The YouTube Gurus

How a couple of regular guys built a company that changed the way we see ourselves

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MICHAEL GRECCO FOR TIME

Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and hundreds of the videos that helped turn YouTube into a sensation.

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STEVE SHIH CHEN has always been something of a risk taker. He left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a semester and a half early to work for PayPal. His family was wary: "We told him it was risky; he just had a few months left" in college, says his brother Ricky, 26. "But he was determined to give it a shot." Steve was drawn to PayPal partly because several U. of I. alums worked there, including PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, who in turn was eager to hire Steve because of his educational background. Steve had attended not only U. of I.--which has a well-respected computer-science program--but also the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), a state-funded boarding school. "IMSA plus U. of I. is generally a very winning formula," says Levchin, who says the combination produces "hard-core smart, hardworking, nonspoiled" young engineers who are perfect for start-ups. "The kind of people that IMSA attracts are the kind of people very prone to choose their own path," he says. They also grow up quickly, since IMSA feels more like a college than a high school. It's coed and highly competitive, the schoolwork is college level, and kids spend every possible second on the Internet.

Which isn't to say Steve is a geek--at least not an irretrievable geek. Chad gets more attention for his laid-back cool look, but Steve is actually more fun to hang out with, particularly since he started drinking a year and a half ago (right around the time YouTube was founded; he jokingly wonders if there's a connection). Steve seems to wear the responsibilities of the company more lightly than Chad, and he has absorbed less of the heavy p.r. coaching. Steve, for instance, is willing to speculate about what his wealth might mean for him: "It's funny, you know, Chad and I will probably, are definitely at YouTube for the next five years. But you do start wondering, What's next? Now that you have some cash, and it's like, Well, if I could live in any city, where would I live?"

And?

"New York, in spite of the weather, is a cool place." For now, Steve lives in the San Francisco apartment he bought a bit rashly in 2005, when he had just left PayPal and YouTube was in its infancy.

Steve was born in Taipei and has his own interesting relationship with luck. When he was a little kid, maybe 6, his mother took him to see a fortune teller who told him he would never be rich. "And that's kind of stayed with me ever since," he told me. The experience left him with a sense of dread that he takes half-seriously. "We haven't actually seen any of the money [from the Google deal] yet," he says with a laugh, "and I keep thinking there will be some legal complication, or it will fall through somehow."

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