Kelly Steckelberg has had all kinds of jobs, and her very first one was working in a department store in Texas. That’s where she first learned to support customers. Since then, she has been the CEO of dating site Zoosk and spent two decades working in finance for companies like Cisco’s WebEx.
These days she’s the CFO for a company we’ve all become very familiar with over the last year – Zoom.
Born in Vermillion, South Dakota Steckelberg says the reason for her success is her mother adding “She’s one of the strongest people I know and has a very high moral compass. One time when I was in high school, I told her I’d like to be on the tennis team. I went to a very small rural high school, so I didn’t grow up at a country club where I played tennis”.
My mother said, ‘OK, let’s play tennis.’ It was as simple as that. You want it, you go for it.
In 2017, The CEO of Zoom hired Steckelberg to be his company’s first CFO. Eric Yuan had his sights set on going public and needed an experienced hand to help him prepare for and manage the IPO. With Steckelberg, he also got a former CEO whose experience on the strategic side of running a company made her the ideal partner to manage Zoom’s explosive pandemic-led growth.
Yuan and Steckelberg worked together at WebEx, the video conferencing platform Cisco bought in 2007. For all of WebEx’s promise, Yuan said, it was too hard for people to use. That led him and other engineers to leave and build from scratch what they hoped would be a reliable, user-friendly platform: Zoom.
After she left WebEx, it was the natural choice to join her former colleagues. “Having the opportunity to be CFO at Zoom was something I just couldn’t pass up,” she said.
Glad she didn’t pass up the opportunity no one could have predicted, because of the pandemic, Zoom grew 355% over two quarters and of course became a household name.
Steckelberg brings two guiding principles to her role as CFO: Employees should think of the company’s finances as their own, and they should understand how their role contributes to the company’s success.
“If you give employees the opportunity to understand how they fit in, most will rise to the occasion and do everything they can to help. “Everybody wants to participate in the company’s financial success.”
Steckelberg credits her three years as CEO of Zoosk with giving her organization-wide insight.
“It gave me a much greater understanding of how marketing, engineering, and product development come together,” she said. “If we’re launching a product, what does that mean for needs that ripple across the whole organization? I’m more able to prompt people to think, if we’re adding all this headcount over here, don’t we need something on this side as well?”
Zoosk was a popular dating app when Steckelberg joined it as finance chief in 2011, but it ran into trouble while preparing for an IPO in 2014. Its losses were mounting despite having 27 million users and $200 million in revenue.
With critics saying the company was focusing too much on growth at the expense of profitability, the company canceled its IPO and Steckelberg was promoted to CEO. The job forced her to make tough calls, including laying off 15% of the staff and reducing marketing spend.
A key to the company’s turnaround was her executive team’s decision to change the direction of the product and eliminate features that would decrease its revenue in the short term.
“That was a very difficult decision to make,” she said. “It’s absolutely counter-intuitive to everything you learn as a finance person.
Zoom was already a high-flying company when Skeckelberg was hired in 2017, but the pandemic supercharged its growth in a way few businesses have experienced. Zoom literally accelerated about four years’ worth of growth into two quarters. And there aren’t too many types of products or services you can sell in the world that can actually produce that. As we all know, Zoom is a verb now.
Zoom has grown from about 700 employees to 4,000 in the last three years, and needs more, but the pandemic has slowed hiring.
Zoom opened its two newest R&D centers in Arizona and Pennsylvania rather than in Silicon Valley or other technology hubs. The company’s decision to add server capacity by partnering with Oracle, rather than building additional in-house data centers, provides the kind of flexibility that it can turn on and off as needed in the short-term.
Margins took a little bit of a hit because they had to use public cloud instead of building their own infrastructure out in some places. To know whether more server capacity is needed, Steckelberg said, she looks at a metric she didn’t pay much attention to before the pandemic: concurrent daily meeting attendees. Previously, she looked at daily meeting attendees as a gauge of company performance. But now, she needs to know how many people are video conferencing at the same time.
“It’s become more important over the last six months,” she said. “It tells us where we’re going and what we need to add.”
Steckelberg’s biggest challenge lies ahead: staying on a growth trajectory once the pandemic eases and the demand for video conferencing subsides.
After Pfizer in early November announced a 90% success rate with its vaccine in tests, Zoom’s stock valuation dropped 17%, a preview of what’s to come if it can’t show a renewed growth path.
But the company’s strategy so far has been reassuring, in one of its biggest moves, it launched Zoom Phone, a kind of PBX system in which calls, whether for work, home or mobile, are routed through a single system and can be converted to a video call.
Zoom has also been making its core video conferencing business more attractive for a post-pandemic world. Companies have seen how cost- and time-efficient video conferencing can be compared to on-site events, which makes them likely to make virtual events a bigger part of how they operate even while resuming travel.
Zoom’s improvements include a partnership with DocuSign to enable contract signings during virtual meetings and the launch of a program called OnZoom, which is intended to increase the attraction of virtual meetings for small businesses. Other initiatives include voiceless check-ins and what Zoom calls its Smart Gallery, a way for employees attending an in-person meeting virtually to feel more a part of the event.
“We’re always listening to our customers and learning from them what is the most beneficial to them,” Steckelberg said. “As long as we keep focused on that, competition makes us all be better. It’s good for the end user.”
Forbes has named Skeckelberg one of the top 100 self-made richest women in America. Her net worth is $255 million and most of her fortune lies in Zoom stock options which have more than quintupled in value in the first 8 months of 2020.