Zoom CEO flying, thanks to videoconferencing usability

Eric Yuan is building a videoconferencing powerhouse based on addressing old bugbears

I’m in a WeWork shared workspace on an icily cold day in central London and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan is at his San Jose, California HQ, but thanks to his videoconferencing service we can spend 40 minutes talking, a length of conversation that, he says, is close to perfect for any conference session.

Coming in true-to-size, with crystal-clear audio and video from a “Zoom Room” cubicle, this is the videoconferencing vision that has been (over)sold to us so many times for decades now. Yuan has arguably come closest to making good on that promise in a sector that has never taken off the way many pundits expected.

Conferencing more broadly has long seemed to fit the bill for a world in which business travel is expensive and full of hassles, but usability, price, proprietary vendors and other factors have made it a harder sell than expected. We’ve all been there: links that don’t work, the need to install pop-ups, scratchy line quality... Even simple audio-conferencing calls often don’t work, so what chance has the full video and collaboration deal? But, in a crowded field, Zoom might be emerging from the pack with its increasingly popular combination of usability and ability to tolerate low-bandwidth, lossy connections.

Why? In part because of heritage. Yuan and his team have form here. He led WebEx engineering in the years where the company became a verb and a de facto standard for screen sharing, having joined the then startup after getting his US visa and leaving his native China.

The Zoom formula is simple. Dial in or click through an app; 1-1 calls are free and unlimited, but free group calls timeout at 40 minutes. Hosts can pay a subscription for unlimited group minutes. Yuan has built a company in the classic SaaS models: build appeal from the ground-up, land and expand, make it viral: Okta recently said that Zoom is the fastest-growing app in EMEA and the firm recently expanded to the UK to meet demand. The aim of Zoom is to be “frictionless”, an adjective so often risibly inappropriate but Zoom really is a cinch to use in my experience and it’s refreshing after having had so many dismal, frustrating experiences in communications.

Zoom was founded in 2011 and only went commercial four years ago it is already serving up over 30 billion annualized meeting minutes. One of the pleasures of youth in business is that you can add new services without adding bulk to core code and a very nice feature of Zoom is the record/transcribe service. Partners include the likes of Slack, Okta and Amazon Alexa, cloud-native firms that are shaping the new IT zeitgeist.

Salesforce.com, Slack, Workday and ServiceNow are Silicon Valley templates that Yuan admires as modern, customer-centric concerns. Zoom works on a freemium model with one-to-one calls always free. Yuan and co. are after early adopters who will stay loyal and pay later, a model similar to that which underlies Dropbox.

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