Jawed Karim: How YouTube Took Off

YouTube founder Jawed Karim gave an interesting lecture this week at his alma mater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He describes how he thinks YouTube fits into the Internet’s history of killer apps, with some nice stories about the early days of a company whose success has left many grasping to understand it.
Karim traces the idea for YouTube to a Wired Magazine article about BitTorrent by Clive Thompson in the magazine’s January 2005 issue. The story included the calculation that 867,000 people watched Jon Stewart’s brilliant on-air harangue against Crossfire, while three times that many saw it online. Karim, recounting the online reach of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” and camcorder/cameraphone videos of that winter’s Asian tsunami, says he was captivated by the idea of an emerging clip culture.

In the talk, which is about 45 minutes long, Karim also points to the confluence of broadband penetration, Flash 7, digital cameras and phones, and cheap bandwidth as environmental factors for YouTube’s birth on February 14, 2005. Then he plays the company’s very first video. Uploaded April 23, 2005, it shows Karim himself standing in front of elephants at the zoo. “The cool thing about these guys it they have really, really, really long trunks,” he says. That’s about it.
Once they had the site up and running, Karim and partners Steve Chen and Chad Hurley set about pitching the site to every Wired writer they could find. Nobody bit. Urging would-be entrepreneurs in the audience to trust themselves as experts, Karim notes, “Of course now it’s hard to pick up any copy of Wired that doesn’t mention YouTube.”
Problem was, nobody used YouTube. Karim shows another video of the YouTube boys sitting around pondering their existence. Nobody’s going to watch this, they complain; “This is lame.” To try to attract viewers, the three figured the best thing would do would be to get hot chicks involved. So, Karim recounts, they posted an ad on Craigslist in Los Angeles promising attractive females $100 if they’d post 10 videos on YouTube. They got not a single reply.
In June 2005, YouTube revamped, adding the four essential features that jump-started viral growth. 1) related video recommendations, 2) one-click emailing to spam a friend about a video, 3) more social networking and user interaction tools like video comments, and 4) an external video player.
That sharp uptick of growth (which, included in today’s YouTube traffic chart of the last two years, shows up as part of the flatline days) made it possible for YouTube to raise $3.5 million in November 2005. Sequoia, the sole venture firm that took a stake in the company, was apparently the only VC that really got involved with the product. Right after the first meeting, Karim recalls, the YouTube guys watched the entire Sequoia office, including the secretaries, register and start using the service.
And that’s where Karim’s talk ends. We don’t get to hear about his decision to leave the company and return to grad school at Stanford, but of course that’s a more personal story. What we do get is not so bad, though, and you can bet it’s a lot more than we’re going to get out of Google/YouTube PR in the foreseeable future.