Forget Meta’s sleek virtual reality. Maybe the Metaverse is fun, friendly, 8-bit – and already there

Welcome to Gather Town, the $700 million low-res online universe that’s spreading like wildfire across Silicon Valley, college campuses and, soon, a workplace near you.

OWhen Phillip Wang presented Gather, his six-month-old startup, to VCs in late 2020, he invited them to the rooftop above his office. The space is a great place to discuss a deal, illuminated by the green neon lights of a sprawling city framed by pink and orange-hued clouds. Even better, he could brag to potential investors about the prize. For a company the size of Gather—25 employees at the time—it only cost $175 a month to rent the entire building. This is because the desktop is virtual, existing entirely inside the application created by the company. These days, with new coronavirus variants delaying the return of many employees to physical spaces, 100,000 people make their daily commute by logging into the Gather website. Over 15 million people have used it at least once, many for virtual conferences but also for birthdays, rock concerts and weddings.

“A lot of people think the metaverse is science fiction, like it’s five to seven years from now,” says Wang, whose words run wild at triple speed. “They imagine these dystopian worlds owned by big tech companies.”

“In terms of building the team and building the culture, they did in six months what we did in five years.”

For the 23-year-old spiky-haired CEO, the metaverse is already here, and it’s pretty friendly and welcoming. Instead of a sleek alternate reality, Gather’s virtual world is decidedly low-res, evoking the nostalgic feel of a 20-year-old Pokémon video game. Users move their 2D avatars around with the arrow keys on their keyboard, moving in and out of video chat conversations as they walk past other people. Whether it’s just a more interactive zoom or a cornerstone of our collective future, Gather has Silicon Valley’s attention. Founded by four recent graduates (all still 26 or younger) at the start of the pandemic, the startup quickly grew to 75 employees and is backed by top venture capitalists who have invested $77 million, the most recently in November at $700 million. Evaluation. Gather declined to disclose its earnings, but Forbes estimates it recorded more than $10 million last year, its first full year of operation.

Gather’s aesthetic is a throwback to Wang’s youth in suburban Seattle, where he spent countless hours playing graphically mundane games like Minecraft. He was also obsessed with computers and math. In his second year of high school, he placed in the top 200 out of 70,000 entrants in the Junior Mathematical Olympiad. In his senior year, he landed a year-long job in machine learning at nearby Microsoft and continued that precociousness at Carnegie Mellon University, graduating in three years.

After graduating, Wang and fellow college buddies Kumail Jaffer and Cyrus Tabrizi were accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator incubator in 2019. The trio worked hard on their goal of building hardware to facilitate social connections. But they dismissed the trading side, even skipping “demo day,” when their peers pitched hundreds of potential investors. “It was very formative to be pressured to do all of this and then realize it wasn’t good for us,” Wang says.

By May 2020, they had exhausted their Y Combinator check for $150,000. Wang and Jaffer offered a detour to more monetizable gatherings like academic conferences, which had moved online. Tabrizi disagreed. Wang and Jaffer parted ways, launching Gather with MIT graduates Alex Chen and Nate Foss, whom Wang had met during college internships. Intrigued by virtual reality, the foursome scanned their bodies and replicated their physical surroundings online, spending eight hours a day working with headsets strapped to their faces. “That’s when we realized it was still quite a long way off,” says Wang. “But we could kind of squint and see that this whole idea of ​​virtual worlds is going to be huge.”

To quickly create an accessible environment, Gather reverted to well-established technology: keyboard, mouse, and low-res pixel art on a web browser. They released the first version in May 2020. It quickly spread to colleges. University of Chicago professor and students recreate their school so people can study together or meet on campus; members of the physics faculty were soon discovered playing poker in a living room. Silicon Valley executives were quick to notice. Dylan Field, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of Figma, the $10 billion (valuation) design startup, reached out to Wang in November 2020, before the founders had even started thinking about a business model. . “He literally said to me, ‘I have no idea this is a capitalist business,'” Field recalled.

Undeterred, he introduced Wang to a long list of VCs. Predictably, Wang prepared them for disappointment by saying, “You have to be ready for this to turn into Wikipedia,” referring to the internet’s best-known nonprofit website. Sequoia Capital partner Shaun Maguire saw past Wang’s hesitation. “For [Gather’s founders]it’s a foregone conclusion that the metaverse is going to exist, so the question becomes, how do you make sure it’s done as well as possible?” said Maguire, who led the first $26 million funding round. of the company in January 2021. While startups typically spend a year or more stabilizing where VCs are comfortable investing again, Sequoia agreed to double down before the undergraduate was even announced. “Society really flexed between January and March,” Maguire says.

While optimizing his video code, Gather simultaneously quadrupled his monthly revenue to $400,000 through clients like Coca-Cola and Amazon, which built a fantasy world replica of The Wheel of Time, his hit streaming show. Sequoia and Index Ventures led the company’s second $50 million seed round. Y Combinator and Figma’s Field are also investors.

“Despite Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of ‘go fast and break things,’ very few companies are actually going that fast,” Field says. “In terms of building the team and building the culture, they did in six months what we did in five years.”

From his current temporary home in Southern California, Wang plans to travel nomadically this year, spending months in Pittsburgh, Boston, London and Switzerland while working virtually from Gather headquarters. One day, he thinks, people could shop at digital malls in his app or share a movie night with friends in another country. Or maybe, Wang thinks, Gather will become an infrastructure company, helping others build those experiences. Whatever direction his 22-month-old startup takes will certainly happen quickly. For nascent metaverse builders, Field’s five-year horizon spells the end.


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