UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Conviction, pursuit of better ways fuel success, Hulu's Kilar says


When Jason Kilar (BSBA ’93) first spoke at UNC Kenan-Flagler as CEO of Hulu in 2009, he had to spend the first few minutes of his presentation explaining the online TV service.

When he returned to campus the Dean’s Speaker Series Feb. 25, Hulu had become a household name and a leading provider of online video with more than $700 million in annual revenue, over 1,000 advertisers and 3 million paying subscribers. He told the packed audience in the Koury Auditorium that he was glad to be back at UNC. “Carolina means so much to me personally and professionally,” he said. “I am a Tar Heel.”

During Hulu’s rise to the top, Kilar learned three lessons that he credits with both his personal achievements and the remarkable success of the company.

Relentlessly pursue better ways. When Kilar visited Disney World’s Magic Kingdom at the age of 10, he was inspired by the park’s perfect design and flawless visitor experience. He spent the next few years reading everything he could get his hands on about Walt Disney, the entrepreneur who became his hero. He discovered that the Disney began by asking simple “what if” questions that led to innovations, such as, “What if we made an entire feature film with animation?”

Kilar’s adventure at Hulu also started out with a simple, but ambitious, question: “What if TV were available when, where and how people actually wanted it?” Disney’s penchant for perfection and how it drove innovation inspired his leadership of Hulu. “We define innovation at Hulu as the relentless pursuit of better things,” Kilar said. “If you do that, you’ll end up with something amazing like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.’”

When met with skepticism and complications, never give into complacency and stop asking “what if.” “When you go down these blind alleys, when you’re relentless about pursuing better ways, often what you end up doing is better serving customers,” he said. “And then you’ve created real value.”

Find and follow your passions. When Kilar first prepared to enter the workforce after graduating from UNC, he felt societal pressure to follow a conventional path and go for “safe jobs.” Instead he followed his heart, which drew him to startups built around innovative ideas, such as Amazon and Hulu. Choosing uncertainty over security was a scary decision, but taking the risk paid off, he said. “Listen to who you are and what excites you. If you can somehow marry that professionally, you’ll never work. You’ll always be on a mission.”

Companies also benefit by their embracing their employees’ passion, which is critical to creating a company culture that fuels innovation. “Culture is the secret sauce to Hulu and any successful company,” said Kilar.

Have conviction. To demonstrate the key roles that determination and drive play in professional success, Kilar turned UNC basketball legend Tyler Hansbrough might not have been the most gifted or naturally talented player, Kilar said, but he went down in history because “he just exhibited this will to win and achieve his goals.” Conviction is just as necessary for meeting goals in the office as it is on the court.

“Conviction and the relentless pursuit of better ways never fail to change the world.”