Eric Yuan was once the "heart and soul" of Cisco's WebEx. He wrote some of the first lines of code for the collaboration software and was largely responsible for growing the engineering team from 10 people to over 800 during his time there.

But when I asked him what he'd do differently in his career, if given the chance, he says he probably should have parted ways with WebEx years before he actually did. It's no secret he was frustrated by the time he left Cisco (who acquired WebEx) in 2011. But what sets Yuan apart from so many other is that he turned those frustrations into a new venture--video and web conferencing provider Zoom.

Six years later, his company is valued at $1 billion and the product's popularity has surpassed WebEx in terms of public awareness. And this is in a very crowded market that also includes Adobe, Citrix, and Microsoft. How'd he manage to gain such popularity in such a short time?

It all comes down to two things: keeping customers happy and giving your employees a job they can love. When I spoke with Yuan (over Zoom, of course), these were the things that really excited him, rather than revenue or meeting a list of goals.

Here is his three-step recipe for success:

1. Put your customers' happiness first.

Consider how your favorite restaurant cranks out one excellent meal after another over a period of years. Now imagine how disappointed you would be if they suddenly hiked up the prices any time a new ingredient was added to a dish.

Yuan applies this kind of thinking to his own business. Zoom is all about finding ways to improve the product without emptying users' pockets. In video conferencing, that might mean better features or more reliable service. Yuan and his team discover what these improvements might be by listening to their customers--monitoring social media comments constantly, taking time for one-on-one conversations, etc.

While this is an unusual mindset for Silicon Valley, I can tell you it works. When I first started SalesFolk, everyone around me said to be goals-oriented and focus on the numbers. I did, and ended up hating what the business was starting to become. And yet, when I went back to focusing on my customers, numbers automatically picked up.

As an entrepreneur, you'll come under this kind of pressure from a host of people. Keep focusing on making the best possible product for customers, and you'll be less likely to buckle under that pressure.

2. Keep your employees self-motivated.

Yuan insists that in order for the "front end" of a company to work properly and excite customers, the back end--that is, the people and processes running it--has to also function well. For Zoom, a big part of that is finding self-motivated people, and then ensuring they stay that way.

Self-motivated people come from all sorts of backgrounds, but they share a common trait: they know why they get up for work each morning. They have a purpose that drives them to sit down at the computer each day, whether it's at home, the office, or the coffeeshop. If someone knows their purpose in a company, they'll be more excited to contribute to the service or product.

Take a step back and consider what motivates your employees, and how you can help foster self-motivation. For example, if you have a lot of remote employees, promote collaboration. Keep an ongoing dialogue with other managers and executives about employee motivation, to keep it at the front of everyone's minds. At Zoom, Yuan says they discuss this every single day.

3. Help your employees work remotely.

Speaking of remote employees: if they don't yet exist in your company, they probably will at some point in the future. Zoom employs dozens of such people, in addition to keeping multiple office locations.

The Zoom technology helps make remote employees feel like they're part of the team and not isolated at home. Yuan explained to me that every employee is encouraged to use the Zoom virtual desktop feature, which allows users to set a background image when they're on a conference. When Zoom employees get together online, everyone's encouraged to use the same image, to give the impression that they're all working out of the same office.

Another way Yuan uses his own technology to improve remote work is by keeping his video conference line open all day long. That way, even remote employees know when he is and is not around.

Even if you aren't ready to implement a technology like Zoom across your company, you can still think about what small changes or tools would help your remote employees feel a part of the team.

One other piece of advice Yuan would give his former self if he could: be patient. Running a startup is a long, long journey. Focus on your product, company culture, and recruiting the right team. You'll be better equipped for the ride when you've done these things.

Published on: Sep 27, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.