Self-deprecating. Humble. These aren’t typical adjectives to describe CEOs. But in the case of Karl Sun, they’re apt. As co-founder and CEO of Lucidchart, a collaborative web app for creating elegant diagrams, Sun helped build a team of nearly 400 people, after opening Google’s first patent department and completing a law degree at Harvard. If anyone deserves some braggadocio, Sun makes the cut.
If anyone deserves some braggadocio, Sun makes the cut.
But instead the exec credits all of his success to the team around him. Most of his days are spent in meetings, gathering new ideas from his fellow “Lucidites” in their South Jordan, Utah, headquarters. In fact, Sun still tries to interview each new hire before they start work at Lucidchart. Then he sets them free to do their best work. In short, he trusts.
Sun’s leadership approach and modest personality is what makes him willing to share not just the glory but the exertion, not only the successes but the struggles of entrepreneurship.
Sun's Secret to Grow: Slow Down
Lucidchart is no longer a scrappy startup. In October, it closed a $72 million Series C funding round to enhance its diagramming technology and open a new office in Amsterdam. But its origin story is decidedly unglamorous. In 2010, after quitting Google and moving to Utah, Sun met Ben Dilts, the programmer who’d built Lucidchart.
“I recognized that this collaborative product solved an industry-wide need,” says Sun. “While text-based collaboration tools existed, there was a gap in visual collaboration. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” At that point, Sun moved them into their first office, a cold rented basement.
We didn’t have the nice office building or stocked kitchens. Just passion and belief in an idea.
It was then that Sun broke the cardinal rule of startup dogma. He decided to slow down.
“Instead of going straight to selling, we decided the first headcount we would add would be engineers.” It was risky. Investors got anxious. Then Sun slowed down even more. He proclaimed he wouldn’t hire to fix immediate needs; he would hire for the long-term, which meant bringing on candidates who valued teamwork, who were eager to build a company and patient amid change. “In those early days we were very deliberate about hiring the best people for the job, no matter how long it took to find those people,” says Sun.
Of course, Lucidchart’s success makes it easier for Sun to share some of the company’s early risk-taking. The product has a firm grip on the market, with 15 million users spanning 180 countries and 700,000 new users per month. Ninety-six percent of the world’s Fortune 500 companies use Lucidchart. Clients include NASA, Tesla, Coca-Cola, Spotify, and many more.
The co-founders spotted the need at the crest of Web 2.0, as the early days of static web pages evolved into a more dynamic universe, with better speed and functionality. People were actually doing things online. Yet at the same time, most major businesses were still stuck with clunky enterprise software. When they needed to illustrate a new process, project flow, or sales pipeline, the existing visualization tools had a steep learning curve. And any resulting document had to be updated manually and re-distributed to entire organizations.
Lucidchart has been called the “swiss army knife” of diagramming solutions:
- The flexibility of HTML allowed for a browser-based design experience.
- Entire teams can observe real-time updates and even contribute their own.
- That real-time collaboration virtually eliminates issues of version control and makes for more inclusive remote workforces.
Lucidchart says its tools can assist virtually any job (or even organize one’s personal life), including engineering architecture, IT infrastructure, operational efficiency, and product management. Imagine flow charts, org charts, value streams, floor plans, mind maps, and wireframes. And everything integrates with G Suite.
Over time, the company has kept its interface simple and user-friendly above all, a key to Lucidchart’s exponential growth. Not to mention it’s reasonably priced subscription model.
“It required virtually no training. Drag a shape. Drag a line. Connect things. Move them around. That was the real important part for me,” says Gabe Gloege, director of learning and development at Pearson, a Lucidchart client.
Retaining these selling points will be crucial for Lucid’s next phase. “We’re working to introduce capabilities that make it possible to automatically create diagrams and merge visuals with external data sources, drastically improving users’ ability to understand complex systems, processes, and ideas in ways that were previously unthinkable,” says Sun.
Lucidchart Unchanging Core: Teamwork
On a personal level, Sun also knows growth means he’ll have to let go a little, which might mean less face time with new hires. But that won’t change his gratitude for his team nor his gracious demeanor.
“When we won the [Entrepreneur of the Year] award, he told all of us there at the dinner that ‘you guys do all the hard work, I just go to lunch with people,’” co-founder Ben Dilts said of Sun.
In fact, topping the list of Lucid’s core values is “teamwork over ego,” says Sun. You don’t need a diagram to know the humble approach is working.