YouTube, her way
Susan Wojcicki ups the ante at YouTube
Susan Wojcicki is late for work.
It’s 10am in San Bruno, just outside San Francisco, and the YouTube CEO is scheduled to meet press representatives from around the world.
Her comms guy apologises but says, well, she does have five kids. She’ll be along in about 10 minutes.
Whatever. We’re in California, where the business culture, as Wojcicki says, is “more flexible, more forgiving and more resultsoriented” than in the East Coast and other big cities.
“I have been able to achieve results,” says the 47-year-old. “People were okay with whatever other things I had going on, as long as I achieved results. There are times when I can’t do everything, I have something at home and there are things that I give up, it is not a perfect world.”
Wojcicki’s style is very different from the Wall Street image that has become the norm for female corporate leaders. In San Francisco you can almost feel the distance in business culture between the East and West coasts and the YouTube CEO, with her healthy tan and her understated dress and manner, offers a real alternative.
She’s run YouTube for two years and for 15 years before that was one of the inner circle that built the behemoth parent company, Google, from the ground up. Yet Wojcicki gets home for dinner most nights and is relaxed about referencing her kids – who range in age from infancy to adolescence – in the workspace. Talking about babies in the office used to be a no-no for women executives, but the YouTube boss is shaping as a very different female CEO.
Wojcicki is Silicon Valley royalty. She grew up on the Stanford campus where her dad was a physics professor, and famously rented out her Menlo Park garage – and two rooms in her house – to Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in order to make extra money. She has degrees from Harvard (history and literature), University of California Santa Cruz (Masters in economics) and UCLA (MBA).
She was four months pregnant when she left her job at Intel and joined the guys in the garage to sign on as Google’s 16th employee, and its first marketing manager. Three years later she began work on monetising the search engine via advertising. She is credited with revolutionising online ads via AdWords, AdSense, DoubleClick and Google Analytics. A decade ago, she pushed for Google to buy YouTube for $US1.65 billion in stock: she’d been hooked after watching a video of Chinese students singing to the Backstreet Boys and understood the world was moving in new and unexpected ways.
Academic, hardworking, busy with those babies, and unpretentious, Wojcicki kept a low profile for years.
Then, in February 2014 she became CEO of the extraordinary content platform that has transformed the way one billion strangers, as well as friends, communicate across the globe, across time zones, cultures, class and generations.
The YouTube job has given her a higher profile – and she’s using it to argue for more maternity leave and more women in tech. “I want to use my position to fight for issues that are very important for women that no one else is fighting for,” she says.
Married to Google director Dennis Troper, Wojcicki had always had maternity leave at Google – indeed she was the first employee to take it at the start-up – and was surprised to find more recently that most women in the US don’t get it, and that 25 per cent of American women go back to work after 10 days.
“I just had a baby and at day 10 I was not ready to go back to work,” she says. Does she see herself as a role model? “Yes, I do,” she says. “I didn’t intend to be, it wasn’t one of my goals when I started out, but I realise I have had an unusual career and that most women don’t get to this position and a lot of women are very curious how I got here – so I want to share my story with them.”
Wojcicki’s advocacy comes as two writers, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, are shifting the conversation about women at work.
She acknowledges the inspiration that Sandberg (who worked at Google before becoming the chief operating officer at Facebook) evoked in women through her call for them to “lean in” and take the big jobs.
But Wojcicki is more taken right now by Slaughter’s work suggesting that “women still can’t have it all” thanks to a system that isn’t always set up for working families. With five kids, says Wojcicki, she can relate to Slaughter calling out the challenges, such as the school calendar.
Yet in her particular job, kids are her secret weapon: “They are the next generation of viewership so I look at how they use
the internet, I look at how they use all the social products and they tell me if something isn’t working … I feel like I have a little focus group at home”.
JUST near the lift at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno – about 20 minutes from downtown San Francisco – is a smiley picture of two of the platform’s founders, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. Could they have imagined their baby would be valued last year by Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts at more than $US70bn? There were just 67 staffers when the founders sold up. Today about 450 employees, many of them engineers, are spread over two buildings where the look is more middle-brow corporate than cutting edge.
Google doesn’t break out the figures for YouTube but growth of the once-anarchic platform is phenomenal, thanks in large part to smartphones. The number of hours spent watching on mobiles has doubled in the past year. A staggering 400 hours of video is uploaded – or at Wojcicki puts it, ingested – on the site every minute. It’s one of those mind-boggling statistics only possible in the internet age. The scale and penetration of YouTube is irrefutable, yet critics say it is the most undermonetised company ever. All that product, all those users, all that influence. And yet. Now Wojcicki, with her street cred in online advertising, is charged with taking it to the next level – a mature video delivery platform for the post-television age that retains its unique DNA, and makes some more money. What’s her solution?
“It’s going to take time because TV ads need to move,” she says. “The users have moved, the users are moving very quickly, but the advertisers also need to move. It just takes time.”
YouTube specialises in brand advertising with budgets that are notoriously hard to move quickly, but is now pursuing new ad formats, including shopping ads.
It’s also betting on a new revenue source, investing heavily in the launch of a $US9.99 ($13.80)-a-month subscription service called YouTube Red. Released in the US in October, it will be rolled out in other countries, including Australia, later this year. The idea is to allow ad-free, offline and background viewing as well as giving subscribers access to a customised music app and exclusive content by high-profile YouTubers. The “creators” are backed financially by YouTube, allowing them to go to a different level of production. The strategy is that stars such as Swedish gamer and comedian PewDiePie and Canadian performer Lilly Singh will help haul in subscribers for a new revenue stream.
With up to 20 long-form videos likely each year, Red begins to look like an alternative to Netflix, Stan and other on-demand entertainment sites. And there’s also the need for YouTube to retain stars now so successful that they are being invited to step out of the bedroom and on to the big screen. Vanity Fair last month asked whether, with the hottest talent being courted by the networks and studios, YouTube could be “the future of Hollywood, the new Netflix, or just a lucrative playpen”.
Says Wojcicki: “Our creators are becoming global stars and TV networks are approaching them to take them to the next level, but their audiences are on YouTube, that is their home.”
She cites a recent Variety poll that last year showed eight out of the top 10 stars in terms of teenage influence are YouTube creators, overwhelming traditional TV and music stars with their popularity. Having once again seen the future, the CEO is investing heavily in at least some of those stars by helping them produce movie-length videos that will be part of the Red subscription offering. The new Netflix then? Wojcicki sees some similarities – she says both companies understand that the future is about content on demand and global domains (80 per cent of views on YouTube come from outside the US) – but “Netflix is more curated, we are an open
IdeasValley The YouTube Space in LA and, below, Wojcicki with two of her five children