YouTube co-founder tells grads to be persistent, take risks

CHAMPAIGN – The co-founder of the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube told the 2007 University of Illinois graduates he didn't have any great insights into the meaning of life.

That's because Jawed Karim, a multimillionaire at the tender age of 28, said he's still searching for them himself.

"If I screw this up, don't upload it to YouTube," said Karim, the keynote speaker for the 136th UI commencement ceremonies Sunday at the Assembly Hall.

Moments before beginning his speech, Karim was conferred with the chancellor's inaugural "No Boundaries Award."

Chancellor Richard Herman called the 2004 computer science graduate who's pursuing higher degrees at Stanford a man "whose vision and creativity have had global impact."

Karim apologized to his contemporaries for destroying their grade point averages by causing them to spend countless hours watching "hilarious" videos on the Web site he helped create.

But he said he's probably wasted more time and watched more videos than anyone and showed them his favorite – "Dancing Matt." The video depicts 30-year-old Matt Harding engaged in really bad, but amusing, dancing in front of landmarks around the world, including India, Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia and Thailand.

Karim said he particularly likes the Dancing Matt video because it "illustrates what YouTube is all about – namely that anyone who has a good idea can take that idea and make it happen." Karim said Harding has been hired by a bubble gum company that now pays him to go dance around the world. "Sounds good to me," he said.

Karim then went on to give the graduates a few tips that helped him.

Stay informed about your field of study, he counseled, and be persistent.

Karim, who lived in Minnesota, said when he first applied to the UI in computer science, his application was rejected because the program was full. He was told he could enter the ceramic engineering program.

"I'm not saying there isn't a future in pottery but it's not what I signed up for," he said, drawing laughter. He sent his application back, asking them to reconsider and promising the admissions officer that he would be "a highly motivated, dedicated and ambitious student at your fine school."

"It worked. Being persistent often pays off," he said.

He also urged the graduates to "take risks while you can," citing his experience working on the development of PayPal, a tool that allows financial transactions to take place on the Internet.

It was at the beginning of his junior year "at the height of the Internet bubble" that he received the offer. Karim said after deliberating about two weeks, he dropped his classes midsemester, moved to California, and helped make Internet history.

"I was following in the footsteps of the Illinois innovators," he said of his PayPal colleagues who had gone to the UI before him.

Explaining the genesis of YouTube, Karim said "most ideas don't come in a flash but stew in your brain for a while."

The tsunami that hit Indonesia in December 2004 generated video clips all over the Web but no good way to find them, he said.

"Two colleagues from PayPal and I talked about a video sharing Web site. We started working on Feb. 14, 2005, Valentine's Day. That's one of those things about being a computer science major. Valentine's Day is just another day," he said, drawing more laughter.

After going online in April 2005, he and his partners learned another of his hints for success – "stay flexible."

Because they didn't have many videos, they sought more. Users eventually began to submit videos of their dogs and their vacations that were so popular they concluded that the users should define the site.

"By June, we had revamped it to make it more open and more general. It worked," he said.

"In 18 months, YouTube had a far greater impact than anyone ever expected, including me," he said.

The lesson in all that, he told the graduates, is this:

"Remember, the world is waiting on you to create the next big opportunity," Karim said.

He then played a concluding video message from Matt Harding, the dancing guy.

Harding congratulated the graduates then told them: "As your last academic requirement, I want every last one of you to get up out of your seats and dance badly."

The graduates did, then left the hall to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance.

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