YouTube's Susan Wojcicki Takes on Television

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki spoke to The Wall Street Journal about her management style, how often she skips the ad, and which viral star is her favorite: Keyboard Cat or Sneezing Panda. Photo: Jake Nicol/The Wall Street Journal

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.— Susan Wojcicki holds a unique place in the history of the technology industry. These days she plays a key role in the future of media and entertainment, too.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin rented three rooms and the garage in Ms. Wojcicki’s home near here in September 1998, the same month they incorporated Google Inc. A year later, the co-founders hired her. She soon launched Google’s fledgling advertising business, which became one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of commerce. She also urged the company, now a unit of Alphabet Inc., GOOGL 0.14 % to acquire YouTube back in 2006.

Now, as YouTube’s chief executive, the 47-year-old Ms. Wojcicki’s next task is turning the video hub into a business.

YouTube boasts more than one billion users but little to no profit. She leads several big initiatives aimed at making the platform profitable, including a push into virtual reality, live programming, and a $ 10-a-month ad-free subscription service launched in October.

YouTube remains a dominant force in online video, with more than 180 million unique viewers on traditional computers in February, compared with about 81 million viewers on the No. 2 service, Facebook Inc., FB -0.87 % according to research firm comScore. (The figures don’t include mobile devices, which the company says account for most YouTube views.)

As Facebook Inc. FB -0.87 % accelerates its push into video, YouTube’s dominance is by no means secure. Users now spend an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook, compared with 17 minutes on YouTube, according to comScore. Snapchat Inc. and Twitter Inc., TWTR -1.77 % which have licensed Olympics and National Football League rights, respectively, also are pushing into video. And Netflix Inc. NFLX -0.84 % and Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.41 % are attracting more subscribers to their video-streaming services. Meanwhile, several cable channels are letting users stream videos to any device.

Even so, Ms. Wojcicki says her biggest competitor is traditional television. She wants to make its billions of viewers an audience primarily for online content. Yet, even she says about half the time she skips the ads that run before YouTube videos—the service’s main moneymaker.

In a recent interview, Ms. Wojcicki—sister of another tech CEO, 23andMe Inc.’s Anne Wojcicki—talked about YouTube’s strategy, competitors and culture. Edited excerpts below:

WSJ: How would you describe your mandate?

Ms. Wojcicki: I see an opportunity to reinvent TV. When I look at the future of TV, I think it’s going to be on demand; it’s going to be mobile and cross-device; it’s going to be global; and it’s going to include a diverse set of content.

YouTube’s goal is to build that platform and be the next-generation content and TV provider.

WSJ: YouTube has more than a billion viewers but few, if any, profits. How do you solve that?

Ms. Wojcicki: Right now we’re in a period of growth. We’re thinking about how we get to the next billion users and how we build additional monetization. We’re focused on setting ourselves up for the most successful long-term business. We’re reinvesting in the business to reach users and offer more monetization options and better service.

WSJ: So are profits a priority today?

Ms. Wojcicki: Growth is the priority.

WSJ: Who is your biggest competitor?

Ms. Wojcicki: Snapchat, Facebook, Netflix. In some sense our biggest competitor is the traditional way of watching TV. It’s such a big space, and there’s so much opportunity for everyone. We all need to just think about how we can deliver our core proposition better to our users, as opposed to, ‘Oh, Player X has this feature; I need to have it, too.’

WSJ: Advertisers have been slower than viewers to embrace online video. Why?

Ms. Wojcicki: Users can make decisions relatively quickly, and there is no cost associated with making a change in your viewing behavior. But if you’re an advertiser, you need to make sure it works. Advertisers usually start small and test it. It doesn’t make sense for them to advertise in a place where there are no users, right? I’m confident that advertisers will catch up and the ad dollars will flow to digital. It’s just going to take some time.

WSJ: What do online-viewing habits tell you about humanity?

Ms. Wojcicki: People are much more interested in the regular person than we may have thought. That was the insight that led me to acquire YouTube in the first place. Before, we thought that users only wanted to see professional, finished types of content, but they actually want to see all types of content. There’s a very human element of YouTube, where people are just connecting with other people.

WSJ: You and your husband, another Google executive, typically make it home for dinner with your five children. Readers will want to know how you do it.

Ms. Wojcicki: The first thing is to make sure that my work life is manageable. For me, it has to do with prioritization and identifying the most important things to get done. Then being able to say that you are finished at the end of the day and you’re going to go home and not think about work. We try to have the rule to not check email between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., because if you are on your phone then it’s hard to disconnect [from work].

I also keep reminding people that success is not based on the number of hours that you’ve worked. It isn’t like venture capitalists say, ‘Well, how many hours are you planning on working?’ They ask, ‘What is your insight? What can you bring to the table?’ If you are working 24/7, you’re not going to have any interesting ideas. Work-life separation is really important for productivity—being efficient at work and also trying to be really present when you’re at home.

Write to Jack Nicas at [email protected]


WSJ.com: US Business

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