Silicon Valley Pioneer
A history alumna goes to YouTube, and beyond.
Christina Brodbeck remembers clearly the moment she realized that the obscure video-sharing website that she had worked on day and night was becoming a household word.
It was just a few years after she graduated from the U of I, and she was living in California without a job. Actually, she’d had a decent job, but she quit to join her friends and former U of I students, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, in developing an impulsive idea they were already working on for a new website called YouTube.
Her parents were calling from back home in Illinois. “Do you have income?” they asked. “Can you afford a doctor?” But in the beginning there was no office, no pay, and no benefits.
The moment she realized her life had begun to change was a vivid one, like a rock singer hearing his song on the radio for the first time. It even happened at a concert.
“For a very long time I remember thinking, ‘Oh, not too many people know about YouTube, it’s just our friends and family,’” Brodbeck recalls. But she was at a concert one day when she happened to be near two people she didn’t know who were filming each other with a camera. One of them said they were going to post the video on YouTube.
“And that’s when it dawned on me,” Brodbeck says, “that, oh, people know about YouTube!”
You can’t exactly say the rest is history, because not only does YouTube continue to grow (the website had 1 trillion views in 2011) but Brodbeck (AB ’01, history) is only in her 30s, and she’s moved on to co-found a new website, theicebreak.com. But her time as a founding team member of YouTube—she was the company’s first user interface designer—was a defining moment.
In November 2006, one year after YouTube was incorporated, the company was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion in stock.
House Crashing to YouTube
Brodbeck grew up in Illinois with an entrepreneurial spirit, hatching schemes as a girl to sell handmade bags in Japan and conduct neighborhood talent shows. None of these ideas were particularly successful, but they explain the reasoning behind some of the risks she took later.
She came to the U of I to major in history, but one day she happened upon her roommate, a computer science major, creating a webpage. It was fascinating to Brodbeck, and before long she picked up a book on HTML and was teaching herself computer graphic design.
In her spare time between classes in Russian and colonial history, she worked on Web design. Her first website, she recalls with a laugh, was a blinking, flashing amateur job on GeoCities, a Web hosting service no longer available in the U.S. But her designs improved and she began offering her services for free. Then she started to get paid for it.
Upon graduation she opted not for law school but California, where she crashed with her friends until she picked up a day job that paid the bills. At night she earned an advanced degree in multimedia design at San Francisco State University.
She remains interested in history, and Brodbeck credits her college education with a concise and clear writing style that has helped sell many ideas, but she felt that moving to California was a necessary risk for her chosen career.
“Silicon Valley was really where that was happening,” Brodbeck says. “And if I wanted to work in that, that’s where I wanted to go.”
Fortunately, she adds, there are many people from the U of I in Silicon Valley. And when her friends at YouTube needed a user interface designer, Brodbeck joined them in summer 2005, just a little while after they began working on the site. Along with her role as the company’s first user interface designer, she led design for the mobile sites—as YouTube ascended to bigger and bigger office suites—until 2009, when she left for a new venture.
From Brodbeck’s telling, theicebreak.com is the result of romance and business sense coming together.
The site, which she cofounded with Dwipal Desai, a co-worker from YouTube, encourages communication between committed couples by posing questions, activities, and other customized features intended to add spark when things become mundane.
As part of a long, on-and-off relationship herself, the idea of helping couples resonated with Brodbeck (she says she and her boyfriend now use it all the time). The idea also appealed to the entrepreneur inside her. Before theicebreak.com, they had experimented with creating a singles site.
“We quickly learned that the best dating site in the world wouldn’t have any users on it because you’ve matched them all up,” she says. “It was exciting when we would match people up, but then it was kind of depressing because you’ve lost your users, right?”
They are not releasing figures, but Brodbeck says they are happy with the number of people visiting theicebreak.com, with many of them coming from the Midwest.
Brodbeck is also using the carryover success from YouTube to be an angel investor. So far she’s invested in 22 startup companies, most of them in the technology sector (and one beer company) as a way of paying forward all the help she received until now.
“I feel like I’ve been really lucky in my life in terms of people being very supportive of the dreams and chances that I’ve wanted to take,” she says.
She jokes that her life now would have been some relief to her parents just a few years ago, had they been given a glimpse. But perhaps they already had a notion of what was to come. She still recalls what her dad told her after college, as she was about to board the plane to California.
Good luck, little pioneer, he said.
By Dave Evensen