With an estimated 300M daily users, Zoom currently reigns supreme over all remote conferencing platforms, and it’s not even close. How is that possible in a world where Google, Microsoft, and Facebook all have competing products on the market? Zoom’s Founder and CEO Eric Yuan reflects on the valuable lessons he learned while serving as the VP of Engineering of (now competitor) Cisco WebEx. “Before I left Cisco, I spent a lot of time talking with WebEx customers,” Yuan told Forbes in 2017. “Every time, after the meeting was over, I felt very embarrassed because I did not see a single happy customer.”

In 2011, when he could not convince Cisco management to fix the problems, Yuan left the company. His passion to develop a new video conferencing platform focused on the “happiness of customers” was contagious. “35 to 40 WebEx engineers left with me,”  Yuan recalls. Within five months from its launch in 2013, Zoom boasted over 1M users. The successful beta testing and gleaming customer feedback opened the floodgates to investors. Yuan’s company, built around a single video conferencing solution and laser-focused on usability, soon began to contend with Microsoft’s Skype and Google’s Hangouts.

When COVID-19 hit and the world was suddenly confined to work from home, why was Zoom their product of choice?

Man and woman chatting through Zoom call on cell phone
Man and woman chatting through Zoom call on cell phone

From its inception, Zoom was built to be the industry’s best video conferencing platform, period. “Yuan created Zoom with a video-first mentality,” states José Cayaso, CEO of Slidebean and a capital funding expert. “Other companies like (Microsoft’s) Skype were created as audio first, and then adjusted to video, which proved to be costly. With Zoom, beta testers were very happy with the product.” Over the next six years, Zoom would receive many additional rounds of funding — and by 2017, a $1B valuation. Two short years later, Zoom would go public with a valuation stamped at $16B (almost an entire year before the COVID pandemic).

Why the product of choice for the pandemic? Zoom was already delivering what customers wanted; a high-quality, mobile-friendly, compatible, functional remote conferencing solution. Zoom was also cheaper than the competition, with many features free to use. Microsoft and Google would continuously find themselves learning from their mistakes and needing to emulate Zoom’s usability model.

Success leads to scrutiny

Woman in face mask making a Zoom call
Woman in face mask making a Zoom call

When the entire world suddenly adopts a single product, inevitably scrutiny follows. With a sudden influx of millions of new daily users, many of the platform’s unforeseen shortcomings quickly became headline news. Trolling and harassment cases (especially involving minors and K-12 schools) elicited the involvement of the FBI, while privacy and security concerns regarding unprotected data-sharing led to intense media scrutiny and lawsuits.

Amidst these allegations concerning Zoom’s vulnerabilities, Yuan admitted, “When it comes to a conflict between usability and privacy and security, privacy and security are more important.” While he also defended his product’s existing security features, Yuan believes Zoom failed at properly educating this new and unexpected consumer market. Yuan explains that with Zoom’s traditional enterprise clientele, IT personnel would normally handle activating the proper security settings before the company-wide implementation of the platform. “Our platform was built primarily for enterprise customers — large institutions with full IT support.”

Aside from privacy and security issues, limitations on Zoom’s functionality have also begun surfacing. Stepan Paul, Preceptor of Mathematics at Harvard University recalls, “As faculty, we found that one could lecture reasonably effectively through Zoom, but adapting group work has been a challenge. I run an active classroom, where students would normally be sharing their written work on a blackboard or worksheet. Without a tablet, Zoom’s whiteboard feature is hard to use.”

What lies ahead for Zoom and who is going to challenge their top spot?

Man happily saying hello on a Zoom call
Man happily saying hello on a Zoom call

As Zoom’s popularity — and scrutiny — continues to grow each day, sleeping industry giants continue to awaken. In May, Facebook revealed its video conferencing answer, Messenger Rooms, which hopes to challenge Zoom’s stranglehold on the consumer market. CEO Mark Zuckerberg bluntly stated, “We really built this service with privacy and security in mind from the beginning. We’ve been very careful to learn the lessons of how we’ve seen other people try to misuse other video conference and video presence tools during this period.” Initial reviews of Messenger Rooms have been positive, but time will tell if Facebook can bridge that unspoken gap between its current fan base and non-users.

As for Zoom’s response moving forward? Eric Yuan proved early in his career with WebEx that he values a happy customer; the resulting success of Zoom is a testament to his ability to leverage past mistakes to create a better product. In that spirit, Zoom’s immediate focus has shifted to “tripling down” on privacy and security. However, one must believe Yuan and his team are already a step ahead in solving each usability issue that has surfaced from this new, massive global user pool. While Zoom’s usability-first philosophy ultimately yielded major security issues, it also carved the path for Zoom to be the easy-to-use, go-to product in a time of crisis.

On Zoom, José Cayaso reflects, “When the entire world was taken by surprise by COVID, searches for webinars and video conferencing tools spiked in a matter of days, if not hours. All these years of work to make video calls easy came in handy at just the right time.”  

Zoom may not prove to be the universal answer for all remote conferencing. However, it has undoubtedly been an effective, haphazard global solution for nearly every single demographic and industry during the COVID-19 crisis. Eric Yuan reminds us, “We did not design Zoom with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home. We are committed to learning from these use cases and doing better in the future.” 

I would bet on Zoom’s continued dominance and success in the video conferencing market moving forward. I only wish I had bet on them in 2013!

Which video conferencing software do you prefer to use? Let us know in the comments!

This article originally published on GREY Journal.