Throughout his career, Neal Mohan has been among the forefront of several major shifts within the internet ecosystem.
Mohan, who is the chief product officer of YouTube and senior vice president at Google, began his internet career at DoubleClick in the ‘90s, where he was a pioneer of the now-widespread advertising business model. He arrived at Google via the company’s 2007 acquisition of DoubleClick, and was instrumental in expanding advertising technology as well as laying the foundation for user-generated content platforms to thrive.
“Advertising business models are about scale, and the internet from the very early days has always been about scale, about global audiences, people all over the world,” says Mohan. “Advertising allows you to do that because it enables revenue generation and content production in a way where there’s no friction between the consumer of the content and the [platform].”
That lack of friction, as well as that drive for scale, allow for a widely accessible product, too. Says Mohan: “Advertising business models generally keep access to information, content, and knowledge free. That’s the ethos of companies like Google and YouTube, but it’s a fundamental ethos of the internet. It’s always about fundamentally powering the creation and consumption of all this incredible information.”
Directly feeding into this growth is the fact that YouTube has taken its partnership with content producers seriously from the start, understanding that the creator economy is, in fact, an economy — and actively seeking ongoing, layered monetization opportunities for those fueling it was the best way to sustainably scale.
In his conversation with Greylock general partner David Thacker, Mohan talks about the connection between those creating and consuming content, the complexity that comes with scale, and why the YouTube community guidelines that govern content are essential to it being an open platform.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greylock’s Iconversations. I’m David Thacker, a general partner at Greylock. Our guest today is Neal Mohan, who is a chief product officer of YouTube and senior vice president at Google. Neal oversees every aspect of the YouTube platform and ecosystem for over 2 billion users and millions of content creators and media partners.
He began his tech career in the 1990s at DoubleClick, which is widely regarded as the original internet ad tech company. He was instrumental in scaling the company up until its acquisition by Google in 2007. Following the acquisition, Neal led Google’s video and display advertising strategy, which transformed YouTube’s nascent offerings into one of the company’s largest business channels.
Today, Neal leads all product, user experience, safety, and trust across YouTube, and is responsible for the creation and enforcement of policies and guidelines that dictate what content is allowed on the platform.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Neal for about 15 years, going back to our time working together at Google. We’re excited to have him with us here today. Welcome, Neal.
Thanks, David. It’s great to be here and it’s great to see you. I remember a lot of those Google days very, very fondly — working together back in the Building 42 days.
Yep, Building 42. Well, let’s start off. I think everyone in the audience always likes to understand people’s career story, how they end up in technology and startups. So, can you tell us about your early career and how you got into the world of technology startups?
Sure. I’ll share a little bit and, of course, by doing this, I’m going to be dating myself. But I entered the tech industry back in the mid ’90s. I graduated with a degree in Double E [electrical engineering] and took a lot of CS classes. I’ve always been interested in technology, even before college, and so I always knew that working with computers, doing something in computer science and technology, was always going to be the career path that I wanted to be on. That was one aspect.
The other thing that I would say is, when I graduated and came into the workforce, it was at a really pivotal moment, and, I think in that sense, I was very fortunate. Whenever you’re able to start your career really at the inflection of a big technology change, it’s always super interesting. It leads to really interesting opportunities at an incredibly rapid clip.
For me, that was, simply put, the dawn of the internet. Netscape had just come out with its first browser technology. It had just started as a startup down the road here in Silicon Valley. There were lots of companies really excited about making this transition to this brand new thing called the internet, and that is when I had started my career.
I started as a management consultant working with a lot of technology companies, finding ways to bring this new emerging technology around the internet to Fortune 500 companies. And very quickly after I realized that, instead of advising them, I really wanted to work at one of these startups. And so that’s when I joined one of the really early internet advertising technology companies called NetGravity. That’s a little bit about how my career started in the tech business.
You’ve been a long-time veteran of the ad industry, and, when you look today, all these major digital platforms — Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Nextdoor —all their businesses have been powered by advertising technology.
You ended up at DoubleClick pretty early on, which was the original internet ad tech company. And a side note: DoubleClick was actually a Greylock portfolio company. We co-led the Series A. But you were there in the late ’90s up and through 2007. Can you tell us about your early experience there, and what was going on during your time there?
Yeah. I mean, I’d say a few things. Going back to what I was just saying before, it was really the early days of the internet, and so lots and lots of companies were figuring out what the internet was all about. Was it just a communication channel? Was it just marketing? Were people really going to gravitate towards it? Of course, being in Silicon Valley, working for companies like NetGravity and others, I was seeing skyrocketing growth. You’ll remember, in the dot-com 1.0 days, companies were raising money, figuring out what their internet businesses were going to be.
It was a really, really exciting time, and one of the things that happened very, very early on was the recognition that the internet had similarities with lots of other media in the past, right? Like: It was an information channel, in many ways, whether it was like print or television or radio or what have you. The internet was a place where people consumed information, whether that was for entertainment purposes, news purposes, what have you. And it was also where people distributed information.
And [in] those types of scenarios, oftentimes the primary business model is an advertising business model. The reason for that in my view, having spent my career really at the nexus of media and technology, is twofold. The first is [that] advertising business models are about scale, and the internet from the very early days has always been about scale, about global audiences, people all over the world.
Advertising allows you to do that because it enables revenue generation and content production in a way where there’s no friction between the consumer of the content and the website, back in the day — or the app, today — that the content’s being consumed on.
The second part of it, which has actually become a real motivator for my career arc, is that advertising business models generally keep access to information, content, and knowledge free. That’s the ethos of companies like Google and YouTube, but it’s a fundamental ethos of the internet. Lots and lots of information on the internet that we all consume and enjoy, regardless of where we are in the world, is free because of advertising models.
I would say to all of my teams, whether the teams I was leading [were] at DoubleClick or at Google, [that] it’s always about fundamentally powering the creation and consumption of all this incredible information and doing it in a way where, whether you’re on a low bandwidth connection somewhere in some other part of the world or sitting on a high-speed internet connection here in Silicon Valley, you have access to the same amount of information, the playing field is level and it’s democratized. That’s been a core aspect of how I thought about my career, and it was really kind of the foundational premise of companies like DoubleClick, and then, a few years later, companies like Google.
Yeah. It’s amazing how advertising has powered these services that are accessible now to billions of people around the world. When Google acquired DoubleClick in 2007 — I think it was like a $3.1 billion acquisition — it was the largest acquisition in Google’s history. Is there anything you can share about the acquisition and how it went down and how you all ended up at Google?
Yeah. I mean, I probably can’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but as I know you know, David, and I know as has been reported publicly, it was certainly a competitive process. And I think, probably, what might be most interesting to your audience here is some of the motivators behind it.
I think it all goes back to what Google’s mission has been about organizing the world’s information and making it accessible to everybody, and what DoubleClick’s mission was, which was powering the creation of all this amazing content through the power of advertising. Those two mission statements complemented each other really well.
If you recall, even from the very early days, Google’s business was certainly about the search engine — giving users the information they were looking for — but it was also about creating business models for all of those websites that those search results were going to.
That’s where AdSense came from, back in the early days, as you know. And DoubleClick, because it created monetization opportunities for publishers [and] created advertising opportunities for advertisers, really fit very nicely into that picture, where the goal was to create the best possible products and services for our joint publishers and advertising customers all over the world.
We signed the deal with Google, as you said, for a little over $3 billion in 2007. It took a year for the deal to close because it was under review by the regulatory authorities, both in D.C. and in Brussels, for a year, so I spent time with the government regulators on that process.
And then, in 2008 — basically almost a year later is when the actual transaction happened — we were off to the races to actually build on this sort of combined vision of what we could do for publishers, what we could do for our advertisers. As you’ll recall, that’s where new product concepts like the ad exchange and programmatic advertising came from, which I think have created lots of opportunities for publishers and advertisers alike.
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I think so many technology acquisitions, especially large acquisitions, end up failing. But I think DoubleClick is widely viewed as a success within Google, and certainly the broader industry, as is the YouTube acquisition.
Let’s switch and talk about YouTube now. YouTube was the original user-generated content platform, at least the first to reach a really massive scale and wide audience. And Google acquired YouTube for, I think, $1.65 billion in 2006, so this was prior to the DoubleClick acquisition.Today, YouTube is a massive success. Back then, there were a lot of questions about the company.
Right before that acquisition in 2006, I want to read a quote that Mark Cuban, the famous investor and the host of the TV show Shark Tank said. It is, “Anyone who buys [YouTube] is a moron because of potential lawsuits from copyright violations. There’s a reason they haven’t yet gone public, they haven’t sold. It’s because they’re going to be toasted.”
And of course, he’s not always right. But, as an outsider at the time of that acquisition, if you can think back to 2006, I mean: What did you think of YouTube being acquired by Google, and what were the conversations you all were having about it?
It’s a great question, and I’ll share a couple of anecdotes about that. So Mark, actually, when he founded broadcast.com — he was one of my customers at NetGravity and DoubleClick back in the day. And obviously, as we all know, he was one of the original pioneers when it came to internet video. Regarding YouTube — YouTube was a customer of DoubleClick’s before either company was acquired by Google, and actually, one of our largest and fastest growing customers.
My insights into YouTube predated the YouTube acquisition by Google. I would fly out from New York at the time, when I was helping run DoubleClick, to meet with the founders, the exec team, at YouTube. The conversation would always be about: Hey, DoubleClick, can you keep up with the growth that we’re experiencing on a month-over-month basis, quarter-over-quarter basis?
So I saw firsthand the types of just amazing growth that the company was experiencing, and literally the problems were all of these good problems to have: How does the infrastructure that we’re building, the products that we’re working with, like DoubleClick, keep up with all of this growth? That was an amazing sort of journey, even before the Google acquisition. I’m sure the teams at Google saw the same thing. Google had a product at the time called Google Video.
I think the fundamental reason behind it stands true today — behind all of that growth, behind the success that the platform has had today, and how it’s kind of this global staple today, if you will.
And that has to do with the fact that the original, kind of the core, mission of YouTube has remained the same, and it’s in its name: YouTube. It’s about giving everybody in the world a voice, and showing everybody the world. If you unpack that mission statement, it’s all about the fact that this platform, this app, is a place where you and I, if we have a creative idea, we can set up a channel and start sharing that with an audience all around the world instantaneously.
And that has always been the power of YouTube, the power of this open platform. Similarly, if I want to learn something new or I want to be entertained.
"No matter where I am in the world, I have access to all of these amazing creators on the platform in an instant. And that, I think, is the core engine — that power of an open platform — that has been powering YouTube for the last 15 years."
Yeah. It’s amazing to think how in the early days of YouTube, to your point, growing so fast: How did they keep the servers up? I mean, this was [the era of] the public cloud. You didn’t have AWS, and so I’m sure they were running their own infrastructure. And it’s one of those products where [if] you upload a great piece of content, it’s going to go viral. [It’s] one of the first truly viral internet products, right? Where something could just grow so fast.
Since YouTube came on to the scene, there have been a lot of changes in the industry in terms of content platforms and the media industry overall. Can you characterize the media and entertainment industry today? What are you seeing? How do you think it’s evolved, and what’s driving innovation today?
Yeah. I mean, I’d say a few things. Probably the most salient piece around the industry and the business of everything I talked about — we just chatted about the growth from a user standpoint, from a creator standpoint — but I also think that there’s another real vector of growth that’s powered all of this, where YouTube has been an early pioneer. It’s a term that I think is overused today, but it’s something that YouTube has been doing for over a decade now, which is truly this creator economy, this creative economy. And that’s a fundamental characteristic of YouTube, and actually, if you take it all the way back even before YouTube, it’s a fundamental characteristic of the internet.
You need a business model to sustain the creation of this content. That’s what I talked about when you asked me about DoubleClick and the advertising business model. YouTube has been about the creator economy ever since 2007. We have tried to create a monetization program for creators that allows them to produce content in a sustainable way.
That’s become a buzzword, but [it] has always been a core part of our platform and, I think, remains one of those core engines that’s powering not just YouTube, but the entire media and creative industry. So, that’s the first thing I’d say. The second thing I would say is that the pandemic that the world has been living through for the last couple years, in many ways, has accelerated a lot of the trends that were already there.
One of the big ones on our platform is the rapid growth of mobile-created short-form content. And the way I think about that is that: If YouTube started today, it wouldn’t be about creators inventing the vlog format by putting a camera on a tripod in their bedrooms or family rooms. It would be about creators shooting video on their mobile phones, because all of that powerful creation and editing technology is right there on their phones. We’re seeing rapid growth of that type of content. We have a product called YouTube Shorts that’s growing incredibly rapidly all over the world.
The second [trend] is consumption on all surfaces and devices, both video-on-demand content as well as live content, so that means not just mobile phones or laptops or desktops, but on living room devices. The living room is our fastest growing surface. It’s already our largest in some parts of the world. I think this connected TV experience for the media industry is also a big growth driver.
And then, the last thing I’ll say is: Just like every other part of the tech business [and] internet industry, we have seen proliferation of commerce opportunities. Shopping, right? Basically, whether it’s through being influenced by creators driving the sale of products and services [or not], YouTube is a place where people come not just for information or entertainment, they come to learn about products, to buy products. This commerce acceleration that’s happened during the pandemic, kind of the 10x-ing of it, is something that I see not just in the online commerce space, but also in the media space on platforms like YouTube.
It’s amazing how powerful a platform YouTube is now. I mean, it really created the creator economy, but when you talk about commerce and the other use cases for YouTube, it really can do pretty much anything.
When you first joined Google, you were running display and video advertising there, you built that business. Then you came over to YouTube, so you came in with a very deep advertising background — what were the questions that advertisers had about YouTube? Because I think, back then, YouTube hadn’t really proven itself to advertisers as a valuable channel or platform. And I’m going to give one more Mark Cuban quote, and that’s the last one, but this goes back to, again, right around when YouTube was acquired. He said, “User-generated content is not going away, but do you want your advertising dollars spent on a video of Aunt Jenny watching her niece tap dance?”
And he said this at Advertising Week in New York, right? To an audience of big ad agencies and advertisers. And so there was a lot of skepticism about UGC as a place where advertisers wanted to put their ad dollars.
Talk about that evolution, and what your experience was with advertisers with YouTube.
It’s a really interesting question. And, obviously, in terms of that quote, I think the writing is on the wall today in terms of the types of things advertisers are interested in. But I’ll give you the context behind that and the way I saw it.
Just by way of starting off, my career at Google was, as you described, split into two pieces. For the last few years, I’ve been helping run YouTube as the chief product officer, but before that, when I ran our display and video advertising business at Google, my biggest customer or partner was YouTube because, fundamentally, the types of advertising that run on YouTube are video and display advertising. And so it ran on a lot of the technology that my teams were building out for the broader internet and app ecosystem.
Even before I came over to YouTube formally, I got a firsthand seat, just basically being responsible for the monetization of YouTube in many ways. I spent a lot of my time talking to advertisers in those very early days. And I think advertisers, and ad agencies that were working with those advertisers, recognized that there was something really special here. And the reason was they would hear about it from their friends, their family, their kids, etc., even if it might not have been their own experience back in the day.
So I think there was that broad recognition that there is something here, and a lot of the conversation focuses on the format, which was video, right? And so people very quickly were able to make the connection between television advertising, which of course is a hundreds of billions of dollars industry, and what YouTube could become.
But I think that as advertisers got more sophisticated over the years, and is certainly the case today, it became almost less about the format. Obviously video is important, video is sight, sound, and motion. It’s kind of the primary storytelling medium, which is obviously great for content, but also great for content that is ads.
I think the biggest sort of insight that advertisers have had over the years is that it’s actually about connections, and it’s about the connection between YouTube creators and their audiences and fans around the world. And advertisers really want to participate in that connection. They want to support those connections. They want to support those creators. And that, I think, is really the magic of YouTube from an advertising standpoint, which is: Mr. Beast has tens of millions of followers, not just here in the U.S., but in all parts of the world, because he forms this incredibly strong connection with his audience.
And that sort of invisible connection is what YouTube is really all about, and advertisers see that in results, whether they’re looking to build a brand, create awareness around a new product, or increasingly, as you see on YouTube these days, drive sales and services in direct-response advertising. That is kind of the core fundamental value proposition. I call it engaged reach, engaged audiences, because when people are consuming YouTube — and we probably experience all of this ourselves — you really are leaning forward. You’re connecting with a creator in a way that I think is different than any other sort of media that those advertisers could spend on, whether that’s digital media or sort of “traditional media”: television, print, what have you.
Got it. Did you say it was Mr. Beast, as your example?
Yeah. Mr. Beast was the creator example. Just because he is one of our biggest creators today.
I don’t know who he is. I’ve got to check it out.
You have to check it.
OK, so, we talked about the industry landscape. You mentioned a few things that YouTube has done to take advantage of that.
When you think back on the trajectory of YouTube since you’ve been there, what are some of the main inflection points that have driven growth? [Are there a] couple of examples maybe you could share more details on? Paying creators for instance, and encouraging them on the platform, the rise of social media. Any other things that were really catalysts for rapid growth?
Yeah. I’ll point out, at least in my experience, three or four sort of seminal moments, if you will. The first one I was going to touch on is the one that you just pointed out, which is really the advent of the creator economy.
That started with the launch of what we call the YouTube Partner Program, which is our primary monetization program on YouTube. And that started all the way back in 2007. The insight there was — just like other parts of the internet as we’ve discussed extensively in this conversation so far — something was clear:
"In order for there to be a sustainable content creation model, there needed to be a business model associated with it."
And to be able to do that at the scale of YouTube, advertising was really the way to drive that, and to share those advertising revenues, those proceeds, with creators.
That was really the genesis of the YouTube Partner Program — and then, I think, the creative economy as it exists on YouTube today, with millions of creators being able to generate revenue, lots of people being able to generate enough revenue where they can make that their full-time career, quit their jobs that they might have had and basically become YouTubers full-time. tThat program started in 2007, so I would say that that was a key catalyst of growth and remains a key aspect of the YouTube platform today.
The second thing I might call out — this was right around the time I was starting in my current role at YouTube, back in 2015 — was the recognition that, obviously, we had this core use case on YouTube of fans connecting with creators, consuming video content. We had that on our main app, on the various mobile platforms, on desktop, on the web. But that is also when we recognized that there were some specific use cases that required diverging from the main app, and so that was when we started the portfolio of YouTube apps that you see today.
A few years after that we launched YouTube TV, which, as you know, is our linear video, linear television application that we offer as a service to users here in the U.S. We launched YouTube Music, which is a standalone music app, as music is one of the key use cases on YouTube — has always been, since the very early days, for discovering new music and connecting with your favorite artists. And we recognized that an audio-first listening-type mode really needed to have its own app experience, and so we launched YouTube music. We obviously built a premium music service around that, [which] we offer as a paid-for subscription.
We launched YouTube Kids because we wanted to create an environment where parents could feel that they were giving the breadth of YouTube, the magic of all of this content, but doing it in a safe way for all of their children, where they had parental controls and things like that. So that’s where YouTube Kids came from. That was a big, seminal moment for us to build all of these.
And then I would say — probably three, four years ago now, time flies — it was doubling down on this aspect of our responsibility as a global platform. Obviously there are lots of conversations around this with YouTube today. What I mean by that is we have 2 billion users all over the world, and it is very clear to me, every day, that YouTube is not just a reflection of what’s happening in the world. We see all of that on YouTube. But it also has an influence on what happens out there in the real, physical world as well.
And so that’s when we created our framework to protect our ecosystem of advertisers, creators, and, most importantly, our viewers and users from bad actors. Really doubling down on our community guidelines, scaling out our enforcement of trust and safety operations. And that I think has also become one of the core bedrocks. It’s always going to remain my number one priority at YouTube, and so that was a big moment for us back in, I’d say, probably 2017 or so.
So those are three examples I’d call out that I think really were pivotal moments in the history of YouTube.
Yeah. And on that last one, I think later in the call we’re going to talk more about trust and safety in-depth, and how you all handle it. On the second piece, you mentioned some of these new product introductions, like YouTube TV, for instance, which I think is a phenomenal product. I cut the cord several years ago and it’s a delightful service. But these are subscription models, right?
For some of these new products, you’ve moved away from advertising as a sole source of revenue and more into subscriptions for premium content. We have a lot of entrepreneurs in the audience that are building subscription businesses. Were there any key learnings along the way as you introduced some of these new subscription models?
Yeah. There certainly have been a lot of learnings. I’ll get into where we are today with our subscription products, but there were definitely lots of learnings along the way.
The thing I would say, though, first and foremost, is [that] the primary business model at YouTube remains advertising. As I said before, that is the scale model, that is what makes YouTube freely accessible all over the world, and I personally do not see that changing. It works for, certainly for YouTube, but it also works for our creators, for our viewers, and, of course, it works for advertisers. And so that’s going to remain a core bedrock of the YouTube business.
But we have, as you pointed out, launched two subscription services. The first thing I would say there is, it’s going to sound cliche, but, the primary driver of success there is the strength of the product.
You mentioned your experience with YouTube TV. You wouldn’t continue to be a subscriber if your experience was different, and I think that that, at least for me, remains the salient area to double down on. For example, with YouTube TV, we really, really focused on: If you wanted to reimagine the television viewing experience from scratch, how would you do that? Why does that DVR need to [be] a set-top box? Why can’t it live in the cloud? Why do you need a TV Guide–type format to figure out what you want to watch? Why can’t you just search, or better yet, why can’t the app actually make those recommendations to you? Why does customer service have to work a particular way? Why can’t it just work in whatever means that you want to? Why can’t you move seamlessly from screen to screen? On and on and on.
So the product part, I think, has been really, really critical. And I think that leads to my second point, which is: If you’re building a subscription business, especially in newer categories, you really have to make the value proposition crystal clear.
And so, again, back to my YouTube TV example: You described the value proposition as being able to replace whatever solution you had before you cut the cord. And I think that being able to get it down to one or two sentences is really important for any subscription business.
We learned that in the case of YouTube Music Premium, which is our music subscription service. What is the core value proposition there? And when we boil that down to being able to enjoy your favorite content, like music, without interruptions, with background play, offline as needed — that really distilled the messaging in terms of our marketing, how we drove customers to the product, etc.
The final piece is: Really, really focus on that full-funnel customer experience. How easy is the signup process? How easy is it for users to continue the subscription if they like it? And actually — counterintuitively, frankly — how easy is it to cancel it if you’re not interested in it? All of that is part of the user experience, and it really shores up that retention-and-churn funnel that subscription businesses often wrestle with.
Whenever I talk about it, those are three key learnings that I think are important in any subscription business, not just the ones we have here at YouTube. And we’re very happy with the growth of both of those products. They have millions of paid subscribers. We just announced on the YouTube Premium side [that] we crossed the 50 million subscriber threshold, and that number continues to grow for all of the reasons that I highlighted before.
That’s terrific. Before we wrap up this section — we’re going to talk about product development in a minute — but, going back to the creator economy: YouTube has pioneered the creator economy. What are your thoughts for the next generation of the creator economy? Where is it going over the next 5 to 10 years?
In my view, it’s going to be about a few things. I mean, creators — whether they’re on YouTube or, frankly, any other platform or any other media — really look to do two things. They look to build an audience, a following, a group of fans, whatever you want to call it, that are interested in their content. That’s the first thing they look to do, and that is all about formats or tools that are required to be able to build up that audience, connect with that audience.
That’s the first thing. I think there’s going to be lots of innovation continuing to happen there. And the second is that, after you build that audience, creators are looking to earn a living, to have a sustainable way of producing the content that they love to produce.
And so new business models, I think, are going to continue to evolve. I think advertising is going to remain a fundamental aspect of that. We just talked about subscriptions. There’s a third that I’m incredibly excited about, that we’re investing in very heavily, which is direct fan-funding type products.
We have a product called channel memberships where, for your most ardent fans, if you’re a creator, you can create a kind of a subscription-based offering just for your channel. You can offer them exclusive content, exclusive live streams, other types of access that your broader channel subscribers won’t get, but as a channel member you can get. And the channel members support their favorite creators by paying $5 a month or what have you.
We have other types of fan funding models. If a gamer, for example, or an eSports participant is live streaming their content, in the chat, I can have my chat stand out as a fan. We call that Super Chat. We have a product where if I learned, for example, how to fix my garage door on a YouTube channel, and it saved me time and probably hundreds of dollars, I want to be able to thank that creator. So we have a product called Super Thanks, where I can just pay something to that creator for the value that they provided me.
A lot of those fan funding models are things that I’m extremely excited about, because they kind of marry those two aspects of what creators are trying to do, which is build an audience and build a business.
Yeah, absolutely. OK. Well, great. Let’s switch into product development. You’ve been a long time product leader, and YouTube is one of the most important products on the internet.
I want to take an audience question now, and this comes from Doug [Ricket], who’s the CEO of PayJoy: “How [do you] get speed from a product and engineering organization as it scales from dozens to hundreds of people? You’ve talked a lot about a lot about the products that YouTube has been launching. It sounds like a pretty fast pace of product development. How have you continued that as the company has scaled?”
I think it’s a great question, and it’s one that I think every product leader is going to wrestle with at some point in their career. And I would say that I think Doug’s right in the premise of the question, which is: It does get harder as the product scales, because of a few things. The complexity of the product might increase, the breadth of the stakeholders increases, right? It’s one thing when you’re doing something for hundreds of customers, it’s a whole other thing when you’re doing it for thousands or millions or billions of customers — whether they’re paying customers, users, what have you.
I think complexity increases, and, as a product leader, it comes down to a few things that I’ve learned through my experience. I always say:
"If I ever wrote a book on product management, one of the first chapters wouldn't actually be about innovation and creativity. All of that of course is important, but it would be about decision-making."
And how you actually create the framework for fast and efficient decisions throughout the organization.
At YouTube, I would say that the canonical decision-making forum is actually a product review because we’re a product company. And so what goes into that? How do you make it so that there’s some regular cadence to that? What are the goals of how you actually evaluate whether a trade-off is done right or not?
For me, it’s really about first principles, and so we have a pretty rigorous annual planning process around our product roadmaps at YouTube. But it’s not decided once and set in stone. Those annual roadmaps turn into quarterly goals.
I mean, Google and YouTube are famous for the OKR model. We turn those annual plans into quarterly OKRs that teams are held accountable to. And what ends up happening through that process is you develop your north stars in terms of product decisions, and those north stars are core principles by which you can actually make those really hard trade-offs.
For example, at YouTube, a lot of those trade-offs are about balancing the needs of our three-legged ecosystem of creators, viewers, and advertisers. And sometimes the decisions are at tensions between one of those stakeholders.
I think that, by having a set of clear goals and principles, it allows for much more efficient and transparent and systematic decision-making. And if you can set that up where, now, you’ve gone from annual plans to quarterly OKRs to weekly product-decision meetings and there’s a clear thread through all of those, it leads to faster and more crisp decision-making, which then, of course, turns into faster products being shipped for all of your constituents.
It also allows for that to filter down into the rest of the product organization in a way where people are clear on the goals and they’re clear on how those trade-off decisions get made so that not every decision has to bubble up to me.
By the time it bubbles up to me, it should be a very difficult decision that probably involves, oftentimes, two least-bad choices — like what’s the less-bad choice of two choices, right? But most of the decisions should be made further down in the organization, and when you have those principles clear, you can do that, so that I’m not becoming a bottleneck, for example, on how things get decided and done.
Related to that, we have another audience question, which is from Mary: “Can you describe YouTube’s org structure? Are there product managers for each category? How do they manage the business? What role, if any, do these PMs play in content curation?”
Can you talk a little bit [about] how you structured this so that the decisions can be made further down in the organization chart?
Yeah. On the product side, it’s actually relatively straightforward, and it’s kind of along the lines of what Mary just called out, which is [that] each one of the product areas of YouTube has a product leader responsible for that product area. They work with their counterparts on the engineering side; they work with their counterparts on the content and business side; and their job is to be the quarterback for that respective suite of products.
There’s a person that leads our YouTube TV efforts. There’s a person that leads our YouTube Music and Premium efforts. There’s a person who leads our trust and safety product efforts. We have a team that’s led by somebody who builds out our “product for creator tools. We have what I call a core area of our products. And so that’s sort of the rough organization.
The thing about YouTube, related to the second part of that question is: We’re not fundamentally in the business of curating the content, and, frankly, I think that if we want to remain true to our core principle of being a truly open platform, we have to live up to that. There’s lots of content that’s produced. We’re not gatekeepers on it. We don’t curate it. We obviously have teams that build recommendation algorithms and search algorithms so that content can get discovered across our vast corpus as efficiently as possible by viewers, but we’re not curating any of it.
Great. So going back to how you think about developing products: YouTube is a pretty powerful platform. I’m sure there’s all types of use cases for YouTube that maybe weren’t intended [but] that you’re seeing, such as the rise of the influencer. How do you respond to those? Is your product development process more reactive to what’s happening on the platform and in the ecosystem, or are you trying to be more proactive in pushing the platform and the ecosystem in certain directions?
I think the real answer, and the pragmatic answer, is that it’s a little bit of both. It all goes back to what I was saying earlier, which is: I at least like to start with a longer term view. What is the vision? What is important from a YouTube standpoint? What is the value that YouTube can add for our creators and viewers? What does that roughly look like over the course of the next two, three, five years?
We talked about some of those macro trends, whether it’s short form content or commerce, or the growth of multiple devices, connected TVs, all of that. So you do have to have a vision — you have to have a place where you think you want to point the product portfolio, the platform.
And that sort of then turns into what I described, which is: What are our annual plans? What’s important for YouTube to focus on, from our roadmap standpoint, for the next 12 months, 18 months? And that then translates into how we think about the quarterly objectives in terms of whether we’re hitting those roadmaps.
But it doesn’t mean that once those roadmaps are set in place that everything is locked in stone and that we don’t react to what’s happening in the industry. We certainly do. We adjust, but it has to be an adjustment that fits into the overall vision that I laid out, fits into this broad roadmap.
To give you an example, [we’re] building out tools for our creators to create content on mobile devices. The growth of YouTube Shorts is an important imperative for us, but that roadmap will evolve, and the specific features we want to build will evolve, because we are going to get, and we continue to get, lots and lots of feedback from our creators and viewers. I talk to creators on a regular basis, myself. The teams that are building those products talk to them just as frequently, if not even more so, to learn about what they want to continue to build.
The feedback, that’s how we continue to adjust on a specific-feature basis, which of course translates into what ultimately gets written down in a PRD and built by engineering teams working in partnership with our three-legged product-development stool. It’s obviously engineers front and center, our designers front and center, and then the PMs. That’s the reality of how the process actually works, which is having a big-picture framework and vision, and then adjusting based on what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing from your stakeholders.
Going back to decision-making, you mentioned earlier [that] you’ve got these different constituents — advertisers, creators, consumers — and sometimes the interests of those parties are at odds with each other, and you’re trying to make a decision.There’s no optimal solution. You’ve got to make trade-offs somewhere. Can you give us a specific example of where you’ve faced some of those trade-offs and you’ve had to make a tough call or tough decision, and how you thought about what the right thing to do was?
I think that when it comes to these decisions, there are three aspects that need to come into play. I talked about a couple of them already. You need to have core principles by which you will decide those trade offs. Like, ultimately, what is really going to win the day? What is very important? You need to have the process framework by which you allow those principles to be debated, the trade-offs debated.
I talked about the various review forums, the various accountability metrics like OKRs, etc. And then the third sort of “P,” if you will, after principles and process, that I didn’t talk about, which I think is actually the most important, is people.
You really need to have people that are invested in these principles and the values that are espoused by these principles. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing product managers, but not just product managers, all kinds of people here at YouTube that are looking to do the right thing by those principles. To give you an example — and, David, you probably saw this also many times in your own experience at Google — is if there’s ever a trade-off, for example, between a short-term business objective and what is the right thing to do for our users over the long term, every single time we will err on the side of picking what we think is the right thing to do for our users in the long run.
And you probably have lots and lots of those sort of small examples. They can be tiny things. They could be things like changes to how we think about the recommendations in our product, algorithmic changes, all the way to features, etc. That’s sort of how we think about it.
This new product that I’m talking about, YouTube Shorts, the way we’re developing it is that we will always make the trade-off in terms of building out the right set of features and functionality for creators to produce Shorts content, and then for viewers to consume it.
All the considerations around what is the business behind that, etc., really follows second to doing the right thing in terms of building the best product possible for our users. So that’s one example that I’m living through today, but there are probably dozens of those types of trade-offs happening every single month, every single quarter.
I think that’s one of the things that’s made Google so successful. Google and its subsidiaries are just always putting the consumer first. And I think if you look at the top internet companies today, [they] would probably have the same sort of thinking in terms of how they’ve approached product development, right?
Let’s shift gears back into trust and safety — ethical responsibilities on the platform. YouTube started as a way for anyone to upload content about anything, and obviously when you’re at a scale of two billion users, people are doing stuff that may not be that responsible on the platform. How do you enforce guidelines without it deviating from your original intent of the platform?
Yeah. I’d say a couple things there. First of all, as we’ve talked previously in this discussion [about how] YouTube has always been an open platform. That is the power of YouTube, back to the mission statement that I described about giving everyone a voice, showing them the world. That happens because it is an open platform. There aren’t gatekeepers.
So a creator whose ideas or creativity might have been shot down before in traditional media can build an audience on YouTube if they have something to share with the world. Build a community. Whether they come from an underrepresented minority, or another person who might have been on the margins of society, or what have you. They can actually build a presence on our platform, and that’s really powerful.
But just because we’ve had an open platform, it doesn’t mean that it’s been anything goes. We’ve always had community guidelines that govern the rules of the road of that open platform. From the very early days, we didn’t allow adult content on the platform. The way I think about it is it’s really a balance between those things.
In some sense, the community guidelines that we have in place that govern content on the YouTube platform is what actually allows it to remain an open platform in the first place. They sound like principles that are at tension, but they actually reinforce each other as well, and that’s a core component to how YouTube works. But, of course, as you’re pointing out in your question, YouTube has grown, right?
The analogy is: YouTube, back when it started over a decade ago, was like a small village or a small town. Everybody sort of knew each other. Some of the original OG creators, they all knew each other. The audiences were small, and so the norms were there in terms of governing the content, etc. But now YouTube has grown into this sort of major metropolis, if you will, that is at a scale where not everybody knows each other. There are bad actors, just like in a big city there’s crime.
We basically recognized — and this was one of the salient moments I called out earlier — that we need to update our community guidelines and how we enforce them with this major metropolis analogy in mind, so that we are really rooting out the bad actors or bad content so that the 99.9% of creators and viewers that are on the platform looking to do the right thing can actually thrive.
That has involved making sure that our community guidelines stay up to date, whether it’s around hate or harassment, violent extremism, medical misinformation. Obviously the last couple years of the pandemic have seen a lot of that, and we’ve had to try to stay on top of that as much as possible. And then building out not just the new set of policies, which we’ve done over the course of the last few years, but then building out a mechanism — both a technology mechanism and a people-powered mechanism — to enforce those policies at scale.
[We’ve done this] so that we can be transparent about what the rules of the road are on YouTube, but then if there is violative content on the platform, we can remove it as quickly and as efficiently as possible at the scale that YouTube operates with around the world. And so those are the areas where we’ve made a lot of investment over the last few years, building out a more robust policy framework, and then building out the enforcement infrastructure that allows us to put those rules to work as effectively and at as much scale as possible.
Great. Let’s switch topics again. We’re coming near the end of our session. We want to talk about competition [and] innovation. YouTube pioneered video on the web, but if you look today, just about every major internet platform has introduced video, and it’s a core part of their strategy — both video and user-generated content. How do you assess the competitive landscape, and, in particular, what’s your perspective on the rise of TikTok?
I mean, the first thing I would say is it’s not a surprise to me. Because video is about storytelling, it’s about connecting. As I said, it’s about sight, sound, and motion, and it really is the most powerful mechanism to be able to convey an idea or connect with a community. And so it’s not surprising to see other platforms, other applications really focusing on video. You’re right, there’s been a proliferation of that type of content all across the industry, and I would say, in a nutshell: I think competition is great. As a consumer, it provides lots and lots of choices to me and to my family, and as a person at YouTube, I view it as a spur for innovation. It continues to move the industry forward.
When I talk to our creators and our advertising partners, certainly when we poll our viewers, their focus is on: What can you do today to make YouTube better? How do you continue to build out more creator tools? Whether it’s short-form content, more shopping opportunities on YouTube, more livestream products.
All of that is really where our focus is when we talk to our creators, our advertisers, etc., so that’s where a lot of our focus from an innovation standpoint is going, which is: What do we need to build for all of our stakeholders? That’s what I’m seeing, and the rise of all kinds of platforms out there, certainly, to me, is not a surprise because of the power of video as a medium for connection.
Great. And we have another audience question, which I think [speaks] to this, and you’ve touched on this earlier. It’s from Shane: “How do you think about differentiating new revenue streams for creators?”
And I think, perhaps with that question: How do you keep creators thinking of YouTube as the primary place they want to be for their businesses? I think that’s related to that question.
I think it’s a great question, and I think that the fundamental aspect of that, from my perspective, is really trying to diversify the revenue stream for our creators. When I talk to creators, YouTubers, what they tell me is their primary audiences on YouTube. That’s where they’ve built the connection with their audiences. Their audiences really get them. They understand the type of content they produce. They give them real feedback in terms of what they should do next, what they should course-correct. And so they really do want to continue to double down on YouTube and build a business there.
For me, it’s about layering on newer monetization opportunities. It all starts with advertising; that’s our scale model. I talked about the subscription business. That’s not just about a revenue stream for YouTube. We share that revenue, just like we do with advertising, with all of our creators and partners. So there’s a way for them to grow their business through the growth of our subscription businesses.
Then I talked about more direct-consumer funding type models: channel memberships, paid digital goods like Super Chat and Super Thanks. Finding ways that not only generate revenue for creators directly from fans, but in that process actually further strengthen the connection between creators and fans. That’s a premise of what we call our fan-funding portfolio of products.
Today, starting with advertising over a decade ago, we have, I think, now nearly 10 different ways that creators can monetize the content that they produce on YouTube. And for my teams, it’s going to continue to remain an area of focus, and as long as we can continue to do this in a way that works for our creators and works for our viewers, we will continue to add to that portfolio.
We’re going to close with the lightning round today. We like to hear about some of your personal favorites when it comes to content and media. The first question for you is: What’s a favorite book, video, show, or podcast?
Oh, wow. As I’m sure has come across in the last hour, I am not just a technologist, but I am a media junkie. I love all forms of media. When I read, I try to read in a way that allows me to de-stress and sort of get away from what I do work-wise, or professionally, so I read a lot of fiction. One of my favorite authors is Jhumpa Lahiri. She writes a lot of books about the immigrant experience here in the U.S. and other parts of the world. I’ve read all of her books. That’s a favorite of mine.
Let’s see. In terms of videos, I watch a lot of sports content. One of my favorite videos of all time on YouTube is Kevin Durant playing at Rucker Park, which is this famous sort of, like, pickup basketball place in the New York area. The video on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it, is amazing, especially if you’re any kind of a sports fan. You don’t even have to be a basketball fan.
Shows, let’s see. I’ve watched “Squid Game,” like pretty much everybody else. And I just completed the new season of “Narcos.” Those are kind of two of my favorites.
And podcast? A podcast I listen to every week, which is super, super interesting — I happen to be kind of a news and politics junkie too — is The Economist has this podcast called “Checks and Balance.” I really enjoy that one.
Those are my favorites across all four of those channels, at least these days. They might change if you ask me in a month, but that’s what I’d call out today.
OK, great. And then what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself during the pandemic?
Oh. I think that, for me, and this is probably a shared experience for many of us, is: I kind of knew that a big part of my professional life, my work, is obviously everything that we talked about her — building great products, working with our customers and stakeholders and our viewers, and all of that is amazing. That motivates me. Everything that we do in our trust and safety operation to protect our ecosystem.
But one aspect that really came home for me is that a big part of my professional life are all the friendships and relationships with all of my colleagues at work, all of my colleagues in the industry. And I have to say that I really miss that. I miss the personal interactions that, frankly, I took for granted too much.
So, [once the pandemic is behind us], being optimistic about it, I’m looking forward to getting back to some of those things. I mean, David, you and I haven’t seen each other in person in a long time. I look forward to that. That’s probably one of the things that came across, at least for me, a few months into the pandemic.
That’s a great note to close on. We’ve come to the end of the session today. Neal, thanks again so much for your time and your insights, and thanks again to our audience. We hope you enjoyed today’s Iconversations.
Thanks again, Neal. Always great to see you. We appreciate your time you spent with us.
Thanks, David. And thank you everybody. It’s great to be here.