Eric Yuan, Zoom and the Pursuit of Happiness
My first experience with Zoom video conferencing was in a Stanford Continuing Studies class. In the spring of 2016, I decided to take an online writing class called “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice”, so I could forge a path to realizing the deferred dream. (It was that class that started me on a path to create, a year later, this website to post my writings.) The teacher was Malena Watrous, gifted and inspiring. In addition to sending us assignments and providing feedback via the online portal, she held an “office hour” every week or so, via Zoom. It was the first I’d heard of it, having used tools such as Webex, GoToMeeting etc. in the corporate world.
Zoom proved to be remarkable intuitive and easy to use: just a link to click, and maybe a number to dial-in if one did not wish to use the computer audio. Via Zoom, I saw the teacher as well as my talented classmates. Students participated from various parts of the country, and the world: California, Texas, New York, Belgium. It was remarkable to be able to see them and speak with them, in addition to our communications via the online portal.
After that initial experience with Zoom, I used the free version frequently for client meetings. Finally, tiring of the 45-minute limit for the free accounts, I became a subscriber. It is a terrific product, quite flawless in the ways I have needed to use it.
TiE is a not-for-profit founded in 1992 in the Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals. TiE is the world’s largest global network with a mission to foster entrepreneurship through mentoring, networking, and education. TiE has 61 chapters across 14 countries.
Their website states their laudable mission and vision, as well as some impressive metrics.
While I had been aware of TiE for several years, I had not attended their annual conference, TiEcon, which is devoted primarily to high-tech whereas my professional focus is more in the life sciences and healthcare. This year, I attended TiEcon for the first time, to attend the Health Tech session which was chaired by Abhi Gholap, a fellow board member of the life-sciences networking organization EPPIC who is also on the board of TiE.
I was at the Santa Clara Convention Center for several hours on the afternoon of Friday, May 10th, and the highlight for me was the keynote session with Eric Yuan, Founder and CEO of Zoom (flush from a recent IPO).
Much has been written about him, such as this informative Bloomberg article. He was in conversation with Paul Singh, one of the conveners of TiEcon 2019. Singh was one of the finest moderators I have seen, his questions covering a broad range of engaging topics, both personal and professional, and commenting just enough to draw out frank, down to earth, and thoroughly inspiring responses from Yuan.
Yuan, who was SVP of corporate engineering at Cisco, and VP of engineering of WebEx, received a US visa in 2006 after his application was rejected 8 times before finally being accepted the 9th time.
How hard was it to raise money? It was extremely, extremely hard. What advice would he give to other entrepreneurs? Don’t give up. Try hard.
He had children in their 20s unlike many much younger entrepreneurs. Yuan replied that he was already 49 years old, very old by startup standards. “One of the mistakes I made, I wish I had pursued my dream much earlier. If you do that, you will have a lot of fun.”
Singh observed that it can be very lonely to be a solo founder, and asked how it was for Yuan, would it have been good to have cofounders? Yuan replied for sure, but he did not feel lonely. He named Jayashree Ullal, CEO of Arista Networks (and also a TiEcon 2019 keynote speaker) as his mentor. He would call her, have coffee with her and with other mentors. He would send an email and ask for help.
What is his advice to mentees? Be proactive, ask for help. He says that he receives questions on LinkedIn, and always tries to help. He learns from the questions that people ask.
Zoom had no sales and marketing for some of the initial years. How did they round up their first hundred customers? They started with Stanford University. They made sure that the product worked. If your product doesn’t work, nothing matters.
He made an interesting comment about the pricing of the product. When they priced it at $9.99, customers didn’t believe it, and would keep asking “Really?” Then they increased it to $14.99, at which point the customers became more comfortable.
All startups are roller coasters: Singh asked, What were your low points? Yuan used an interesting analogy. He said you can drive to San Francisco at 100 mph to get there 10 minutes earlier, but the risk is too high. Other companies such as Comcast etc. focus on deals for new customers. In contrast, he focused on making existing customers happy.
Singh pointed out that Zoom was the only profitable IPO among a recent slew of them. Is there pressure from investors to grow grow grow? No, no, replied Yuan, the investors are very good.
Singh commented that he had talked to Zoom’s employees and they all seemed very happy. He commented on the book “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” by Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”), CEO of the highly successful online shoe and clothing company Zappos.
Yuan’s response was reflective. He asked himself, what is the purpose of life? He did not have an answer. Then he came to the conclusion that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness. And further, sustainable happiness comes from making others happy. His number one job, he said, is to make sure all his employees are happy. When that happens, the customer is happy.
Singh asked how he had fostered that culture. Stating the company values of happiness and caring, community, Yuan stressed the importance of staying humble. He tells employees, this is our company. We want to build a company where we all happy together. Every day, the first thing you should ask is are you happy? If the answer is no, feel free to stay home. If families the reason be sure to fix that.
A startup is about speed, he said, but without transparency and trust, there is no speed.
Singh commented that he has never met a man as humble as Yuan. He is upfront, open and a direct communicator. Yuan replied that his father passed away before he started his company. His father always told him 1. stay humble and 2. work hard.
In Silicon Valley and beyond, the concept of helicopter parenting is legend. Amy Chua's 2011 book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" caused much controversy. Singh jokingly asked about Yuan being an Asian parent: does he make sure that the children’s grades are okay?! Yuan replied that he does not push them for good grades. He makes sure that they are happy.
In closing, Singh asked, what’s next for Eric and Zoom? He replied that he is really enjoying working every day, and he plans to keep working hard, and staying humble.