Updated: May 13, 2019
The hardest lesson I have learned is that some things are out of your control. Some things you just cannot change. Real wisdom is knowing when those instances are and just letting them go. Letting them go is not losing. It's just the way the universe works; none of us is God yet.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 13, lightly edited for clarity.
This week we feature Bing Chen, creator, entrepreneur, and media extraordinaire.
Bing has one of the most dynamic and interesting career trajectories in the entertainment industry. He is one of the founding architects behind YouTube’s Partner Program, which enabled content creators to start making money through the platform. Since leaving YouTube, he’s started a number of ventures including a fund to distribute capital and incubate original content companies.
Recently, he co-founded Gold House, a collective of pioneering Asian founders, creative voices, and leaders, known for its annual A100 list that honors the most impactful Asians and AAPIs in culture. Gold House spawned the viral #GoldOpen Movement that helped Crazy Rich Asians smash box office records last summer.
By day, Bing currently serves as the Managing Director of a venture capital accelerator, as well as a Board Director and Senior Advisor to several of the world’s most promising digital media companies. But for the past three years, he's also been in a period of "creative hibernation" to fulfill what he calls his childhood dream of becoming the next Walt Disney.
Bing was in New York a few months ago and was nice enough to sit down with us to share his story.
I. Bing’s Origin Story
Lucia: Ever since I’ve known Bing, he’s been a character.
Bing’s parents are both Taiwanese and they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where Bing was born. When Bing was 10, they moved to Shanghai. Bing describes himself as a third culture kid; third culture kids grow up in cultures outside of what is defined on their passports during their early developmental years. They are often exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences.
Being a third culture kid means you often feel like you’re citizens of everywhere - and nowhere - at the same time.
Bing: I think being a third culture kid is an immense privilege because it opens your eyes up to natural composites early on. No one is just Asian American, no one is just a woman, but you are that and other things. I think having that privilege of being able to travel to many places really instilled that from an early age. I think it also helped shape my ideas on identity, loneliness and so forth.
The dark side of being a third culture kid is we don't feel like we belong anywhere and I think this is challenging because humans canonically try to figure out why they're here. And partially because we've traveled so much and have lived so many places, we really feel like we don't belong anywhere.
Lucia: I can definitely relate to the feeling of not belonging, being a 3rd culture kid myself. But as Bing mentioned, it’s also a privilege. The benefit of being a third culture kid is that you can take the best from each world and form a composite of identities.
Bing: My soul comes from Tennessee, my eyes come from Shanghai, and then I spent high school in the OC, so my taste comes from California.
In the South, where I lived in Tennessee outside of Knoxville, you sort of give your neighbors sugar because you give your neighbors sugar. Everyone's incredibly nice, we never faced racism. So that was my American view.
Lucia: Bing and his family moved to Shanghai when he was in the 4th grade, and he attended an international school. It opened his eyes to the world in a whole new way.
Bing: Shanghai eyes. The most memorable story I have is the first day of school. There was an Israeli girl who came in bawling to our classroom fourth grade. And you know, at the time it was pretty fucking weird to see an eleven-year-old walk in bawling. We found out a few days later that her uncle's shop in the Gaza Strip had gotten bombed.
I remember that opened my eyes really rapidly and realizing that the world was much more layered than it was on our farm.
Lucia: Another element that likely colored Bing’s perspective is losing his father as a teenager.
Bing: My dad was always stressed out. When I was two or three, I came to my mom and told her that I wanted a new dad because my dad was an asshole. I remember one day, my Dad was screaming at my Mom and I had to stand in front of her and, you know, defend her honor even though I was a two-year-old and obviously couldn't do anything. He stopped. I'm a very sunny optimistic person but that always stuck with me.
I think you appreciate your parents because of what they've done. And inn many ways, you become them because you are literally them, but they also show you exactly what you never want to be.
The moment that secreted for me was when my dad died. He basically died because he was too stressed out. Stress depresses your immune system, which means you can't fight off things like cancer. And he did indeed dye of cancer. So when he was on his deathbed, I basically made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to be like him.
Lucia: Bing’s mother ended up single-handedly raising him and his sister through their formative teenage years and beyond.
Bing: My mother said the reason I'm a successful mother is because I'm basically your father. We always spelled Father "M-o-t-h-e-r". My mother did everything and I think that's really positively and thoughtfully impacted my view of gender norms as well as equality. Because where I come from the mother doesn't just run the house, the mother is also one of the co-breadwinners.
When you are raised by a single mother, your emotional, financial and pragmatic center of gravity is a woman. That will change who you marry but also how you think about women's place in society.
I think first and foremost, I have had the comfort and privilege of thinking of myself as a human being first and then secondarily as all these other things, society would like to label me as which ultimately I don't think actually matter for me in the long term. Things like "Are you an Asian American or a third culture kid?" - I don't think that way. I think "Do you breathe?" Cool, we can do stuff together.
II. The Path to Becoming Disney
Lucia: Ultimately, Bing like many of us, is driven by this quest for personal meaning.
Bing: Humans canonically are just trying to figure out one question: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? The premise of interplanetary inhabitants is elongating our species which will in turn elongate an opportunity to discover why we are here, so I think there's just an instinctive need for that.
Secondly, being a composite of so many things in terms of my own identity - e.g. losing a parent, sexuality, etc. - I am many things at once. I think because of that I have an extra fervor to figure things out and understand things.
Lucia: Bing thinks big, so of course he wanted to scale meaning for greatest impact.
Bing: Since I was like a little kid, my big thing was I just want to help people.
My parents asked me when I was 5, "What do you want to be?" I said I want to be President because in a peon five-year-old's mind, the way to scale impact in the broadest way is to be President.
It wasn't for the power, it wasn't for the vanity, it wasn’t for any of that. It was purely because I thought that was the vehicle to help people for a variety of reasons.
Lucia: Bing doesn’t want to be President anymore - but his end goal is still the same. He wants to make an impact.
Yet, there’s always been this internal tug of war between his creative and his business side which manifested at Penn. He decided to major in Creative Writing but in his freshman year, he wanted to switch over to Wharton -- the undergraduate business school. It was his advisor who talked him off the ledge.
Bing: He was like, don't do it. Yes you have the grades, don't do it. I was like, Why? I'm only in the college. Also, I'm going to be a creative writing major, like I can't do anything with this. He's like, trust me on this little and he was totally right.
Your major has very little practical impact on what you end up doing after graduation period. I think the second rationale is that college should help mold how you think and you should amplify that as opposed to trying to make your classroom what you practice pragmatically. I think in abstractions that are then synthesized into something compelling which ultimately is what everything tries to do. There really are few disciplines that enable that outside of philosophy, English, creative writing, sociology anthropology and so forth. So, invariably isn't that what all humans are trying to do: make nothing something right?
Lucia: To Bing’s point, your major doesn’t really determine your future career. College is just a way to hone the way you think. Bing ended up interning on the business side of Disney...twice.
I remember him telling me and a group of friends about his interview. He said he went into the Disney interview and told the interviewer how much he loved Beauty and the Beast. The interviewer asked, how much do you like Beauty and the Beast? Bing said he could recite the movie, so he ended up reciting the first 5 mins of the movie to prove it and… he got the job.
From that opportunity, he got to work on TV shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. His second summer there he worked in creative development for feature animation films and even got to touch Frozen!
Bing: I think it really made me appreciate how rigidly Disney is structured and what it takes for a well-oiled machine to deliver the consistent quality that they have. But at a certain point I realized that I was doing the same job as people who are 28 years old with graduate degrees and I thought, "That sucks". Maybe there's a little bit of an ego there but I think that's part of it. I think most of it was that I just have this urgency of wanting to do everything yesterday. I want to get things done faster and I don't think that's a bad thing.
Lucia: From there, Bing entered the rotational program at Google and he ended up at what may have been one of the most exciting rocket ships at the time: YouTube.
Bing: When I got into YouTube, there was a scattering of Creator projects but no cohesion. I was the first Creative Marketing Manager and had the privilege of having an incredible team of bosses. We synthesized our ideas and adapted them into what became this deck known as "Walt Disney in 2010".
We basically stole a bunch of stuff from the entertainment industry, but then refined it so it was meaningful. For instance, we realized creators on YouTube didn't know what excellence was. So, why would they invest more? We then took something from the music industry and created a gold record. But instead of a record, it was a gold play button because we're on YouTube and we're category agnostic.
So we created the gold play button which still exists to this day. It's 24 karat gold and we basically use that as not just a visual sort of form of vanity to celebrate an individual Creator, but also a behind-the-scenes calibration of showing where you stack up in the creator pool which is very valuable. There's a litany of other examples of things that we adapted.
Lucia: Bing was also charged with taking YouTube’s Partner Program and expanding it across the globe.
In 2010, we had no idea that the Creator stuff was going to work. You can be as thoughtful as you want and we were very thoughtful but we really didn't know. Then I remember distinctly the turning point for us was when we globalized the Partner program. That was my big project. It was very unsexy. We basically took the partner program which is the monetization program as well as the comprehensive suite of creator services from nine countries to 42.
It made $400 million in the first 15 months, which was roughly a third of revenue. That's a fuck ton of money for a 25-year old to drive right from scratch. I remember that was the moment internally when our team realized we had something special.
We were not only reimagining audience and revenue, but reimagining an entire industry that has historically been a walled garden.
That was when people like Cassey Ho of Blogilates emerged, Lindsey Stirling, Wong Fu Productions etc. It was awesome because it was creating something from nothing for an entire industry, an entire generation.
Lucia: In some ways, I feel like YouTube is what put Asian American entertainers on the map. Bing says so himself.
Bing: One of the reasons we started really investing in creatives is because we realize that certain identities that were disproportionately represented in traditional formats like TV film were over-indexing on audience growth on YouTube, specifically Asians in the diaspora. So in three of the seven biggest categories on YouTube in 2010, they were all run by Asians. The biggest comedian on YouTube was Ryan Higa, the biggest beautician was Michelle Phan, and the biggest filmmaker was Freddie Wong. How the fuck is this possible? Asians were nowhere in the traditional industries.
I had the privilege and experience of learning that mainstream things always start niche and knowing when niche is going to blow up.
Lucia: Bing took a page from that book to start his own thing. After four years as a driving force behind YouTube’s Global digital creator ecosystem, he left YouTube.
Bing: The principal reason was I wanted to be Disney. I always looked at YouTube as a training ground. So I knew I was going to leave once I learned enough and I felt like I learned enough.
The moment came when I was sitting in the staff meeting presenting something and I looked around thinking, I've literally driven a third of top-line revenue, all of my shit is like half the press were getting and I am so junior to everyone in this room. I would literally be doing the same job if I were a VP here, except it would be ten years later. What am I doing? Because when you're 27, you have to commit to learning. You have to commit to investing yourself in building things new. That was the moment that triggered me to say, I think it's time to go, I think I've learned everything I can.
Lucia: Bing went on to serve as co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Victorious, a platform to help entertainers better manage their super fans. But he was hoping at Victorious to get a certain amount of creative freedom that would allow him to pursue his childhood dream.
Bing: One of the promises that was really important to me going into Victorious was I would be able to be a true creative half the time. That's the whole point of being Disney: you're half business, half creative. That became untrue very quickly and it was clear that was not going to happen anytime soon.
I was 28/29 at the time, looked at myself in the mirror, and asked:
"Are you going to sacrifice your dream again for other people who you don't think can go all the way like you can?" The answer was no and it's not selfish. It's just wanting what you want.
So long story short, I quickly realized several things were out of my control and basically decided to leave the company. When I left, I basically decided a couple things: one is I would no longer try to build someone else's dream, which I started to feel like I was doing. It's a little bit of ego, but also when something is not yours, it's not as pure as it could be in the way that you see the purity of the world. And I'm not someone who's willing to compromise that. Ultimately, Victorious was not my company.
Lucia: Going back to Bing's goal of being the next Walt Disney, the kind of impact Bing wants to have is one of meaning. Here’s how Bing describes it in practical terms.
Bing: The goal is to help people figure out why they're here faster. What does that actually mean? It means that we create a platform that we own but also the public owns that cross-pollinates because experiences must be had through all five senses. You should taste an ice cream cone that reminds you of the song.
One specific example that we'll be launching soon is my first creative franchise. I call it our Star Wars in terms of its demographic focus and how it’s architected. It's a trilogy about death and it's all grounded in reality. The reason we're doing death is because death is the deadline for self-actualization as far as we know. There's also a practical sort of imperative because a third of the world is about to die in the next five years and no country identity people is ready for it. We're not ready emotionally because these people are our parents. We're not ready financially because when you retire your spending drops. And so what happens to those economies that rely on these people?
Lucia: On top of what he’s doing creatively, Bing is working on a company that will also be launching a nine-figure fund, which will distribute capital for original content companies and tech media platforms. The company is in super stealth mode, so it doesn’t have a name yet. But I’m sure we’ll all find out about it soon.
III. Building Systems for Cultural Change
Lucia: Bing is also a key linchpin within the Asian American community. Around this time last year, Bing launched Gold House, an exclusive collective of pioneering Asian founders, creative voices, and leaders dedicated to “systematically accelerating the Asian diaspora’s societal impact while enhancing the community’s cultural legacy.”
Bing: We basically looked around and asked ourselves two questions: one, why aren't people thriving more faster? We realized the answer is because of us, because we ourselves fear what we are capable of doing and not doing. We keep stepping on each other's toes. Asians need to stop shit talking Asians. We don’t support each other.
The second question was, how are other communities who have been disproportionately affected thriving so well? We specifically looked at the Jewish communities and the African diaspora both of which have done phenomenally well over the past few centuries. We realized it comes down to one very simple thing. They have institutionalized mutual support. They instinctively help each other. They go to temple, they go to synagogue to help each other. They go to Sunday church. You see Black Twitter is an institution. They just rally each other up in great ways etcetera. And so we said we want that.
Lucia: Gold House launched last May during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, with its A100 list celebrating 100 of the most pioneering Asians in culture.
One of its primary functions is to convene through its signature Salon events, which bring together some of the most influential Asians for a productive, solution-oriented conversation around an industry challenge.
According to Bing, there are certain ingredients that make a salon event golden.
Bing: One - you bring together 30 of the top Asians across industries because in the same industry those Asians probably know each other and again good things come from composites. Second - an unforgettable experience. We host video game nights at interactive museums to cannabis infused dinners for the Grammies. Third - you have to solve a very specific challenge because when you are a C-suite executive, an A-list celebrity or a unicorn founder, you don't have time for a basic networking dinner. You already go to those.
Lynne: So it’s at one of these salons that the idea for Gold Open was born, right?
Lucia: Yeah. Gold Open, for those of you don’t know, is the viral movement that mobilized members of the Asian community to buy out theaters for the film Crazy Rich Asians. As we all know, Crazy Rich Asians went on to smash box office records, garnering over $238 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the last decade - in large part due to this strategic organizing effort.
Lynne: What was the scene like at this particular salon?
Lucia: The event took place in June of last year at a Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley. But not just any Chinese restaurant, it was Crazy Rich Asians Director Jon Chu’s father’s restaurant in Silicon Valley named Chef Chu, arguably one of the most legendary Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area. It's known for playing host to tech elites and numerous head of states.
Just imagine 30 founders of some of the biggest tech companies, startups, and VC firms - companies like Hulu, Twitch, Google Voice - discussing one specific challenge: the release of Crazy Rich Asians
Bing: The challenge was not only how do we make crazy Rich Asians successful but how do we use this as a trojan horse to build a sustainable promotional apparatus sr other Asian films or creatives can benefit (and then at some point other non-asian creatives as well). If you're only building for yourself, you're building on island which is selfish and that's not the way that the sort of world of abundance should work.
Jon Chu's real talk was this: This film is tracking to do $12M opening weekend, which means it will fail.
We have to hit $20M; if we hit $20M, four films across the four major studios will suddenly be greenlit that have an all- Asian lead cast. If this doesn't do $20M, all four of those get paused and there will be a negative ripple effect on all other Asian creatives because film still has the highest prestige in Hollywood.
So he said if we hit $30M not only will our people be saved but also we will resurrect the rom-com and you'll see this huge tidal shift. We said, "Fuck 20, we need to hit 30 million." We did the math. We're like, here's how many theaters we need to buy out etc. Long story short is that night we sold $250,000 worth of theaters. Because we have actual Crazy Rich Asians in the room who are literally worth nine figures, who are down for the cause and then we started this movement known as Gold Open.
Lucia: They took a lot of their inspiration from women’s groups and the African American community.
Bing: Church groups from the African-American community in the late 80s/90s would buy out theaters. So we needed a process to buy out theaters. That means partnerships with theatrical institutions like Regal Cinemas AMC.
Second is we need to find really deep-pocketed people for whom $5,000, effectively a theater primetime, is nothing.
Third we also need to make sure this is loud because if we just put points on the board that's cool by Asian standards, but not cool by mainstream standards. People need to know about this.
So we stole this again from the African American community. I looked at Chance the Rapper. Chance buys out theaters every single time a big African American director movie comes out. So, how do we do Chance the Rapper on steroids? Well, Chance the Rapper is one albeit mighty guy. Let's do 12 of him because why not? Asian celebrities are cool. We have to be really proud.
I think there's a little chip on my shoulder. We should be really proud, especially of our executives because we have a fuck ton of executives who are crushing it. If you know how the world works, executives are arguably more important for this phase of our people because they can greenlight things.
Lucia: So, by leveraging the money and star power of some of these Asian executives and celebrities, Bing and the Gold House team started to generate buzz. They paired people like Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch, with the Olympian Shibutani twin figure skaters - and garnered huge press around these powerhouse buyouts. Rinse and repeat several times over with even more powerhouse duos - and from there it was a domino effect.
Bing: Wins beget wins, success begets success. It became a thing and suddenly all these other people by their own volition just wanted to start participating.
Lucia: You can visit GoldOpen.com to find the latest creative projects that the movement is supporting. Gold Open now has an official first-of-its-kind partnership with AMC Theaters. Besides films, Gold Open also now supports TV shows and publishing projects from “New Majorities” - projects that are women-led, from the African diaspora, Latinx communities, and LGBTQ+ creatives.
Bing: Gold Open is not by any means the only movement that did this. I think the Asian community just instinctively understood the importance, but I am confident that we were a principal catalyst to nationalizing and then globalizing the importance of buying out theaters coming in mass in the same way that women and African American communities have for decades.
Gold Open very simply is Econ 101. How do you juice an industry? You don't invest in supply first, you justify demand globally. Gold Open is a demand engine.
So we can now go into every studio and say, "Hey our people show up. You should be investing in more Asian content. That's a way easier conversation than oh, there was this great thing that happened, by the way representation matters hashtag hashtag. That doesn't work. That's not how business works. That's cool for Twitter. That's not how economies work.
Lucia: Bing says we have to continue to create a culture of support. We need to show that there is consistent demand for Asian American content. We have to show up, even for the indie films that may be lesser known.
Bing: A few days before Crazy Rich Asians opened, we found out about Searching. Searching has a personal soft spot in my heart because the director is a former Google employee. As someone who also knows the challenge of jumping from corporate to creative, I realized that we have to reward those leaps.
The other reason we did it is because if we only support a big box office tentpole film and don't support indie films, that signals a very negative thing to the market. So we went back to our coffers for GoldOpen and said we want to pilot test this with an indie film as well. And a week later, we sold out a ton of theaters.
On the demand side, we still have a long way to go. Even though a lot of studios are now looking for their next Crazy Rich Asians, the reality is things are not getting greenlit as rapidly. Certainly not proportional to the volume of creative work out there. So that should be a very sobering sort of thing we need to just learn.
IV. Bing's Words of Advice
Lucia: The last three years have been a concerted effort by Bing to reclaim his creative aspirations. It hasn’t been easy.
Bing: This creative hibernation was a deliberate decision to basically compensate for the last two and a half decades of not doing anything creative. It's been the hardest three years of my entire life.
There are very few people who can do creative at the highest level and businesses at the highest level, simultaneously. Very few people and because of that there's no path to get there. So it's really challenging, to be honest. In my life plan, I think I'm late. I wish I were 27 doing what I'm doing right now.
Lucia: Bing is only 32. But he acts with a sense of urgency, like everything should have happened yesterday.
So, his advice to anyone who wants to make an impact: act now. You don’t have time to waste. Life is short, you have to just do it.
Bing: The world belongs to one person and that is the person who persists period. It's so obvious right? Like of course if you do something you'll be fine...but it's shocking how most people don't do shit. It's sort of like the Ayn Rand quote, "It's not about who's going to let me, it's about who's going to stop me." That advice is so true, especially in the creative world.
The way you make progress is not by complaining on Twitter, but by actually doing stuff and doing work however you think is meaningful.