Having gone from a self-described “product-guy” to the highly public CEO of a global company, Eric Yuan said he prefers to be behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight.
But as the founder of Zoom, a video conferencing platform that became a household name during the COVID-19 pandemic, Yuan quickly became one of the world’s most-watched business leaders.
He spoke recently with Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business for the school’s Distinguished Speakers Series (see video clips) about the opportunities and challenges Zoom has faced in a year that transformed how the world does business and more than tripled Zoom’s revenues.
“I didn’t understand the purpose of life only until later on,” Yuan said. “I realized the purpose of life is about pursuing happiness, and that sustainable happiness comes from making others happy…. When I make a decision I always think, will this make the friends around me better, make them happy?”
Yuan said creating happiness is also a philosophy behind work culture at Zoom, where the number of employees almost doubled in 2020. The company succeeds by understanding the needs of customers and using their criticism to make the product better, he said.
The pandemic created millions of new users and new use cases, Yuan said.
“You know, on the one hand, that’s an opportunity; on the other hand, that’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “We really cannot mess it up. We need to take a step back and really listen to our customers.”
Open, honest feedback from customers as well as colleagues is critical to improving a product and a business, Yuan said. To demonstrate its importance, Yuan said he leads by example, offering feedback to colleagues openly at leadership meetings and soliciting the same (see video clips above).
“As long as you keep that open, transparent culture, give each other feedback, I think you’ll be OK. We’re learning still, because when you hire a lot of new leaders, how do you build trust,” he said. “Without trust, nobody dares to give you honest feedback. That’s why at Zoom, our favorite book is ‘The Speed of Trust.’”
He urged others not to be discouraged by setbacks, like the challenges many people have faced during the pandemic.
“No one has a path that is always smooth,” Yuan said (see clip below). “Take a step back and ask yourself, will those difficult times make me a better version of myself. If it does, you've got to embrace that... Always be optimistic.”