Another Reason Why YouTube Worked

Hunter Walk, a brand manager at Google and a friend of ours since he invited us to give a talk at the Googleplex, has an interesting post on his personal blog.

Here’s the brief background: Hunter was helping run Google Video and, since the Google acquisition of YouTube, he has been working with the YouTube folks. The point he makes has to do with collaboration, creativity, and trust — issues that strike at the heart of the work that a great many of us do, whether we work in business, academia, journalism, etc. Here’s what Hunter writes about the YouTube operation:

Personally it’s been interesting to get to know Steve [Chen] and Chad [Hurley]. … But the YouTube story doesn’t end at Chad and Steve. In fact, one of the underreported factors in their success is the product, design and engineering team they assembled. Almost all of the original team worked together at Paypal/eBay. As YouTube grew incredibly quickly they were able to sound the bell and keep bringing on more former colleagues. All folks who were vetted, trusted by one another, etc. Imagine the time, hiring risk and integration friction they saved — the ability to “get the band back together” was without a doubt a reason that YouTube scaled.

I think this is a really powerful insight. Most of us will never build something as monstrously successful or dynamic as YouTube. But we do all have to make decisions about the people we choose to work with, live with, play with, etc. While there is plenty of value in seeking out new partners, there is also much to be said for the devil you know — especially when, as in the case of YouTube, the devils happen to be fiendishly clever and hard-working as well. I guess this is why, among other reasons, Spielberg and Lucas are coming back for a fourth Indiana Jones film. It almost (but not quite) makes me want to put my old band back together


marianovsky

But there was a time when everyone was a stranger at paypal/ebay and they had to begin liking and trusting each other. In this case that cost (time and money in finding the right people) was covered by paypal/ebay.
Maybe an issue here would be how to keep a team of people that already like working with each other in your company.

majikthise

But what about the "groupthink" objection that groups do worse if everyone in them thinks alike, better if there's diversity and independence of opinion?

Vincent Clement

majikthise:

Just because a group of people worked or work well together does not mean that there is no diversity and independence of opinion. Collaboration, creativity and trust imply some degree of diversity and independence of opinion. Everyone may be working towards the same goal, but how they get their may differ from person to person.

furiousball

I have this theory that if you have a conversation with someone that has ever played in a band, they will bring it up within 20 minutes of any conversation.

egretman

10 minutes if you mention the words "life's not fair" and/or "I can live on pizza and beer and still be happy".

neal

This what nepotists have always known, of course.

DSarna

And look at the hit that EBAY has taken in the mean time. Obviously, EBAY has lost its innovative edge. I'm not an inside, but it would not surprise me to learn that these were key folks at EBAY, and replacing them has cost EBAY dearly.

mikeanon

"think this is a really powerful insight."

I'm reminded of the movie "Wall Street" where the commentators give all these reasons why the stocks in play are moving; we in the audience laugh because plausible as the reasons are, we know that the real cause are the takeover artists.

Same thing here. Pundits look for the 'reasons' YouTube jumped away from all its competitors. Theory after theory is proposed, and people bite (as in Dubner's post).

Here's the real reason. Chad Hurley married the daughter of Jim Clark. THAT Jim Clark, as in SGI, Netscape, etc. "Pops" paved the way and pulled the strings. Simple as that.

pkimelma

As to Ebay doing worse (or PayPal for the matter), the issue is when a company goes from startup and early stage to having to maintain and deal with legacy. It is hard to know with YouTube, but that team may be very bad at dealing with the next steps and growth and new demands and all. We have seen some of that with their difficulties in dealing with Viacom's requests to take down material as well as dealing with actually making money.
Further, at first the common mission helps to frame a good idea; but as the 1st commenter noted, teams tend to get insular and protective and resist new ideas.
But, it is true that a team that has worked well together for a while works far better than hastily assembled ones. It only takes one troublemaker to take away a lot of the productivity. Over time, the team strengthens and those that do not fit get pushed out or marginalized. Whether that is a strengthened bad team or good depends on the people and dynamics, but it is something that large companies tend to not handle well. The reason people leave soon after an acquisition is that the acquiring company tries to jam their culture down the throat of the smaller company; worse, they want to throw a bunch of new people at a well functioning team, and that sudden growth destroys the dynamics. So, the good people leave (and often start new companies). I have seen this myself 1st hand.

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stuart

Does Jim Clark have any other daughters?

mfw13

I think that this is a very overlooked aspect of why organizations succeed or fail. Too many companies ignore chemistry issues within teams and business units, something which usually results in talented people leaving in frustration why the people causing the problems stay on and cause even more problems.

My wife just left a company like this. Her boss alienated virtually everyone on her team...they all left for other companies, while the lousy boss stayed on because she was good at kissing up to her boss and hiding her own flaws.

Best argument yet for 360 degree reviews instead of 180 degree ones....companies would learn so much more about themselves if people were allowed to review their bosses.

pkimelma

mfw13, the boss review thing rarely works. Most bosses are thin skinned (often because they already have self-doubt) and most employees know that a poor review would not be taken positively. It is almost impossible to write a constructive review of a boss that does not cause problems down the line. I know IBM tried this a number of years ago and it was a disaster. They divided up the teams, so that some had the employees writing a review that the boss would read, some where the boss would not see it, some where the boss would not see it, but would get a general report on kinds of comments (not attributed to anyone). None of these worked well. The ones where the employees knew the boss would read it wrote bland and positive reports, regardless of what they felt (they did interviews later). The ones who thought the boss would not read it tended to write cagey negative remarks. When interviewed later, they said they did not trust that it would not get back to their boss, and some worried about any repercussions of telling the truth. The ones where they created an anonymous report gave the most honest and detailed information (many quite constructive), but two problems: the bosses could often tell who wrote what by writing style and word choice; the bosses tended to disregard most or all of the reports as "whiny".

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Joanna Bryson

I have been thinking lately about the way in which the high-tech industry is sort of a distributed version of an old-fashioned company. Old companies get nailed for spending money on pensions and R&D. In dot.coms, people save for their own retirement (and get higher salaries to do that) and R&D is mostly in the heads of all the developers. Like the galaxy, new companies get formed out of the remnants of old ones, when some core is formed around a good enough idea.

I hadn't thought about this extending to the point of bleeding people out of existing healthy companies. This must have felt like being in a binary system with a black hole in it to ebay & paypal.

pkimelma

Joanna, most/all high tech companies have agreements the employees have to sign which says that the company owns any good idea when employed, etc. Although in practice, this only applies to related technology (to what the company does).

The real issue for high tech companies is that so many acquisitions are handled very badly. So, the good employees leave after the time-milestones have passed (and they have collected). Many PayPal employees felt like 2nd class citizens in Ebay.

But, you do have an interesting point. One of the common complaints of acquiring companies is that the unhappy newly acquired people often spend their days working on some new venture and recruiting the good people. This harms the company twice (losing good people and unproductive people).

I am not sure what is happening at YouTube/Google, but you have to guess that some of those people are working on their next job, not on what is needed for YouTube now.

Finally, as to R&D: many companies have R&D, but many good ideas do not sound good in the early days (especially if not directly related to the current business). It takes someone with passion about the idea to start, and then a way to get funded to exploit it. This often does not happen at high tech companies. Many high tech companies have found that it is easier to let people leave, start a company doing what they believe, and then if it works out, the big company just buys them out, and the cycle starts over again. Cisco has been an interesting example of this, as has Microsoft.

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CNannery

This topic reminds me of Jim Collins' "Good to Great". Principle #2: "First Who...Then What". You get the right people together and you can accomplish much.

pkimelma

"You get the right people together and you can accomplish much." - and as a corollary: you get the wrong people together and you can accomplish little. This has been proved far more often I suspect ;-)

marianovsky

But there was a time when everyone was a stranger at paypal/ebay and they had to begin liking and trusting each other. In this case that cost (time and money in finding the right people) was covered by paypal/ebay.
Maybe an issue here would be how to keep a team of people that already like working with each other in your company.

majikthise

But what about the "groupthink" objection that groups do worse if everyone in them thinks alike, better if there's diversity and independence of opinion?

Vincent Clement

majikthise:

Just because a group of people worked or work well together does not mean that there is no diversity and independence of opinion. Collaboration, creativity and trust imply some degree of diversity and independence of opinion. Everyone may be working towards the same goal, but how they get their may differ from person to person.

furiousball

I have this theory that if you have a conversation with someone that has ever played in a band, they will bring it up within 20 minutes of any conversation.