Community Spotlight: Sharon Cao Is Bringing Virtual Happiness To These Tough Times
An unsolicited message on Instagram is often associated with flirtatious behavior. For Sharon Cao, however, it was the gateway to a job she loves as co-founder and COO of Happied, a startup company that curates virtual happy hours and other social experiences.
After months of admiring the company from afar, Sharon sent the Happied Instagram account a message in early 2019. That message would land in the hands of April Johnson, Founder and CEO of Happied. The women met in person and bonded over their love of food, cocktails, and of course, happy hour. Sharon joined the team soon after, working on the operations and tech side of the business.
“It’s such a dream come true to actually be able to do what I love,” she says.
Happied launched in late 2018 as a web app that helped Washington, D.C. locals find happy hour events going on throughout the city. Users could search by day, location, and vibe to find the best deals. In May 2019, Happied created a phone app and also began offering exclusive deals and longer happy hours in addition to special events for its members. As the company made this pivot, Sharon’s role also evolved. She became April’s right hand business partner and earned her title as co-founder of this new version of Happied.
2020 was set to be the year Happied expanded nationwide, but when the pandemic hit and forced many bars and restaurants to close, it needed a new plan.
From In-Person To Online
What started out as a sad and difficult time for Happied and all of its partners, quickly turned into excitement as they found a new way to keep the business going: virtual happy hours, Sharon said.
After investing lots of time and money into the original concept, this new business model called for major changes and essentially starting from scratch to create a new platform. It was a tough decision, but one that’s paying off.
Happied hosted its first virtual happy hour in March and kept up with a schedule of two events per week until another side of the business began gaining unexpected traction: Newly remote companies were looking for ways to connect with their employees and turned to Happied to create corporate events.
“In some ways, we've become a virtual events production company,” Sharon said
For corporate events, Happied handles everything from start to finish, creating a high-end experience. Happied trains bartenders for virtual gatherings and provides social hosts during the event for troubleshooting tech problems and keeping everyone on schedule. Happied even ship out kits so everyone has the same materials to participate.
“Instead of just watching a bartender mix something and kind of have the ingredients at home, we found that it was a lot more interactive and a way better experience to ship people these kits that had everything in it and really transport them to that event,” Sharon said..
In addition to public virtual happy hours and corporate events, Happied also sells cocktail kits direct to consumers. The kits, with names such as “My Spirit Animal is a Moscow Mule,” and “Whiskey Business,” come complete with booze, mixers, recipes, mixing equipment and even glassware. The company also hosts Solidarity Socials, where people can get together with trained facilitators to discuss topics related to racism and social justice.
Taking the Long Path To Entrepreneurship
The company’s readjustment and unexpected boom in business has kept Sharon busy -- sometimes too busy. But she said the growth and new vision for Happied is her silver lining in 2020.
Looking back on her journey, Sharon said, “I think in the back of my mind, I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
However, watching her father struggle with his own entrepreneurial endeavors led Sharon to seek steady paychecks in IT consulting roles at large companies. Still, she felt unfulfilled.
“I like to be creative,” she said. “I like to be all over the place and use lots of different skills. I want every day to be different, and more and more these consulting roles felt like I had to stick to the same thing every day.”
Sharon sought to find work that combined her love and knowledge of technology with her passion for food and drink. Happied was exactly what she was looking for. The fact that the company has now shifted more towards event planning—another one of Sharon’s passions—is also no coincidence. Sharon admits that her influence definitely played a role in shaping the company this way as it pivoted in the pandemic.
“(Meeting April) just gave me the push I needed,” Sharon said of her decision to take the leap into entrepreneurship. “Once I had that push, I’ve been so fueled by it. This is everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Asked what advice she has for other women afraid to start their own companies, Sharon said to go all in.
“To whatever extent is possible, my tip would be to just really take [your business] on headfirst.” she said. “If you're risk-averse like me, it's OK to step in slowly, but once you're in, know that you're fully in and just cut all other commitments if you're able to.”
Teaming up with April, an attorney, enabled Sharon to direct all her energy toward the business. The results speak for themselves. Sharon remains optimistic for the future of Happied, during the pandemic and beyond.
“Whatever happens in the world,” she said, “we’ll definitely stay true to our core, which is supporting local restaurants and bars, local businesses, women-owned, minority-owned, mostly food and drink, and providing a platform or public venue for socialization and community.”