The New York Times' "Corner Office" Features Tien Tzuo of Zuora

By Adam Bryant in The New York Times’ Sunday paper, January 8, 2017.

This interview with Tien Tzuo, founder and chief executive of Zuora, a software company for subscription businesses, has been edited for space and clarity.

What were your early years like?

I grew up in Flatbush and spent the first 28 years of my life in New York. I came here from Taiwan when I was 3. We lived in a dead-end street, and a lot of my childhood was just going out in the streets and playing stickball. It was a classic Brooklyn upbringing.

My parents were immigrants. They were psychology professors, but my father had an entrepreneurial streak, and he never really wanted to work for anybody. He wound up doing some import-export work, opened up a couple of stores, and eventually became a real estate broker. My mother decided to get a computer science degree.

They were pretty laissez-faire. You hear about all these tiger parents, and mine were the opposite. Their approach was, do whatever you want, we trust you. I just kind of ran my own life. And because I saw them become entrepreneurs, the idea of starting something wasn’t that scary to me.

Were you in leadership roles early on?

I’ve never really sought out leadership, but I’ve never really shied away from it. When there’s been an opportunity to step into it, I’ve been very comfortable with it. I am more of a puzzle solver. I can go figure out what needs to be done and organize the right resources to make it happen. That’s probably my strength. And I started doing what I do now at a pretty young age. My father’s insurance broker needed something to track his accounts and expenses, so I spent a summer building that for him when I was about 18.

What were some early career lessons?

I remember in my first year out of school, I decided to ask for a raise. At the company, the average at the time was 3 percent. I went to my manager and made my case about why I should get a good raise. And he gave me 10 percent.

I thought it was pretty good. But I remember waking up the next morning and feeling like nothing really changed. I just decided to never ask for a raise ever since. It just seemed like a big, useless thing.

So I’ve always taken more of a broad lateral path where I try to change my role every two years, because I was more interested in learning new things and having new experiences.

Tell me about your management and leadership approach today.

I tell everybody: “I’m more of a leader, not a manager. So don’t expect me to manage you. You have to manage me.” And I don’t do one-on-one meetings or performance reviews.


What I found was the one-on-ones just became this laundry list of issues. And I want most of the issues exposed in a team environment, because most of these things have to be worked out in a group setting.

And why no performance reviews?

If I have to do performance reviews with you, something’s wrong. We should be on the same page at all given times. We should have shared goals and shared accountability. And when the job is at a point where it’s gone beyond your capabilities, we’re both going to know, and we’ll work it out.

But what if people say, “I need feedback.”

If I have feedback, I’ll let you know. If you want feedback, call me up. I’ll give you all the feedback you want.

And when you say to people, “I’m not a manager,” do you mean that?

I really do, because I’m goal oriented. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about what you need to be successful, what your obstacles are and how I can remove them. I’m out there talking to customers. If you want help in those things, let’s have a conversation. I’m always there to help, but I’m not actively thinking about it.

How do you hire?

When you hire a lot of folks, you start thinking you’re good at it. And that’s when all the trouble starts. One day you realize your track record is about 50/50, and that there are real limits to how much you can get out of an hourlong interview or dinner.

That’s when I decided I’m going to hire in a different way. I’m going to identify the people who seem to have the best hiring skills. And they’re able to give me feedback about a candidate that’s pretty specific, rather than the fuzzy stuff.

A couple of my board members are really good at this, because that’s what V.C.s do — they’re identifying talent. So I usually put them on the hiring docket along with others, and then I synthesize everything they’re saying.

I’ve had situations where three board members totally disagreed about someone, and I’ll get them on the phone together. Then we do extreme back-channel references. The world is so small these days. You can find somebody who’s worked with them, and I go deep into asking about a project and their collaboration skills.

The last thing I look for is what’s driving their motivation. Why is our company the right company for the next step in their journey? When you have an alignment, then they’ll walk through walls and handle challenges because they’re looking for that personal growth.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

I see a lot of people get clouded about climbing the ladder and getting to certain levels. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is the environment you put yourself in.

The company you pick is going to shape you. It’s going to shape you by the culture. It’s going to shape you by the opportunities. It’s going to shape you by what you think is possible. So pick your environment carefully.

Each week, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about leadership. Follow him on Twitter: @nytcorneroffice. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.


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