Thrive Global: One On One With Eric Yuan, Founder & CEO Of Zoom
I spoke to Eric Yuan, founder & CEO of Zoom, about his journey and his best advice
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?
Eric: I got to this point in life by never giving up on my inspiration -- which has always been to build a video communications solution that people will love. This has been a long-time passion of mine. I was born in mainland China. I first envisioned Zoom while I was a college student in China in the late ‘80s, and would take over 10-hour (each way) train rides to visit my girlfriend (now my wife). My desire for an easier way to see her face-to-face without the arduous travel became the impetus for my long path from student to entrepreneur. In 1997 I immigrated to San Jose, CA and secured a position as one of the founding engineers at a small start-up called Webex. I stayed with Webex for the next 14 years, and proudly grew the team I managed from 10 engineers to more than 800 worldwide, and contributed to revenue growth from $0 to more than $800M. In speaking with Webex customers, I realized that the solution suffered from some deep flaws due to its older architecture, particularly a lack of usability, reliability, and video quality. Simply put, it was hard to use and it didn’t work. I knew that Cisco needed to rebuild Webex from the ground up - from the back-end architecture to the user interface to the sales model. I told Cisco leadership, but they didn’t listen. I struck out on my own in 2011, and, fortunately, dozens of Webex’s most talented and visionary engineers soon joined me. Together we spent the next two years building Zoom 1.0, a unified video and web conferencing software that ran seamlessly across mobile, desktop devices, and conference room systems. Since then we’ve developed the product into the best video communications software in the world and built a global team of over 1,100 passionate people.
Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Eric: As I mentioned, I spent more than a decade as an engineering leader for the Webex video conferencing platform (first with Webex, then Cisco, which acquired Webex). In that role, I frequently spoke to customers, and more often than not, found they were unhappy with the Webex platform’s usability, reliability, and video quality. I firmly believe if your customers aren’t happy then you’re not succeeding. This was a very dark time for me professionally. I decided the only way to tackle the problem was to build a new, better video conferencing solution from the ground up. However, the leaders at Cisco weren’t willing to make the changes needed to create the new solution, so I founded Zoom and build the platform from scratch. This year, Zoom marked its sixth year and hosted more than 30B conference minutes annually (140 percent growth over last year). Most importantly, we have an NPS (customer satisfaction score) of 71.
That experience taught me that it’s essential to listen to your customers and take their input to heart. I also learned that you should never be afraid to admit you’ve made a mistake and start fresh.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Eric: I believe that effective leaders must be self-motivated people with a passion to do something big. They also need to be willing to constantly learn new things, new technologies, and new skills, and it takes self-motivation to do that. I also think that leaders must be caring and want to deliver happiness to those they work with. If your employees and customers aren’t happy around you, they certainly won’t want to follow your lead.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to an audience of entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
1. While it’s true that building a start-up is a long, hard journey, it’s also exciting and a lot of fun. Don’t be afraid to start - just go for it!
2. Don’t focus on hiring people who are the most qualified on paper. Self-motivation and a self-learning mentality are the most important traits in your hires. Ask probing questions and check references for these traits and you’ll get the best people.
3. Your company’s culture is the #1 most important thing to get right. Everything else flows from there. Even though you’re always going to be facing pressing issues, set aside time to focusing on issues of employee happiness, transparency, and other matters of company culture.
Adam: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Eric: Find the investors who want to invest in you, not only in your business. Business models and plans change, sometimes you have to pivot and make hard choices, but if your investor has invested in YOU, they will trust you and support you through the journey.
Adam: How do you pay it forward?
Eric: My way of paying it forward is by creating happiness for everyone I encounter on my journey and by promoting Zoom’s core value of “Care.” We expect our employees to care about the community, the company, their teammates, our customers, and themselves. We don’t want our Caring philosophy to be a one-off that is explained in employee training and then never discussed again, so it is posted on the wall of Zoom’s lobby in every location, it is a common refrain in our all-hands meetings, and it is the core of the work at Zoom.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Eric: I’m a voracious reader because I can always learn something new from a good book. My favorite book is Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey. I especially liked it because it shows that trust and relationship-building are not some wishy washy nice-to-haves. Trust is absolutely crucial to speed of business and winning. Thus, trust-building tools like video communications are mission critical.