A Bill Gates speech inspired Zoom founder to start an internet business—now he's a billionaire

Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

When Eric Yuan was in his early 20s, he heard a speech from then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates about the promise of the internet, and Yuan decided he wanted to move from China to the US to be a part of the Silicon Valley tech boom.

Today, Yuan is the 49-year-old founder and CEO of videoconferencing cloud software company Zoom, which debuted on the Nasdaq exchange on Thursday in an IPO that currently values the company at more than $16 billion.

In 1994, Yuan was just out of college and working in Japan for a few months at the same time that Gates was in that country to give a speech. At the time, Gates was in his late 30s himself, and Microsoft was still a year away from releasing its Internet Explorer web browser as part of the Windows 95 operating system.

In an interview with GGV Capital last year, Yuan simply remembers that he was "inspired by this speech" that Gates delivered in Japan on the future of the internet, which was then not yet as ubiquitous as it is today.

The talk reignited something in Yuan that he had been thinking about for a few years already. He'd first thought of the idea for a videoconferencing company as a college freshman in China in 1987. Yuan and his girlfriend (now his wife) lived in different cities and he had to take a 10-hour train ride each way just to see her.

Yuan spent those train rides daydreaming about ways he could see his girlfriend without making such a long journey. He remembers telling her, "Someday, if I can have a smart device and with just one click I can talk with you, can see you.' That was my daydream, right? And every day I thought about that," Yuan says in the GGV Capital interview.

Steve Case: Remember, even the internet was once a tough sell
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After listening to Gates, Yuan realized that the internet would be his future as well, and he decided to move to the US to work in the burgeoning tech industry.

Yuan applied for a US visa, so he could move to Silicon Valley and get a job. But, his first visa application was rejected — and so was his second one, and on and on. "I continued to apply again and again over the course of two years and finally received my visa on the ninth try," Yuan says in a Medium interview.

Yuan finally arrived in the US in 1997. He didn't speak English, but he knew how to write computer code, so he landed an engineering job with WebEx, the videoconferencing software company. Yuan was one of the first dozen employees at the company, which sold to Cisco a decade later.

Yuan rose through the ranks to become Cisco's vice president of engineering before leaving the company in 2011 to launch Zoom. While founding his current company eight years ago, Yuan says he thought back to his daydreaming train rides in China and realized his idea had come full circle.

"When I started Zoom, I started to connect the dots," Yuan tells GGV Capital. "It's like wow, I thought about that before but the technology was not ready, but the idea was there."

Now, Zoom has over 1,300 employees around the world and the company doubled its revenue to over $330 million last year (including a profit of $7.58 million). As CNBC previously reported, Zoom's stock surged with its IPO on Thursday, with shares jumping 80 percent from their initial price as of midday.

As Zoom's founder and CEO, Yuan owns a roughly 22 percent stake in the company, according to Zoom's SEC filings. Based on the company's current stock price, Yuan's stake is worth over $3.5 billion.

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Watch 33-year old Bill Gates explain his hiring process, why he moved Microsoft to the Seattle area
Watch 33-year old Bill Gates explain his hiring process