5 Leadership Lessons with Tien Tzuo, CEO and Founder of Zuora
I had the pleasure to interview Tien Tzuo. Tien is the CEO and Founder of Zuora, a cloud-based platform that powers the Subscription Economy. Tzuo heads a company with more 600 employees (called ZEOs), all of whom are dedicated to helping companies rethink their businesses for the subscription era.
Thanks so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born in Taiwan and raised in Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn where I stuck out like a sore thumb. My father ran an insurance brokerage, and a small stationary store. Being the kid of an entrepreneur in a place where street smarts won over book smarts really shaped my philosophy. When I was a teenager, I built an accounting application to help my dad run his business. This was before the internet made coding available to all. But even then I could see then that the key things to building an app were workflow, efficiency and data tracking — principles that still hold true today in the cloud era.
I studied engineering at Cornell and went to Stanford for Business School. My first job out of school was working for Oracle. This was the 1990s, the era of relational databases; Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) hadn’t even been invented yet. So, Oracle was the industry leader, and I rode the wave with them as they went from a company with $1 billion of revenue, to one with $8 billion of revenue.
As the 1990s went on, the internet became commonplace and it was obvious to me that this was going to remake the technology industry. I had gotten an MBA from Stanford, and was searching for internet-related jobs. I met Marc Benioff, who was leading a startup called Salesforce. Marc’s vision was compelling, and I joined Salesforce as their 11th employee.
My time at Salesforce shaped me as a leader. As the company scaled up, I gained more and more responsibility. I became the Chief Marketing Officer, and subsequently their Chief Strategy Officer. I realized that I had to rethink the approach to our buyers. Salesforce didn’t have customers, they had subscribers. This relationship was not about a single product or transaction. It was about building long-term loyalty and trust by focusing on the subscription experience. That experience has to be personal, and it evolves over time. It was about understanding the pricing and packaging that would appeal to different subscriber groups. You started with a Subscriber ID, and then you built a complete picture of that subscriber.
This experience directly influenced the vision for Zuora: reshaping businesses for the Subscription Economy.
So how exactly does you company help people?
Zuora helps companies transform for the Subscription Economy. We’re a cloud platform and a means to automate all financial operations. We see ourselves as a replacement for ERP solutions from the likes of Oracle and SAP, which were created for the era of product sales. That era is rapidly coming to a close, so companies need a new approach.
With the Subscription Economy blowing up across a range of markets, companies from GE and Ford to HBO have turned to Zuora to help them launch or repurpose products to a subscription model. Zuora not only helps more than 1,000 companies implement subscriptions today, but it assists with insights on subscriber behavior, and helps with pricing and new revenue models.
In a traditional product-centric business, companies only interact with their customers when they purchase a product. With subscriptions, there are many possible interactions: sign-up, usage, upgrade, downgrade, pausing a subscription, adding seats, provisioning a cloud service, etc. That’s we developed the only software as a service (SaaS) platform that automates all subscription order-to-cash operations in real-time for any business. Zuora gives businesses the freedom to launch new businesses, shift products to subscription, implement new pay-as-you-go pricing models, gain insights into subscriber behavior, and disrupt market segments to gain competitive advantage.
How you have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We all know technology is changing all facets of our lives, from how we eat to how we shop, travel, play, work, communicate and live. Philanthropy should be no different, but today less than 5 percent of charitable donations are done online. That’s crazy! I’m on the board of a non-profit called Network For Good. We help non-profits raise money online. I believe people have a natural desire to give and technology can tap into that desire. People spend their lives online today, so it makes sense to bring philanthropy to them via the internet. Imagine billions of dollars unlocked and going towards making the world a better place. We call this vision “Generosity Unleashed,” and technology is what enables it.
I established the importance of wrapping community around everything we do at Zuora. Whether it is our own Zuora employee community that does half-marathon training, volunteer visits to Glide Memorial, planting trees in Beijing, or Tough Mudders in London, everyone gets involved in the community. Zuora supports the Wounded Warrior Project, St. Jude’s, Alzheimer’s Foundation, Family Connections, Philippine Typhoon Aid, Melanoma Research Foundation, Design Tech High school and lots of other organizations. We help out in big ways and small (soda isn’t free at Zuora — it costs a quarter, and that quarter goes to charity).
Now that Zuora is a global company, we made the 1% pledge and we are in the process of taking our employee driven volunteering and social advocacy to the next level.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me Before I Launched My Start-Up” and why.
Before I launched Zuora in 2008, I wish someone would have first told me:
- Find an outlet. Life can’t be all about work. For me, I have a family, a daughter, that I am lucky to spend my time with outside of the office.
- Second, it’s not all on your shoulders. Don’t believe when they say, “It’s the loneliest job”.
- Third, have a mission. But more importantly, only hire people bought into the mission. Startups are about sacrifice, when it’s about the mission, it transcends the self, the individual.
- Be ready to be a startup founder for 10 years or more. My mentor Marc Benioff actually did tell me this.
- Finally, enjoy every minute of the ride.