtual conferences. I have therefore experienced a number of platforms from a speaker’s perspective. I’ve also experienced a few from a participant’s perspective. But since I have never used one as an event organizer, I cannot recommend one that is particularly better than others.
Every audience is different and has its unique needs. If your event is less than 1000 attendees, using a Zoom meeting offers a lot of great options for engaging and energizing your audience. But if your audience is larger, do some research and choose a platform that suits your audience best.
One aspect that most event organizers forget is community building on social media. In 2020, I hired a social media expert Blair Kaplan who went to become a dear friend. She helped me realize the importance of engaging with an event’s audience on social media before, during and after the event.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
One thing that I can highly recommend event organizers to remember is the importance of servers if the event is large. Most platforms host your content on one server in one country. For an event the size of my Remote Forever Summit that attracts about 10k people, we make sure that our content is hosted on servers in three different continents for two reasons: 1- provide short latency. 2- offer backup in case one option fails.
One of the event platforms that I have tested for the networking aspect of my event is Remo. Over the years, Remo has improved a lot. Although it still has a few issues here and there, it is a visually attractive tool for smaller events of less than 50 attendees.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Design an experience — People go to virtual events for the content, they stay for the experience. Details matter more than you can imagine. Designing an experience in a virtual event is just as important as in an in-person one. From the concierge down to the finger food and coffee cups make an impression and form the experience of the audience in an in-person event. In virtual events, the experience starts with the first announcement and continues to the website, registration process, email sequence, reception during the event, clarity of communication, ease of use of the platform, customer service, etc. If you do not have a designer on your team to help you design this experience, consider hiring one. I hired a storytelling coach in 2020 who worked with the speakers of my Remote Forever Summit and helped them develop their talks in the form of stories that were engaging, authentic and sparked conversations.
- Community — Most in-person events have a certain electric energy because of the connections that are built between people as they experience the event. If your goal is to create a virtual event just to have speakers talk about their expert subjects, you can easily lose the attention of your audience. Hire online community managers or professional online facilitators (my company educates professional online facilitators every year) to keep your audience engaged in a community that is text based. In addition to that, make sure you provide the opportunity for your audience to connect with each other and network using voice and/or video. In Remote Forever Summit 2020, every day after all the talks, we hosted an online facilitated session (called an open space) where the attendees suggested discussion topics inspired by the talks of the day and discussed them in virtual breakout rooms. We also have a text-based community that stays alive all year round. This provides an additional sense of connectedness to attendees and speakers. If you want to take it a step further, make sure your networking opportunities are inclusive of disabilities and preferences. Provide audio, visual, and text options for people to connect.
- Space in the schedule — Do not schedule your event’s sessions directly after each other. One of the most complimented aspects of Remote Forever Summit 2020 was the fact that we kept all sessions up to 30 minutes and had scheduled at least a 30 minutes break in between every two sessions. As opposed to in-person events for which people take days off from their day jobs, people usually attend virtual events while also attending to their daily work activities. It is therefore important to create your event schedule by considering this reality. Offering long breaks in between sessions offers enough time for people to catch up with work and be fully present in the sessions of the virtual conference.
- Inclusion — When we talk about inclusion, people often think about diversity of skin color and sexual orientation. But inclusion is so much more than that. People learn and communicate using different methods. Many people also have disabilities. Most speakers in virtual events deliver their talks in a webinar format with 30+ PowerPoint or keynote slides most of which are not tested for color-blindness. Many events do not offer closed captions (subtitles) on their videos to make them accessible for people with hearing impairments. Attention to detail when it comes to inclusiveness can take a virtual event to the next level.
- Taking advantage of the power of technology — In most in-person events, the audience is encouraged to post their learnings, takeaways and memorable moments on social media using a hashtag. Nothing stops us from continuing to do this in a virtual event. Not only would the audience find a sense of camaraderie through the connections made on social media, but it can also create free PR for the event. In addition to that, virtual events have the advantage of combining multiple means of communication all at once. To make sure the electric energy is always present, the moderators need to remind the audience to never stop commenting in the chat. As everyone is physically static while attending the virtual event, the flow of chat messages and emojis is the movement that can generate a lot of energy.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- Define your audience: Get super clear about who your ideal audience is before anything else.
- Choose a date for your event, pick a name and buy a domain name.
- Create a list of all the tasks that need to be done and schedule them in your calendar.
- When inviting speakers to your event, offer them more than the promise of exposure. Make it a win-win for them to speak at your event. You can for example promote their services to your audience.
- Hire a team early in the process to help you develop the event. Creating a virtual event requires a lot of work and cannot be done alone.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Remote working for every knowledge worker in the world. I believe the essence of remote work is freedom. And I think every human being whose job can be done from a mobile device, should have the ability to work from anywhere they are most productive and not spend so many hours of their life in commute. I created a movement called Remote Forever to inspire and empower every entrepreneur to learn how to motivate their employees remotely, how to set up their processes and business operations so that their business is not dependent on meetings and/or physical offices.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would very much like to have breakfast with Seth Godin. I’ve read all his books, have spent hours listening to his interviews and I read all his newsletters. I have a special admiration for Seth’s articulation and ability to put complicated topics into simple humorous words. A private breakfast would offer a wonderful opportunity to connect with the man who has shaped a big part of my entrepreneurial mindset. Besides, I believe Seth might enjoy hearing my ideas about the future of leadership with the rise of digitalization.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.