fD Interview


fD Interview: Stephen Chao

June 27, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
FindingDulcinea’s weekly feature offers interviews with intriguing people on the cutting edge of business, the arts, technology and journalism. This week, we talk with Stephen Chao, former Fox TV producer and current CEO of the Web site Wonder How To.

fD: How did you come up with the idea for Wonder How To?

SC: My business partner and I are video freaks. We’ve been passing video to each other for the last 15 years. About two years ago, we were really impressed by YouTube, which made video on demand possible. That was something cable networks promised for a long time, but never delivered.
fD: So why not just post all of your videos on YouTube?

SC: We got tired of its limitations. It’s hard to navigate and drill down to find exactly what you’re looking for. It’s really oriented towards viral, but if you get past that, it gets hard to go deeper in areas you want. Mike, my partner, and I thought, “There’s got to be something more interesting, once you get bored of the most popular stuff.”

fD: What kinds of videos did you like in particular?

SC: We’ve always been fascinated by how to do something because it’s kind of an anthropological window on the world. We’ve found people who want to show you how to teach your Siamese cat to use the toilet, or how to mount and skin a wild turkey tail, or show you how you use Adobe After Effects. These are all things that are incredibly useful and entertaining, even if you don’t actually want to do them.

fD: Do you produce all of the videos yourself?

SC: At first I was interested in producing because that’s where I come from. But I realized it would be loony to produce because the imagination of the Web was far in excess of the imagination of even the best editorial staff I could come up with. If we try to editorially compete with the Internet, we’re going to lose. So we decided simply to research the index of the world for all of this incredible content—so much of which is free.

fD: Do you think that eventually all online content will be free?

SC: It’s pretty clear that almost all important video information will be free—I say that with a proviso that brand names will probably always cost something. But you look at universities, Stanford and Cornell, putting up their video lectures; and all of a sudden, there’s just this explosion of accessible video.

fD: Do you suspect people are drawn to how-to videos because they are a seemingly productive waste of time?

SC: Exactly. What’s the impulse to play sudoku or complete a crossword puzzle? It’s that you feel a little better about yourself, maybe a little bit smarter. For me, the site has a similar emotional appeal. It wasn’t intended this way, but it makes you feel like you’ve wasted time and been vaguely productive.
fD: How do you vet the content that eventually goes up on your site?

SC: We have computers that go out and crawl the Internet and bring back things that are tagged “how-to.” But we still need a person to go and make the judgment. Someone always has to watch the video and ultimately decide whether it’s good or bad.

fD: What are some of your favorites?

The value for me, the thing I enjoy most about Wonder How To, is the incredible diversity of the content that goes beyond what any individual publisher would choose. The things that might seem insignificant, risqué or irrelevant bring me a lot of joy. There’s one that I find very interesting which is how to extract whiteheads and blackheads properly. It’s done by an incredibly successful skin dermatologist in Hollywood who does the skin of Jessica Alba. It’s cool because she’s a professional, and also because it’s just kind of this universally gross and appealing topic.

fD: Are you happier outside of corporate culture?

The thing that makes me happy is to work on a project that I love. I can only tell you that I loved chasing UFOs in Bolivia. I can only tell you that I loved making Wonder How To. So it really doesn’t matter, I can really only tell you that I love having fun. I’ll simply stop when I’m not happy.

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