Logo: University of Southern California

Broadcast Yourself: YouTube Co-Founders Share More Than Just Video

Media pioneers Steve Chen and Chad Hurley preach the gospel of adaptability to USC Viterbi freshmen
Joshua Oberholtzer
October 26, 2012 —
YouTube Co-Founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley
Peter A. Beerel and Ashish Soni in conver-sation with Steve Chen and Chad Hurley

The lecture hall overflowed with eager freshmen, spilling into the aisles and out the doors. They packed into the room, some for the chance to be inspired, some for tips on how to achieve their dreams and some for class credit. Their attention was keenly focused on the two unassuming men seated at the front of the room.

The duo spoke at USC on Oct. 23 as part of the Freshman Academy speaker series. They were here to introduce engineering students to real world applications of their chosen field and to inspire them with their incredible success stories.

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos introduced them as Steve Chen, 34, and Chad Hurley, 35, co-founders of a website that receives 35 hours of video every minute.

That web-site is YouTube, the site that made sharing video with the world simple and affordable, and made procrastination easy and endless. A web-site hated by media companies, loved by cat owners, and visited by 800 million individuals a month. This pair was here to talk about the difficulties and quirks of turning a clever idea into the successful site we enjoy today. Chen and Hurley were frustrated with other media players and the numerous different codecs and file types they had to work with. So they set out to simplify the process of uploading and watching videos in much the same way that PayPal simplified the process of paying online.

Other parallels were drawn between their time at PayPal and YouTube. They designed both ventures to utilize existing web infrastructure. Because they offered eBay a service that it needed, in the form of PayPal, they were able to utilize eBay’s existing users and reach critical mass without having to put as many resources into marketing. When MySpace users realized the ease of embedding videos onto a profile, YouTube gained a large network of early adapters who helped to spread the word.

When asked what they thought was the greatest contributor to YouTube’s phenomenal success, Chen stated that it was due in large to being the right idea at the right time.

Hurley believed that a large part of their success was due to the site’s user-interface and branding. The development of real-time transcoding enabled them to watch videos within a browser. This feature was incredibly useful to other websites and also acted as a powerful marketing tool by creating a link back to YouTube. This combination of marketing and functionality is what Hurley thinks led to their success.

According to Chen, many of YouTube’s best innovations came from engineers. Hurley reinforced this idea. “Everyone in the company was focused on the product,” he said. In its early days, YouTube didn’t have product managers, they almost exclusively employed engineers and designers, which is a structure that doesn’t exist in larger companies. Giving the engineers total control of product development resulted in a fertile environment for innovation.

Hurley continued to say that although engineers were the source of a lot of innovation, the trick to successfully bringing those innovations to market is collaboration among the many different people and perspectives you work with. In addition, Hurley promoted the ability to adapt as the key to launching a successful venture. Passion and dedication alone can cause you to otherwise miss opportunities that are often presented as problems. He summed up his endorsement for adaptability with the sound byte of the evening: “launch something, see how people react, then adapt.”

They wrapped up with a brief description of their new venture, AVOS Systems — explained as a sort of digital sandbox that makes the launching of Internet ventures easier than starting from scratch. “It is designed to help manage the information overload we experience in our digital age,” said Chen.

After the hour ran its course, the pair took the time to talk to the throngs of students that quickly surrounded them. The sheer number of freshmen gathered around them lent hope that these young minds are not only curious, but hungry. These two entrepreneurs clearly remember being a student with a clever idea, taking the time to share their story in the hopes of encouraging students to make their clever idea into something so much more.