Googler 13

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lest we not forget extraordinary times and the decisions we make. Life is a symphony. None of us do it alone.

From my friend Doug Edwards book: I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59- regarding September 11 2001:
"We were soon flooded with email from well-meaning users who wanted Google to help them help others. Most of the mail was about the ad hoc news directory we had created. Requests to be added to the list of links increased with each update we pushed out. A webmaster had a site where people could post messages letting others know they were safe. A Wiccan wanted a pointer to her "online healing book." An old friend at wanted a link to their coverage. A British user suggested we add sources outside the United States. I explained to all of them that our mission was not "to replace news services online, but to help people get info they can't get otherwise." Still, the cascade of incoming links became a cataract, roaring in concert with the rush of the news from New York and the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.
I agreed about the value of adding a global perspective, so I asked Googlers what sites they used abroad. They sent back sources in German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Romanian, Polish, Spanish, Basque, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Russian. I dutifully checked them all. Unfortunately, I couldn't read any of them, so I had no way to evaluate whether they were espousing extremism in their bold headlines or had bias buried in the tiny type below. I tried to get confirmation from at least two Googlers before passing the sites along to Karen to post. The engineering team sent me a list of the top news sites they were seeing in the search logs—an indication of what sources people around the world were trying to find. If I couldn't get validation from staff, I took search popularity as a vote for legitimacy.
As the changes rolled out throughout the day, user reaction was all over the map. Some praised us for the useful information. Others complained about the wording that directed people to their TVs. Some sniffed that it wasn't our role to act as a news provider. Some warned us that our uncluttered interface had drawn them to us in the first place and threatened to leave if we didn't clean up the homepage and lose the links.
I wondered at the parochialism of these people. Didn't they understand that something extraordinary had occurred, requiring extraordinary measures on our part? To be fair, if Sergey hadn't taken a hammer to the image of a polished and perfect brand I had carried with me to Google, I might have been confused as well. We were a corporation, a legal entity providing a product solely to earn a profit—yet here we were, acting like a well-meaning bystander attempting CPR at a car wreck. Should we maintain professional detachment instead of throwing up hurried HTML that made our homepage a mess?
And then there were those who thought we weren't doing enough. A German user suggested we paint our logo black. Steve Schimmel in our business development group argued that our response lacked a "human side"—that we should put a "message of sorrow" on the homepage. Cindy and I disagreed with both of them. It didn't feel appropriate to jump in so quickly with a condolence message, while news was still pouring out. Would we look insincere? Awkward? Or worse, would we seem to be capitalizing on a national tragedy? I didn't want to make any rash decisions we might later view as ill-conceived. Already I saw disturbing opportunism cropping up around us. One news organization asked to be moved higher on our list while others demanded to know why their competitors appeared and they didn't. The jostling and jockeying for position intensified by the hour.
I shared with Steve my belief that expressing personal grief through our website logo or a homepage message would trivialize an overwhelming tragedy. The wound was too raw for us to give voice to the pain we all felt. What I didn't tell him was that I felt it would be self-aggrandizing, as if Google were saying, "Look at us. Look how important we are. On this day of despair, we're making a statement on our homepage. Isn't that special?"
As usual, Sergey was there to help with my dilemma. "I'd like to put a mourning message on the site," he said. "Offering condolences and a link to more information." Okay then. I drafted the wording and sent it to him, along with my reservations about his timing. He brushed off my concerns and directed me to put up a link the next day, pointing to our expression of sorrow and support."

buy this book:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Watch this video! Tell everyone else to watch it before they tell you to!

I am very excited to have been invited to attend this year's Summit Series, Summit@Sea, which will be held on a cruise ship heading for an undisclosed island. It is a conference for 'doers' in the areas of Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Revelry, Altruism, Arts and Personal Growth, keynoted by Sir Richard Branson.

One of the incredible events at the conference is shark tagging for conservation research purposes. The number of slots available is limited and I want to be one of those chosen. In order to be eligible to go I needed to submit an entry that answers two questions:
In your opinion, what is the most serious issue facing the oceans today?
What is one thing that you, your company, or your industry can do to help address it?

Below is my submission.
Some of you may recognize the characters from YouTube/iPhone4 fame :-)

Please watch it and spread the link. Lets see if we can get up to 100k views by the Summit, which starts April 8.
Make it viral... On your mark. Get set. Go!

details about the event can be found at:

Monday, March 7, 2011

My favorite quotes- some things to reflect on

I've been burning the midnight oil of late writing my business plan to unite Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Until I can make another full blog post, I hope you find something here inspiring.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

defined path: "...most people are like a falling leaf that drifts and turn in the air, flutters and falls to the ground. But a few others are like stars which travel one defined path: no wind reaches them, they have within themselves their guide and path."

Siddhartha by Hermann Hess
Someone who doesnt know what they want probably doesnt want what they have" anonymous
“You have to have a dream for it to come true”
Steven Schimmel
"Any important design must be ready to be loved and hated in equal measure."

Matt Davis 
Designing a Proper Ferrari. 
Winding Road Magazine
 issue 11.0
“Like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
“Do not regret the past. Do not speculate about the future. Live fully in the present by seeing things the way they really are.”
What does not kill me makes for great stories later"

Steve Schimmel 1993, in Kenya Africa

"There is a point beyond which self-revelation can be damaging. And one of the flaws in my character, which I have not fully fathomed, is the urge to reveal myself."

George Soros; The Alchemy of Finance, 1987


"A man changes slowly during every phase of his life until he realizes with a start that it is difficult for him to remember and recognize his former self. Thus life is a series of rebirths, and the beginning of each new phase is like a sudden leap over a chasm which streches, insurmountably behind one so that there is no return to the past"

Mika Waltari, The Etruscan, 1956."

"I believe people see something alien in me and the real reason for this is that in my youth, I was never young and now that I am entering the age of maturity, I cannot mature properly. There was a time when I was all ambition and eager to learn...Now for a long time I have known that I am not a genious and cannot understand how I ever could have wanted to be one."

Sigmund Freud.

"We shall not cease from exploration. And at the end of all or exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time"

T.S. Elliot

"Somebody once complained to Socrates that his foreign travels had done him no good and was told in reply 'That's not surprising sicne you took yourself with you'."


"If you are going to do it. Do it right.

my beloved grandpa

“It is only necessary to have courage, for strength without self-confidence is useless"

Giacomo Casanova

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"

Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society, 1895.

"The secret to success is as secret as common sense is common....Confidence & Follow-through.

Steve Schimmel
“All the happiness there is in the world
 arises from wishing others to be happy.
 All the suffering there is in the world
 arises from wishing oneself to be happy.”

and finally... I made this when I was 21 and had just moved to San Francisco. Ive had this image nearby from my darkest days to my brightest nights. It is important to believe in something...and it might as well be yourself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Porn for Cookies (and other early Google cultural nuggets)

Case studies and consultants have written ad nauseum on Google culture, how to replicate it and transform your corporation! Corporate culture is an interesting thing. It is a social anomaly reflecting the microcosm specific to the unique individuals participating (especially the top management/founders- since it tends to flow top-down) and the time and place in which it has sprung up. It is not developed or imparted via an employee handbook. It is organic- a living, evolving reality shared by only those who are part of it. We used to talk about “drinking the cool-aid” (please pardon any insensitivities around the phrase). We all talked, acted in accord with and truly bought into the idealism of our shared mission. Google was a rare gem. At a time when other companies were bleeding venture capital cash: hiring at a breakneck pace (sometimes just to fill desks and make it appear that work was being done- this is true- my wife was hired as an intern during the .com boom by a start-up to sit and make personal calls so that it looked like “big things were happening” when the company would walk potential investors through the office); and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) on lavish parties to get cache in the internet social and funding communities, Google was frugal. I remember early on when Larry [Page] bought a $3,000 green laser on the company credit card that he wanted to take to the Burning Man Festival to project live search queries onto the ground. We revolted since it seemed a poor use of funds. I think he ended up returning it.

The colorful and fun offices we lived in were also simply a natural outcropping of early Googlers’ interests. Ray had a lava lamp, then Chris joined and brought his from home....then there were lava lamps around the office. We had some large exercise balls around to sit on, one popped and Sergey [Brin] told our receptionist to order some more...she bought alot more! and then these colorful balls were just all around. One was huge (maybe 8’ diameter). For fun or stress relief we would take a running jump and bounce off the thing and usually spring and crash into the wall :-). For other companies, I can’t imagine that just getting a checklist of things Google had in the office and sending someone to Costco would enhance the experience of their employees. There is no back-story for them. It isn’t grounded in company lore or reflective of the employees. Manager: “Here. Sit on this green ball instead of your chair” Employee: “Why?” Manager: “They did this at Google”.

One of my fondest memories for the first few years of Google’s life was my friend Craig (3rd employee, 1st non-founder) making homemade bread in the kitchen and then walking through the office carrying it and some butter loudly declaring “bread. bread. bread.” and people would come out of the woodwork to grab a slice and say “hi”. You can’t script this stuff. Its endearing because its real.

I used to pay very close attention to our traffic (I used to forecast it for the company) and would often send out mass emails when a milestone was hit. One day I sent the following message to the whole company: “Congratulations, today is your day. Google has hit our first 100 queries per second day!” Can you imagine where else you could get away with broadcasting this to the entire company? If you disagreed with something the company did...that could be broadcast and a start a discussion as well. Employees with all our quirks had a voice and the freedom to use it. It couldn’t have been any other way.

We were a true Silicon Valley tech start-up. Amusing and adsurd things happened there on a daily basis.

[this a screenshot of an actual instant message conversation between Larry and Sergey’s original assistant and me, circa 2000]

The comradary and openness of the company to employees was another special thing. For many years, any employee could access all information about the business and performance of the company. You could go to our intranet and see our traffic and revenue every day from each source. Every Friday we would get together as a company and divulge every detail of what was going on with no fear that it would leak out. Trust bound us. We were always free to ask anything. It was always amusing for Omid (my boss) to stand on the table in our cafe and talk about our business progress. Until Eric Schmidt was brought on board, every week someone would cheekily ask Larry “when are we getting a [real] CEO”. It was all in good fun...and when Eric finally arrived, he joined an already profitable company.

We were treated very well internally. Amazing chef and sous-chef’s Charlie and Jim had free reign to buy organic & local foods to nourish us and keep us healthy. We were fed (everything free) things like Copper-river Salmon when it was in season. We had masseuses on premises. You could go onto their calendar and schedule to go for free whenever you wanted during the work day (when this changed to a $20/hr co-pay there was an uprising, but the charge stuck). I used to go Tuesdays after playing roller-hockey in the parking lot. As for roller-hockey, one of our early employees was a hockey fanatic, so she got professional jerseys made up for us.

(Steve Schimmel & Sergey Brin playing roller-hockey in the Google parking lot, 2000)

Our culture was aided by initiatives of the individual employees. I started the Google Wine Club in 2000 and an always growing group of us would meet every few weeks at night at the office and talk and drink wine. I would always pick a theme and prepare a lecture and people would bring in bottles relating to it. Employees from every department would come. One rule was that they weren’t allowed to talk about work. This led to fascinating topics and side conversations about amazing things people had done, their hobbies, interests and dreams for the future. These events paid huge (if largely invisible) dividends for the company. Sales folks and engineers, legal and HR folks who otherwise would not have known each other when passing each other in the halls became friends, which led to exchanging questions and knowledge during the work day. They were connected in a way that would not have happened otherwise. They now knew each other socially...which is a very different bond. All of these things made for a cohesive existence and united us as one culture.

And that brings us finally to “Porn for Cookies”. Working for a start-up, especially one that is fanatical about excellence can lead to all sorts of odd requests. There was a time when we had a computer screen on our receptionist's desk for our office visitors to view live search queries being performed by users in real-time. However, as the universe of our users “normalized”- i.e. the proportion of average people searching grew versus academics doing “research”, more and more queries became “adult” in nature. I can say that before we finally took it off the front desk you could stand there for a few minutes and get a extremely entertaining show! This highlighted a problem...more and more porn was being added to the web every day. We did not want to show pornographic related search results when they were not intended. As a “business development renaissance man” I had myriad one-off and odd tasks. One of the more interesting ones was to get a random sample of search queries from the logs group and do a statistically significant categorization of what people were searching for. I pulled about 400 queries and started emulating the search to see what came up, follow those links and fit them into a category.! After ten minutes on the task, I had to close the blinds to my office and lock the door. fact, people were searching for porn. The problem then became how to make sure pornographic results didn’t make it into innocuous search results. After looking at the external solutions for porn filtering, Matt, one of our early engineers decided that they weren’t good enough, so he was going to build his own solution. The job of aggregating a list of pornographic words was too daunting for one person, so his wife had an idea. She baked cookies to incentivize Googlers to help her husband look for porn. His request for assistance went out with a company-wide email: “Porn for Cookies”. His wife proved to be a great baker and Matt got the help he needed :-)

Google culture. It is uniquely Google's..authentically fashioned from the first employees. Take the fundamental lessons but don’t try to imitate it. Let it evolve and flourish. As it says in Google’s “10 things we know to be true”. “You can be serious without a suit” least that was true for us. Come up with your own “10 things” list and make some cool-aid.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Your Start-up Sucks (post includes a Google business plan slide & pre-adwords ad result)

Ok. Your start-up probably doesn’t really suck, but someone who doesn’t know any better might look at your “plan” or “product” and think so.

Having a vision, building a working prototype, getting others to believe and invest in you...these are the first steps to starting and growing your own technology company. You might think you have to have it all figured out from the beginning, but you don’t. Intel famously had a one page business plan. Google had the “beta” moniker on it for what seemed like an eternity. Get it out there and begin the perpetual improvement cycle that will define your future.

Google is one of the the most successful, innovative and valuable technology companies ever created...but it had humble beginnings, just like everybody else.

When I was a junior in college, I did a semester abroad in Florence Italy to study the Renaissance. I greatly admire the disruptive and game changing philosophies that came from that unique time and place. An interesting tidbit about the people living at that time is that they knew they were living in a renaissance (a period of rebirth and illumination). As such they began to think of themselves and what they did as being important and they started to keep personal journals and collecting memorabilia. It was pretty clear to me at the time that 1999 Silicon Valley and Google specifically was a special time and place. I’ve built a fine archive of early Google memorabilia- my own Smithsonian Google exhibit of sorts. I’m going to share a tiny sample of it here.

Google was started by two Stanford Computer Science Ph.D drop outs. Most of the early employees were just out of college and had never had another job. By the time Omid Kordestani and his original business team (including me) joined from Netscape in early ’99, the company had already written a business plan and was shopping it around. Google got its $25 million in funding with the following as its Business Model slide:

(this is a scan of the actual 1999 business plan page + my watermark)

As you can see...we did NOT have it figured out.

Its pretty obvious now that our Advertising program was to become the elusive and mysterious “Revenue Stream #3”, but even that had a bumpy start. As I stated in a previous post, Larry Page’s vision was that “advertisements can be as relevant as search results”. In the “reinvent the wheel” culture that we worked, this meant looking for any and all potential solutions to the problem of creating RELEVANT advertising. What is unknown to most of the world, is that before Adwords, Google created and went live with its first attempt at advertising in October 1999. That program lasted for less than one hour. Google Engineers had devised a theory that we could do a good job matching search queries to relevant books on using a certain grouping technology. We signed up for Amazon’s affiliate program and started showing books with links to purchase. These were our ads. I happen to have printed and keep a few examples from that short lived experiment. Many of the results ranged from mediocre or funny to outright scandalous. Below is the most innocuous of my examples. I wish I could show you some of the racier ones, but my wife made me promise her that I wouldn’t :-)

(click to enlarge- the search query is: "ugly girls". the ad is: "Just for you : A Picture Book of Helen Keller")

Google is a great company. It got that way, not because it was perfect, but because it was filled with smart people who were willing to learn and adapt...and that’s the way to end up not sucking.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Steve’s basic deal methodology

“Triangulating in on Value”

As a self-taught negotiator, I had to come up with my own logic for how to value a deal. One thing that I learned very early (especially on the buy-side- when I was the one with the checkbook), was that the price a vendor first quoted is just a starting place. Often we would end up nowhere near that price. Most of the deals I did at Google (at least on a volume basis) were to license other people’s technology or data for use in our products or services. This included IP geocoding, language translation software, white/yellow page data, etc. The challenging thing from a pricing standpoint was that the way we would be using these things was custom to us. Cookie-cutter rate card pricing was not going to be applicable. The value was ambiguous and we considered it a trade secret exactly what we were doing with their product. Many vendors wanted to participate in the revenue we would receive from whatever service their product was integrated into. I always rejected this concept. As I explained it, its like a supplier of silverware trying to charge more to a restaurant that has $30 entrees versus one that has $10 entrees. My position was that I might pay more for the vendor’s premium offering, but not more for the same offering just because I could monetize well. In addition, I was relatively limited in the intangibles that I was able to offer. We wanted to keep it secret whose technology we were integrating, so we could not allow the vendor to announce that Google was using their products. This made things difficult for me, as vendors were very willing to negotiate down their prices for this ability. The most I was ever able to offer was that they could include us in a list of customers (without disclosing any details of our relationship) in their sales presentation materials (but never on their website).

One thing I learned was that people aren’t always good at understanding the value of their own products and therefore don’t always have good logic for their pricing. As a fundamental analyst, I was always ready to take on the debate. Ultimately, I always came up with the price I was willing to pay, which didn’t always have much to do with the quoted upfront price. Nobody works for free and I didn’t want to drive my vendor’s out of business...but I did want to pay what I believed was fair and equitable.

Here’s how my thinking worked: I always tried to do what I coined “triangulating in on the value”. When I considered how much to pay for something I attempted to discern:

  1. How much money did I expect us to make from our product/service that was integrating the vendor’s product. I needed to ensure that I what I was paying for outside technology was low enough to provide us with reasonable profit. If you pay too much, you can’t make money.
  2. How much profit is the vendor making (much of this was educated guesstimating). I wanted the vendor to make a profit, but not an exorbitant one. I did not want to squeeze the vendor so hard that they ultimately felt cheated and therefore provided poor ongoing customer support for us or difficult re-upping of the contract at the end of the term. "We've never done a deal at that price" is good. "We'll go bankrupt if we give you that price" is bad.
  3. What was the cost of substitute goods. I can’t say that I remember ever dealing with a vendor where they were the only one with the type of product we needed. That being said, there were specifics that made one vendor a better fit for us than the other. If the preferred vendor was substantially higher than another, I made them answer to why, as they were quite familiar with their own competitive landscape. There was never a very good reason, and invariably this question would make them immediately more flexible.
My goal was to land at a price within a range of where those things intersected.

In summary:

  1. Make sure what you pay for outside resources allows you to make a reasonable profit on your finished goods.
  2. Allow for your vendor to make a reasonable profit- but no more.
  3. Know the prices for substitute goods so that you have a sense for the market and negotiating ammunition.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The 3 most important things I learned from Google (part 3)

none of which are likely to be endorsed at Business School

This is the third of three posts.

3. Nice guys finish first

I’m going to get this out of the way up front. I get that with Google being the 800 pound gorilla now, alot of people may balk at this one, but the reality is that it is true- especially for a corporation. As for “customer service” complaints specifically, Id simply state that with 200 million monthly visitors, the expectation of response from an actual human should be pretty darned low. The online world is not like the physical product world and hey, with Google, you get the world....for free.

OK, so now for what I and those who built Google from the ground up believe:

From the very beginning, Google has believed that it had a “reason for being” and that reason was to deliver information to people. All information to all people. Our internal litmus test was always whether or not what we were working on was moving us toward that goal. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand that we believed that our users were our customers, not whomever was going to financially support the service (i.e. advertisers). We would simply be an efficient conduit between the two. There was never any question of this and all of the decisions we made, from UI (user interface- how everything looks to users) to new products launched followed this.

We were different than any other company we knew about. We were young. We were idealistic. We bought into the idea that Microsoft was “the evil empire” and we didn’t want to be anything like that. Its a powerful thing when you set an intention like this and everyone buys in. As my good friend Paul Buccheit now famously coined, our motto was “Don’t be evil”.

Internally, life was good if not hectic. Traffic served by Google grew a tremendous amount every month, and it was a daunting task to deal with such hyper-growth. Larry and Sergey’s intention within the company was to make it a place you wouldn’t want to leave...and many didn’t, for the majority of their waking hours. Larry and Sergey themselves didn’t plan on leaving campus so what they built reflected that. We hired an amazing chef and gave him a free reign to buy organic and top foods and feed us well. As much as outsiders spew remarks of wasted money and dot com frivolity, internally we knew that the time spent leaving campus to go to lunch would be reduced, camaraderie increased and healthy bodies equal more productive and happy employees. That’s also why we had a gym on site very early, played roller hockey together and otherwise kept active. When Google went public in 2004, in its S1 filing, it warned investors that it intended to increase, not decrease such things. Being at Google wasn’t a job. It was a lifestyle.

Even the way Google went public was an attempt at being good. The traditional IPO process is replete with built-in badness for companies and investors (at least the average individual investor). Typically a small number of investment banks get together and take on an allocation of the shares of stock that the company is going to sell to the world. This is called a syndicate. They then take the company public in a way that greatly prefers their biggest and best clients for either cheaper stock prices or easy quick profit flips. The stock goes up, the company itself doesn’t benefit from any of the rising price in the secondary market but the banks and their friends make lots of money. Its a zero sum game and the individual is almost always on the wrong end of the trade. Another issue is that the bank usually advises that the company split its stock as many times as it needs to to get the price per share down to around $10 before it goes public, logic being that people like to buy in round lots (100 share purchases) and $1000 is a workable number for most people.

Google wanted to take control from the banks and let the individual in right away and not have to pay more by having to buy from the bank’s preferred clients that got to buy before them. Instead of 2 or 3, Google split its shares among 19 or so banks and made it that individuals were allowed to register to buy the shares at IPO price. Also, Google refused to split the stock to lower the price because we wanted “investors” and not “traders”, and if the price was high, people would be less likely to just buy and flip. Google wanted people to buy our stock that believed in the future of the company and wanted to own part of it. Also, a mass of active “traders” of stock destabilizes it and we wanted to reduce that possibility. Google also used a “Dutch Auction” to price the shares in order to find true price at demand and not leave money on the table.

Being good is probably best seen in our user interface. Sites like Yahoo had a dizzying number of things to look at on the homepage and subpages with the intention of keeping you clicking (and not finding what you wanted quickly) in order to show you as many ads as possible (since Yahoo made money on each ad SEEN). There was seemingly no concern for user experience. Google’s philosophy was to get you off our site as quickly as possible- connecting you quickly with the right information. Larry’s earliest vision was that success meant seeing as FEW pages of Google as possible. That’s why the original school project “I’m feeling Lucky” button (which would take you directly to the first search result’s website- without you having you look at the page of results on Google) was kept. Larry knew that if we did our job well, people would simply come back more...which they did. That provided the page views that represented our opportunity to monetize the service. We didn’t need to maximize pages per visit at the expense of the user experience. You didn’t go to Google to be on Google. You went to go somewhere else. In a world of no switching costs, quality and user experience are the “lock-in” and control.

Finally, I’d like to mention that doing what is good and right permeated the individual employee work ethic. My personal deal philosophy (negotiating 3rd party technology deals- where we were going to use someone else’s technology) was always to listen to the needs and wants of the other side and understand where they were coming from. I always negotiated very very hard, but worked to build relationships. I knew that if we integrated 3rd party technology into ours, it was likely to be a long term relationship. If I screwed someone now, when the contract was up and needed to be renegotiated, I was likely to be the one getting screwed. I never lied, cheated or misrepresented our intentions. I represented Google’s corporate philosophy at an individual level. When I left the company and was communicating who would be taking over the relationship for Google, I received myriad of responses telling me how great it had been to work with me and that even though I had driven a hard bargain, it was amongst the best experiences they’d had working with another company.

My take away:

integrity matters. You can and will be successful if you consider more than yourself in your actions and decisions. Being good and not evil pays off in the long run.