YouTube Founder Quits for Fashion
When The Social Network was released this fall, it brought national attention not only to the dramatic story of Facebook, but to its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his incredibly nerdy clothes. In the film, the Facebook CEO was depicted shuffling in and out of board meetings in socks and sandals, slumped in hooded sweatshirts, and, in one famous scene, running into a venture-capital firm in a pair of printed pajamas. Zuckerberg may give Silicon Valley fashion a bad name, but according to Chad Hurley, founder and former CEO of YouTube, his Facebook cohort may be on to something. "He has his own style, and he likes to dress casual," Hurley says of Zuckerberg. "At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. He looks very comfortable, and you have to be confident to wear pajamas. Clothing, and the products that you buy, are really about how they make you feel. And if he feels great wearing those things—then good for him."
That mix of confidence and comfort can also be found in Hurley's own clothing brand, Hlaska. He co-founded the company six years ago, but it has recently returned to the spotlight since he announced last week that he was formally resigning from YouTube to spend more time on Hlaska and other projects. (Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.76 billion, and over the past two years, Hurley reduced his participation at the company to an advisory role.) "I wanted to see a lot of things through," he told The Daily Beast of leaving YouTube. "I wanted to see business grow, and to see the product continue to improve, and to see our community thrive. And we've been able to accomplish a lot. This is an opportunity to move on and explore new ideas that we've had."
Hurley's upcoming endeavors include the functional, no-frills clothing line, Hlaska—perfect for the casual but professional Silicon Valley boardroom. There are short-sleeved button downs, drawstring hoodies, and, of course, laptop cases. Relative to the anonymity of YouTube, Hlaska is very much tied to the American identity. Almost all of Hurley's clothes are produced domestically in a factory connected to the brand's San Francisco offices—and the styles are inspired by "the automotive world" and the "maritime history" of San Francisco, as Hurley's co-founder Anthony Mazzei puts it.
In many ways, Hurley's experience at YouTube—and formerly at the helm of PayPal—informs how Hlaska operates. For one thing, there's the money. Though Mazzei wouldn't comment on financial aspects of the business, it is clear that Hlaska has enjoyed investments from Hurley, whose take from the Google deal is believed to be valued at $450 million. The now-33-year-old exec was peripherally involved with Hlaska during his years at YouTube, but his departure from YouTube allows him to be more active these days.
It's no surprise that Hurley's fashion company runs like a Web startup. When he and Mazzei dream up a new design, they can produce a sample in the factory connected to their office. If something doesn't work, they fix it right away. "It's not about cost-savings," Hurley says of the factory. "What it allows us to do is something on a much faster scale. We're able to think of something, make it relatively quickly, and that does relate to an Internet perspective. You launch a site, and you see what works, and you continue to make it better. At YouTube, that was always our strategy. You think how something should work, and then you observe how the community is using it—and adapt. And we're just taking that same philosophy into how we're producing some of our products."
Their process gives a traditionally slow-going industry a Web-paced feel. "While a menswear company can't 'go viral' in the Dancing Baby sense," Hurley told Forbes, referring to the Ally McBeal phenomenon. "You must ask yourself what makes something spread so fast. It's people's experiences. That may be something funny, like a Dancing Baby, or something shocking."
Hlaska happened much in the same way YouTube did: Hurley wanted something that wasn't available, so he made it himself. "It really just comes down to trusting your instincts and creating things that you'd use yourself," he says. "Working on YouTube, me and Steve [Chen, his YouTube co-founder] were looking at problems we had with Web video and how we would make it better for ourselves." With Hlaska, he says, it's the same process of "taking my personal experiences and translating that into something that I would use myself." Hurley and Mazzei are now focused on expanding the collection, and plan to introduce women's bags to their repertoire. They're also working on expanding to the East Coast and hope to have a store in every major American city in two years.
“At YouTube, that was always our strategy. You think how something should work, and then you observe how the community is using it—and adapt,” Hurley says. “And we’re just taking that same philosophy into how we’re producing some of our products.”
Though some may think Hlaska clothes are "perfect for crumpling into a ball at the foot of your futon after a long night of coding," Hurley resists the nerd label. "We've got that market cornered!" he jokes, before explaining, "We don't necessarily try to define ourselves. We're just looking at products we enjoy to use." When asked if they take inspiration from high fashion, Mazzei says, "We're a little bit outsiders, to be honest… and we like it that way."
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.