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Build the W for X, Not the Already Existing Unicorn for X

Benjamin Surman
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read

I have had one thing on my mind this week, and it’s Zoom. Why? Because the reasoning for Zoom’s existence is what many need to think about when coming up with the “next big idea”, which, should be solving an actual problem.

So many people are constantly trying to make the Uber for X, Airbnb for X, Facebook for X, and I’m sure after this, Zoom for X. However, you need to focus on a W for X. The W standing for what, or why….or whatever. I don’t care. The point is, stop looking to remake something out of hype versus passion.

This is where the story of Zoom comes in. Back in 2011, Eric Yuan (Cisco’s former-VP of engineering), attempted to drive home the point to executive leadership that they needed to improve WebEx, their web-conferencing product. As you can probably guess by now, they didn’t listen.

With Yuan having a true entrepreneurial mindset he was undeterred. What he did next is what so many people talk about doing. He quit. Immediately he resigned and started Zoom. Zoom’s video-conferencing product went from that glorious phrased “scrappy upstart” to being used by tens of millions of people around the world. Even better, thanks to Yuan’s lean and zoned in approach to product development and customer centricity, the company achieved profitability.

The story gets even better. Yuan was determined to create a better way for people to collaborate via online video. But before Yuan could turn this vision into reality he needed funding. Yuan then received funding from a former coworker, whom believed in his vision. He was a little skeptical, but ultimately believed in Yuan. And this is why you have to build a professional brand, some of my biggest cheerleaders and people of inspiration have worked with me at Uber. And any of the ex-Unicorn employees you see getting insane funding these days can relate.

Now, right now you might be like “okay, but he’s just building off of the pitfall of Cisco, Uber has pitfalls so I can build off of that.”

FALSE (using my best Dwight Schrute voice here)

Okay, yes, you could. But you’re once again chasing the hype. So snap out of it and bring it back in.

Passion

Yuan’s history with online video started way before Cisco. It was actual a personal reason that got him involved with online video.

In the late ’80s, Yuan was in college at Shandong University of Science and Technology. His then girlfriend was also studying in China, but at a college several hours away. They attempted to navigate the pitfalls of long-distance dating (it didn’t work out for the hopeless romantics out there). During this time, Yuan was dreaming of a way that a handheld device of sorts would allow two people to interact with each other at anytime, anywhere in the world.

Focus on your dreams

Fast-forward 10 years, Yuan watched the rise of American Internet companies, such as Netscape and Yahoo. He believed that he needed to get to the United States to be a part of this.

He was denied a visa eight times and then hit luck on his ninth and final visit to the U.S. consulate, he was granted a travel visa to the United States. Shortly after arriving, he moved to Silicon Valley. He accepted an engineering role at the then WebEx Communications in Milpitas California. Even better, Yuan was one of the first few engineers responsible for the launch of WebEx’s web-conferencing tool. Big wins, time and time again here.

When it’s going good — double down

Fast forward again to 2007, Cisco acquires WebEx Communications for $3.2 billion. With the acquisition, Yuan and many others joined the Cisco team. He then took promotion after promotion until achieving the title of Corporate Vice President of Engineering.

Yuan oversaw immense growth of the WebEx product and the development team to over 800 engineers, all while assisting in expanding revenues beyond $800 million. But then after nearly a decade of being at the top, WebEx video conferencing became stale. Customers were unhappy with the product and becoming increasingly upset with Cisco altogether.

Don’t forget who pays the bills

In a bold move, that would help shape Yuan’s work ethic even further, he started spending time talking with the WebEx customers. I’m sure many of you have done this, and if you have not, then you should. Because you would relate to how Yuan felt after talking with upset customers. Embarrassed.

This is why it pays so much to treat a brand that you work for, as if it was your own. You become passionate about the products your brand offers, but then you will also feel obligated to make things right for valuable, though upset, customers. No matter what your title is, even at a high level, don’t distance yourself from being a person of interest from the people who support you. You will only struggle.

Create solutions

After gathering valuable feedback from customers, Yuan could clearly see that Cisco needed to update WebEx or it build an entirely new product. But as mentioned above, his executive peers just were not having it. But again, this did not cause Yuan to seize confidence in creating a better product.

He proceeded to convince about 40 former engineers to quit with him and build a new and exciting product, that was packed full of solutions that customers would love and depend on. Again, the power of building a personal brand at work here. When people believe in you, then you can do some of the most powerful things, like build exciting products.

You may even run into someone like Dan Scheinman, the former coworker of Yuan who wrote out a check for $250,000 allowing Yuan to get Zoom going. Despite having reservations about the business itself for video web-conferencing, Scheinman had strong beliefs that if anyone could make it happen, it would be Yuan himself. Around that same time, WebEx’s former CEO, Subrah Iyar, invested $3 million Zoom, mostly due to Iyar’s belief in Yuan’s vision and talent.

Make something that people love

Fast forward again, in just six years, Zoom had grown from a scrappy upstart to one of the most widely used web-conferencing products in the world. More than 65,000 companies worldwide were relying on Zoom for meetings, telepresence, and webinars. Over 40 million had used Zoom for hosting or attending a meeting and had added 2,500 academic customers.

How did this happen? Yuan made a product that people could easily love, even when he was being told that it was impossible to make a web-conferencing product that people would love.

Fast forward again to 2019, Zoom was dominating the B2B video communications space. Hardware manufacturers where even developing products that were specifically optimized for Zoom because they knew how valuable Zoom had become at every level of business.

The recipe for success

Passion

Focus

Customer obsession

Zoom is now a publicly traded company and still remains wildly successful. Yuan’s journey is a story that so many founders, prospective and existing, need to consider. Are you doing something to ride on the coattails of unicorn hype, or are you building something to create a real problem that you can passionately relate to?

It’s not easy to sit back and figure out a problem that you’re passionate about, because as humans, we generally don’t want to focus on our problems as that might mean admitting to our greatest failures. That’s a topic all on it’s own. But try to think back on some type of life event where you said to yourself “I wish there was a W for X.”

That very well may be “it.”

Yuan was dreaming of the future of video web-conferencing before it was even a thing. And even once it was a thing, he continued to think about it deeply. He got answers from actual users. He found their problems and questioned them what a potential solution could be. Customers are the best source for anything you are thinking about making. If you want to know if something will work, ask your customers.

Simply put, innovate by aligning with customers, not hype. Stop dreaming up the next Uber or Airbnb of X. Be patient, focus, and then build with passion.


Benjamin Surman

Written by

Ex-Uber — Founder — Just connecting the dots.

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