GROWING up in Taipei during the Taiwan economic miracle, Steve Chen saw first-hand how ideas could be brought to life with hard work and determination. As the co-founder and former chief technology officer of YouTube, Chen played a significant role in shaping the video-sharing technology we see today.
Moving to the US at the age of 15, Chen soon became fascinated with technology and eventually started working for payments company PayPal. It was there where he met fellow YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim and started drawing plans for the video-sharing site.
“When I first got to Silicon Valley in 1999, I really didn’t know what it meant to start a company,” Chen explains to The Asset. “If you have an idea, it’s possible with work and good timing to build that idea into a real tangible project.”
YouTube’s launch in 2005 was an instant hit, attracting eight million site views by the end of December that year, then rapidly growing to 100 million views by 2006. Chen, along with his co-founders, sold YouTube to Google for US$1.65 billion, where Chen received over US$326 million for his share.
“Everything with YouTube went so quickly. From the growth of a startup, the registration of the domain name, to selling the company, all happened in a compressed period of 18 months,” shares Chen. “It took a few years for the results of that to reverberate across my mind to know what we actually created.”
Though it has been more than 10 years since Chen sold YouTube, he is always on the lookout for new ideas, particularly in his native home of Taiwan. “I try to go back to Taiwan at least once a year. These trips are not there to make investments. A bulk of my private investments are still here in Silicon Valley. It’s more about understanding, talking to the government, talking with incubators, the startups, and the entrepreneurs behind them,” says Chen.
Having experienced Taiwan’s technology growth in the 1980s, Chen believes that the island’s strength is still in its hardware development as evident by Taiwan’s market leaders like Hon Hai Precision Industry and TSMC. “I think, from a software perspective, Taiwan certainly has the vision, but hasn’t seen success. It hasn’t seen the returns that have been invested,” says Chen.
Nonetheless, he is encouraged by the entrepreneurial spirit in Taiwan. He urges ambitious individuals to be determined in their ideas. “What is it about Silicon Valley that produces so many great ideas, where you have Facebook next to Google? You have the willingness to take risks,” says Chen. “The idea of YouTube would never have been born if I didn’t pour my heart and soul and many hours into building a real product.”
Taiwanese companies in particular need to address scalability. With a population of around 23 million, any start-up company from the island needs to be able to branch out to other areas for opportunities and be able to compete with more established players. “Big companies own all these infrastructure and are ready to create products to make themselves successful. It’s more of a challenge if you are a startup, trying to create something that is completely beyond the boundaries of these companies,” notes Chen.
The 39-year-old has his eyes set on another idea – creating unique content. “I like where content is going, I think what is going to dominate the market are the content creators. The next few years will be the notion of creating content. This is going to be the thing that these companies are seeking.”
This article appeared in the December print edition of The Asset under the title "Turning ideas into reality".