Zoe Liu Startup Interview Oct 2021
LiveVideoStack, one of the largest video technical communities globally, talked recently with Zoe Liu, our Co-Founder, and CTO about Entrepreneurship and startup lessons that she has learned. Following are highlights from the conversation.
LVS: What is the most significant insight that entrepreneurship has brought you?
Zoe: One word – “Growth.” Before starting my business, I was a pure engineer. It wasn’t until I came out of Google after 18 years in R&D and deep tech development with Apple, Nokia, and a few other companies that I gained a fundamental understanding of the market and what it takes to launch and sell the products.
The process of starting a company from the ground up has exposed me to many different things. Every time I take a step forward, I feel that I am changing, which is different from before, when I was an engineer.
At the same time, after I experience a burst of growth (every day – make that, every hour), I always find the next hill to conquer. When I feel that I am constantly improving, there is a great satisfaction.
To date, Visionular has delivered enabling technology and products in the form of our video codecs and video processing solutions to more than 50 customers.
LVS: When is the most challenging time to start a business?
Zoe: Frankly speaking, for me, I don’t feel that there is a “most challenging time.”
My co-founder, Zheng Zhu, and I agreed from the first day that we decided to work together to make mutual trust the foundation of everything.
I’ve found that with trust as a foundation, nearly all problems can be easily solved. After working together for a few years now, Zheng always says that we only have “technical” issues, and therefore they are not a big deal – there is always an answer.
LVS: What are your more significant learnings from the entrepreneurial process?
Zoe: I discovered that there must be a corresponding solution for all problems, the perfect key to open the lock. When encountering a problem, I search first for the root cause, and then I gather together the right people to solve it.
We have a basic principle; whenever our team encounters a problem, we do not point fingers and blame or shirk responsibility because this behavior is the root of many issues in organizations.
I believe that anyone I come into contact with has something that I can learn from. The ancients said that my teacher must be in a three-person group – the words of the ancients have been circulating for thousands of years, and they are indeed worth considering.
Since embarking on the entrepreneurial journey, I have come into contact with many great people, starting with our customers, partners, investors, advisors, etc. They all have something that I can learn from.
LVS: What have you learned about selling products and go-to-market?
Zoe: With entrepreneurship, you must execute on innovation, but great technology without a successful business model will almost always fail. So you are right to ask about the business or go-to-market (selling) aspect.
With B2B, continuous innovation to improve our technology and product leadership in the market is essential. Being engineers, you could say that this part is a natural default for us.
As far as the business model, it is vital to discover the right angle to enter the market to deliver value to your customers with your technology and products. I learned very early that you don’t have a business if you can’t get your customers to pay “real money.”
I left Google in July of 2018, and it was just Zheng and I writing code together with our founding members of the team. We probably made several hundred commits to libaom, the Google/AOM-backed AV1 open source project. Zheng also had a small team working on HEVC.
Technology-driven entrepreneurs must be in front of customers; otherwise, they will not know whether the products they are developing are helpful or not. And if anyone is willing to pay for them.
After just one year, we knew that we must establish an office with a small group to fully develop our business and improve the functions of various departments, including sales, product, and marketing. This is how we formed our Bejing office.
When we contact customers, we first explore their pain points to connect with a real problem that they have. This is one of the most critical aspects of building a market. Too many companies seem to adopt the attitude that “If I build it, they will come.” Unfortunately, it’s this mindset that trips up many entrepreneurs. Especially those that come from engineering and technical backgrounds.
Once something that solves a real need is created, the customer’s willingness to pay will always be strong. Such things have a certain degree of repeatability where you can find others with similar needs. Do this at scale, and you will grow.
One additional point – product sales and marketing are complementary. Every step of starting a company is new to me. For example, I didn’t understand the difference between sales and marketing at first. But once it was explained to me by Gerry, the founding member of our business department in China, that marketing is the air force and sales is the infantry, I understood it.
I have been reading the book “Behind the Cloud” by Marc Benioff, which I can highly recommend. This book tells the story of the SaaS service and business model originator, Salesforce, and how Marc Benioff built one of the most iconic, disruptive, and enduring technology companies of our time.
The chapter on sales secrets says: “If this was a war against the software industry model, our marketing team was the air force, providing high-level air cover necessary to blanket the zone with our message. It was the mission of the sales force to conduct the one-on-one combat on the ground.” When I read this paragraph, I was very excited. I immediately took a picture of the page and sent it to Gerry, saying, “Look! Marc Benioff has the same view as you!”
LVS: If a friend says he wants to start a company, would you encourage it?
Zoe: I am always excited to hear that a friend wants to start a business. Having an entrepreneurial mindset means that I have not yet “laid down,” and I hope that there will be some pursuits in my life. I am always willing to share my insights and experiences. Although my experiences may be less rich, they accumulate by taking the entrepreneurial journey step by step.
LVS: How do you recruit for sales?
Zoe: Our requirements for sales are higher than those of other industries because success requires market and industry experience. At minimum, anyone joining us must quickly understand our products, the customer application, and how to best reach the key decision-maker(s).
Selling in B2B is a big challenge. There are many people involved in making or influencing the buying decision. With video, there is never one single “perfect” solution. Thus tradeoffs must be made, and everyone has their perspective on what’s acceptable and what is not. Completing a sales process is not an easy thing.
With that said, we’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have attracted nearly half a dozen sales and account reps with a deep pedigree in video technology and video encoding from some very notable companies in the space.
LVS: How have you won the trust of customers?
Zoe: We approach every company regardless of the region with the principle that when you do business with us, you are not just licensing a product but getting a partner. It turns out that there are many similarities between the different markets that we sell into. Essentially, everyone is seeking a better visual experience for their end-user, and this always means delivering better quality with fewer bits.
Although there are similarities in the market, what the regions care about can be different. For example, in the Asian market, there is a heavy emphasis on adopting and maintaining the latest standards and technologies. You can say that the Asian market is willing to move fast into next-gen innovation, even when there could be some concern about the maturity of the technology or the standard. Here, the challenge is to have the best technical solution while maintaining the lead since our competition is fierce from commercial companies and in-house development teams.
For the North American and European markets, companies are more concerned about containing operational risk. In these regions, you must show off technology innovation and demonstrate the benefits of moving to a new solution that is fully supported.
Though we tend to work with substantial companies with video operations and codec teams, they are all busy. What they all want to know is, “will Visionular be there for us not only today but in the future?” And the answer is always an emphatic “Yes!” With this, our customers can see that we have a relentless focus on continuous innovation.
LVS: What are your final thoughts?
Zoe: I feel that challenges and opportunities always coexist. Whenever we encounter a challenge, we should tell ourselves that opportunity is here! Although the epidemic has prevented us from meeting customers offline in person, we innovated on the sales and marketing front. I am very proud to report that we’ve adapted and our customers are responding better than we could have thought. For example, we recently signed a 7-figure deal without ever meeting the customer during the critical evaluation phase. In the pre-pandemic would this would have been unthinkable.
The video market is exploding, while technology fragmentation makes it more challenging than ever to compete for video services and platforms. This is what we call opportunity! Provided that we keep innovating and building the best solution, we’ll always be able to deliver outstanding outcomes for our customers. It’s a great time to be in technology and video!