Why did YouTube win? An interview with co-founder Chad Hurley from 2005

YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. (File photo / Associated Press.)
YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. (File photo / Associated Press.)

If you remember the way video was handled on the Internet a decade ago, it was a pretty sloppy situation. Netflix was still two years away from launching its streaming service, and Apple hadn’t yet introduced video to its iTunes online store. To watch something, you often had to download special video player software, or sit and wait while a QuickTime movie downloaded. And if you wanted to upload video of your own, you had to navigate a sea of different formats — and restrictions on file size.

When I wrote a story for the New York Times in October 2005 about the various companies that wanted to make it simpler to share and view video online, it was tough to tell who was going to win. One of the entrepreneurs I interviewed was Chad Hurley, who co-founded YouTube. (It launched ten years ago this month.)

A bunch of entrepreneurs were founding companies on the same premise. As I wrote:

The entrepreneurs who have started companies like ClipShack, Vimeo, YouTube and Blip.tv are betting that as consumers discover the video abilities built into their cellphones and digital still cameras, and get better at editing the often-lengthy video from their camcorders, they will be eager to share video on the Web. While most of the services are free today, the entrepreneurs eventually hope to make money by selling ads or charging fees for premium levels of service.

Incredibly, three of those four startups have survived. (ClipShack is no more.) But why did YouTube become the biggest hit, with Google buying it in 2006 for $1.65 billion? Many people say it was because the site took a laissez-faire attitude about copyrighted content that users uploaded, like “Daily Show” segments and “Saturday Night Live” shorts. And that was definitely a factor.

But here are some excerpts from my September 2005 conversation with Chad Hurley that shed a little more light on what YouTube did right.

A team that knew what it was doing. YouTube’s three founders “were early employees at PayPal. We had that experience of building a great consumer product,” Hurley said. Just as PayPal had empowered anyone to accept payments over the web, YouTube would “do the same thing for video.”

Finding white space in the world. “Video, we felt, really wasn’t being addressed on the Internet.” People were collecting video clips on their cell phones, or their still digital cameras, and while you could download them onto a computer, “there was no easy way to share — no services like Ofoto or Shutterfly,” which were making it easy to share photos.

They picked the right technology standard to build around. YouTube chose Adobe’s Flash format for playing back videos, so videos “would seamlessly integrate into the web page.” And from the start, they accepted a wide range of video formats for uploaded content.

They didn’t make people download an application. “In the beginning, Google required people to download a media player to watch video,” Hurley noted. (He was referring to Google Video, a video offering the search engine built before it acquired YouTube.) “Video already has a high barrier to entry — why do you want to make someone download software?”

Decisions about file size. At the time, YouTube was allowing people to upload videos as large as 100 megabytes. “It’s a very generous amount of space,” Hurley said. But the limit existed because “we’re trying to prevent people from uploading ‘Spiderman.'”

Don’t let a little illegality stop you. When I asked Hurley about people uploading copyrighted content to YouTube, he said, “You run into this problem with any sort of community you’re trying to create. As we expand, we’re hoping the community will become more responsible.” That “just leave it to the community” stance didn’t work, YouTube later got sued, and eventually the company built tools to detect copyrighted material that users were uploading. (The suit, which was filed after Google acquired YouTube, dragged on until last year, when the parties settled.)

Focus on delighting users first. When I started asking about the site’s eventual business model, Hurley said, “Right now, we’re concentrating on the user experience. We feel that’s the most important thing — serving customers.” Hurley said that it was “clear we’re going to be an advertising-based product,” but he was determined not to run “force-fed video commercials in front of videos,” as CNN and some other big broadcasters were doing at the time. (Obviously, that changed after Google acquired the startup.)

The merits of simplicity. “We’re purposely trying not to add too much to the site,” Hurley said, noting that other video sites were too intimidating for unsophisticated users. “We want to create a product that everyone can use.”

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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