After four years of working with Google as CEO of Fon (Google is our largest non financial investor) I would like to share what my experience has been like as a way to answer what I consider Larry’s biggest challenge as new CEO is. I write what follows in a spirit of friendship, with tremendous admiration for what Google has accomplished, and gratitude for its investment in Fon.
Google is an incredible company, a global giant that has just announced record financial results. A company that was built with a combination of great ideas coming mainly from its founders and amazing execution on the part of Eric Schmidt. But the biggest challenge I see at Google is that it still works like a university. This needs to change. At Google many managers come up with their own projects, frequently without a real connection to the whole enterprise and without real leadership from the top. As a result most fail. Google is a collection of brilliant minds, which is great for research but not for the execution of a visionary masterplan.
My concrete experience with Google relates to WiFi. In this field over the last four years I had the opportunity of watching Google hoping and failing to become globally relevant in WiFi connectivity. In the meantime 50 employee Fon has become the largest WiFi network in the world with over 3 million hotspots mostly in Japan and the UK, growing in other countries and hopefully soon in USA as well. But other than the investment for which we are grateful, everything else we tried to do with Google was a failure.
What I saw in Google’s WiFi´s effort were different “professors” running around with different ideas, trying to line up Google resources behind them only to end up with aborted projects. Initiatives like WiFi San Francisco, municipal WiFi throughout USA, never took off because of lack of company wide support. And WiFi is but one example. There are many areas in which Google has experimented and failed because of lack of vision, focus and consistency. For example the Orkut vs Facebook lost battle or the Twitter vs Buzz debacle. Googlers work for a great corporation but when they need company wide support for their initiatives most of the time they don’t get it. Sometimes they leave in frustration. Employee churn is now a big problem at Google and it needs not be. Churn comes from first making people believe they can do anything but then depriving them of the company support that is needed to succeed in their endeavors.
What Larry Page needs to do now is to change this situation and this can only be done by narrowing Google’s focus. Larry needs to spend weeks going over each Google project in detail. In this process he only needs to ask: Does this project make search or Android better? If it does not, kill it, and redeploy those talented employees into projects that do. And Sergey, in his new role as the head of business development needs to have the same discipline and only stick to new projects that enhance the two core areas of the company search which includes ads, and Android. Android is an incredible success so far and can be the computing platform of the future. Google TV should also be closely integrated with Youtube and in the end be part of Android. Youtube is another amazing but disjointed asset, add full length content and music to it and you have the iTunes that Android needs. Google Chrome is a huge success and that is good because those of us who use it (120 million of us) love to search off the browser box. If Larry succeeds in focusing, and I think he will, Google employees will work in projects that are backed by the company and are part of a common vision. Employee churn will decrease. Google will do even better.
As it stands today, in terms of management, Google is the opposite of Apple. Steve Jobs, who I had a chance to meet in private, is a genius dictator with a very strong vision. The whole company aligns behind him to execute. And lately, Apple’s Spartan style is winning over Google’s democracy. Larry and Sergey need to learn from Steve: to lead, to be tough and to say no (but hopefully without Steve’s ability to humiliate others when making a point). Google, like Apple, needs to adopt great design. I know that both Larry and Sergey come from the design school of “I don’t care how it looks so long as it works brilliantly”. Still I wonder how many people are not using AdSense because of how ugly the ads are. Apple has shown that both design and functionality are needed to succeed. For us at Fon, Apple, a company that is not even our investor, has been surprisingly easier to deal with than Google. Apple wants WiFi everywhere. That simple. In Japan, every iPhone is sold with a Fonera so there is more WiFi. We did a simple integration, it works well, and we have deployed millions of foneras in Japan together with Softbank. At Google, so far, we have been unable to integrate with Android regardless of the fact that we are partly owned by Google. We are millions of units ahead with iOS than Android. And every other project that we tried to implement with Google did not get off the ground. Failed to gain company wide support.
We all like democracy, but businesses, whether we like it or not, are more dictatorships than democracies. Even employees who like to debate issues outside of work prefer a clear sense of direction from those at the top at work. A clear mission. Google is not a start up that needs to find its destiny. Google has found its destiny and it is great. Time has come to focus on it and execute with a more forceful management style.
Disclosure: I am a happy Google shareholder and I am thankful to Eric, Larry, Sergey and all Google employees for their rising value.
Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars