13 Leadership Lessons from Zoom Founder and CEO Eric Yuan
How he built the most popular video communications platform in the world.
As we pass the one-year mark of working in fully remote or hybrid environments, many organizations have realized that the workplace will likely never look the same again. Fueled by lockdowns and social distancing, a new way of communicating and collaborating with colleagues, clients and stakeholders emerged. For the latest episode of my If I Knew Then: Leadership Lessons series – in partnership with Entrepreneur – I wanted to sit down with the leader of the most popular platform for bringing families, classrooms, and businesses together during the pandemic. This company grew so fast in the past year that it became its own verb — Zoom. Case in point: It went from having 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to more than 300 million by April 2020.
Zoom founder and CEO Eric S. Yuan graciously shared with me the most valuable lessons he's learned throughout his career. He pulled back the curtain on everything from his time as an executive at Cisco and Webex to the launch and hyper-growth of Zoom. Yuan founded Zoom in 2011 with a mission to deliver happiness and bring teams together in a frictionless video environment. The platform provides video meetings, phone, webinars, and chat across desktops, phones, mobile devices, and conference room systems. Under Yuan's leadership, Zoom was one of the highest-performing tech IPOs of 2019. As one of the most in-demand video software tools of our era, it continues to be one of the highest-performing tech stocks to date.
Before becoming an entrepreneur at the age of 41, Yuan held executive leadership positions at reputable technology companies. He was one of the founding engineers and VP of engineering at Webex before Cisco Systems acquired the platform in 2007 – where he became corporate vice president of engineering. Between 1997 and 2011, Yuan grew his team from 10 engineers to more than 800 worldwide, and contributed to taking its revenue from zero to $800 million.
In the past year, Zoom became crucial to the education system, to celebrating holidays and to marking special moments like weddings. Eric Yuan is helping people stay connected while reminding them that it's never too late to pursue their dreams. Find out the moment Yuan’s career trajectory changed forever, the five things he did to evolve as a leader and other insightful leadership lessons from my hour-long conversation with Time’s 2020 Businessperson of the Year:
1. Don't wait around for anyone to say yes, just go for it
Although he could have stayed comfortable in his executive role at an established technology company like Cisco, why did Yuan leave? He woke up every day and didn’t want to go to work. The customers he served were not happy, and he realized that he was not happy, either. When he started his own company at the age of 41, he didn’t think anyone around him would have said "Yes, go for it!" So he had to motivate himself every morning by asking, What is my dream? If I don’t do it now, things won’t change in 10 years. I can’t wait anymore.
2. Lean on your friends to support your dreams
Zoom might not have come to fruition today without the help of some friends willing to take a risk and financially back Yuan: “I had friends who really wanted to support me. So I sent my friends an email that promised I would work as hard as I could to give them a 10x return. And that I did have money in the bank in case the company did not do well, so I could repay them.” After raising $3 million in capital from his friends and family, he eventually received funding from venture capitalists, made good on his word, and the rest is history.
3. Your journey to success as a CEO is a practice in perseverance
Little did Yuan know that a months-long trip to Japan from his native China would transform his life forever. It was during this time that he attended a keynote speech given by Bill Gates in 1995 about the future of the internet. “I realized the internet was going to change everything and that I had better embrace it as early as possible. I told my wife that I should figure out a way to get to the U.S. and join the first wave of the internet revolution.” Although that was his plan, he got declined eight times. “I did not give up,” Yuan recalls. “After nine times trying to attain my visa, I got it. Looking back, it is more of a practice of my perseverance.”
4. Patience is key when you start your own company
Yuan says that the most surprising thing he learned about starting his own company was actually something he never expected. He assumed that he’d be able to raise more money and hire his dream team within one year. He quickly realized that he needed to have more patience by taking things step by step and embracing the process.
5. Build something better than other solutions out there
“If you always look at the competitor’s product, you will not dare start something on your own,” advises Yuan. “Lead with the focus on the customer.” Zoom was able to beat established incumbents that dominated the video chat platform by setting itself apart as user-friendly, without the long download times that often plagued other competitors.
6. The best marketing is to leverage your users
Zoom’s very first marketing effort old-fashioned: It posted information on the Stanford campus bulletin board. Eventually, the team grew savvier and learned along the way that word-of-mouth and leveraging your users remain the best marketing strategy. They created market demand by first making the users happy and, in turn, those customers shared their satisfaction by using Zoom with their network. The positive experiences continued to echo naturally from there.
7. If you make customers happy, the money will come.
When the company was young, Yuan thought, We are not successful financially yet, but if we make customers happy the money will come. Now he receives emails daily from customers who share their positive experiences and how Zoom has changed their lives. And, the company continues to have one of the most successful stocks in technology.
8. Your business principles are more important than just managing a team
With hyper-growth and thousands of global employees, Yuan’s management philosophy has evolved from overseeing engineering talent to leading a massive company like Zoom. "As a founder and CEO, you have to manage every part of the business and be very hands-on,” Yuan says. “Ask yourself, What kind of company do I want to work for? The culture? The value? Write down answers to these business principles, because they are more important than just managing a team.”
9. Lead by example when creating a company culture
In the early days, Yuan decided he needed to write down the company's goal for culture so that everyone would remember it. “It should be catchy, not too many things, maybe two to three words,” Yuan shares. “As a CEO, you need to think about your employees. Zoom’s culture is: Deliver happiness. If we are happy, the customer is happy. It’s a simple formula, and we lead by example.”
10. Your hiring philosophy should be the same across the board, from executives on down
Yuan says he looks for self-learners and self-motivators when hiring anyone. He emphasizes that possessing these characteristics is a must-have for working at Zoom no matter the role. “We hire people with potential,” shares Yuan. “They may not have the background today, but they can grow themselves along with the company as it grows. I ask these two questions: 'What books are you reading? Who are your mentors?’ By listening to the answers and other stories they share, you can discover how they would handle a professional crisis or how they learn from their own mistakes.”
11. You should always be evolving as a leader. Five tips that helped Yuan evolve:
Figure out what your dream is.
Think about how to become a better version of yourself.
Read a lot of business books. (One of Yuan’s favorites: Only The Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove).
Think about the importance of life. (“Every time I thought about the importance of life, I had no answer,” shares Yuan. “The purpose is the pursuit of happiness. Sustainable happiness comes from making others happy. That completely changed my life and journey.”)
12. Create a customer care culture for success
Yuan is known for his obsession with the customer experience, and he's big on soliciting feedback from Zoom's users. Every interaction with a customer creates a customer care culture. There are mechanisms for soliciting feedback that you can’t always get from your support team, so he suggests asking how can you attain this crucial feedback surrounding your product directly from them.
13. Always do what is right
During the pandemic, Zoom showed the global community that it cared. That doing what is right will always transcend business. It provided K-12 schools with free video conferencing to help teachers meet childrens' educational needs. On the holidays, it did away with the 40-minute time limit on free accounts so that families unable to see one another in-person due to quarantine or travel restrictions could still be together virtually.
To learn more about this inspirational leader’s journey and the other insights he shared with me during our chat, watch the full webinar here. For more extraordinary talks with other CEOs from high-profile brands like Nextdoor, Warby Parker, Dallas Mavericks, GoDaddy and DocuSign, check out our series page.
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