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Seven Questions with Eric Yuan

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Eric Yuan is the founder and CEO of the video communications startup Zoom, which was launched in 2011 and is now valued at more than $1 billion. His inspiration for the company came during college in China, when he was a 10-hour train ride away from his girlfriend—who later became his wife.

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

Each day when I wake up, I ask one question: Do I feel happy? If I do, I’m full of energy. If I don’t, I ask myself, what can I do to change that? Because if I don’t feel happy, my productivity might be lacking or I might share my negative attitude with my family or with my company.

I learned this the hard way. When I was at Cisco, I wrote a lot of code. Early on, I was pretty happy, my productivity was high, and I was a positive influence for others. Eventually, though, when I tried to make some changes, I wasn’t able to influence others. I realized I wasn’t the one making decisions and that made me unhappy. My team members felt that. My family felt it, too. I realized then that I have to make sure I’m happy if I want to help others.

Now, when something starts to bother me, I jump in and try to fix it. Maybe our product has a problem and the schedule is delayed, or our sales team is having trouble closing a deal. I always make sure I’m doing all I can to quickly fix that problem.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

Company culture is my number one priority. It’s more important than the team, the product, the business model, or the investors. All of those things can be fixed and made better over time. But culture has to be established on day one. Once you have a culture problem, it’s very hard to fix.

Our culture is built around the goal of delivering happiness to our employees. That solves so many problems before they start because happy employees know how to deliver happiness to customers. This culture is one of the key reasons we are doing better than our competitors. If your culture is off, even if you make good progress, it’s not sustainable. It can fall apart.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

The thing that created the biggest change in my life was not small—it was the birth of our first child. After you have a kid, you feel more responsible; you know you can’t just look after yourself. You have to set a good example. You have to pass on what you’ve learned.

What don’t you know that you wish you knew?

I wish I knew a lot of things. Thinking back to when we started Zoom, I wish I had known what it would take to build a company—but then maybe it would have been less fun.

When you start a company, everybody tries to tell you, don’t do it. You will probably fail. You’ll suffer from that, and your family will, too. Almost everybody told me those stories. Nobody told me how exciting it is. That you feel like you’re a part of something important and making a big impact in the world. I didn’t know that when I started out.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I just finished reading Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. I did not realize that when they first started, everything was much harder. Back then, there was no venture capital—they ended up borrowing the money from local banks. But Knight still did very well, and built a wonderful household name. His tenacity and passion helped him build a wonderful company. I think he set a good example for a lot of young companies now.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

Whenever there’s a negative reaction to something I do, I take a step back to understand why, and apologize if I need to. My oldest son is a junior in high school. He didn’t do well on a test recently, and I gave him a hard time. I said, “If you didn’t sleep so late every day, your tests would be better.” He told me I was wrong because he had already worked hard for the test and had also been working hard at basketball. He likes to watch basketball videos on YouTube in the morning. He told me, “Dad, I know you have your own agenda. You want me to get all A’s. But this is my life. I want to play basketball in college. You have to understand it from my side.” And I thought: That is a very rational explanation. So I said I was sorry. And it also made me think we should go to the gym together sometime.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I think about every moment of every day. Any part of a day is equally important to me. I don’t think morning or evening is more important, or when you are young or old. If you are going to do something, enjoy every minute of it. If you waste that minute, it’s gone forever.