Steve Chen is one of the most influential internet entrepreneurs of the 21st century. He co-founded YouTube and helped pioneer online video sharing. Chen built the technical infrastructure that allowed YouTube to scale rapidly from its garage startup origins into a platform used by over 2 billion people. His story provides valuable lessons on innovation, entrepreneurship, and using technology to change the world.
Early Life and Education
Chen was born as Chen Shih-Chun on August 18, 1978 in Taipei, Taiwan. His father ran a successful trading business in Taiwan and decided to move the family to the United States in 1984 to expand his business prospects. The Chen family settled in Prospect Heights, Illinois.
As a child in Taiwan, Chen attended a private school. After moving to the U.S. at age 6, he enrolled in public school in Illinois. He first attended Washington Middle School in Aurora. Chen then went to West Aurora High School for a couple years before transferring to the prestigious Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora.
IMSA is a selective residential high school focused on gifted students in math and science. It was at IMSA that Chen‘s education first included advanced classes in computer science, programming, and other technology-related fields. These early experiences sparked his interest in computers and technology.
According to Chen, attending IMSA "changed his life." The school had only recently started offering computer science classes with cutting edge equipment like SGIs and Sun workstations. Chen took to programming quickly and started honing his coding skills by building websites for local businesses.
After graduating from IMSA in 1996, Chen enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He majored in computer science and continued building web sites for companies on the side.
One interesting fact about Steve Chen is that he never actually earned his bachelor‘s degree from UIUC. He dropped out of college in 1998, just a few months before graduation.
This was not an unplanned decision, however. Chen had received an intriguing job offer from Max Levchin, another UIUC graduate who was working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley. With his family‘s blessings, Chen took the offer and headed west. It ended up being a pivotal career move.
PayPal: 1998 – 2005
In 1998, Chen began working at Confinity, an early Silicon Valley startup co-founded by Max Levchin. The company initially built software for handheld devices. However, after making a strategic pivot, Confinity developed a digital wallet and money transfer service that allowed people to securely send money online using email.
As an early engineer at Confinity, Chen worked on building the company‘s fraud detection systems and other key parts of the platform. He learned valuable skills in security, payments, and scalable web architectures during his time there.
In 2000, Confinity merged with its primary competitor, X.com. X.com was founded by Elon Musk in 1999 as an online financial services company. Following the merger, the joint entity was renamed PayPal. Musk and Levchin had initially been rivals but realized it was smarter to join forces.
Chen continued working at PayPal under Musk and Levchin. He helped maintain and improve PayPal‘s fraud analysis systems post-merger. This involved identifying patterns of suspicious transactions and developing algorithms to catch scammers and money launderers misusing PayPal.
In 2002, PayPal conducted a successful IPO and went public on the NASDAQ, raising over $70 million. Later that year, eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion in stock. This deal cemented PayPal‘s position as the leading online payment platform.
Chen worked at PayPal under eBay for several more years. In this time, he continued enhancing PayPal‘s risk analysis and anti-fraud capabilities as the platform expanded globally.
It was also at PayPal that Chen started making important professional connections, including with Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim. They would later join Chen as YouTube co-founders.
YouTube: 2005 – 2009
While working at PayPal, Chen regularly met up with Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim to discuss new technology ideas and business strategies over pizza. It was at one of these gatherings in 2005 that the YouTube concept was first conceived.
Accounts differ on who originally came up with the idea that led to YouTube. Some reports say it was Chen who proposed a video sharing site where users could upload and share clips. Others credit Karim for envisioning a "dating site with video profiles."
Regardless of who came up with the initial spark, Chen, Hurley, and Karim were soon united in the mission of building a platform that would enable people to easily upload and watch video online.
In April 2005, the trio founded YouTube and began working out of their individual garages in Menlo Park, California. Chen‘s garage acted as the makeshift software development office. Hurley‘s garage stored the servers and network equipment. Karim‘s garage served as the filming location for YouTube‘s first-ever video: "Me at the Zoo" starring Karim himself.
Within months, YouTube started gaining significant traffic and required more structured offices. Chen helped move YouTube into its first "real" offices on San Mateo‘s University Avenue in the fall of 2005.
As YouTube‘s founding CTO, Chen was instrumental in architecting, scaling, and managing the site‘s underlying technology infrastructure during this hypergrowth period.
According to Chen, YouTube‘s initial architecture was built on "20 to 30" separate programs running on "8 to 10" different computers. Traffic and storage needs exploded as YouTube caught on with users. Chen led the software teams that continuously iterated YouTube‘s technology stack to keep up with relentless growth.
Some key technical milestones Chen oversaw in YouTube‘s first year:
- Switching from Flash to HTML5 for video playback
- Moving from locally hosted videos to a cloud infrastructure
- Building out machine learning algorithms to detect inappropriate content at scale
- Expanding available streaming resolutions past 320×240 pixels
- Supporting higher quality uploads without compression
This behind-the-scenes work by Chen enabled YouTube to scale from zero to over 65,000 new video uploads per day in around a year. Traffic to the site skyrocketed as well. YouTube‘s technological capacity easily could have become a bottleneck limiting the platform‘s growth if not for Chen‘s leadership.
In October 2006, just over a year after YouTube‘s founding, Google acquired the startup for $1.65 billion in stock. Chen‘s approximate one-third stake earned him around $326 million personally.
Chen continued working at YouTube post-acquisition as an advisory engineer under Google. He assisted with the transition process and provided technical guidance as needed until leaving amicably in 2009.
AVOS Systems: 2010 – 2014
In 2009, Chen left YouTube and took some time off for personal projects and travel. However, by 2010 he was ready to jump back into the startup world.
Chen teamed back up with his fellow YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley to launch a new incubator startup called AVOS Systems. Chen served as AVOS‘s CTO. The company worked on several small projects but never achieved the hockey stick growth trajectory of YouTube. AVOS was dissolved in 2014.
Nom Labs: 2014 – 2017
In 2014, Chen founded another video startup called Nom Labs that focused specifically on high-quality cooking videos. As Nom Labs‘ CTO, he worked on developing technologies for sharing and discovering cooking content.
Nom Labs facilitated the creation of videos by professional chefs and high-end brands. According to Chen, the goal was to build "a better food viewing experience" to inspire home cooks and "bring premium food videos to the largest audience possible."
The niche cooking site ultimately never reached mainstream success. By 2017, Chen decided to shut down Nom Labs and step back from full-time startup work for a while.
Google Ventures: 2014 – 2018
From 2014 to 2018, Chen worked as an advisor for Google Ventures (GV) – the venture capital arm of Alphabet Inc.
In this role, Chen lent his technical expertise to help evaluate investment opportunities for GV. He also mentored startup founders in GV‘s portfolio, providing advice based on his own entrepreneurial experiences building YouTube and other companies.
As a seasoned entrepreneur, Chen brought a valuable founder perspective to the venture capital firm. According to Chen, "I rely on my experience of being a founder, being an engineer…to help founders think through certain issues."
GV‘s President David Krane praised Chen‘s "extraordinary intuition about products and what ultimately makes them great." He credited Chen for playing a major part in GV‘s investments including Medium, Flatiron Health, and BuildZoom during his time as advisor.
After leaving day-to-day operations at Nom Labs, Chen welcomed the chance to pass on wisdom to the next generation of startup founders through his GV role. However, by 2018 he was ready to move on and shifted focus to personal projects.
The YouTube Impact
Without a doubt, Steve Chen‘s most influential contribution is as one of YouTube‘s three founding partners alongside Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim. Though accounts differ on the precise origin, Chen played an instrumental role in conceiving the core idea of a video sharing site where users could upload and watch content.
As YouTube‘s founding CTO, Chen designed the original architecture and led the engineering team during the site‘s critical first years. He managed the technological scaling challenges that enabled YouTube‘s exponential growth from garage startup to global video giant.
Some stats that underscore YouTube‘s meteoric rise during Chen‘s tenure:
- 0 to 65,000 daily video uploads in first year
- 20TB of content uploaded every day within 20 months
- 1 billion daily video views reached in under 2 years
- 72 hours of video uploaded every minute by 2008
Chen‘s technical leadership and management skills were directly responsible for building the infrastructure needed to support these staggering usage metrics.
YouTube fundamentally changed how people across the world create, share, discover, and consume video online. It democratized access to an audience for creators from all backgrounds. YouTube catapulted social media influencers and digital celebrities into mainstream culture. It became a primary news and entertainment source for over 2 billion monthly users.
On a technology level, YouTube pioneered innovations like streaming video infrastructure, content recommendation systems, and crowdsourced machine learning content moderation. It set influential design patterns for user generated content platforms.
The company‘s $1.65 billion acquisition by Google less than two years after its founding was an early indicator of YouTube‘s enormous impact. It marked one of the biggest exits of the Web 2.0 era.
YouTube‘s cultural significance today is impossible to overstate. Many credit it with spearheading the web video revolution and ushering us into the digital video age.
As one of YouTube‘s key founders and its first CTO, Steve Chen is an integral part of this industry-defining story. He helped create what is now the world‘s largest and most influential online video platform.
In addition to the YouTube connection, another major part of Steve Chen‘s legacy is his status as an influential member of the so-called "PayPal Mafia."
The PayPal Mafia refers to former employees of Confinity and PayPal who went on to become major players across Silicon Valley after their time at PayPal. The group includes several household tech names:
- Elon Musk
- Peter Thiel
- Reid Hoffman
- Keith Rabois
- Jeremy Stoppelman
- Dave McClure
- Premal Shah
- Russel Simmons
- Ken Howery
These PayPal alumni have gone on to start and invest in high-profile technology companies like Tesla, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Yelp, YouTube, Facebook, Quora, Affirm, Max Levchin, and many more.
They built their connections and expertise under PayPal‘s pioneering efforts in digital payments. PayPal‘s founders infused an entrepreneurial spirit that clearly carried over. Former team members leverage this tight-knit network to collaborate and amplify their success.
The "Mafia" label stems from PayPal‘s early habit of hiring former banking professionals and system admins who knew how to navigate complex technical systems. Like its namesake, the PayPal Mafia maintains a level of secrecy, preferring private online discussions over public pronouncements and media presence.
As an early engineer and longtime technical leader at PayPal, Steve Chen is undoubtedly a made man in this elite group. His net worth of around $380 million makes him one of the PayPal Mafia‘s more successful members too.
These connections that started in PayPal‘s early days were invaluable when Chen launched YouTube shortly after leaving PayPal. The PayPal Mafia‘s legacy lives on today through its sizable impact on Silicon Valley innovation and startup investing.
Accomplishments and Awards
2006 TR35 Award – Chen was named one of the top innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review. This award recognizes young entrepreneurs making outstanding contributions in technology each year.
2007 First Amendment Award – Chen won the First Amendment Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association for his contributions to free expression and open information sharing via YouTube.
2014 Carnegie Great Immigrants Award – Chen was honored with this award from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It celebrates outstanding contributions to American innovation, culture, and society by immigrants.
Steve Chen has an estimated net worth of around $380 million, per Forbes. The vast majority of his wealth comes from the 2006 sale of YouTube to Google.
As a one-third owner of YouTube, Chen netted about $326 million from the $1.65 billion all-stock acquisition. He likely owns additional tens of millions in Google/Alphabet stock from employee compensation.
Chen lives comfortably but not lavishly compared to many ultra-high-net-worth Silicon Valley types. After stepping back from startup work in 2017, he focuses time on personal interests and family.
Very little is known publicly about Chen‘s personal life, as he intentionally keeps it private and avoids media attention. Here are a few tidbits:
In 2008, Chen married Park Ji-hyun, a marketing manager he met at Google Korea, where he was visiting to promote YouTube. His wife took Chen‘s last name and goes by Jamie Chen.
Steve and Jamie Chen reportedly have two children together. One was born around 2010. No other details are available.
After getting married in 2008, the Chen family lived in San Francisco up until 2019. They have since returned to Taiwan where Chen grew up.
An avid audiophile, Chen spends time on side projects related to electronic music and digital audio workstations in his post-YouTube years.
He enjoys exploring new technologies and startups, occasionally advising or investing in ones aligned with his interests.
Chen likes keeping active by practicing yoga and jogging. He invested in health tracking company Fitbit.
Education and immigration issues are personal passions due to his own background as a foreign-born immigrant who found opportunity in technology.
Over his two decades in Silicon Valley, Steve Chen gained hard-won wisdom about entrepreneurship, technology, and creating transformative online platforms. Here are some of his most insightful quotes:
"YouTube is a platform, a distribution vehicle."
This captures the essential nature of YouTube as an enabling stage that empowered millions of creators.
"There are a lot of services trying to solve the information discovery problem, and no one has got it right yet."
How to connect people with content they love is a universal challenge Chen continually explores.
"There are lots of new products and new services making adding content easier. But there are not many people on the other side helping users digest that content."
Chen recognizes curation and discovery as underserved needs.
"Everybody carries a phone with them, but they may not have a computer."
A prescient observation on mobile‘s importance in 2006, years before ubiquity.
"Every user has something to say."
This belief in democratizing access and empowering all voices defines Chen‘s approach to building online platforms.
Legacy and Impact
Chen helped spearhead the online video sharing space with the founding of YouTube. He built the technical backbone and content delivery architecture that catapulted YouTube to over 2 billion monthly users.
YouTube reshaped entertainment, politics, news, global culture, and the internet itself by making video central to how we communicate online. It unlocked new creative opportunities for generations of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and influencers.
As an influential member of the PayPal Mafia, Chen is linked to some of the most important companies and investors in Silicon Valley history. His connections that started at PayPal enabled him to build and grow YouTube.
Chen‘s immigrant background and bootstrap startup success make him an exemplary embodiment of the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur ideal. He will be remembered as one of the internet‘s most impactful innovators of the 21st century. Steve Chen helped make online video what it is today and changed the world in the process.