Growing up in Seattle, Emmett Shear loved video games. “I had a number of fights with my dad about how much StarCraft I was playing,” he recalls. His father likely didn’t think the teenager’s pastime would lead to a revolutionary media company, but today the 38-year-old Shear is the cofounder and CEO of Twitch, the tremendously popular livestreaming service that is best known for showing feeds of people playing video games.
Twitch grew out of Justin.tv, a website that streamed the life of Shear’s Yale classmate and cofounder Justin Kan 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While live reality TV wasn’t ultimately a big hit, Shear realized that the company’s technology could be used to allow anyone to stream themselves. His personal favorite part of Justin.tv was watching Kan play video games, so in 2011 he, Kan, and their partners combined those two elements into Twitch.
A decade later, more than 7 million streamers are going live on the platform each month, with an average of more than 2.5 million people tuning into those streams at any given moment. In 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch for $970 million cash, but Shear has continued to oversee operations, adding new types of content including sports, music, crafting, chatting, and much more. “I’ve thought many times, Wow, we’ve really grown a lot—surely we must be near how big this should be,” he says. “And it just keeps turning out there are more people that are interested in this.”
On Twitch’s community focus:
“Justin.tv was a company and a product that focused almost exclusively on the audience, and Twitch is a company that focuses on the streamer and the community more broadly. That creates this incredible dynamic where you have these people that are working 40, 50 hours a week to help make this a great place to hang out. Every streamer is in one sense an entertainer, but in another sense a community manager, and I think the community [management] part of it is sort of the hidden secret sauce.”
On a healthier social medium:
“There’s something about the livestreaming long-form format that is more connecting and unifying than more feed-based, short-form content, because you have to hang out on Twitch and sort of chill with these people. It’s easy to have righteous anger and outrage for 15 seconds, but it gets hard to have that for hours and hours and hours and hours in a chill environment. It might be that you don’t agree on some political thing, but you don’t even know, because the topic doesn’t come up, because we’re talking about a video game or a fantasy novel or whatever.”
On the changing economy:
“I think we are at the start of something really important and transformative with this thing people are calling the creator economy, where people are increasingly able to earn money—often even a living—by creating for each other online. And as the world changes, with the rise of automation, I’m looking for what it is we can do that creates both jobs for the future and also connection. I think Twitch is doing those things and, even though I’m really excited about our part in that, I think we’re going to be a small piece of lots of companies and lots of communities doing this online in a lot of different ways.”
“No one is born a natural leader. Everyone who’s any good has practiced and tried and failed and learned and grown, and if you show up and expect you can just swing at this and it’s gonna go well, that’s not going to go well. If you’re a programmer, you had to learn how to program; that was a whole process of building a skill set, and you’re never really done learning how to program. Leadership’s like that, and it’s actually one of the deepest, most difficult skill sets you can learn. The day you stop trying to grow and learn as a leader, I think, is the beginning of the end for your ability to be a good leader, because the world changes around you.”