The Education of Bill Maris: How One Entrepreneur’s History Shaped Google Ventures

9/1/11Follow @wroush

Fade in on a paper-strewn office in Manhattan. It’s the North American headquarters of Investor AB, a giant Swedish holding company with investments across the healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing, and financial industries. Two recent college graduates, a man and a woman, share a small office; they are the only Americans at the firm. One is trained in neuroscience, the other in molecular biology. Their job is to go to scientific conferences and translate the presentations into something the firm’s investment analysts can work with. They’re good at it, and they’re rapidly gaining influence over Investor AB’s U.S. portfolio. But they’re poorly paid—$40,000 a year isn’t enough to make ends meet in New York in 1997. They need to get out. They often talk about what kinds of companies they might start someday.

The neuroscientist is named Bill Maris. The molecular biologist is named Anne Wojcicki.

*  *  *

When you consider that Google is a 29,000-employee company (not counting Motorola) with revenues on the order of $9 billion per quarter, it’s surprising what a small family of early players runs the place. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the company in a Menlo Park garage that they rented from Susan Wojcicki, the daughter of the former chair of Stanford’s physics department. Page and Brin’s first employee in that garage was Craig Silverstein, a fellow computer science graduate student from Stanford; he’s still with the company today, as technology director. Their former landlord, Wojcicki, is now a senior vice president at Google and oversees the company’s advertising products, including its principal revenue engine, AdSense.

Brin, who now directs special projects, married Susan Wojcicki’s youngest sister Anne in 2007. The year before that, Anne Wojcicki co-founded a personal genetics startup in Mountain View, CA, called 23andMe. One of the principal backers of 23andMe is Google’s investing arm, Google Ventures. And Google Ventures is run by none other than Bill Maris.

The lesson here isn’t about family connections or favoritism; it’s about understanding and trust. Two-year-old Google Ventures is virtually unique in the venture world in that its pockets are, for all practical purposes, bottomless. Whatever amount the partners want to put into their portfolio companies, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) will write the check. “The fund size in any given year is exactly what we invested that year,” says Maris, who is the fund’s managing partner and its principal architect. “It could be $72 million, or $182 million, or zero.” To get that kind of freedom, you need buy-in.

And that’s what Maris has. At the invitation of David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president for corporate development, Maris spent much of 2007 and 2008 thinking about how a Google-style venture firm ought to work, and what kind of operation he’d want to run. He decided, for one thing, that the fund should be industry-agnostic, investing without regard to Google’s strategic interests. This alone was a radical departure from the tradition in corporate venture investing—but Maris also insisted on other kinds of freedoms, of which more below. When he finally laid out his plan to Drummond, Page, Brin, and then-CEO Eric Schmidt, however, “They were like, ‘Okay, sounds like you’ve thought this through, go ahead and do it. Projects that are successful get funded and get more head count, and those that are not, do not. So do a good job.’ Basically, I was given the latitude I needed.”

It was an extraordinary vote of confidence—but perhaps an understandable one, given Maris’s status as both a longtime friend of the company and a battle-tested outsider. In a long interview last week at Google Ventures’ headquarters—which occupies the lower half of a building at the eastern edge of the Googleplex, and is about to take over the top half, displacing Brin’s super-secret special projects operation—Maris told me that he came to Google “somewhat reluctantly,” and only after years of watching the company’s growth from afar.

For one thing, he was a committed East Coaster, with an ingrained skepticism toward California. More importantly, he had his own business to attend to. After leaving Investor AB in 1997, Maris had started a Burlington, VT-based Web hosting company called Burlee, and it had taken off spectacularly. When Anne Wojcicki informed her old office mate a year or two later that a couple of guys had moved into her sister’s garage and were building a search engine, Maris says his first reaction was “Oh, that’s interesting. But they have no business model, no revenue, and no funding, and I have this business doing millions a year in sales.”

Today, of course, the tables have turned. The Burlee name isn’t around anymore—Maris sold the company in 2002 to Interland, which is now known as Web.com—while Google is the nation’s 19th most profitable company.

But it may be just as well that Maris was available, since it’s not clear that anyone inside Google could have come up with a plausible plan for investing the firm’s riches. What Google really needed was someone who knew Google and could think like a Googler, but would bring a different set of experiences.

Which is how Burlee actually lives on today—in Maris’s design for Google Ventures. Maris hopscotched across a dozen topics during our interview, but this was the one he kept returning to, providing example after example of Google Ventures’ founder-friendly philosophy and its roots in the lessons he learned as a young Internet entrepreneur in Vermont. “Most of the things that we are trying to do to help entrepreneurs here at Google Ventures go to address personal experiences we have had as entrepreneurs,” he says. “There are big problems that we can help them solve, because we have felt that pain.”

Google Ventures is hardly one man’s dream: other key players in the fund’s creation include Rich Miner, the co-founder of Android; David Krane, Google’s longtime communications director; and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Mario Albert Lopez

    ANIMEX: Mexican Animation (currently inactive with corporate Revive application), is a start-up enterprise. Animex is 20 years in the making. Bill’s History that shaped Google Ventures appears to be the same stickler that created me. I believe in going to the top to do business (find the right people). I gave NAFTA players who found this new Cartoon Character, marketing mechanism, CALABAZO, the Dwarf of Uxmal a fantastic tool to expand trade between our countries. In the early Nineties the U.S. Census Bureau had not revealed the Hispanic community as the largest minority group in the U.S. Corporate America had still not realized our new Latin American geographic community. Being born and raised in the Mexican film industry, knowing the trail, having the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” as my template. I still need help in finding the right animation film studio to produce Animex films for a Latin American market. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who’s history has endured as Google’s in shaping Google Ventures. So far it’s been 20 years and I am still looking for people with the right talent to make Animex films. After finding Google Ventures, I guess 20 years is not so crazy after all.