Conversations tape-recorded in the early years with Google’s founders illuminate how their actions forged the growth of a Silicon Valley giant
John F. Ince
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle 4:00 am, Sunday, December 3, 2006
When I contacted San Francisco’s Upside magazine in late 1999 about writing freelance articles, my first assignment was to do a story about an obscure search engine with a weird name based in Mountain View. At that time, few people beyond the Stanford campus or tech world had ever heard of this startup. It had paid virtually nothing for advertising, relying on word of mouth and articles in print magazines like Upside.
So Cindy McCaffrey, then head of the company’s corporate communications department, was more than happy to block out a two-hour slot on the schedule of its co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Page came down with the flu, so I interviewed Brin alone for about 90 minutes, then a few weeks later, I interviewed Page. In the interim, I spoke with Google board members and venture capitalists Michael Moritz and John Doerr, as well as angel investor Andy Bechtolsheim.
Today, of course, any reporter would kill for an interview with the founders of Google. I caught these two 26-year-old entrepreneurs in January 2000, a moment in time when they were relaxed, uninhibited and more than happy to tell their amazing story in crisp detail, without the filters that now characterize most companies’ PR efforts.
When I arrived for the interview, Brin was dressed casually. He and McCaffrey gave me a quick tour of Google’s new digs in Mountain View — the first Googleplex, later to be replaced by a Googleplex campus. Many cubicles were vacant as the company was staffing up. In the lobby we passed an oversized electronic screen that continuously updated the most popular search terms on the service.
He showed me a room where the company masseuse gave employees free afternoon massages and the cafeteria that, even then, offered free, quality cuisine to workers. When we arrived at the boardroom, where the interview was to take place, I did a double-take at the brightly colored rubber balls, several feet in diameter, sitting in a corner. Brin explained that employees bounced on them during meetings to burn off excess energy. Even then, Google was Google.
Less than seven years later, Google is a Silicon Valley juggernaut. It employs more than 9,000 people. Its stock recently climbed above $500 per share, and its market cap of about $150 billion makes it the third largest U.S. technology company after Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
Although Brin and Page were obviously taking a crash course in Entrepreneur 101, it was clear that they were very smart, and I figured that, with the guidance of seasoned investors like Doerr and Moritz, Google had a bright future. So I wrote a positive article and submitted it.
Not so fast. My editor threw the article back at me and said, “This needs to be completely rewritten with a more skeptical eye. I personally know these guys and they don’t know what their doing. They have no business model.”
Rather than give way to my editor’s bluster, I sought to finesse things. “Give me more time and I’ll expand the Google article into a search industry story.” My editor agreed to the compromise, and I spent another month interviewing the CEOs of Ask Jeeves, Inktomi, Alta Vista and others. This time, my editor accepted my draft and the article made it into print, virtually untouched.
Footnote: About a month after my story ran in Upside, Dan Fost of The Chronicle reported on an unsuccessful coup d’etat at Upside. Apparently, the Upside editors, including my editor on the Google story, had tried to oust Editor-in-Chief Jerry Borrell, but failed. The publisher, David Bunnell, had emphatically backed Borrell. To protect his turf, Borrell promptly fired his entire editorial staff, including my editor.
But the departing editors would not leave without a gesture of defiance. They retaliated by erasing the hard drives of all the computers in the Upside offices. Fortunately, I had all the Google interviews on tapes in my home, and I have now retrieved them from the proverbial shoebox and converted them into a 10-part podcast series entitled “The Lost Google Tapes.”
Here are some excerpts:
Ince: How did you get the name Google?
Brin: We were thinking about very large numbers … so we came up with the term “googol” which is the mathematical term for 10 to the hundredth (power). The correct spelling was g-o-o-g-o-l and I’m not sure that we realized that we had made a spelling error. But that was taken, anyway. There was this guy who’d already registered Googol.com, and I tried to buy it from him, but he was fond of it. So we went with Google.
Ince: What other names were considered?
Brin: I think the previous contender to that was called the “Whatbox,” which would have been OK. But then we decided that “Whatbox” sounded like “Wetbox,” which sounded like some kind of a porn site or something, and we decided to stay away from that. Actually the old version of the system was called Backrub.
Ince: What was the origin of Backrub?
Brin: That was because our technology had to do with looking at the link structure of the Web and looking at the backlinks — which pages link to what pages. So Backrub was sort of an immature technology and we turned the idea of looking at backlinks into a search engine.
The technology we developed back then, and it’s just one of a number of technologies we use today, was called Page Rank. I’ll give you an example: Back then, if you typed, “Bill Clinton” into a search engine, your first result would be this Web page which says, “Bill Clinton sucks,” and then has a picture. So that’s probably not terribly useful, but the interesting thing is why did the search engine return that? It did it because it was the result that looked most like the query. Your query was Bill Clinton and this page just has one more word than that. So the older search engines were based upon looking for documents that look like your query. not at all factoring in the fact that this page doesn’t have any content and nobody cares about it. So our approach was to try to address that problem first, and later to combine it with a whole other part of the system that determines what pages are relevant. So Google’s technology combines the relevance along with the Page Rank to produce your search results.
Ince: When did you and Larry first think about turning this technology into a company, and why?
Brin: It was in the summer of 1998. It was mainly because at that point we were having to scrounge around to find resources. Like we had stolen these computers from all over the (Stanford’s Computer Science) department, sort of. We’d assembled them all together, but they were haphazard, like a Sun, an IBM AIX computer, a couple PCs. We had our own little computer storage cabinet we’d made out of LEGOs, essentially. So basically we were scrounging around and we decided, “Hey, there’s a lot of commercial interest here. People will give us a lot of money to solve this problem of search. Why don’t we go and do it commercially?” The resources just weren’t there in the academic environment. So we started the company about August or September of 1998.
Ince: Who did you approach and how did you go about the process of raising capital?
Brin: Well it turns out Stanford is a very convenient place to start companies from because there’s a big history of company building. We worked through the faculty and ended up with angel funding from Andy Bechtolsheim, who was, of course, out of Stanford, and David Cheriton, who was Andy’s co-founder at Granite (a network switching company). It was recently bought by Cisco. And then also Ram Shriram, who was the president of Junglee (a database technology company acquired around that time by Amazon.com). Anyway, these guys were really helpful. They helped us right off the bat.
Ince: Helpful how? You mean they said, “Shall I write out a check?”
Brin: Yeah, actually. That’s what they said. But they were really helpful beyond that, also. But yes, we were showing (a demo on a laptop) to him (Bechtolsheim) and he said, “Oh we could go on talking, but why don’t I just write you a check?”
Ince: How much did he write a check for?
Brin: He gave us a check for $100,000. The check was made out to Google Inc., which didn’t exist at the time — which was a big problem. So, we had to quickly get a lawyer, and we set up the company.
Ince: This was on your first meeting?
Brin: Yes, and we hadn’t really discussed valuations and stuff like that. He just figured it would pay off, and he was right. We finalized all the details on the round after that.
Ince: What was your understanding as to what his percentage would be?
Brin: There was none. I guess we figured that if we didn’t agree later, that it would be a loan. I think he saw that we had a pretty solid product. He liked us. I think he figured that we would do well, and he just wanted to push us forward.
Ince: When Andy said to you guys, “Why don’t I just write you a check?” Did you two guys look at each other and go “Wow.”
Page: Yeah, it was pretty unreal. It was like, wow, maybe we really should start a company now. The check sat in my desktop drawer for a month. I was afraid I’d lose it. But until it really happened, until then, it had sort of been this intermediate state. Things hadn’t really happened yet. But when he wrote the check — well, it certainly does speed things up.
Ince: It’s very interesting to get your perspective on this, because from Andy’s perspective one of the things that he commented on was how sure you and Sergey seemed about how this thing would work.
Page: Yes, well, we had spent a lot of time scoping out the industry. We had already talked with Dave Filo, Jerry Yang (co-founders of Yahoo), George Bell (CEO of Excite) and all these people in the industry and we had a really good feel for what was going on.
Ince: Did you have any trouble getting to see these people?
Page: I won’t say that it was like easy. But being at Stanford and having a product that was really good. I mean, Backrub worked really well. It was much better than anything else, and so we would show them and say, “Hey we’ve got this great thing. It works better than anything out there. What do we do?”
Ince: Do you see yourself as a competitor of Yahoo?
Brin: Well not any more than we’re a competitor for say Upside magazine — to the extent that people read things on our Web sites.
Brin: There are a lot of tricks you can imagine that people try to try to link pages together and get higher search rankings, but those things don’t work. Here I can show you an example. Take the query “sex.” The term “sex” is interesting because that’s the term where there’s the biggest effort to fake (out) search engines, but getting their site to the top of the list. Most search engines will pick the responses by hand. But as you can see this (results page) was done completely automatically, and there aren’t any porn sites here. Every now and then we’ll have a couple of porn sites pop up, but for the most part this is, you know, safer sex relationships — sex and romance and things like that.
The point is that to try to get your page up higher in the search rankings, there could be tricks that you would play. You use this word more often, you create links here. The porn sites try very, very hard. You can’t imagine the lengths they go. The fact that none of these sites show up, and that we’re not doing any filtering here, I think demonstrates that the technology, if not spam-proof, is highly spam resistant.
Ince: Where is search going?
Brin: If we look at the evolution of search from, say 10 years ago, you probably would have gone to the library and looked through the catalogues, something like that. Maybe you would have used some online sources to give you a listing of books you could get at the library. And it would have taken you a long time, maybe the better part of a day. Now if you have an information need, you just type it in and swoosh, one second later you have search results. All told from the process of booting your computer to firing up you Web browser to looking through the information takes maybe 15 minutes to a half an hour.
Where I see search going is that I see search becoming much more ubiquitous, where every time you go anywhere — well, first let me back up, you probably get a lot of e-mails about companies. It would be nice to have their home pages automatically popping up without you having to do anything. So that’s already incorporating search much more into your everyday work pattern. And you’re able to get information that you didn’t even know to look for.
Ince: Do you see Google providing those sort of services?
Brin: Yes, definitely, and even further down the line I see people wanting to get information very quickly from your cell phone or your PDA wherever you are, and you want to be made aware of information that’s relevant to whatever you’re doing without even asking.
Ince: So who might Google be partnering with in this process?
Brin: That’s interesting. I think there are several different kinds of companies. Certainly, as the wireless market develops we’d like to have partnerships there.
Ince: Who have you been talking to there?
Brin: I don’t know if we’ve publicly announced. Anyway there’s already been one wireless company with whom we’ve forged a partnership, a small partnership, and we’re talking to more. Right now, though, the market is very immature, and I haven’t yet seen a device that I think works well. They’ve all been pretty crude and I don’t think they’ll be successful. But definitely the potential is there and I think someone will introduce a good wireless device.
Ince: Capable of search?
Brin: Yes, capable of search.
Ince: What else do you see Google doing?
Brin: Other things. We try to offer things that are not just search, but navigation aids, like Google Scout, which gives you related pages to the search result. And I certainly see more incorporation of the everyday browsing process as a navigation aid.
Basically, we want to stay focused on what we do well, which is getting people to more useful information. We don’t want to be building out lots of services, which is what other companies do well, like Yahoo.
Ince: Will you be anything besides a search engine?
Brin: No, with the exception of the kinds of things I mentioned, like navigation aids and things like that. Although we’re open to develop across different axes of search engines or portals.
Ince: What’s been the most difficult part and the most exciting or liberating part of your transition from a Ph.D. candidate to entrepreneur?
Brin: Probably the most difficult part has been learning to deal with organizational challenges. We have over 70 people right now. When it was just a few people it was fine. There weren’t any really complicated issues. Now we have a much more complicated yeast. It’s not really clear how to keep everybody productive and focused — things like that. That’s been somewhat of a learning process.
Also, in our business dealings we were used to getting things done pretty quickly, but if you want to form a partnership with somebody, that’s another matter. That takes a lot of time. You have to meet with them several times. You have to gauge whether you want to do business with these people. You have to spend time getting to know each other, then you have negotiation. So that’s been somewhat of a challenge.
The most exciting part has been working with the great people we’ve been able to hire. There’s just a great talent pool here. I’m just amazed at how we’re able to develop this product and take it to the world.
The “Lost Google Tapes” featuring interviews with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were recorded in January 2000 and are available for free download atwww.podventurezone.com. Highlights of the interviews can also be listened to as a Chronicle podcast on the Insight channel at sfgate.com/blogs/podcasts.