YouTube started as an online dating site

The world's largest video site has romantic roots, says co-founder Steve Chen. Guess what day the YouTube domain name was registered?

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen (center) says the site's domain name was registered on Valentine's Day.

Photo by Richard Nieva/CNET

Long before Tinder made swiping a thing for matchmaking apps, there was a little-known video site trying to play cupid to the Internet generation: YouTube.

That's not exactly what comes to mind when you think of the world's largest video site, which welcomes a billion visitors a month. But that's how the YouTube, which Google bought in 2006 for $1.6 billion, got its start, said co-founder Steve Chen.

"We always thought there was something with video there, but what would be the actual practical application?" Chen said Monday at the South by Southwest tech, film and music conference in Austin, Texas. "We thought dating would be the obvious choice."

The idea was for single people to make videos introducing themselves and saying what they were looking for, said Chen. After five days no one had uploaded a single video, so he and the other co-founders, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, reconsidered.

They knew they had something with the underlying technology that made it easy for people to upload videos to the Internet.

"Okay, forget the dating aspect," said Chen. "Let's just open it up to any video."

The matchmaking element, though short-lived, was perhaps always in the cards. Chen said the founders registered the domain name YouTube on February 14, more than a decade ago.

"Just three guys on Valentine's Day that had nothing to do," he said.

Clearly, the pivot paid off. YouTube has grown into a video empire and launched the careers of several stars, including Justin Bieber, makeup artist Michelle Phan and Swedish gamer PewDiePie. The service has also expanded to include a subscription site, YouTube Red, and a dedicated gaming site.

Chen was at SXSW with Vijay Karunamurthy, an early engineering manager at YouTube, to plug their new startup, Nom. The service is a live-video site dedicated to food, where chefs can broadcast themselves cooking a meal or foodies can stream the scene in front of a taco truck. The app launched last week.

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