Operator Spotlight: Lucid Co-founder and CEO Karl Sun

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke with Karl Sun, co-founder and CEO of Lucid Software.

Your company has been on quite a ride over the last 10+ years and just tripled its valuation. Describe what Lucid does and the problem it’s solving. 

KARL: The Lucid business is built on our foundational mission to help teams see and build the future. As we see it, there is a massive shift happening in the way that teams work together to build new products, new processes, or new strategies. These activities require that teams be able to work side-by-side to understand how their business works, and how to make it better.

We provide a unique approach to collaboration. Instead of relying on endless text to get a point across, our applications allow teams to work together on a shared canvas from anywhere in the world. Many have turned to our products, Lucidspark and Lucidchart, to bring their teams together virtually, and in so doing have discovered that this new way of working and collaborating is even better than what they were doing before. 

COVID has forced us all to rethink workplace collaboration and given rise to new ways of working. As a visual collaboration suite, how does Lucid fuel the future of work, while avoiding the trap of zoom/slack fatigue?   

KARL: Sometimes communication and collaboration are talked about synonymously. But the truth is many companies are acquiring tools that optimize for communication and hope that those solve their collaboration problems. In the context of a hybrid workforce, the power of a common visual language breaks down physical and digital communication barriers so teams get the big picture, achieve a shared understanding and align on next steps. The Lucid visual collaboration suite gives teams the chance to work side-by-side, no matter where they are located.

Right before Lucid, you were at Google for several years. What was the biggest mindset shift you had to make going from a $23 billion company to starting from scratch as a team of two?  

KARL: I actually came on initially as the first investor, but then my co-founder Ben (who was still in school at the time) eventually coaxed me into joining full-time. We worked out of a student apartment for a while — it couldn’t have been more different than what I had just left at Google. With a brand like Google, we could get any meeting with anyone. Starting from scratch with an unknown brand, we had to be a lot more scrappy to get any kind of attention. The product really had to speak for itself, so we spent most of those initial years making sure it was so good that people couldn’t ignore us. 

Another thing is, in a smaller company, you have to focus on the most essential projects that produce results and lead to progress. There’s an incredible need for everyone on your little team to be accountable and have a drive to do their best on every single project. 

Lucid had wild success with its freemium product before moving towards B2B SaaS. What advice would you give to other founders following that path? 

KARL: As we thought about growth, particularly before we had a sales team, we focused on three things. 

  1. End user outreach: We put a lot of effort into making sure that current and potential users understand we can solve a need that they have. This involves a few things, but one of the biggest factors is our focus on SEO. We rank for over 1000 keywords and phrases.
  2. Joining ecosystems: One of the main tenets of our products is that users can use Lucidspark and Lucidchart in the systems where they work. To enable this, in the beginning we worked really hard on our integrations and being available in different ecosystems. Having Lucidchart included in the launch of the Google Chrome Web Store and Google Apps Marketplace and being able to grow up in the Google ecosystem was huge for us early on. But now you can also find and use our products within Atlassian’s ecosystem, Microsoft 365, and Slack, to name a few. 
  3. Sharing and collaboration: Because of our focus on collaboration, we also see a lot of users come in through their exposure to a diagram or board that someone else has created and shared with them. Better collaboration not only makes for a better experience for the user, but it also then becomes something that they want to share with others to solve their same pains. This exposes more and more people to our products.

If products are conducive to these three things, there’s a lot of potential for going the freemium route.

There are many ways for CEOs to evaluate business success in a SaaS context. What are the most vital company-level metrics that you personally rely on?

KARL: In the early days, it was definitely user numbers. The main goal was to get more and more people into the product and just increase our general product awareness. More users in the product also meant we were able to collect more feedback to help make things better. As we started to mature beyond that, we started to focus more on usage and conversion rates. Those metrics helped us know we were making a product that was compelling enough that people were paying for it. 

Now, we’re focused on successful users. There are a lot of factors that we evaluate to determine whether a user is successful or not, such as how much time they spend in the product, whether they get to an outcome, etc. 

You’ve shared great insights on the people side of entrepreneurship. What have you done to maintain lasting connections with employees in today’s virtual world? 

KARL: Our company was office-based prior to the pandemic, so the shift to remote work was new to us and we really did have to rethink how we made sure employees still felt connected, especially to our leadership team. So we made it a goal to over-communicate as much as possible and bring our employees along with us as we made decisions. 

We increased the frequency of our company-wide emails and all-hands meetings. We also added a slack channel to these meetings to promote interaction and connection across the company as we adjusted to our new way of working. 

We tried to transition as many of our engagement activities to a virtual setting as possible. For example, we have an internal talk show called The Oatmeal that two of our employees started as a way to learn more about employees across the company on a personal level. We utilized that platform to help employees engage with leadership by interviewing a new executive team member each episode. This type of interaction is really foundational when building lasting connections between leaders and their teams. 

In your opinion, what are some ways the tech and venture industries could do a better job of empowering the next generation of diverse leaders?

KARL: Even though we have a lot of work to do with diversity in general in the industry, there is usually even more of a diversity problem in leadership positions compared to entry-level roles. So, I believe it’s really important to actively identify those diverse employees who are earlier in their careers, and are top performers or have high potential, and actively mentor them to be leaders in your organization.

AOC often talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

KARL: I learned important lessons from my first three jobs. 

My first job was reclaiming usable old bricks from demolition piles and stacking them on pallets. This taught me that sometimes the work isn’t fun, but it still needs to get done. It also taught me the benefits of a desk job and gave me an appreciation for air conditioning. My second job was bagging groceries at the supermarket. This gave me experience in direct customer service, and was also where I learned the importance of mastering every job, no matter how small. 

My third job was working at a summer camp for teenagers and my favorite part about that job was being exposed to so many different kids and counselors who had such unique interests and talents, and watching them come together to create some pretty amazing things. It gave me exposure at a formidable time in my life to the good that can be done when people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences come together.

What’s your secret super power? 

KARL: I think I’m a good judge of talent. Part of that is identifying people who aren’t obvious fits (seeing beyond work history or experience) but have something in their background to suggest they have high potential. I also believe in looking at a group as a whole and understanding what needs to be added to the mix, whether that’s skills or personalities, to really complement the group and help the entire team be successful. 

The flip side of that is I also think I have a good BS detector 🙂

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.