In a little more than a decade Google has morphed from afterthought search engine into a global brand behemoth bigger than Disney, GE and maybe even Coca-Cola. In fact, the company that started out of a garage in 1998 has generated more wealth faster than any company in history and now dominates the worlds’ information landscape so thoroughly there probably isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t use it or say it.
In his new book, “I’m Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee Number 59”, Douglas Edwards, brand manager for the search-giant during its infancy, details his version of Google’s early successes and failures from the perspective of one of the few non-engineers aboard the speeding information train from 1999 to 2005.
Edwards, a career marketing professional that arrived at Google from a stodgy old media newspaper background, offers some surprising and often seemingly counter-intuitive business insights gleaned from his days sparring with co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page over such seemingly mundane issues as the Google Doodle on the website’s homepage.
Here are four business lessons I learned from Google Employee Number 59:
1. The presumptive answer should always be yes..
In his previous marketing role at the San Jose Mercury News, Edwards says he was inoculated with the conviction that bad ideas, “like termites must be exterminated before they could gnaw away at our core business.” If a business proposal didn’t have a guarantee of success reinforced with a five-year projection, it was a bad idea.
“If no one in authority tells you to do it, don’t,” said Edwards. Google’s philosophy was the antithesis of this. The answer was always supposed to be yes. Take initiative and do it.
Takeaway: Stop saying “here’s my concern” and start saying “here’s what you need to do to make that happen.” In order to grow and succeed in any business, concentrating on removing obstacles instead of erecting them is half the battle. In Larry Page’s Rule of Order, #4 implores: The worst thing you can do is stop someone from doing something by saying, “No. Period.” If you say no, you have to help them find a better way to get it done.
2. Your greatest business expense is opportunity costs..
More than taxes, health insurance or electricity, it is the projects you aren’t launching and the deals you aren’t making that threaten the economic stability your business.
Sergey Brin sent this message to Googlers during weekly company meetings, imploring his staff to redouble their efforts. The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources (often time) is used efficiently.
Takeaway: If you aren’t moving forward you’re going backward. The basic economic problem is that resources are scarce relative to the purposes to which they can be applied. As a result, choices have to be made about how to use resources. Chose a path and move full-speed in that direction.
3. Sometimes there is value in “wasted” time.
Google’s “20 Percent Time” rule is well-documented. Engineers are more than encouraged to spend one day per week working on projects that aren't necessarily in their job descriptions. According to Edwards, the concept sprung from Google engineer Paul Bucheit’s tendency to let his mind wander to other engineering conundrums while working on projects.
Bucheit’s wandering led to the development of Google’s second billion-dollar idea: the ad-serving application AdSense. The project was just something he took on himself, and in fact had even been told by project managers to drop it on several occasions.
Takeaway: The 20 Percent Time is now part of Google’s philosophy. While most business can’t afford this type of luxury, managers shouldn’t be so quick to discourage employee’s creative thinking, and even tolerate a bit of tinkering that may not immediately impact the bottom line but could ultimately have a cumulative effect on the business.
4. Insecurity can lead to productivity..
According to Edwards, Google loaded its payroll with only high-achievers not accustomed to going unacknowledged for a job well done, and despite the promise of stock options that ultimately made many of the employees extremely wealthy, most Googlers felt underappreciated. Workers were expected to excel and were seldom told so when they did so. As a result many felt unsure of their own contributions or where they stood in relations to their peers. The desire to “measure up” created a legion of uber-workers willing to put in any amount of time to succeed.
Takeaway: Despite what employee handbooks today often suggest, effusive praise could actually lead to complacency. If you’ve hired the the right staff, a little insecurity about their abilities can fuel the fire to succeed even greater heights.