The Untold Story of Zoom’s Founder

How a long distance relationship inspired a tool to connect the world

The Untold Story of Zoom’s Founder

How a long-distance relationship inspired a tool to connect the world

“Although the start-up journey is long and tough, it’s also fun and exciting. Don’t be afraid to start — just go for it!”

This story sets the standard of what’s possible in the digital age.

It’s the story of Eric Yuan, the visionary behind online collaboration platform Zoom.

Eric's Chinese name, 袁征 (Yuán zhēng), fittingly includes the character (zhēng), meaning 'to go on a journey.'

And there is no doubt that Eric has lived up to his name.

As a freshman in university, he embarked on a quest to find a solution to the exhausting 10-hour train rides he endured to visit his girlfriend.

This quest was the seed that would eventually reshape global communication forever.

Defying the Silicon Valley archetype, Eric founded Zoom at the age of 41, well beyond the typical age for tech entrepreneurs.

Yep, you don’t need to be a billionaire by age 24.

As a solo founder, he also challenged the conventional wisdom of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial cohort, showing that indeed, one person's vision can change the world.

Today, Zoom is more than a company; it's a cultural touchstone, a household name, seamlessly integrated into our daily lives.

Phrases like "I'll Zoom you later" have become part of our vocabulary, and the platform has even generated its own lexicon with terms like "Zoom fatigue" and "Zoom-bombing."

As if you couldn’t get any more Zoom in your life, the company became an official partner of Formula 1 in March 2021. Fitting to say the least.

In a world where efficient, productive meetings are crucial, Zoom's role in reducing travel and enhancing collaboration has made it indispensable.

Eric's journey from a young student facing long train rides to the founder of a global tech unicorn underscores the power of perseverance and passion.

Over 700,000 businesses now rely on Zoom for their communication needs, a testament to the platform's robust capabilities and Eric's relentless drive.

As you read this heartwarming story of how one man changed the world, hold the following statement in your heart.

Every ‘no’ you encounter brings you one step closer to a ‘yes’.

It’s time to find out how a long-distance relationship inspired a tool to connect the world.

Today on David to Goliath:

  1. 9 Times a Charm

  2. First Taste of Success

  3. Taking a Leap of Faith

  4. Blue Ocean Strategy

  5. Ascending to Goliath Status

  6. When Luck Meets Opportunity

9 Times a Charm

Growing up in the heart of China’s eastern Shandong Province, where innovation was a way of life, Eric was always captivated by the stories of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.

These stories, along with his bloodline of mining engineers, ignited a fire within him to dream big and push boundaries.

In China, children are pushed hard to achieve the best grades and pass the gaokao – being assigned a top tier university is a symbol of prestige and intelligence.

But Eric’s dreams were far from conventional.

With a Bachelor's and a Master's degree under his belt, he married young, at age 22.

Then in the mid-90s, he saw the future in the burgeoning power of the Internet, a force that had begun to revolutionize the Western world, yet was still just a spark in China.

He knew he had to be where the action was.

So he decided to take a leap of faith and move to the U.S., but this was no easy feat. The path was laden with obstacles.

The first time he applied for a U.S. visa, he was rejected. Customs asked for an English-language version of his business card.

It listed him as a consultant, and he was misunderstood to be a part-time contractor.

He went on to face rejection not once, not twice, but eight times.

The frustration, the doubt, the temptation to surrender to defeat—it would have broken many.

But Eric was different. 

He understood that perseverance in the face of adversity is the true mark of a visionary.

On his ninth attempt, his persistence paid off.

“I decided to come to the U.S. in the mid ’90’s because of the Internet, which I knew was the wave of the future. It was red hot here, but hadn’t yet taken off in China. The first time I applied for a U.S. visa, I was rejected. I continued to apply again and again over the course of two years and finally received my visa on the ninth try.”

He finally received his visa and stepped into the land of opportunity, at the age of 27.

Yes, this was a milestone. But it was not the destination.

First Taste of Success

With a heart full of ambition and a mind teeming with ideas, Eric landed his first job in Silicon Valley in 1997.

Joining a fledgling company named WebEx, he was among the earliest software engineers in a team of pioneers.

This move was far more than a career advancement; it marked the dawn of a revolution in online communication.

“I arrived in Silicon Valley in 1997 and joined WebEx, which at the time was a realtime collaboration company with about a dozen employees. The company grew very quickly and went public within several years of my arrival.”

The late 90s were a time when the concept of online meetings was still in its infancy, yet Eric and his team saw the potential for something groundbreaking.

As one of the founding engineers, he was integral to the company's mission to transform how people connect and collaborate over the internet.

He wasn’t just writing code; he was crafting the future.

By 2006, Eric had further cemented his leadership credentials.

He had not only contributed to the technical prowess of WebEx but also expanded his own horizons by completing an MBA from the prestigious Stanford Business School.

Now Vice President of Engineering, he oversaw the whole division, guiding the platform's evolution with a strategic vision and a meticulous eye for innovation.

The year 2007 then marked a significant chapter in the history of WebEx.

Cisco Systems, recognizing the tremendous potential and success of the company, acquired them for USD $3.2 billion.

This public takeover was a monumental validation of the innovative solutions that Eric and his team had tirelessly worked to create.

Under his leadership, what began as a modest team of 10 engineers burgeoned into a global powerhouse of 800 talented professionals.

Life was great. He’d achieved success beyond his wildest dreams.

But when you’re in a business of this magnitude and your visions fall into the hands of bureaucracy, sometimes things don’t go to plan.

And everything was about to change.

Taking a Leap of Faith

When Eric joined Cisco following their acquisition of WebEx, he had a singular goal: to revolutionize the way the world communicates.

This wasn’t just a corporate mission; To Eric, it was deeply personal.

The seed was planted years earlier when he was a freshman in college, enduring gruelling ten-hour train rides to visit his girlfriend, who would later become his wife.

During those long, tiresome journeys, he dreamt of a better way to stay connected, a way to bridge the distance without the travel.

“I detested those rides and used to imagine other ways I could visit my girlfriend without travelling - those daydreams eventually became the basis for Zoom.”

As the newly appointed VP of Cisco, Eric began to immerse himself not just in the engineering world but in the world of customers, where he discovered a crucial insight:

People were dissatisfied with the existing tools.

They longed for something more seamless, more user-friendly, more effective.

So one day, Eric decided to pitch to Cisco his idea for a mobile-friendly video system.

But they were not convinced.

Despite his best efforts, the company wasn't willing to invest in his idea.

Eric had however grown a thick skin in the face of rejection, having gone through hell and back merely to land in the U.S.

After 14 years of dedication to WebEx, in June 2011, he took his biggest risk yet.

Driven by an unshakable belief in his vision, he left the security of his established role to pursue a new path. 

He was determined to create a platform that would finally make customers happy, a platform inspired by those long college train rides and the desire for better connectivity.

“I firmly believed I could develop a platform that would make customers happy, so in June of 2011, I decided it was time to make the video communications solution I imagined during my college train trips a reality.”

What did that pipeline dream become?

You guessed it.

Blue Ocean Strategy

Driven by an extraordinary dream, Eric founded his company in the state of Delaware under the name SaaSbee.

His vision? To create a seamless, user-friendly video communication platform.

Later rebranded as Zoom Video Communications, Inc., the company was propelled forward by $3 million in seed funding from luminaries like former WebEx CEO Subrah Iyar and Yahoo Co-founder Jerry Yang.

This early support was a testament to the potential that Eric's vision held.

“When we introduced Zoom, the market was ripe for disruption. People were frustrated with traditional video conferencing services due to their lack of usability, limited functionality and high costs. In fact, before Zoom was introduced, rather than use the available business-grade solutions, most employees would turn to the phone or consumer-grade solutions (e.g., Skype, Hangouts, etc.). Zoom meets the market's need for a solution that's completely intuitive for end users, and is easy for IT to deploy, scale and manage. Its affordability and ease of use make it very scalable too, so it can support collaboration groups of as few as two and as many as 500 people.”

By September 2012, the first beta version of Zoom emerged from the shadows, and within a mere four months, Zoom 1.0 was unveiled to the world.

From its inception, the company’s rise was meteoric. But far from easy.

Eric's commitment knew no bounds. In the early days, he personally emailed every customer who cancelled their service, a gesture of dedication rarely seen.

One such interaction became legendary:

A sceptical customer accused Eric of using autogenerated emails to impersonate the CEO, labelling Zoom as dishonest.

Eric, the embodiment of authenticity, offered to meet the customer on a Zoom call immediately to prove his identity.

This story encapsulates the spirit of what the company Eric was out to create was—personal, genuine, and deeply committed to its users.

Within five months, it had captivated one million of them.

Zoom's momentum continued to build.

By 2016, it had been recognized as a leader in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Web Conferencing, a title it held for the next three years.

The launch of the Zoom app marketplace in 2018, offering a plethora of integrations, marked another significant milestone.

And in January 2019, Zoom introduced Zoom Phone, evolving from a mere web meeting app to a comprehensive business communication service.

This evolution caught the attention of influential voices, including Walt Mossberg from the Wall Street Journal, who reviewed Zoom and brought it into the limelight.

What made Zoom truly unique though was its approach to growth.

Remarkably, the company did not hire Marketing or Sales personnel until it achieved over $1 million in Monthly Recurring Revenue.

This was a testament to the power of exceptional engineering and the organic word-of-mouth that quality generates.

"Our challenge was to build our brand. We and our customers know we are the best solution out there, but it always requires work to get the word out at scale. We've put our energy into building our brand with straightforward messaging and designs that embody the core of what the Zoom experience is about, such as our Meet Happy campaign. We also create opportunities for people to get hands-on experience with our products. At the end of the day, our most effective brand ambassadors are our customers.”

Zoom went against the grain. They focused on one thing and one thing only.

Delivering happiness to their customers.

And those customers quickly became their champions.

The hallmark of a true Blue Ocean Strategy.

But not even the smartest financial analysts could predict the explosion of growth Eric’s company was about to experience.

Ascending to Goliath Status

Since 2011, Zoom has been on a journey fueled by visionary innovation and strategic backing from some of the industry's most prominent figures.

High-profile investors like Sequoia Capital and Asia's richest person, Li Ka-Shing, saw the immense potential in Eric’s brainchild.

By April 18th, 2019, Zoom's journey reached a pivotal milestone as it became a public company while already being profitable – a rare feat among tech unicorns.

Initial pricing set at $36 per share was quickly eclipsed.

Dropbox, despite developing its own collaboration tool, invested $5 million into Zoom, showcasing the immense faith in its unique proposition.

On its first day of trading, Zoom's stock soared by 72%, closing with a valuation of $16 billion—a clear indication of the astronomical rise that was to follow.

From its IPO price of $36, Zoom's stock catapulted to $102 within 3 months.

“Zoom gives organizations and individuals a faster way to communicate relative to audio-only, chat, and email meetings, and it’s not restricted by geography, so employees have more flexibility to work from home.

Because it lets people meet face-to-face, and provides support for screen sharing, it’s truly a collaboration catalyst, and helps build teams across geographies. Zoom has a remarkably wide range of uses. In fact, Zoom is being used today by developers to write code together, by physicians to diagnose patients, by educators to conduct classes, lawyers to mediate or interview witnesses, and by actors to conduct virtual rehearsals.”

All this happened within 3 months.

And you know what’s the crazy part?

2019 wasn’t even a scratch on what was to follow.

At a time when the world was in turmoil due to COVID and people craved connection more than ever before, Eric was ready to save the day.

When Luck Meets Opportunity

In March 2020, as COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, Eric knew in his heart that millions would turn to Zoom to stay connected.

As the pandemic spread, leading to quarantines, shelter-in-place orders, and the closure of schools and businesses worldwide, Zoom emerged in the spotlight as an essential tool.

Keeping companies running, students learning, and families celebrating birthdays, happy hours, and yoga classes virtually.

“More than 40 fellow engineers followed me in my new venture. We launched the Zoom platform in 2012. Now, a little more than five years later, we’ve hosted over 20 billion annualized meeting minutes (up from 6.9B last year) and our customer base includes 1/3 of the Fortune 500 and 90 percent of the top 200 U.S. universities.”

On the last Saturday of March, nearly 3 million people globally downloaded the app on their mobile devices for the first time, setting a record for the company and bringing the total number of downloads since its April 2019 IPO to over 59 million.

Zoom also became a social-media phenomenon overnight.

On Twitter and TikTok, it went viral, a remarkable accomplishment for business software.

One Twitter user humorously noted, “Just got an email from a prof: ‘As a reminder, you are required to wear clothes during Zoom meetings.’ Rules are made when they become necessary, not before,” garnering over 85,000 likes.

Another joked, “Lol you thought you were better than me cause you went to Harvard??? We’re all attending Zoom University now,” reflecting Zoom's ubiquity as even prestigious institutions moved their classes online.

Inside Zoom, Eric and his team had two primary concerns: keep the platform running and ensure it was accessible to those who needed it most.

“Zoom has also brought goodness to the world as an organization — that’s because our culture centers on happiness and caring. In fact, one of Zoom’s core values is “Care.” We expect our employees to care about the community, the company, their teammates, customers, and themselves.”

When parts of China went into lockdown, Eric expanded Zoom's free accounts, usually capped at 40 minutes per meeting, to run for 24 hours.

By mid-March, this offer was extended to all K-12 schools shut down in the United States, Italy, and Japan, and later to 19 more countries.

By early April, over 90,000 schools were using Zoom, alongside millions leveraging its freemium model for work and personal use.

Zoom has since become one of the biggest beneficiaries of the remote work boom of 2020 and 2021, boasting staggering growth statistics such as 300 million daily meeting participants and 3.5 trillion annual meeting minutes.

 “Work is no longer a place, it’s a space where Zoom serves to empower your teams to connect and bring their best ideas to life.”

During this period of explosive growth, Zoom acquired Keybase, an end-to-end encryption tool for secure messaging and file-sharing.

With Zoom Phone, Zoom Team Chat, and enhanced security measures, the company reported a first-quarter revenue of $956.2 million in 2021, a 191% YoY increase.

Zoom's extraordinary popularity in a saturated market dominated by Microsoft, Google, GoToMeeting, and Cisco can be attributed to one critical factor: ease of use.

Eric has emphasized the importance of user experience:

“It’s like a restaurant. When a customer walks into a restaurant, until they leave, the entire experience needs to be great. You can’t blame anything on anyone else.”

The ease of joining, sharing, and participating in meetings made it accessible for everyone, from tech-savvy users to great-grandparents.

This user-friendly approach, coupled with widespread brand awareness through billboards, airport lounges, and train seats, cut deep into the heart of humans’ core essence:

The desire for connection.

And there’s one thing that’s driving the growth of Zoom more than anything else.

Company Culture.

“Company culture is my number one priority. It’s more important than the team, the product, the business model, or the investors. All of those things can be fixed and made better over time. But culture has to be established on day one. Once you have a culture problem, it’s very hard to fix.

Our culture is built around the goal of delivering happiness to our employees. That solves so many problems before they start because happy employees know how to deliver happiness to customers. This culture is one of the key reasons we are doing better than our competitors. If your culture is off, even if you make good progress, it’s not sustainable.It can fall apart.”

What started out as a painful long-distance relationship turned into a mission to connect millions of humans together when they needed it most.

Zoom is not just a platform; it is a testament to what can be achieved when vision, technology, and a caring culture come together to create a brighter, more connected world.

Just shows what’s possible when you put people first.

Fair play Eric.

Until next time keep dreaming like a Giant.

But fight and believe in your dreams like a god damn underdog.

I’ll see you at the top.

-Nigel Thomas

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