As Chad Hurley and I prepare to sit down for our interview, an Arab woman interrupts to ask for a photograph. “It’s for my daughter, who loves you,” she says.
Hurley is no model and he has never graced the silver screen but at a science and technology conference in Qatar he is worshipped with the same fervour as an A-list celebrity.
The 37-year-old is idolised for helping to create one of the internet’s greatest phenomena — video-sharing website YouTube. The website became one of the top ten in its first year of operation and is now among the three most used globally, with 2 billion hits a day. That is equivalent to one in every three people watching a video on YouTube every day.
“It just took on a life of its own,” Hurley says when asked when he realised that he and two mates had created such a monster. “We were only tracking or preparing for our growth to top out at about 30 million views a day. We thought if we were to achieve that we would have created something phenomenal, but we easily blew through those numbers and ever since have been trying to [keep up].
“Even to this day I don’t have a chance to reflect and maybe appreciate the full effects that YouTube has had.”
YouTube’s impact has been colossal in many ways. Not only can family, friends and businesses share content but it has been responsible for the discovery of musicians, including Canadian singer/songwriter Justin Bieber, who is now one of the world’s top-selling artists.
Videos as simple as a cat going crazy or a catchy tune have gone viral to hundreds of millions of viewers globally — in as little as 24 hours.
Eventually, as millions of videos were uploaded onto YouTube each month, the immense popularity became almost uncontrollable for Hurley and partner Steve Chen (a third co-founder, Jawed Karim, had already departed). The pals sold their baby to another internet giant, Google, for $1.76bn, in June 2006.
Hurley took the largest cut, estimated to be $450m at the time.
“It felt great and it also felt like it was something that was necessary,” Hurley says of the sale.
“If it was up to us, we would have liked the opportunity to stay independent and continue to create YouTube on our own, but unfortunately [because of] the forces of growth, the situation that we found ourselves in, that wasn’t an option for us and Google, luckily enough for us, has provided the support and resources to take things to the next level.
“We needed resources, not just money for people [and] for infrastructure, but we needed those things quickly to keep up with growth — demand — and to build a critical base. Google provided the groundwork with what they’d already set up businesswise with their team and structure.
“It would have taken us years and years to get that stuff up and running; [selling to Google] basically allowed us to instantaneously — overnight — take things to the next level.
“If it wasn’t for that, I really feel that it would be hard to imagine YouTube being here today, at least to the extent or size that it is today.”
Hurley, who stayed on as CEO until 2010 and is now a part-time adviser, says while there has been some sense of loss, handing over the website has given him and Chen the freedom to continue to create.
The friends went on to launch incubator AVOS Systems, which acquired several websites before selling them off in July this year to concentrate on the pair’s own creation, MixBit.
“I only intended to stay [at YouTube under Google] for a year but I ended up staying for four because I wanted to see things through; it was sort of an opportunity for me to pay them back for taking a chance on us,” Hurley says.
“There’s always a sense of ‘what could have been’. When you go through the process of creating something and handing it over to someone else, there’s always a little sense of regret. But at the same time, I realise what [Google] has been able to provide and I do really feel that YouTube wouldn’t necessarily be here today without their support.
“Because of that, I’m very grateful.”
While Hurley is admired as one of the top tech innovators, design is his real passion and the essence of each of his ventures. He names cartoonist and businessman Walt Disney as his inspiration above fellow Silicon Valley successes Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
“It’s fascinating, [Disney] is just coming from a personal passion of telling stories and doing that through cartoons and everything else he was able to create from that is phenomenal. And the brand still exists today as one of the iconic brands today in the media world,” Hurley says, describing the late Disney as “a true visionary”.
Prior to YouTube, Hurley created the original logo for e-commerce site PayPal, where he also worked with Chen and Karim. He also completed a fine arts degree.
Since selling YouTube and moving onto MixBit, Hurley has also launched his own clothing brand, which is now part of Guideboat Co, a company that also designs and builds boats.
“That’s also been driven… by a personal passion,” he says. “Design is something that I enjoy and this is something that gives me an outlet to creatively express myself in a different way.
“That brand has taken on a life of its own, it’s changed into Guideboat Co and we’re building boats and apparel; it’s more of an outdoor brand.”
MixBit follows on from YouTube as a video-sharing app for smartphones that allows users to collaboratively film, edit and share video content.
“What YouTube was able to provide as a platform for a global audience was solving [the problem of] distribution for people, and MixBit is about creating an app that allows people to create content more efficiently, to provide automated editing and to do it collaboratively… so it’s not just up to one person to capture an experience,” Hurley says.
“Everyone has this content; people are taking more photos and videos than ever but it’s hard for people to make sense of that. People would be lucky if they post one photo on Instagram out of 100, but hopefully with this solution that we’re creating with MixBit that will allow people to collect all their content and for our system to make sense of it to create an interesting video.
“Apps are a more lightweight way to think about software. It’s easier for consumers to think about an app versus downloading or installing a piece of software, it’s all about how you present it to people and they react in a different way.”
Launched in August last year and viewed as a competitor to Twitter’s Vine and Facebook’s Instagram, MixBit has not had the same speed-of-light success as YouTube. But Hurley insists he and Chen, who co-created the app, started with “very low expectations”.
“It would be naive for us to feel like we’re going to replicate what we did with YouTube; it’s a hard task for anyone to achieve,” he insists.
“For us, it’s simply trying to create a product that we enjoy, that we’d use on a daily basis, and hopefully that translates to some type of success with others feeling the same way.
“I think there’s still tremendous opportunities within the video space and that’s why I continue to work on it.
“But I’m not relying on my name for any type of success, I just pursue things that interest me and I think that’s the philosophy that any entrepreneur should take with them. If you’re going to wake up and do something on a daily basis it better be something that you enjoy.”
Hurley’s efforts to make access to video content easier have threatened the music and TV production industries. More content is uploaded to YouTube each month than the three main US TV networks produced in their first 60 years.
YouTube and MixBit have been repeatedly taken to court over copyright claims, allegations Hurley argues have been unfounded.
“Of course I think it’s been unfair; when you’re in the spotlight [as owners of YouTube] you’re kind of blamed for all the problems,” he says.
“It’s all about developing the right tools and policies, which I feel we were able to do from day one at YouTube and it’s proved itself in any case that’s been brought against us. Even though we were the largest, I think we were the ones doing the most. There were a lot of competitors that weren’t nearly as pro-active as YouTube [but] because we’re the most visible, it’s what people would associate with us.
“I feel the industry was making a lot of noise because they’re more scared about losing control, not necessarily just creation of content, because everyone has a camera in their hand, but also the distribution of that content. YouTube is presenting a new, meaningful way to distribute content on a global basis. They’re more concerned about that than potentially any copyright infringement that would come up.”
The sites also have faced criticism over some controversial videos, including racist or abusive content, pornography and images of fatal accidents. YouTube’s site policy relies on users to flag when a video is considered offensive — a policy that has been criticised as being too little, too late by the UK government.
But speaking to Arabian Business in Doha, Hurley is reluctant to criticise government censorship of social media.
“Every country is going to have their own set of laws and every culture is going to have their own set of norms. It’s a hard thing to figure out — we’re talking about global platforms,” he says.
“We were lucky enough to be part of Google, which had to some extent figured some of that stuff out or had the resources for us to do that appropriately, but it’s always a give and take and you have to have the appropriate people in place to respond to things as necessary.
“Usually it’s helpful to have people on the ground, again, with Google being a global company, having offices around the world helped tremendously with that.”
GCC governments are investing millions of dollars in technology innovation and creating specialised science and technology parks they hope will one day compete with Silicon Valley, in a bid to diversify their economies as well as encourage citizens into the private sector and help address the impending unemployment disaster among the region’s over-proportionate young population.
Hurley says his start-up successes have come from personal experiences.
“Step one is to really start small, to focus on something you’ve observed as a problem,” he says.
“Create an opportunity from that, create a prototype, create something that allows you to test that idea. Take that idea and incubate it to whatever it becomes later in life.”
The idea for YouTube turned Hurley and his mates into multi-millionaires and Silicon Valley household names almost overnight. But as Hurley sits patiently playing with his mobile phone while waiting to be told where to go after our interview, it appears money has done little to affect him other than provide the financial freedom to pursue other creative projects.
“I just take everything on a day-to-day basis and try to pursue things that interest me, that I enjoy,” he says. “I think to some extent what YouTube has done is provide that. I feel really fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to take advantage of these opportunities and hopefully I’ll have the chance to create more solutions that people enjoy and use on a daily basis.”
Maybe then this long-haired American really will become a poster boy.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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