Interviewed on stage in New Orleans on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, at the 2015 Sage Summit, YouTube co-founder and former CEO Chad Hurley reflected on the origins and journey of YouTube and, with some coaxing and a bit of humor, had several suggestions for the audience of several thousand small business owners. The on-stage interviewer was Sage North American president Jodi Uecker. (Note: Quotes in this post are not verbatim and have been slightly edited. A video of the interview is available on the Sage Summit website.)  

How Hurley got to Silicon Valley

“My dream [growing up] was to be something like a Disney animator, but in high school I got interested in technology. [After a semester of majoring in computer science] I changed to graphic design. In 1999, I saw an ad from a small encryption company that was looking for an interface designer for its product that ran on a Palm Pilot. I had never been to California, but [they flew me there] and a week later I had a job and moved there. It was 1999 so I experienced the [internet] bubble expanding and then the bust.”

Hurley’s job was with a company called Confinity that eventually became a part of Paypal. The alumni of those early days at Paypal have spread out into so many successful ventures, they’ve been dubbed, “The Paypal Mafia.”

The origins of YouTube

“Some friends I’d made [while working at Paypal] would meet up from time to time to discuss ideas. We were aware there were photo services, the Flickrs of the world, and we thought that way of publicly sharing would be an interesting approach to video. People had digital cameras that had a video mode, but there was not a good way to share [such video]. So there were lots of videos sitting on people’s [computer] desktops … There were different kinds of video formats, so that was another thing that kept people from sharing. That’s when we observed [the software] Flash and realized it could enable us to [get different formats of video] to be viewed in browser.”

(YouTube now uses HTML5 instead of Flash.)

When the co-founders realized YouTube was going to be big

When asked if he thought YouTube would be as big as it has become, Hurley quipped, “Sure.” But then turned serious.

“Just being able to be at Paypal and survive the [] crash, we thought we were fortunate … YouTube just started as a project. We thought it would be useful, but everything that has happened, we couldn’t plan for that. … When we started getting around a million views a day, we knew we were on to something, but still didn’t realize [the potential]. We were working with some potential VCs and they were asking for projections so they could figure out our need for equipment to grow. We said that we thought we’d get to about 30 million views a day and then it would level off.” [It now gets billions of views each day.]

Advice to small business owners on how to use YouTube

“We developed YouTube as a platform anyone could participate in. It was a way to democratize the video experience … We were serving a technology need that would enable people to be able to embed video on their site in a simple way. It was like when I was at Paypal and we developed a simple button people could put on their website to get paid.

“Typically, small businesses do things like traditional commercials or product demos … [but] tutorials are extremely helpful. Pretty much anything a customer needs to know how to do, they can find on YouTube [from the videos posted by businesses and individuals]. Everything from how-tos on tying a tie, to a story I heard about someone working in a power plant and having a massive generator shut down. Somewhere on YouTube, there was a video that showed him how to fix it. YouTube helped keep an entire town up and running.”

“You can be as creative as you want …
but you want your videos to feel organic,
to not feel over produced.
You want your customers to
relate to your message directly.”
–Chad Hurley

On YouTube after being acquired by Google

“Every successful thing we did at YouTube was wrapped up in lots of failures. [Things were happening so fast], we needed the resources of a company like Google to keep up. We only had 64 employees when we were acquired. We had two people flying around the country just trying to keep our network up and running. Technology companies and media companies were starting to compete with us, or to retain their control of the web business. “Eric Schmidt [then CEO of Google] and Larry Page [with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google] gave us one direction and that was to continue to focus on the product and to grow the network.”

“At the end of the day,
I don’t know if there would even
be a YouTube today without
the support of Google.”
— Chad Hurley

Hurley explained that copyright issues and being able to work with media companies and music labels to develop revenue streams for them was possible because of the resources and experience Google had.

Don’t look for the big breakthrough: Look for the small detail that’s been overlooked by everyone else

Chad Hurley

(Creative Commons)

When asked about his process for developing ideas or concepts, Hurley answered:

“It’s just using a white board … talking through things with friends or colleagues. It’s really looking for a small insight. It’s not about a big or revolutionary breakthrough where you discover this thing that no one has ever seen before. It’s just about this small detail that’s been overlooked by everyone else.”

“Companies that are large today, like Google, didn’t start with [big ideas they are now working on] like driverless cars. It started with a small idea: if one website links to another website, that creates relevance. And from there, applying that to creating a simple search engine … from there, the rest is history.”

Bonus: The very first video uploaded to YouTube

Jawed Karim, one of the two other YouTube co-founders, uploaded the very first video to YouTube on April 23, 2005. It’s an 18-second description of elephants and even has its own Wikipedia entry, “Me at the zoo.” It ranks up there in historical significance with Alexander Graham Bell’s famous first few words spoken on a telephone, “Mr. Watson, come in here, I need you.” Both exhibit an informality that displays how little they could comprehend what would become of their creations.


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