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Zoom chief Eric Yuan, the new king of remote working

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Via Financial Times

As the stock market reverberated this week with the latest wave of coronavirus-induced selling, Eric Yuan, palm trees swaying behind him, seemed remarkably relaxed.

In the parlance of Silicon Valley, the founder and chief executive of Zoom Video Communications was eating his own dog food. The beach scene behind him was one of the digitally generated backdrops that have helped make Zoom a breakout success in the world of business video meetings.

It has been a wild ride for one of the few Chinese-born founders to make it as the head of a prominent US tech start-up. A blockbuster IPO for Zoom last year valued it at much more than better-known consumer companies such as Lyft and Pinterest that were also going public.

Now, with stock market opportunists hunting for businesses that may actually benefit from the global health scare, Zoom has been on a tear. On Thursday, its shares jumped 6 per cent on a day that Wall Street tumbled 3 per cent. That lifted its value to $35bn — twice what it was three months ago.

Mr Yuan is as diligent as any Silicon Valley founder when it comes to promoting the world-changing nature of his company’s service. Modern scourges like climate change and overpriced housing in Northern California are a reason why we should all be doing most of our communicating on screens, he said: why bother to travel large distances or live in an overcrowded neighbourhood when you can lounge on a virtual beach instead? He also lives what he preaches, travelling only twice a year on business (though the IPO meant he had to take four trips in 2019).

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Yet, serious as it is, he is too much of a realist to claim that Covid-19 will end the urge to conduct business face to face.

“Whether it will really change behaviour or not, it’s too early to tell,” he said. “But in the long run, we’ll get there.”

Mr Yuan has been nothing if not consistent in his belief in the power of video communications in the business world. Drawn to the US by the tech boom of the late 1990s, the first job he landed was writing code at online conferencing service Webex. After the business was sold to Cisco Systems a decade later, he went on to become a vice-president at the networking equipment company.

The decisive break came in 2011, when he failed to convince his bosses that the smartphone age required a simpler, more intuitive form of business video conferencing, built from the ground up.

It hardly seemed like an auspicious moment to start out afresh. Along with Cisco, tech giants such as Microsoft and Google were looking at embedding video in their services for the business world.

There were few financial backers lining up to take a punt. “They thought the market is so crowded, the game is over,” he said. He ended up tapping personal connections for cash to get started. It turned out that the early days of the smartphone boom were just the moment for a fresh start.

“Timing is everything,” said Mr Yuan. “Ten years before, if I started a company, it wouldn’t get traction. The smartphone created a huge economy, the cloud created a huge economy. That’s why if you start a company, timing is very important. It happened to me in the right time.” The result: his personal stake in Zoom is currently valued at nearly $6bn.

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Persistence is clearly a trait. Born in Shandong province in eastern China, Mr Yuan studied mathematics and computer science, and was captivated from afar by the success of Bill Gates. It took nine applications before he was granted a visa to move to the US — something he blames on a petty misunderstanding with an official on his first attempt, which led to a mistaken view that he had lied on an application.

His history and connections have made China a natural extension for his company’s operations. Nearly a third of Zoom’s workers are based in the country, where much of its R&D takes place. But what once may have seemed an unusual strength for a start-up has risked becoming a liability. At the time of its IPO, Zoom had to warn investors that the China link could be seen as a security and privacy risk. There has also been the threat of disruption from the trade war.

Mr Yuan brushed aside the geopolitical complexities and insists that reason must eventually prevail: there is too much to be lost if the two countries don’t find a way to work together. 

“I’m an engineer,” he said. “My biggest worry is that sometimes you know the problem, but you don’t do anything about it until it gets too big to be fixed.”

Despite the large number of Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley, few have emerged at the top of the region’s latest crop of high-flying start-ups. The Zoom boss said he is at a loss about why so few rise to become chief executives, though he muses that it may be because many of the most ambitious have returned to China to found successful companies there, like Robin Lee of Baidu and Colin Huang at Pinduoduo.

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As for his own experience as an immigrant trying to make it in the US, he said he followed a simple principle, urged by his father: “Hard work and stay humble.” He also pointed to Silicon Valley’s openness to people from different backgrounds, and the “open and transparent” culture he said he tried to build at Zoom, as reasons why “I didn’t see any difference being a Chinese American founder/CEO.”

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