Few people have been made as wealthy by the coronavirus crisis as Eric Yuan.
As the founder and chief executive officer of Zoom, the app that has become synonymous with video conferencing for the socially-distanced multitudes, Yuan has enjoyed what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches.
This week, the value of his personal stake in the company he founded nine years ago rose above US$10 billion ($15.3b) for the first time, vaulting him into the rarefied ranks of Silicon Valley's deca-billionaires.
So it is a relief to see that he can still make the same kind of amateur mistake as the most tech-befuddled beginner. On a conference with Wall Street this week to announce his company's latest earnings, the 50-year-old forgot to un-mute himself, leading to the kind of pantomime that has been played out on screens around the world during the crisis. Investors still got the message, lifting Zoom's shares to new heights.
With as many as 300 million meeting participants each day at the peak in April, the crisis has thrust Yuan into the limelight, capping his rise as a rare Chinese-born leader of a hit Silicon Valley start-up. But it has also exposed his company to scrutiny and brought an outcry over security and privacy lapses.
Despite the large number of Chinese-born engineers who keep Silicon Valley humming, few have become bosses of prominent local tech companies. Yuan was born in China's eastern province of Shandong and trained in mathematics and computer science, before moving to the US in the 1990s to become an engineer at conferencing service WebEx. After it was acquired by Cisco, a career inside the networking equipment giant beckoned. Only when Cisco refused to back his idea for a simple app designed for the new world of smartphones did he quit to build it himself.
Yuan's emergence as Silicon Valley's most prominent new Chinese-American business leader has come at a time of rising tension between the US and China, with technology markets a key source of friction. To add to his discomfort, nearly one-third of Zoom's workforce is based in China — the sort of arrangement that was once natural for an aspiring global company, but which now can seem a liability.
After the pandemic made Zoom a household name, there followed what Yuan has denounced as "disheartening rumours and misinformation" — questions about his own loyalties, and suspicions about whether the foothold in China has made Zoom an outpost for state-sponsored spying. Last month, he issued a statement declaring his own American identity — he became a citizen in 2007 — and underlining Zoom's roots in the US.
After a recent trip to China, he told acquaintances he now feels more at home in the US, says Santi Subotovsky, one of Zoom's early venture capital backers. "His kids were born and raised here, he identifies with this culture," Subotovsky says. "He's been here so long — but his accent doesn't go away."
His personal interests could be those of a business executive anywhere. Family time is paramount, basketball a passion. He names the late star Kobe Bryant, the player (and Zoom investor) Andre Iguodala, and outspoken entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as his heroes. He says he devours business books in search of tips for how to run his own company better.
He clearly feels uncomfortable about the geopolitical cross-currents he has been caught in. In an interview with the Financial Times last year, he predicted that mutual self-interest would prevail between the US and China, ensuring a future in which the two economies stay closely interconnected. That looks increasingly unlikely now.
If his Chinese roots have been a source of controversy, Zoom's popularity has brought other forms of unwanted attention. "Zoom-bombing" — the infiltration and disruption of private meetings — is the latest addition to the lexicon of online misbehaviour. A spate of software glitches added to the problems. Bruce Schneier, a cyber security expert, called the company's security arrangements "at best sloppy, and malicious at worst". Politicians piled on and a review by regulators in the US followed.
The security crisis brought out what Yuan's supporters say are his best qualities. High among them is humility. Yuan says his attitude since arriving in the US has been shaped by his father's advice on what it takes to succeed in a new country: "hard work and stay humble". One researcher who pointed out a flaw in Zoom's software said he swiftly received a personal email from the boss thanking him for finding the glitch.
"He's an out-in-front leader, he doesn't hide from controversy," said Carl Eschenbach, another of the company's venture capital investors and a board member. That has included Yuan publicly taking the blame for the lapses — as he did again this week.
The decision to put everything else on hold while Zoom fixed the problems highlights a determination that supporters say is also a strength. "He's not going to give up," says Subotovsky.
Even after the hard lessons he has been through this year, Yuan still sometimes struggles to bridge the worlds of business software, where Zoom has its roots, and the wider consumer market it has been thrust into. This week he caused a minor stir by saying that he did not intend to offer end-to-end encryption — the gold standard in security — to Zoom's consumer users, since that would prevent him co-operating with law enforcement.
It was another self-inflicted wound to overcome. But after his precipitous rise this year, no one is likely to count Yuan and his ubiquitous video app out quite yet.
Written by: Richard Waters
© Financial Times