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Koval’s Corner: Creator on the inside

My journey from being a YouTube creator to a YouTube employee.

I nearly fell over backwards. My face either got bright red or lost all color.”

Twelve years ago, I started making YouTube videos — one of many side gigs including substitute teaching and freelance videography. 

I was the cameraman for a local news station one day, working with a reporter to interview people off the street. He was the famous one; I was the typical video technician, half-hidden behind a big camera and a sun-bleached baseball hat.  

We had interviewed a dozen people when a woman in her mid-20s was up next. The reporter flashed his signature smile and began asking questions, wagging the mic back and forth between them. 

At some point, she glanced back at me and the camera and stopped, mid-answer. She did a double-take. 

A long, weird moment passed. The reporter leaned in closer, wondering what was wrong. I looked back at her, curiously. Until, finally, she spoke. 

“Matt Koval?”

I froze.

She gasped. Her eyes lit up. 

“Are you... Matt Koval on YouTube?!”

I nearly fell over backwards. My face either got bright red or lost all color. I’m not sure which. Confused, the reporter looked back at me and then back to her. 

“You know my camera guy?” 

“Of course!” she replied. “Haven’t you seen his YouTube videos?”

He hadn’t. But he now looked at me like I had a lot of explaining to do. He also looked a little miffed that I had upstaged his own fame. 

This was a key moment when I began to realize that those numbers I was getting on YouTube weren’t just numbers. They represented actual human beings, watching what I made from my dining room.

Years later, my subscribers eventually topped out at 115,000, so I definitely wasn’t the most successful creator. But that was just the beginning of what has been one of the more unusual creator journeys in YouTube history. Little did I know back then, while awkwardly recording my first vlogs, that I would one day be working on the inside of YouTube, consulting with employees on company decisions, as their first creator liaison.

Of course, like any career story, there are many years and details in between. In my case, there were four key events that made this journey possible:

The first was falling in love with filmmaking at age 14, pre-YouTube and even pre-internet. Armed with my stepfather’s bulky video camera, I was known as “the neighborhood Spielberg” — and the only kid around who made videos.

The second was getting my first hit video on YouTube, which would establish my belief in the power of the platform to reach an audience. After years writing scripts and toiling in the L.A. film scene, I was floored that this silly video was seen by over one million people. It completely shook up the way I viewed the entertainment business. 

Third was being selected as one of 25 grant winners of YouTube’s first “NextUp” competition, in 2011. That’s the first time I met Google employees and realized there were actual human beings behind the curtain. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. I shared their broad view of the potential of the entire platform, beyond my own individual channel. 

The fourth was when Google officially hired me. The interview process took three months as my background was checked and vetted, along with my references. I think their biggest question was if a creative video-maker had what it took to become a corporate employee. Somehow, I managed to fool convince them. 

So. How’s it been on the inside? 

That’s where I come in: to help employees better understand the creator experience, and to help creators understand why certain decisions are made.”

I think my biggest takeaway to share is the one I share internally all the time. YouTube employees are extremely smart people who are doing their very best for creators. They genuinely care. But the large majority of them haven’t experienced the highs and lows of running a channel, the rush of a viral video, the sting of getting a brutal comment, and the fluctuations in monthly income. 

On the other side, most creators haven’t worked at a global tech company that has complex responsibilities to users, advertisers, and government regulations. They often don’t see the incredible complexities of supporting millions of channels vs. their one channel.

That’s where I come in: to help employees better understand the creator experience, and to help creators understand why certain decisions are made. I’m also trying to communicate in shorter and more “snackable” ways, with videos like this one, directly from Twitter.

Lastly, I don’t want to lose my connection with the creator experience. I meet with creators regularly to hear their feedback, and sometimes do channel consultations. Your ideas and feedback are always welcome, especially as I figure out this new job.