The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated a wide swath of American business, with most companies doing their best simply to survive the near-halt in economic activity.
Yet there have been a few bright spots, particularly in the technology sector, where cameras and apps can bridge the gaps created by working from home, social distancing and other public health practices that were unheard of at the beginning of 2020 and now likely will define the year forever.
Perhaps the single biggest beneficiary of that shift has been video conferencing firm Zoom, which has been steadily growing in popularity since its founding in 2011 but skyrocketed into the stratosphere in the first quarter of 2020 as everyone began looking for ways to stay in touch with colleagues and loved ones.
With that explosion in popularity came opportunity for the company to grow, and where did it look to plant new seeds? Pittsburgh.
With about 2,000 employees, Zoom is a sizeable company, but its recent success has provided the opportunity for an unexpected growth spurt. And when the San Jose, Calif.-based firm began looking for the best places to open research and development centers, its eyes settled on Pittsburgh.
“Zoom’s announcement is great news for the region. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we continue to attract technology-based, future-facing companies,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “Zoom’s presence here is proof that we’re one of the premier technology centers in the country. I’m proud of our strong partnerships that attract cutting-edge companies like Zoom. We look forward to working with all of our partners to strengthen our regional economy that embraces the tech community, and so many other industries.”
Along with a second R&D center in Arizona, Zoom hopes to tap into the newest generation of tech developers to drive its next steps, according to Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan.
“Both Phoenix and Pittsburgh have incredibly well-educated, skilled and diverse talent pools that are well-positioned to help support Zoom’s ongoing growth and continued success,” Yuan said. “We plan to hire up to 500 software engineers between these two cities in the next few years, drawing largely on recent graduates of the many local universities.”
With a worldwide reputation for pioneering cutting-edge technology, fueled by powerhouse research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, the region was an obvious candidate for Zoom’s growth.
“With our visionary faculty and exceptionally talented students, Carnegie Mellon is catalyzing revolutionary work to accelerate digital transformation across markets and industries, and we look forward to partnering with Zoom to enhance their remarkable momentum in defining the future of virtual interactions,” said Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University.
The latest addition to Pittsburgh’s tech scene underscores the city’s burgeoning reputation as a global center for the industry, attracting household names and nascent startups alike.
“Having Zoom make Pittsburgh an R&D home alongside the likes of Google, Facebook Reality Labs, Apple and so many other tech powerhouses reaffirms the fact that we are a growing, internationally recognized innovation center with the necessary talent, lifestyle and resources to thrive,” said Jonathan Kersting, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
“We look forward to welcoming Zoom to our ecosystem and being at the core of helping them build the next generation of virtual meeting spaces.”
Business is Zooming
Yuan helped launch Webex, a stalwart in the video conferencing industry, in 1997, and joined Cisco when the business solutions giant bought the company 10 years later. Dissatisfied with how Webex was being handled, Yuan left Cisco in 2011 and took a few dozen engineers with him to form Zoom.
The company experienced rapid success, going from 3 million meeting participants in its launch year of 2013 to 100 million in 2015. A year ago, the company was valued at $16 billion after a successful IPO and was making a profit by the end of 2019, with about 10 million participants each day.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic suspended nearly all personal interactions in both business and pleasure, Zoom’s easy-to-use nature and free access made it the go-to option for tech-savvy CEOs trying to hold meetings, senior citizens who miss seeing their grandchildren, and just about everyone else in between.
In March, when governments worldwide began issuing stay-at-home orders and other policies that kept people from seeing one another in person, Zoom’s usage went supernova; the company says it started seeing 200 million participants each day. That number jumped to 300 million in April.
Zoom is now worth nearly $50 billion—about as much as Twitter and Snapchat combined.