A few weeks ago, we celebrated the third anniversary of our public launch as a service (March 12, 2008 to be precise; the launch followed a four-month password-protected beta). It’s not uncommon for companies to commemorate their anniversaries by sharing company outputs like revenue growth and the like. While the ramp of Hulu has exceeded all of our expectations, I believe it is more appropriate to commemorate our anniversary by focusing on the team and our culture.
Below are some favorite stories over the past three years from the Hulu team.
When I first read the below, I was struck by how much they reflect What Defines Hulu. (“What Defines Hulu” is a cultural essay we wrote in the very early days of our company; it has always served as the true north for our culture and team.)
I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as we have enjoyed living them.
PETE DISTAD, Business Development and Distribution: Every year, my team has punked me on April Fools’ Day in ridiculous ways. The first time, I approached the office building and saw that the windows were lined with peanuts. When I walked to my desk, I found my office completely bombarded with balloons from top to bottom. The second year, I showed up to my office (completely forgetting about the year before), and found that the team had wrapped my entire office in tinfoil, including individual pens, tacks, my chair — everything. It must have taken them over six hours.
Last year, I was much smarter. The night before April Fools’, I intentionally stayed and worked at the office late into the night so they wouldn’t have time to do anything to my office. No one acted like anything was going on. I arrived in the next morning convinced that the team had no time to do anything to my office. Actual sod covered my desk and floor area, a lawn chair replaced my desk chair, cricket sounds were playing from my speakers, my monitor displayed pictures of grass, and there were lawn signs up. Apparently they went back into the office in the middle of the night to set up.
This year, the joke’s on them.
JESSICA IVY, Creative Services: When I think of the early days of Hulu, I’m reminded of all the little things people did to make it fun. For example, I love Tokidoki, and have a bunch of figures on my desk. For the first few months at Hulu, I was convinced that they were ALIVE because every morning when I came in the office, they had moved from where I left them the night before. They were on the windowsill, under the desk, over the door ready to pounce — once they were even arranged on my desk in a Looney Tunes “Rabbit Season” scene. This is just the kind of goofy behavior that keeps a creative person like me inspired. I think our clients benefit from a spirit of fun in our collaboration and hope it keeps them coming back for years to come.
JP COLACO, Advertising: I remember fondly three years ago when there were only about ten of us in the Santa Monica office. We all sat around and started nicknaming each other — there was Richard, who is half Chinese and half Columbian. He became “Richardo” and then just “Chardo,” there was Kevin (“Special K”), Gavin (“Sitting Bull”), Rob Post (“Postman”), and Eric Feng (“Shui”). This was a very formative time in our cultural development as your nickname was perhaps more iconic than your given name.
BRENDAN HANEY, Ad Operations: In my first weeks at Hulu, there was a lot of work getting done. The development team was cranking away all day and all night. However, with all this work, the Ping-Pong table was significantly underused. I needed to spring into action. Dubbing myself “The Chancellor of Fun,” I quickly organized a Hulu Ping-Pong tournament. I don’t remember if we ever named a grand champion in that first tourney, but the passion for Ping-Pong stirred up at Hulu has been rampant ever since. The “Chancellor of Fun” organized a few other events and contests, but as business ramped up, he faded away. Turns out, he wasn’t really needed since fun seemed to come more naturally to the Hulu crew in the days after launch.
RICHARD TOM, Platform Technology: During the early days of our on-campus recruiting efforts, we had to resort to bribery to convince students to stop by our booth. We’d stand out in front of our table with invitations to participate in our closed beta. The goal was to find the “Next Hulu Star Developer.” Hardly anyone knew Hulu at that time and our invitations did little to drive interest. After an especially discouraging recruiting weekend, our Development Manager Kevin Seng and I beelined our way from the airport to a Girl Talk concert in full Hulu attire. While picking up a Blue Moon pint to wash down the rough week, a girl approached us asking where we got our Hulu hoodies. She gushed about the service and how much she appreciated being able to catch up on her show’s on her own schedule. It might seem silly now, but it was the first time anyone had ever recognized our brand and it had us feeling like Hulu had arrived. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had Girl Talk spinning the soundtrack to that moment.
SARA MAILLOUX, Talent and Organization: A few days before Halloween 2008, Jason asked me if I was dressing up for Halloween. I told him I wasn’t sure. On the day of Halloween, I walk in completely dressed up as our CEO, Jason Kilar. Jason was completely decked out as a colonel, in a full-out rented and legit costume — gloves and everything. Andy Forssell came in as a chicken with feathers. Then people began leaving work in the middle of the day to go home and put on their costumes and come back. That began Huluween and our annual costume contest.
JOHANNES LARCHER, International: I travel all over to world for business, and the kind of response I get from the public when I wear my Hulu gear never ceases to amaze me. However, there was one moment that really sticks out in my memory. I was on vacation in Botswana in southern Africa, in a hut on safari totally removed from Internet, cell phones, and certainly from TV. I happened to be wearing my Hulu shirt, and a fellow traveler rushed over to me and said, “I noticed your shirt. Do you work at Hulu? I love Hulu!” I knew then that we had built a brand that meant something to people.
REBECCA HARPER, Audience: As Hulu’s editor, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of notable names for our blog. One time I even got to interview Snoop Dogg. After his assistant got in touch with me, she handed the phone over to the D-O-Double-G and he picked up in mid-rap. My first instinct was to giggle: was Snoop Dogg really rapping to me? As we wrapped up the first few questions, Snoop politely asked if I could hold on a minute. “Sure, no problem,” I said. A few minutes go by, and I could hear him talking to a familiar voice. But whose voice was it? It was driving me crazy — and then I realized: it was Jon Stewart. Snoop Dogg just happened to be in the green room at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the host had stopped by to say hi to his guest. Snoop and I continued our interview bit, and then I heard that now-unmistakable voice again: Jon was back, but this time, Snoop told him “Oh, I’ll catch up with you later. I’m on the phone with Hulu.” It was then — when Jon Stewart had to stand by for Hulu — that it dawned on me: Hulu had arrived.
EUGENE WEI, Audience: Jason’s first project for me was to come up with a company name. At the time we were simply “Newsite”, or, as the press had dubbed us, “Clown Co.” Our preference was for a short URL, one that was easy to spell and remember and that had no established connotations or meanings. We didn’t want a bland descriptor but we also didn’t want something so abstract and bizarre that no one could remember how to spell it if they overheard it, like mxyzptlk.com (taken, by the way).
In an era where a “.com” URL for your company name is essentially your storefront and your address all in one, and in which domain name squatters have kidnapped every possible three, four, five, and six-letter URL permutation, it’s a miracle that any new web companies come into being (by the way, if you want the URL newsite.com, I may be able to cut you a good deal).
One afternoon, Jason picked one name that he thought might work: Hoodoo. We thought it was obtainable at a reasonable price. But it turned out to be an actual English word with the definition of “voodoo” or “something that brings bad luck.” Not the most auspicious of connotations. But that option jogged the memory of our CTO Eric Feng who recalled that he’d originally tried to name his startup in Beijing Hulu. Hulu can be pronounced multiple ways in Chinese, and one of the meanings was “magical recording” which would have been a useful reference for his startup that was focused on video annotations.
We all liked Hulu. It was short, fairly easy to pronounce and remember with its short, rhyming syllables, and it was largely devoid of meaning in English (an alternate pronunciation in Chinese was “gourd” and was a hollowed out fruit used to hold precious things, a meaning that seemed to carry less hoodoo than, um, hoodoo).
There were some hurdles to overcome in choosing this name. We had to purchase the URL “hulu.com” from a family that owned it, and avert a lawsuit around copyright infringement. We were successful in both regards, and the company became known as Hulu.
RICHARD TOM: I had already signed on to join Hulu, and was wrapping up my last week at Microsoft when I got a call from my friend, former Hulu CTO Eric Feng. He told me that he had great news: We were close to selecting the company name. “Hulu,” he said. I remember thinking, “Hmm, I’m going to be working for a company named ‘Hulu’? Um, not so sure how I feel about that.” Once I heard the meaning behind it, I figured, “Well, it’s definitely much better than “Clown Co.” [Read more about our name here and here.]
SARA MAILLOUX: When I first walked through the door, I came on as a temp and didn’t know anything about the company. A board member asked me if I wanted to work for this new company, so I said, “Sure.” A couple of random people from FOX were sitting around. I told them that I was supposed to help out and they told me I would be an assistant to Jason Kilar, who would be here in an hour.
“What company is this?” I asked.
“We’re an Internet company.”
“Where’s my computer?”
“We don’t have any yet.”
I went home and grabbed my personal computer and started ordering computers and printers. Then Jason walked in. After a short time working together, he asked if I wanted to stay. It takes someone crazy to say, “I’m in,” but I did. Four years later, I’m still glad I stayed. Hulu is my home and Hulu is my second family.
RICHARD TOM: Prior to the public launch of Hulu.com, it was common for us to spend up to 20 hours a day in the office writing code for the service. We’d go home to shower and get a few hours of sleep. During this time, we also happened to be interviewing developers to join our team. As we went through the interview process, we noticed a pattern emerge from one of the interview rooms: Offers made in that room seemed to have a higher decline rate. We finally got insight into why via a candid exchange with a dev prospect who said, “Hey, I’d love to work at Hulu. I’m just not sure if I’m ready to work at a start-up with Aerobeds in the conference rooms.” We realized that we had been interviewing candidates in our rejuvenation rooms — we kept air mattresses on hand for much needed naps. Suffice it to say we adjusted our recruiting strategy a bit.
SARA MAILLOUX: In the earliest days of Hulu, every Friday at around 5 p.m., the team would gather in a conference room, laugh, have a beer, talk about the week’s results, and give props to team members that went above and beyond. Soon we outgrew the conference room and transitioned into the game room. Thus wind-downs were born. Over the years, we’ve upgraded the wind-down and even torn down walls to allow for a space where the growing team could gather. But it all started with just a few people hanging out and Jason saying, “Thanks everyone!”
RICHARD TOM: In the days when Hulu was not yet Hulu, but a series of discussions between NBCU and News Corporation, the financial model called for display advertising throughout the site. Think skyscrapers, punch the monkey, and Cash 4 Gold. The day came when we wired the display advertising service throughout the site to get a sense for what it would look like. I can only describe that moment as painful for the designers and devs — think, tear rolling down the cheek. Well, we knew this would be a conversation we’d have to have. Around that same time Jason walked by our desk and said “Oh, that isn’t going to work.” Beyond it being a moment of incredible relief, it was the moment that solidified our approach to balancing the user experience with the needs of our advertisers and content partners.
SARA MAILLOUX: The beta version of Hulu.com was written in 60 days. I told Jason that I thought the beta version looked boring, but he explained the goal was for it to be clean and easy to use. In order to put this to the test, approximately five of us, including Jason, sent the beta version to our moms to test its usability. We figured if our moms could navigate their way through it, then we had a very easy-to-use product. We got very useful feedback and critique from the mothers.
BRYON SCHAFER, Ad Sales Marketing and Research: About a week before I started at Hulu, I received an email from my new Hulu boss, JP Colaco, in my personal email account. He had taken the time to put together a “to-do list” for me. At the top of the list was “Advertising Effectiveness – does our advertising work?” and, “Make it easy for TV people to buy Hulu.” The idea was intuitive: If we could provide a service that provided a strong and measureable advertising return on investment (ROI), and made it easy for buyers to buy us, we’d be off to a good start.
These are the things I knew was hired to help to work on, but I had never worked at a place so … new.
On my first day, I was shown to my desk, with a computer and a phone. “It’s a startup,” I was told. “So do whatever you want … Oh and, by the way, you have no staff and no budget.” I looked at my to-do list and thought to myself, “Jesus. This is going to be pretty intense.” Two and a half years later, the basics of the mission remain unchanged: How do we keep improving advertising effectiveness on the service? How do we make it even easier for TV people to buy Hulu?
At the time I didn’t realize it, but the to-do list JP had written for me wasn’t a list of finite tasks that I would simply cross off once I had completed them. They will never be “completed.” That’s the whole idea behind our mission and the relentless pursuit of better ways.
DAVID BARON, Content Partner Management: Distributing premium content in an on-demand environment, across multiple devices, un-tethered, with truly targeted advertising and within a user experience enhanced by intelligent services that actually helps the audience and the programming find each other — these have been the dreams and visions of futurists, pundits and technologists for decades. But to actually be a part of turning this into reality is something I have worked on my whole career and is a dream come true for me.