Episode 13: Bing Chen | The Next Walt Disney
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 st