May 2009

Citizen Chad

Chad Hurley sought a personal-video solution—and YouTube was born


Chad hurley discusses youtube Photo by Frank W. Ockenfels 3

Most people who change the world never really intend to. They’re usually trying to solve a more modest problem that will make their own lives easier. Chad Hurley and cofounder Steve Chen just wanted to email some per­sonal videos—and so in May 2005, they, along with fellow PayPal employee Jawed Karim, launched YouTube for $3.5 million. Instead of investing in schmaltzy marketing like other startups, YouTube focused on infrastructure essentials like having enough servers so they could store all the videos that would come in. The result: the largest audience for online video ever. The payoff: Less than two years after its launch, Google scooped up the company for $1.65 billion. Hurley is a big believer in democratizing video by leveling the playing field for aspiring filmmakers. And the site has had a huge impact on democracy itself, as evidenced by the 2008 YouTube presidential debates and videos of Barack Obama’s weekly addresses.

Jod Kaftan: Are there designers or artists you really admire?
Chad Hurley: I like what Jonathan Ive [senior VP of industrial design] has been able to do over at Apple—you know, create beautiful products. What they’re selling could be considered works of art. And I really enjoy the products that my friends over at IDEO come up with—real classic industrial design and building great solutions for people.

It’s interesting that you have an appreciation for industrial design, since YouTube is not a physical product.
I’ve always appreciated trying to make physical things. From time to time, I’ve experimented with sculpture or metal design. It’s a good break from just sitting behind the keyboard. You know, use your hands in another sense and actually constructing without necessarily typing.

You started YouTube in your garage. What problem with video were you trying to solve?
Steve Chen had videos he had made with his friends. I had family videos I wanted to show my parents on the East Coast, and there just weren’t any sites out there allowing you to share videos as easily as you could share photos.

Why do you think Google or Yahoo didn’t solve this problem?
They were definitely thinking about the problems around the time we launched but just not in the way we were approaching it.

What was different about your take?
We saw the need for a kind of personal-video solution. We focused on making it really easy to upload and view content and for people to search for and share that content.

Do you think the 2005 “Lazy Sunday” clip from Saturday Night Live helped YouTube become the industry leader?
That’s always one of traditional media’s complaints—and their explanation for how YouTube got so big. But if you look at the competitors we have—and there are hundreds—they have the most effective tools in the industry, yet they’re not growing. I wrote NBC and asked if they posted it, because it was getting a lot of views—and offered to take it down. They didn’t get back to us until three months later and more than 5 million views. What we have is a strong community around video.

And soon enough, Google noticed your efforts were worth $1.65 billion. But the rap on YouTube continues to be it should be making more money. How are you addressing this?
We drive a significant amount of search within our site, and a lot of people overlook that. They look straight to the videos themselves and ask how they are going to monetize the video. Google does pretty well in the search business, and we have a lot of search on YouTube, so we’re going to be developing products that leverage Google’s strengths.

Do you think of Hulu as a competitor?
No, I think they’re competing with TV, satellite and cable.

Aspiring filmmakers have been flocking to YouTube because it’s so easy to reach a huge audience, but apparently that’s a problem for George Lucas, who was overheard at an event giving you an earful about how YouTube was encour­aging bad moviemaking.
He does have a point. I mean there are a handful of talented individuals that are always going to do a better job. If you look at the amount of TV shows or movies, there’s only a handful that rise to the top.

A few years ago, former senator George Allen had a career-ending moment when a video of him using a racial slur was posted. How has YouTube affected our political process overall?
Well, it may open up cam­paigns to more attacks, but through YouTube they also have a chance to respond directly and rapidly—it feels more authentic.

Do you ever wake up one morning and think, Wow, we really changed the world with this thing?
Yeah, it’s been phenomenal. There are so many ways we’ve had an effect, because we didn’t box ourselves into serving one type of person. But at the same time, we haven’t had a chance to look back and reflect and, you know, say good job and give ourselves a pat on the back.

Running YouTube is obviously no small feat. How do you consume information—do you have an eReader?
I have the Sony Reader; I have the Kindle as well. I don’t really use either of them, to be honest. I’d rather sit down with a cup of coffee and a newspaper than read all my digital books.

You blogged recently that in 10 years, “online video will be the most ubiquitous and accessible form of communication.” Are you saying that email will be dead?
[Laughs.] Well, yeah, when that blog came out, everyone was saying, “Text is going to be dead in 10 years.” I’m just, like, “Wait, what are you talking about?” I think in terms of people participating with video, it is only going to continue to grow—that’s my whole point. The iPhone will maybe become more of a video-conferencing experience—you pick up your phone, you answer it, you’ll be talking to someone looking at their face.

So we’ll still have emails?
There’ll still be emails.