Episode 53 | Twitch: Kevin Lin
And her first question was, "Have you thought about your taxes?" Second question was, does this mean you can go to graduate school now?
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 53 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
If you have been playing video games during the coronavirus pandemic, it's likely that you've heard of Twitch, the online video streaming site where you can watch gamers game. In this episode of the podcast, Lucia talks to co-founder of Twitch, Kevin Lin. A child of the South, Kevin found an escape in video games from a young age and that helped him when thinking about how to save Twitch's previous form, Justin TV.
We'll hear about:
his experience growing up in New Orleans,
what his parents think about Twitch,
his activity in the Asian American community, including Gold House.
I. Meet Kevin Lin
Lucia: So, Kevin, I'm so excited to finally get you on the podcast.
Kevin: Thank you for having me.
Lucia: Do you mind giving yourself a quick intro?
Kevin: So my name is Kevin Lin. I am, I guess most notably. Known as a co founder of Twitch. I was COO there for 10 years, through the Amazon acquisition. and I'm still there doing culture of strategy and innovation. I grew up in new Orleans, studied biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, specifically in college.
I'm nontechnical gets somehow ended up in the tech world in San Francisco, and I've lived here now for just over 14 years. my family is from Taiwan. I do a lot of random stuff these days, do a lot of angel investing. I'm involved a lot with Asian American community through the group Gold House, and play video games, read books, eat food.
Lucia: Tell me about growing up in Louisiana. You're originally from Taiwan, like you mentioned, were you born in Taiwan?
Kevin: So my parents immigrated to Michigan State in their 20s to go to grad school. My brother was born in Michigan. I was born actually in New Orleans in 1982. And so I grew up there as a kid.
We'd go back a few months a year, my parents were both teachers back then, in summertime, which was also the worst time to go back to Taiwan, but also a bad time to be in New Orleans.
II. Growing up Asian in the South
Lucia: Growing up in the South, how did you kind of grapple with your Asian identity?
Kevin: Middle school was interesting, I think. I didn't really know race.
I would get made fun of at school and people would pick on me for whatever reason. And I always assume, I've witnessed other kids get picked on for a variety of reasons. So I just thought, "Oh, this is just the norm."
And eventually I remember my mom. She said, "There was one day you came back from school crying because you thought people were making fun of you because you had black hair. And you look around. And most of the other kids, it's blonde, strawberry, blonde, dirty blonde, maybe Brown, light, Brown."
And so that was my own way as a kid of rationalizing what was happening in my day to day school experience. They would call me racial slurs. I would sit in home room and kids would turn to me before homeroom started in the morning and say, which one are you.
Lucia: Growing up in the South wasn't particularly pleasant, but I think it gave you an experience to remember what it felt like to be an outsider. I'm curious if video games played a part in your life at that point.
Kevin: Oh, very much so. My brother who was much older, so he's 14 years older, so he went off to college when I was three. We had an Atari, and I figured out how to plug it into the TV and would play games like Stampede and Kaboom and Pong. And so it was really an experience I had as part of my life since, since I was a very young kid.
My parents were nice enough to get me a Nintendo when that came out and played Dragon Warrior, Mario Brothers, Zelda, over and over and over on repeat. And then just kept playing. Yeah, it was my escape.
III. Origins of Twitch
Kevin: In 2006, Michael Seibel, who was one of my good buds in college. And Justin Kahn and Emmett shear drove across the country, and ended up in San Francisco and decided to start Justin TV.
And I watched very curiously for the first year or so after they launched. And, eventually in 2008, Michael said, "Hey, what are you doing? Like, do you like your job? Like, what's going on?" I said, "Yeah, you know, honestly, it's easy but I'm pretty bored." And so he asked me to come help, you know, help build a model for Justin TV. They were, just opening up for public use, in 2008, and starting to grow.
Lucia: Did your parents think anything of you and your career where they disappointed that you didn't become a doctor?
Kevin: 100% they're still disappointed.
Lucia: They're still disappointed, Kevin?
Kevin: I remember the day. No, I think they're, I think they're happy and hopefully proud, but I remember the day that I called my mom, they allowed us to call our parents that right before we announced the Amazon acquisition.
And her first question was, "Have you thought about your taxes for?" Second question was, does this mean you can go to graduate school? Oh, well, I mean, yeah, I could.
Lucia: So you guys made it through the recession and managed to make the company profitable. At what point did Justin TV turn it into Twitch?
Kevin: 2010, that's when, you know, we were all drifting a little bit because we were not necessarily users of our own product. Justin hadn't streamed in two years at that point, and people were picking up side hustles. Some people were not coming into the office anymore.
And we're like, okay, we really need to think about something that is more interesting or else, you know, we're going to start losing talent.
And the two ideas came to mind. One was, what we call JTV mobile, which was a product going back to what we're broadcasting now that 3g was out. When Justin started, it was EBDF. So the quality was really difficult to maintain from an actual stream quality perspective, but 3G had come out.
So we revisited that. and Michael and Kyle, one of our other Justin TV's, other co-founders, took the helm there. And then JTV gaming also came to Penn. So Justin, myself, and Emmett were focused on that along with a couple of other very early employees like Jacob Woodward. Now Jacob Woodward was the first employee at Justin TV doing design work and Bill Maurier, who basically built it, he was the first engineering hire.
Then eventually in 2000, late 2010, we realized like, Oh my God, both of these are working. And so we decided to split the company. In two. and the Justin Justin TV mobile product became social cam, which Mike Michael, spun out with two engineers who became co founders of social cam and then myself, Emmett Justin became co-founders for Twitch.
Lucia: And how did you guys get the initial set of creators onto the platform, like how did you grow so fast?
Kevin: So back then, 2010 2011 when we were launching Twitch, we had a small community are on Justin TV of gamers that preexisted us really digging in. There were people that were just trying to build the games, can even be themselves.
And then we did a pretty good job. It was less than a million monthly uniques at the time that we were visiting gaming. So Justin TV was probably about, at this moment, somewhere between 60 and 80 million monthly uniques from all around the world.
IV. The Asian American community
Lucia: I want to talk about what you're working on now. So you mentioned that, you participate very heavily in this organization called Gold House.
Kevin: I did a lot of Asian American, community work, so to speak, in college and in my last two years of high school. Then after college I kind of stopped, like when I was in New York, I was just looking for jobs and eventually got a stable job. And even then it was, you know, while it wasn't the busiest job in the world, I didn't really get back involved.
And then when I moved to San Francisco, same thing. Like I would go to a few Asian group meetings. I met being through Bob Wu out in New York, and we just hit it off. And he had thought about this for a long time the simple prompt was, why don't Asians help each other more?
Why are we not organized as a super community, so to speak? It's all very divided.
The second prompt was sort of what about San Francisco and LA? What if we just start there? What if we help translate knowledge and network across the entertainment community and the tech community? And so that level of focus I think really helped us think through what we could do to help versus a more broad thing of like, let's just help Asians in this thing or that, like we had a very focused intention.
Lucia: I wanna end with our last signature question for rock the boat, that is, how do you, Kevin, intend to rock the boat?
Kevin: I guess what I'll just continue to do is find people forI like and be picky about that. And give them resources and a human network to accomplish their goals, as quickly as possible. I think that's what I learned later in life is everyone's got different life philosophies, but you can find groups of people around.
You've got a similar philosophy, and as long as you think it is good and good is a very hard word to define. I guess in my case, it's making people's daily lives a little bit better, making them a little bit more interconnected in a positive way. In so far as people are doing that, I will help them.
And I think through Gold House from the Asian perspective, it's really to help give Asians a voice in America and around the world.
And ideally that becomes a positive voice, for good change, for good community building across demographics and diversity groups. And help bring people a better understanding that.