Leadership & Management

Neal Mohan, MBA ’05, From CEOs to Content Creators: Be True To Yourself

The CEO of YouTube shares that, despite the power of algorithms, successful content still stems from humans and their authenticity.

December 13, 2023

| by Jenny Luna

“The secret sauce of being a successful creator on the platform is just being true to yourself. And that sounds sort of very cliché, but I wish somebody had given me that advice early in my career because nothing rings more true.”

Neal Mohan, MBA ’05 and the CEO of YouTube, visited the Stanford campus as part of View From The Top. Mohan sat down with Shannon Beckham, MBA ’24, to discuss his background in tech, his time at Stanford GSB, and why he is an optimist about AI.

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.

During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Neal Mohan: The reason why principles are really important is because by the time a decision comes to you as a leader, it’s often a trade-off between two bad choices. And if you’re trying to make that kind of a trade-off, you better have some sort of bedrock of principles by which you’re making those decisions.

Shannon Beckham: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Neal Mohan, CEO of YouTube. Neal visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From The Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview leaders from around the world.

I’m Shannon Beckham, an MBA student of the Class of 2024. In our conversation, we discussed Neal’s vision for YouTube, how AI will unlock creativity, the challenge of misinformation, and the importance of leaning into change. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Shannon Beckham: Neal, welcome back to the GSB.

Neal Mohan: Well, thank you for having me, Shannon. Hello, everybody. It’s great to be back. It’s always super exciting to be — although I was not on this campus; I was at that very old campus — but it’s great to be onsite with all of you.

Shannon Beckham: Well, it’s great to have an alum on this stage who’s been in our shoes before. And when I was preparing for this interview, I did the first thing we always do — I looked you up on YouTube. [Laughter] And I want to show one of my favorite videos that I found.

Neal Mohan: Uh-oh. [Laughter] Let’s see what this is [laughs].

[Video begins]

Male Voice: Neal Mohan is the most mysterious man on YouTube. He’s the new CEO, and people don’t know what to think about him. So I decided to invite him to a music festival to get a vibe check on him.

Male Voice: And he said yes.

Male Voice: I decided to put my best foot forward and get commemorative best-friend t-shirts made. You and I had lunch together, and you bought me my favorite food. You and I made our own secret handshake. You and I unsubscribed for Mr. [Unintelligible]. You even gave me a piggyback ride when my feet started to hurt. I didn’t even ask.

Male Voice: Neal and I signed a legally binding agreement that prioritizes my videos over every one else’s videos on the YouTube algorithm.

Male Voice: I need you to stop.

Male Voice: Overall, I give a 9.5 out of 10.

[Video ends]

Neal Mohan: Oh my God. [Applause] I didn’t realize that when I took over the CEO gig, a big part of my job would be being a straight man for our — for a lot of YouTubers out there. But the other — the funny thing about that video was, I do like [blots] of various press interviews and this and that. And I have a 15-year-old, and his friends couldn’t have cared less about any of that stuff. But when I was in that short with Airrack, that was like I basically hit the big leagues [laughs] with a 15-year-old set. So that was pretty exciting.

Shannon Beckham: That’s great. And I mean, and I’m [Plan Five]. Creators are a tough crowd [laughs].

Neal Mohan: I know, I know [laughs].

Shannon Beckham: We have so much to cover today, from creators to AI to your personal leadership. And we’ll get to all of it. But I want to start at the beginning. You were born in Indiana and spent the second part of your childhood in India. How did those early experiences influence you?

Neal Mohan: It’s a great question. And just by way of background, my story, like — and I can trace the straight line back to me sitting here with you today, Shannon, started with my dad. My parents, my dad came over here. He graduated from [IOT] in India and wanted to come here to do his Ph.D. He was admitted to Purdue, and he was a civil engineer. So he wanted to do his Ph.D. there. He landed at JFK with 25 dollars in his pocket. And he asked the first person, first friendly face he saw the quickest way to Lafayette, Indiana. And a kind gentleman put him on a Greyhound bus. And that was sort of the start of my journey. That’s where I was born, as you said.

I grew up mostly in the Midwest, in Michigan right outside Ann Arbor. And yeah, Michigan fans here. And pretty normal childhood. We’re talking now — I’m dating myself, but this was the early kind of ‘80s. So it was like a lot of transformers and Star Wars, and that’s what I spent — you know, baseball, that’s what I spent a lot of my childhood on. But I remember distinctly that there were really kind of two Indian families in our entire town. It was a small town in Michigan. It happened to be that the other kid — Indian kid was roughly my age. His name happened to be Neal also. So that was a little confusing for a lot of people.

But as you alluded to, right before high school, my folks decided to move back to India. And I did, too. And that was really — at the time it felt like a pretty big sort of traumatic change. And this is — you know, we’re talking about the mid ‘80s here. So this is not like where you can fly to India and back in a few days, and kind of it it’s just kind of normal par for the course. That was a big deal. I couldn’t speak the language, read it or write it. I could understand it because my parents would speak it to each other occasionally. But that was a big shock to the system.

And it was a seminal moment for me because of two things. One is it was just sort of formulated in my mind in retrospect sort of this concept of just really leaning into change. And that’s been, I think, sort of a theme throughout my career. Happens to be really important in the tech business, which I’m in, of course. But it was really about sort of embracing that change ultimately. Some of my best friends through life are friends that I met during high school in India. I had to learn nine years’ worth of Hindi and Sanskrit and all of that. And it’s really about not just surviving. It’s about thriving through those types of kind of seminal, sort of pivotal moments.

And that’s happened for better or worse many, many times in my life and career since then. But that’s sort of like a big part of my childhood of going from kind of the small Midwestern town to this pretty big city, Lucknow in India and just being able to roll with it and come out of it in a much more sort of positive way.

Shannon Beckham: Well, it sounds like you embraced change again because then you came back to the U.S. to go to Stanford for undergrad, and then you came back again to the GSB. So how did those experiences here at Stanford shape the trajectory of your life?

Neal Mohan: Oh boy. Well, I mean, as [John] alluded to in his kind remarks, I mean, Stanford is a real — and as my wife knows, who’s here, Hema knows — it’s a big — it’s a really important part of my life because, starting with undergrad and then I’ll get to the GSB in a second, it really did change my life. Even in high school, I was kind of like this — you know, I knew that I wanted to do something in technology. I remember I started this software company when I was in high school. It was — and it was like it was true like nerd nation. Stanford was like nerd up on nerd. It was basically software or to teach people organic chemistry — [Laughter] — which is a very strange thing. But I loved chemistry, and I loved programming. And they did both of those things.

So I always knew that I wanted to have a career associated with Silicon Valley. And coming here as an undergrad was really kind of the gateway to that. But it was really less about that engineering education and really about everything else that, of course, you all know that Stanford offers. And so coming back for business school, A) because it’s the GSB, let’s face it, but also because I knew about Stanford, it was a really easy decision for me. And what I’d say about the GSB, and hopefully you all sort of experience this, one thing that sort of went into my decision there was the fact that I felt like it was a school that wasn’t just going to be business war stories or what have you. It was really going to be truly sort of grounded in fundamentals.

And that was my experience here. And I’ve always thought for years like why is that sort of such a unique thing about the GSB. And I was actually in a meeting earlier this morning, and my friend [Derek Bolton], like he always does, kind of distilled it down to its essence. And it’s really about sort of the teaching and faculty model we have here that’s this combination of like the world’s best academics with the world’s best practitioners sort of coming together and teaching. And so I remember that as sort of like a core part of my experience here. Nobody talks about a lot of the classroom experience when they do their GSB stories.

So I thought I’d share that one because I just remember distinctly, every class that I took, you’d have this broad business context. But there would be like one or two truly sort of seminal, sort of principal things that came out of that class, whether it was like my non-markets class. And it was like this concept of like the median voter theorem, which many of us know, and it sounds like kind of this abstract dry thing. But I can tell you in my career, like literally every month there’s a concept like that that comes up where you apply those sort of basic principles.

So that was sort of one thing that I remember distinctly from my GSB days.

Shannon Beckham: I learned about the median voter theorem in my class last quarter. So yes, still here.

Neal Mohan: There you go. It’ll prove useful to you even though it sounds very dry and boring [laughs].

Shannon Beckham: And so after the GSB, you took a risk and went back to the startup you had been at, DoubleClick, which you worked at and then eventually sold to Google. Tell us about that experience.

Neal Mohan: Yeah, so actually, that reminds me like my — the other GSB story, of course, which you all are familiar with, you hear a lot about is the network of friends and relationships and colleagues that you build both here, everybody in this auditorium, but also throughout your career and your life. And my experience was like literally like kind of like a concentrated version of that when I was making that decision to go back to DoubleClick after business school because my boss at DoubleClick was a GSB alum. My — the company had gotten taken private, which is the reason why I went back to DoubleClick, by Hellman & Friedman, which was the key investor of it was Andy Ballard, who’s now my good friend like 20 years later; we’re on the Advisory Council together.

And my future boss who was also trying to recruit me because I was making a choice between Google and DoubleClick, was my professor here, Eric Schmidt. And so it was basically like the GSB alumni network sort of like manifesting itself in terms of my career choices at that moment. But yeah, as you point out, I did go back to DoubleClick. It was a difficult choice. I was choosing between going to this fast-rising company called Google right down the road here and deciding to at that time commute 3,000 miles in the other direction back at DoubleClick, which was in New York.

And I had just convinced my wife, who’s a New Yorker, to move out to this like very excited town called Palo Alto from New York City. [Laughter] And then I sprung the news that, hey, I might be taking this job back at DoubleClick and commuting in either direction. But I did that. And the reason was because it was really just, for me at least, it was just kind of a bet on myself. It was definitely much more of a startup environment. It was basically coming out of dotcom 1.0. The bubble had burst, and it was a pretty big sort of turnaround. And so there was an enormous amount of risk with it in terms of business.

But I just felt that being given the responsibility to kind of run a big part of it, be the number two at that company, and really sort of position it for what I thought would be a very successful turnaround — and fortunately, it turned out that way — was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. And so that’s why I chose to go back to DoubleClick after business school.

Shannon Beckham: And DoubleClick, for those who don’t know, is online advertising as we know it today. And I was talking to your former professor and current co-teacher George Foster, who called you the master negotiator and believed that’s the reason that Google acquired DoubleClick in that moment. Can you tell us what your approach is to negotiating these deals? You most recently just landed NFL Sunday Ticket for YouTube. What advice do you have for us as we’re going on to do this in our careers?

Neal Mohan: Wow, that’s a great question. I would say a few things. So just by way of background, as you point out, DoubleClick was kind of — is still kind of this operating system of the Internet economy, at least as far as the fact that it’s powered through advertising. And so it was this very strategic conversation obviously between DoubleClick and Google, and it’s obviously public information. But there were lots of other companies at the time that were interested in our products and our technology and the company. And it really just — from a negotiations standpoint, it really just means — I’m sure you hear this in your classes, but George and I have talked about this over the years, too — it really is about trying to find unlocking value on both sides.

And so yes, it was a steep price tag for Google, over three billion dollars. But it was really about sort of showing what that strategic opportunity was for Google in this case, and then Google’s — all of our partners, our publishers or what have you. And it’s really honestly not about the back and forth. It’s about painting the picture that hopefully is convincing enough that there’s all this value that can get unlocked if we can come to some kind of an agreement. And I think that I’d argue that in terms of value for all of our partners, our publishers, our advertisers that use that software on a regular basis, that was proven true.

Shannon Beckham: So you turned down Eric Schmidt but then ended up at Google anyway. And while you were at Google, you became the Chief Product Officer at YouTube. And fast-forward to today, you’ve transitioned to CEO. So what has your trajectory at YouTube been like, and what has this transition to CEO been over this last year?

Neal Mohan: Well, I’d been at Google a very long time, over 15 years. The first part of my career as I was — it was running our display and video advertising business and products. And my connection with YouTube actually predates both my time at Google, before we sold DoubleClick to Google, but also before YouTube became part of Google. So one of my biggest partners and customers when I was at DoubleClick was this small company above a pizza parlor in San Mateo down the road called YouTube. And I remember I’d visit from New York at the time, and I’d go in and I’d meet the founders and the team. And they would just really be — the conversation would be like, “Neal, how can you guys keep up? Like you can’t keep up with our growth. Like how are you going to actually scale?”

And it was just amazing to see. Everything was always sort of up and to the right at this startup at the time called YouTube. And so I’ve been very closely involved with that company even before Google. But during my time running ads at Google, the biggest advertising property that we had, at least in terms of kind of non-search advertising, was YouTube. So I’d work with them very closely. And then when I came over as Chief Product Officer, it was not just working on the advertising side but building all of our products for our creators and our users of basically the products that you use every day. And so that was kind of an easy decision because I was so familiar with YouTube.

But I took over leading YouTube about, I guess, now coming up on nine months. And that transition has been interesting in a couple of ways. One is that I’ve been at YouTube for a very long time, so obviously, I’m very familiar with our products and our ecosystem. But a big part of the job is different in the sense that now I am sort of the face obviously of the company. I have — I spend a lot of time with our creators, as you saw there. And so it’s really about making sure that this ecosystem that we’re bringing along of two billion users, tens of millions of creators, obviously all of our partners, our advertisers. And it’s my job to really be the steward of that. And so that is — that sort of is what falls on my shoulders. And in a way, that is distinct because ultimately the buck does stop with you.

Shannon Beckham: So these creators — we’ve seen you at Coachella; you’ve mentioned them now — what have you learned from them? You’ve spent a lot of time with them over the last year and presumably before that, too. What have they taught you?

Neal Mohan: Yeah, I mean, so, presumably, lots of folks in this room have their favorite creators that they watch on our platform on a regular basis. I know many — there are some people in this audience who are creators themselves. And I would say a couple of things. The first and probably the most salient thing — and this is actually advice I give to people who ask me like what is the secret sauce of being a successful creator on the platform — is it really is just being true to yourself. And that sounds sort of very cliché, but I wish somebody had given me that advice early in my career because nothing rings more true. And I can tell you for a fact that it’s not the algorithm. It’s all the other people that are on the other side of that glass when they’re watching your video if you’re a creator that can tell instantaneously whether that is actually truly your authentic self or if you’re trying to basically put yourself in another person’s shoes.

And what I always find striking is, whether it’s Airrack as you saw in that short, or whether it’s Jimmy Donaldson, MrBeast, or Dude Perfect, or whoever your favorite creators are, when you hang out with them in real life, they are pretty much exactly the way that you experience them on the app. And that’s their — in essence, I think that that’s their secret to success. Whether they’re comic creators, whether they’re sports creators, whether they’re musicians or artists, like it really is about that. And of course, they’re incredibly talented and know how to tell stories. But they’re true to themselves.

The other thing that I think people don’t recognize as much is that, not only are they amazing creative people, they are true entrepreneurs. Like they build amazing businesses. I was in L.A. last week. I was meeting with some of our kind of OG creators. Rhett & Link, for those of you who may be familiar, they have this show every day called Good Mythical Morning. I see some head nods, so you might be familiar with it. They obviously are amazing creative types. It’s really them coming true. They’re like childhood buddies. Grew up in I think North Carolina, started a channel. It’s been over a decade. But they are incredibly successful entrepreneurs. They have basically a Hollywood studio — a hundred people, preproduction, production, writers’ rooms.

And they not just — don’t just have their channel; they’re basically cultivating a number of other channels and growing. And they made the choice to build their careers on YouTube as opposed to like what used to have been the case going and trying to find a gig with an existing sort of traditional media company.

Shannon Beckham: Yeah. I think the creators that you mentioned that are in our classes here would probably really resonate with that as being entrepreneurs. And I also read recently that one third of kids now say they want to be vloggers or YouTubers specifically when they grow up. This is a changing, growing industry. How are you viewing the future of the creator economy? Where is it headed?

Neal Mohan: Yeah, I mean, we have one of those at our house. She’s 11 years old, and — [Laughter] — it’s not because her dad works there. But she — we are convinced that that is like her career path. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I mean this term creator economy is obviously kind of a big buzzword today. But it’s really been kind of the essence of YouTube since the very beginning. It is like literally in our name, You Tube. It is about building a presence on our platform, and our creators are looking to do two things. They’re looking to build an audience. I often describe YouTube as the world’s most efficient connector of a creative person with their audience, no matter where they are in the world. And so that’s the first thing that we do as part of the creator economy.

The second thing is economy. Ultimately, it’s about finding a way for these creators to earn a sustainable living on our platform. And so we are the world’s largest and original sort of first creator economy. We take enormous pride in that. That’s what our creators tell us all the time. And when I use the term creator, I don’t mean just sort of YouTubers. I mean everything from the NFL and the NBA on one end of the spectrum to somebody just starting out in their garage today, like really that whole gamut. They’re all creators. And so we have always prided ourselves that we don’t just find your audience, your fans. We actually help you generate real businesses on our platform, whether that’s through advertising — you’ll all know that we have a number of subscription products.

We have a number of products where fans can directly fund creators. And all of that revenue from all of those sources, a big chunk of that accrues to our creators. And so I think in the last three years, we’ve paid out over 50 billion dollars to this creator economy, generated through all of these various sort of business models that I talk about. And when you walk the halls of YouTube, that’s a lot of what you hear. You hear a lot of that conversation about what is the next thing that we have to do to make creators, creative people, on our platform successful, no matter where they are in the world.

Shannon Beckham: I imagine AI is a big part of this content generation. You just rolled out several AI products at YouTube. And I’m curious what you think you’re most excited for about AI-generated content and what you’re most concerned about. How will that affect these creators you’re talking about?

Neal Mohan: Yeah. You know, again, that’s another thing where I feel there’s just an enormous amount of sort of buzz about that this year. But first and foremost, I mean, YouTube, a big part of our investment, if you think about what YouTube the company is, most of the people that work there are software engineers, lots of them machine learning and AI software engineers. And when you open up the app on your phones, what do you see? Well, you see a feed. That is the product of all of our investment in AI. That ranking that’s happening that’s basically showing you the videos that you want to watch right then and there is our investment in machine learning and AI.

So that has been a bedrock of YouTube for a long time. But I do think that what you said in terms of creation of content, that part I think is going to be different. And what I mean by that is AI is going to do a couple of things. One is it’s going to further democratize the creation of amazing content. I think in general, that is a very positive thing. But it’s also — because it’s going to do that, it is, just like any technology, it can fall in the hands of bad actors. And just like we have to be that way with any content on our platform, we have to be vigilant in terms of how we deal with that. So there’s always that.

And I think our philosophy — my philosophy is you have to be really bold. You have to lean into this technology, back to this theme of kind of leaning into change, because it will create these capabilities that will be awesome for all of us. But it also comes with risk. So in addition to bold, you have to be responsible. And so that means trying to anticipate risk, whether they’re around misinformation or other sort — deep fakes, whatever you want to call it. And so that’s sort of how we think about these things.

But just to give you a very concrete example, the technology — we talked about some of this in the products you’re alluding to. We just released this feature where, through a text prompt, you can wish for a video to be generated. So you have a creative concept. Dragons flying through Manhattan. That probably would’ve been hours’ if not weeks’ worth of work if you are a creator prior to this type of technology. Now with this product, called Dream Screen, you can do it just like that. And so that’s an example of the power of this tool. And so we have to really harness that.

And I feel like YouTube — the unique role that YouTube plays in this sphere is that we really do sit at the nexus of technology and human creativity. So our kind of mantra is how do we harness technology like AI to empower that human creativity.

Shannon Beckham: You have technology, creativity. And then one of the other things you just mentioned was safety and responsibility. And I think on a more serious note, my classmates and I and the world have watched in horror as the conflict in Israel and Gaza unfolded these last few weeks. What do you view as YouTube’s role on the world stage in these moments as a source of information and especially accurate information?

Neal Mohan: Yeah. First of all, just like you said, I mean, we all at YouTube, me personally, my family, we’re just shocked and just incredibly deeply saddened by the atrocities that unfolded on October 7th and, obviously, the conflict that’s playing out on the ground impacting millions of people on the ground, but also many people around the world. And so the reality is, and I say this to my teams every day, every week, which is what happens in the world happens on YouTube. It’s a platform where two billion people come to every single day. Of course, what’s happening in the world is manifesting itself on our platform.

One of the strengths of YouTube is that it is an open platform. It is a platform that has stood on notions of free speech and open platforms. But one of the things that I have learned is that you can’t have truly an open platform and true free speech if you also don’t have some rules of the road. And so from the very early days, YouTube has had community guidelines. And those community guidelines really are the rules of the road of what we allow on our platform, what is removed from our platform. And the conflict in Israel and Gaza that’s playing out is a reflection of those rules coming into play.

So just to give you concrete examples, obviously, there’s horrific, graphic violence oftentimes in the form of video that shows up on our platform. We have clear policies around that. We try to strike the balance between educational and documentary news-related content that should stay up, should get views as people are looking for information on our platform. But we also try to make sure that it is not gratuitous, that it is appropriately age-gated if it needs to be. We have policies against violent extremism. If the video is either indirectly or directly promoting terrorist organizations like Hamas, then those get removed from our platform.

And then to your point around misinformation, this is sort of the most nebulous, of course, and the most diffuse. But we try to be extra vigilant around that. And the challenges — you just asked about AI, and I talked about sort of deep fakes. The real problem oftentimes with misinformation isn’t about deep fakes. It’s about like really kind of shallow sort of just fakes basically. And so you — a lot of the misinformation narratives were literally videoclips of Call of Duty, like video games that were basically being propagated as footage from the war.

And so just being vigilant about those types of things, having clear policies, having the investment in terms of not just the policies but also, in this case again, machine learning and AI, to actually detect content across a corpus of billions and billions of videos is investment that we have been working on for years, which we’ve been able to put in place so that we can be fast acting in terms of a crisis like this.

And then the other thing, as you alluded to, is making sure that we raise up content. So if you open up the app, you see that breaking news shelf, which is triggering, I think, still all over the world, that has content that only comes from channels that have built a history of authority and credibility on our platform and have earned the right to actually show up in our news shelves, show up higher in our search rankings in the algorithmic feeds, et cetera. So we use a combination of techniques and capabilities, but also based on sort of these core principles of open platform but community guidelines, which sound like competing principles but, in my mind, they’re actually self-reinforcing.

Shannon Beckham: This is such an important topic right now, so thank you for giving us your insight on it. I want to understand tactically some more of your leadership style in this situation and others. I’ve heard you say before that if a decision makes its way up to your office, it’s a decision between two hard choices because, if it was an easy one, it would’ve already been made. So I imagine in situations that like things don’t fit within the policies you just talked about, or it’s something you haven’t prepared for, you have to make really hard choices as a CEO now. How are you doing that?

Neal Mohan: Yeah, it’s a great question, and it’s probably the one that I think about the most, honestly, Shannon. And so I will just — I’ll tell you sort of the philosophy that works for me. And I’m obviously doing it today as the leader of YouTube, but I think it applies to any sort of leadership role. And I think that there are three things that are really important here and, conveniently, they all start with P. So I’m going to walk through them. The first is people. And I remember — I think it might have been actually at the business school where somebody said to me, you can — as a CEO or as a leader, you can find somebody to do every single job, except for one, which is hire the people to do those jobs.

And so the one role that you have first and foremost before anything is actually finding the right people to be on that bus before you drive to that destination. And so that’s — I prioritize that in terms of my leadership team, the people who work directly for me at the most senior levels of the company, but also levels below them and just having a sort of rigorous rubric in terms of the people that we bring into our organization, especially at the leadership levels is like the first and foremost, back to your question of how do I actually execute. It’s really — it starts with people.

The second thing that I would say — and hopefully some of this you got a flavor of this in my answer around the Israel Gaze conflict — the second P is principles. And I think this is really important. And I think hopefully — my hope is actually, at the end of my career, this is the thing that is most salient in terms of what people perceive about how they work with me is trying to be as principled as possible in terms of the decisions that you make. And the reason principles are really important is because of what you just said, because by the time a decision comes to you as a leader, it’s often a tradeoff between two bad choices. And if you’re trying to make that kind of a tradeoff, you’d better have some sort of bedrock of principles by which you’re making those decisions.

And so as I described sort of one set of those sort of competing principles, the north star is that we’re an open platform. We stand for freedom of speech. But another principle, which is sort of self-reinforcing but competing in some levels, is you need to have some rules of the road. Otherwise, you can’t really have free speech if it’s everything goes. So we have policies against hate speech or harassment. They’re defined very clearly and narrowly, but they’re sort of like having that sort of principle framework is important. You can have freedom of speech on our platform, but it doesn’t mean that you get freedom of reach. That’s another type of a principle that then sort of permeates into your product decisions. And the reason the principles are so important is because that’s really what permeates into decision-making at every level of an organization, not just for me — that happens at the VP level and directors and managers. And so that’s sort of the second thing.

And then the third thing, which sounds the most boring but actually would kind of almost be the first chapter in any book is actually around process. And I do think a lot about these types of things because that’s the cadence by which you run a company or an organization. What is your — how do you dial back everything from an annual plan to a product roadmap, to quarterly OKRs and goals, to weekly product reviews, to weekly pipeline reviews, to daily standups. Having some intentionality and sort of thoughts around how you actually structure those processes is actually kind of like the lifeblood of a company. That’s what we do all day. We make — a lot of my job is making decisions with imperfect information. And you need to have that sort of process architecture to do that.

So it’s people, principles, and process. If I would leave you with anything, that’s sort of really what goes into kind of my leadership playbook.

Shannon Beckham: We talk a lot about principles at values here at the GSB. And you mentioned a lot of the organizational ones. What are some of your personal principles that drive you? Where do those come from?

Neal Mohan: It’s a really interesting question. I think that kind of as I think back on my — I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is ever since I was a kid, back to my days in Michigan and my days in India and kind of everything, I did feel oftentimes that I was part of the community, but I was also kind of a bit of an outsider. In Michigan, I was one of a handful of kids frankly that looked like me. I had lots and lots of friends in the community, but I was a bit different. My family was different. And so that was a big part of who I was early childhood. When I went to India, I was also again different. Like I was around a lot of people that looked like me, but I kind of sounded like weird, right, compared to them.

And so again, it was sort of like being part of the community but being sort of an outsider. And for me, the thing that sort of like — where a lot of my strength came from was finding those communities as an outsider through a lot of the means that I use, like through media actually. So like whether it was a book or a magazine or a television show back in the day, radio, kind of sports, that was the means by which I sort of found my community. That’s why, ultimately, I am such a kind of media junkie to this day. And so that’s kind of a motivator for me. And if you think about even YouTube, like it’s a place where you can go, if you’re like a 15-year-old kid, you feel like nobody understands you, you don’t fit quite into the community that you’re in, you can find your people on a platform like YouTube. Again, it’s in the name.

And so that’s been like a big motivator for me, and it’s sort of like the thing — one of the things that really gets me going in the morning. The other one that I’ll just say is the one common thread sort of through my career, whether it was in my advertising days or running YouTube, is that v probably one of the biggest changes I leaned into was when I was graduating from undergrad, which was the dawn of the Internet. And so again, that’s obviously hard to imagine for many people in this room. But I remember here at my dorm at Stanford, like you’d literally line up to get an email address. Like it was like a whole crazy thing. Like the Internet was literally organized in a directory, right, before Google.

And so that was — but kind of the core thing about the Internet is that it is free and accessible. And YouTube is free and accessible. It’s like kind of the video representation of that. And the thing that really makes it that way is — the only model — the only business model that actually allows for that is an advertising-based one. That’s what YouTube is. That is what the Internet is. And so the common sort of other motivation for me is that we really do feel like whether it’s bringing all of us, our favorite creators, or our favorite news outlets or what have you, that is actually powered through a lot of the business models that my team and the like work on.

So in terms of like, again, a motivator, I feel like that’s a big deal. And in the story that I always use to tell that is the — just recently — the recently concluded Olympics in Tokyo, the kid who won — or the young man who won the Gold Medal in the Javelin was this Indian kid. India had never won a medal, kind of track and field medal — Gold Medal before then. That kid learned to throw the javelin on YouTube. And that’s an amazing story, like crazy that like he literally learned and became the world’s best through watching videos on YouTube. But the reason I share that story, Shannon, is the reason he could do that is because YouTube was free and accessible to him. And the reason it was free and accessible to him was because of all this work that we do and this sort of advertising-powered business model. So I think it’s really important.

Shannon Beckham: The power of community really is that throughline throughout your life and career. Have you picked up any skills like the javelin on YouTube? What have you picked up lately? [Laughter]

Neal Mohan: Well, actually, my — the skills that I pick up on it are much, much more mundane. So during the pandemic, our garage door broke down. So I not only saved lots and lots of time but some money by watching [Too Many] YouTube video. And I’m not a handyman as my wife knows.

Shannon Beckham: [Unintelligible]. [Laughter]

Neal Mohan: Yes. But I was able to fix it, and I learned that on YouTube.

Shannon Beckham: Great. Before we go to audience Q&A, I’m going to ask you a question we’re asking all of our speakers this year in line with our theme of redefining tomorrow. And you’ve touched on a lot of this, of what the future will look like. But as CEO of YouTube, if you could make one change that would redefine tomorrow, what would it be?

Neal Mohan: That’s — well, I would go back actually a little bit to what we talked about. And it really is about — and again, back on this sort of theme of embracing change, I do think — and I’ve been through really big sort of generational technology shifts, many of them, through my career. As I said, I started my career at really the dawn of the Internet. So that was very, very pivotal and salient. The next big one that happened, of course, was the move to the supercomputers in our pockets, mobile phones. And I would argue that what we are in the midst of right now, this AI-powered sort of revolution is kind of that sort of third big seminal, almost sort of platform paradigm shift.

And from a YouTube standpoint, my wish is that we, again, really lean into it and embrace it. There are lots of challenges that we will be faced with with this technology. But on balance — and I’m an optimist — what it’s going to unleash for all of us as human beings is going to be truly profound. And in the context of YouTube, it’s going to be about creativity. I gave you examples of like dragons flying over New York. You can extrapolate that to a million different types of creative use cases. But it’s also going to be about human empowerment, that example that I gave you around the javelin thrower. Well, what if you could go to a platform and say, “Give me a five-minute tutorial in physics 101, but do it in a style of X, Y, Z, my favorite creator,” right?

Like that is going to be the power of this type of technology in our hands. And my wish is that we lean into that.

Shannon Beckham: Right? Okay, we’re going to take some questions from the audience.

Neal Mohan: Let’s do it.

[Gray]: Hi, Neal. My name is Gray. I’m an MBA 2 here. Thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m also a musician, so I have a question about the music industry. As we’ve seen the rise of digital streaming platforms, we’ve kind of been trained to value every song ever written for about ten dollars a month. And I wonder if you have thoughts on where YouTube’s unique position in the music industry would possibly be able to shift or scale that so artists can get back to living off of the art that they create.

Neal Mohan: Yeah. The music — so as you all know, music is one of the most important if not most-most important verticals on our platform. We’re one of the largest if not largest sort of music platforms out there. So it’s core to what YouTube is. And I would say that the distinction between YouTube and other sort of products you might use to listen to music is that we are not just about creating opportunities for musicians and artists through the consumption of their, in this case, not to use too much like industry jargon, but your primary music art track or what have you. We are a platform that is — that takes music and mixes it in with other creator content, user-generated content. That is the foundation of this other pie that we’ve been able to grow for the music industry that is beyond just streaming revenue.

So the fact that if you watch a video, it’s a wedding video on YouTube, it’s got a track from Drake, that money from that video through advertising or subscriptions actually accrues to the musician or artist. And so it’s a system called Content ID. It is proprietary YouTube technology, but I think it’s sort of one of the crown jewels of what YouTube is. And so our goal is to continue to try to really expand more of that pool. We are one of the unique platforms in that you can generate money through subscription revenues on our platform that accrue to the music business, but also through advertising.

The complexity sort of that goes into it, without getting into too much detail, is that there are lots of players obviously that own various parts of rights in the music industry. So there’re obviously publishing companies. There’re record labels, as you know. And so it’s really about sort of the economic pie and sort of how it gets divided up. But our goal at YouTube is to try to grow that pie as much as possible. And actually, that’s how we think about new technologies like generative AI. How does it actually create new opportunities for artists? At the end of the day, we’re in the business of artists and creators.

So our goal ultimately is to make sure that what we do is accruing to our artists. And we have to do that obviously with our partners, like the labels or publishers. But that’s a bit how we think about it, which is ultimately growing the pie through these various revenue streams that we have.

Male Voice: Neal, I’m [Unintelligible]. And I’m [unintelligible]. Was curious to know if there was anybody [unintelligible] product in YouTube that you are very passionate about, but it didn’t take off in the way that you wanted it to, or it [unintelligible].

Neal Mohan: There are many products that we — our culture is one of experimentation. We really do try to try out new things. We used to have a product in a number of our kind of — we call them sort of our next user [or] emerging markets. It used to be called YouTube Go. It was basically kind of a lightweight version of YouTube that we built for less capable Android phones in a lot of emerging markets, it turned out, that that wasn’t necessary because what ended up happening in a lot of these markets is leapfrogs, basically the local loops, the data loops — and India’s a great example where [Reliance] just invested extremely heavily and made it so that that problem of data and the bits of video kind of went away. So that’s an example of a product that we tried out, didn’t work, and then we sunset it, appropriately in that case.

Another one that was a lot more controversial that some of you may remember is a dislike counts on our — [laughs]. [Laughter] It’s like literally I still to this day get tweets and emails about this feature that we turned down, which was eliminating the count on dislikes, as many of you obviously clearly know. It was a very controversial decision, but we — but we made that choice to turn down that feature. And again — and that one actually goes back to this principles point that I was making, which is we have an ecosystem of creators and viewers. And they are both incredibly important to us. But how do we make a decision when it comes to a tradeoff between those?

And the tradeoff in this case was viewers really, in many cases, maybe wanted to see those view counts or those dislike counts as an indication of like the quality of the video or what have you. But what was happening was that count became an incentive for kind of harassment brigading and things like that that disproportionately impacted a class of our creators, and particularly vulnerable creators on our platform, female creators and the like. And that was an example, again, of sort of the principle was that, well, our visitors come to our platform for the thriving creator ecosystem, so we’d better really get that right, even though it might lead to a short-term tradeoff on the viewer side because in the end what’s good for our creators is going to be good for our viewers. So that’s another example of a feature that we turned down.

Devon: Hey, Neal. My name is Devon. I’m an MBA 1 here at the GSB. You — I think as we all know, learning has been such a huge part of YouTube since its inception. And you kind of hinted at maybe going from a more passive to an active role in promoting learning on the platform. Could you tell us if that is in the strategy and what that might look like?

Neal Mohan: I can tell you a little bit. [Laughter] So you’re right, learning is a huge use case on our platform. I think the latest sort of — I think it was a Pew study that I saw, especially for young people, teens, 95 percent of them use YouTube on a regular basis. The biggest use case, of course, is learning on our —. And so we — and you know, it’s interesting, YouTube kind of grew around this learning use case almost kind of like despite ourselves, right? Like it’s not like we built a particular set of features around it. But recently, one of my priorities has been investing in this, especially from kind of the learner’s standpoint, but also importantly from the teacher’s or educator’s standpoint because there needs to be a business model that works for them there.

And what’s interesting about the learning vertical, because sometimes learning — because it oftentimes ends up being very specific if niche, an ad-supported model, because ads require scale, doesn’t necessarily always, always work. And so one of the products we’ve been working on is something called YouTube Courses so that you can actually bundle a playlist of videos and actually allow the creators to put them in the order that they want, to have some additional features in terms of interactivity and things like that. So that’s an example of something that we’re doing.

We’re also thinking about should we experiment with able to generate quizzes off of video so that if you’re a learner, you’re an eighth grader watching an algebra I video, can you check to see if you actually got the key concepts out of it, things like that. So that’s sort of the general sort of realm in terms of how we think about it. But I agree with you that obviously learning happens not just by watching; it happens through interactivity. We’re obviously — we’re fundamentally a platform about consuming video and audio content. So we’re never going to build all that functionality that you require. But we can augment it, or we can basically provide — we can make is to that we provide the better tools that then fit into perhaps another education tool or, if you’re a self-learner, organize them in a way that’s productive for you. And so that’s sort of how we think about that.

Andrew: Hi, Neal. Thank you so much for being here. My name is Andrew, and I’m an MBA 1. My question is around sports. And so following the acquisition of Sunday Ticket and the NBA, the Meteorites are coming up for auction in a little bit. I’m curious to hear how sports and live sports streaming fits into YouTube’s overall strategy and business model.

Neal Mohan: Yeah. So the way that I think about sports is — so first of all, we’re again, back to what I was saying about music probably applies in the realm of sports, too. We’re probably one of the largest sports platforms in the world. And I grew up watching — when I was an undergrad here, I would just — I’d watch like five hours of Sports Center in a row, just on in the background, right? Like that’s — because I’m a sports nut myself. But then I look at it through the lens of my son, who’s 15. He’s as big of a sports fan as I am. His version of consuming highlights is on YouTube, oftentimes through the lens of his favorite YouTube creators, sports creators in what we call longform, so traditional VOD content on YouTube, but also through YouTube shorts.

And so the world of consumption of sports content is changing dramatically. That’s the expectation, especially for young people. And so the sports industry has had to adapt to that. That’s why you see lots of content moving to streaming platforms. And that was sort of the backdrop of things like Sunday Ticket. To the NFL’s credit, they recognized that their fans, particularly their younger fans, are on YouTube, and that’s where they would prefer to consume a lot of this content. And so for us, it was really about super-serving those sports fans that are already on our platform.

So it’s about kind of I think three things. In that case, it’s about choice, right? Like now if you’re a football fan, you don’t need to call somebody up and have somebody come up and install a dish on your house, right? Like you just two taps, and you’re watching your favorite games. The second is around just what YouTube and Google do, which is just technical and product innovation, right? So that experience, glass to glass from the truck on the field to your television screen, has to be best in class. So that’s where features like Multiview, if you guys have played around it, come into play, right? Like I see some head nods, I can tell the sports fans in the audience. So that’s like product innovation that we should bring.

But the third thing that I think is sort of the most interesting here, and back to kind of my son’s example, are this blending of worlds, like YouTube creators, right? Like the fact that even for sports, bringing that to the table is the expectation that their young fans have. So some of you may have seen, right, like MrBeast was at the Tampa Bay game this weekend, right? Like that kind of a thing is just kind of natural if you are a young sports fan. And so really leaning into that type of change is another important aspect of it.

So we think about it really holistically — consumer choice, product innovation, kind of broad sort of content integration. And that’s — and if we super-serve those sports fans, not only does that sort of accrue to them, but it sort of spills over into the rest of the ecosystem. There’s obviously a direct SVOD subscription opportunity there, but it also spills over into our advertising business.

Shannon Beckham: Great. Thank you so much for answering these questions. We are going to end with a View From The Top tradition of rapid fire.

Neal Mohan: Uh-oh.

Shannon Beckham: I will say a sentence, and you will complete it. Are you ready?

Neal Mohan: All right, let’s do it.

Shannon Beckham: Let’s do it. First one: If I had a personal YouTube channel, the content would be about —.

Neal Mohan: Oh, for me that’s easy. It’d be about something sports related. Like I wouldn’t be the best commentator, but it would be maybe something to do with the Warriors. Yeah.

Shannon Beckham: Great.

Neal Mohan: [Laughs]

Shannon Beckham: We love the Warriors around here. The biggest similarity between Indiana and India is —. [Laughter]

Neal Mohan: Probably those five letters in the name is probably what I would say [laughs]. [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah.

Shannon Beckham: My favorite thing to do when I’m not working is —.

Neal Mohan: Hanging out with my — with my family, our kids is probably what I like to do. I always say that in my job I have to travel a lot. I have obviously lots of meetings. I get to meet lots and lots of incredible people. But like my favorite thing to do on the weekends is just hang around the house with my kids [laughs] honestly.

Shannon Beckham: A piece of advice I would give my younger self is —.

Neal Mohan: I’ll go back to what I said. I mean, I wish somebody had given me this advice when I was first coming out of business school is just truly be true to yourself. Like really try to — again, it sounds cliché, but really think hard about setting your own course. Think about it in terms of longer term. Like I’m not saying over plan, but just try to really, really answer the question about like, on the margin, how is this going to be truly about what I want as opposed to what other people’s expectations are of me.

Shannon Beckham: And I’ll bring it full circle. My favorite moment at Coachella was —. [Laughter]

Neal Mohan: I don’t know, what would it be? It was — let’s see.

Female Voice: Bad Bunny.

Neal Mohan: Bad Bunny was great.

Shannon Beckham: Great answer. [Laughter]

Neal Mohan: Yeah. My [wife’s] favorite moment was Bad Bunny.

Shannon Beckham: Great answer. Neal, thank you so much.

Neal Mohan: [Laughs]

Shannon Beckham: This has been great. [Applause]

Neal Mohan: Thank you.

Shannon Beckham: Thank you.

Shannon Beckham: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Shannon Beckham, of the MBA Class of 2024. Lily Sloane composed our theme music. Michael Reilly and Jenny Luna produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website gsb.stanford.edu. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb.

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