Google’s Rules of Acquisition: How to Be an Android, Not an Aardvark

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former startup entrepreneurs—who may have known or worked with one another in previous phases of their careers—to reconnect and network. One of the first gatherings was held at Lawee’s home, with Larry Page in attendance. The company is also piloting a private e-mail discussion group for acquired Googlers, so former founders “feel they have a smaller community that they can share concerns with,” says Butler. About 40 former startup founders are active on the list so far.

What You Can Do for Google

But no one should think that joining Google is all puppies and rainbows. The external support is there to free up mental bandwidth for real work. Explains Butler, “When people ask ‘Is Google a fun place to work?’ I say ‘Yes, but,’ and the ‘but’ is that it’s a very productive place to work.”

Lawee and Butler say it takes a special kind of person to thrive inside Google. It’s not just that they have to be passionate and hard-working. Another key asset for a newly acquired Googler is the ability to keep thinking like an entrepreneur, even inside a big organization where existing product goals would, on the surface, seem to limit the possibilities for risk-taking.

Max Ventilla

And the key to that task, acquired Googlers say, is getting to know one’s managers and one’s managers’ managers, understanding their priorities, and figuring out how the startup’s vision meshes with theirs. “It is absolutely critical that you identify what are the company’s strategic goals and what are the goals of the executives, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, all the way up to Larry,” says Max Ventilla, a senior product manager. Then new Googlers have to “figure out how to translate those higher-level visions into a product or a cross-cutting piece of infrastructure.”

Ventilla joined Google in 2010 when it acquired Aardvark, the social search company he co-founded in 2007 with Damon Horowitz, Rob Spiro, and Nathan Stoll. That’s a story I’ll return to in a moment; Google discontinued Aardvark’s social search service last year, and Lawee cites the episode as an example of an acquisition that failed. But Ventilla and his team—because they’d spent time talking with people responsible for social initiatives—ended up making major contributions to Google+, the company’s big social networking play. “Until you get into the company, you don’t know what’s in the works. You don’t know what’s most strategic,” Ventilla says.

“It’s not complete smooth sailing when you walk into Google,” Lawee confirms. “You still have to be an entrepreneur in terms of making it happen. You have to figure out the language. The [entrepreneurs] who are successful here are the ones who spend the time to get to know the landscape.”

There’s one more important quality for acquired Googlers, and it may be even harder to find: a dose of humility. “A healthy dose,” says Lawee, “both because there is a very high caliber of people here, and because what usually happens is that the entrepreneur’s goals become much bigger once they get here.”

Typically, a startup founder has been working for years to build the best product in a specific niche, Lawee observes. But now he or she is suddenly being challenged to think about what their product might look like if it had a billion users, and how it might change the whole company. “The most common feedback coming out of a meeting with Larry and Sergey is, ‘We need to think about this bigger,'” says Lawee. It was Page, for example, who first pushed John Hanke, co-founder of Keyhole, to adapt his desktop digital mapping software—-previously used mainly by government officials and urban planners—to work on the Web. The result was Google Maps, now the world’s leading source of location-related data.

“It’s counterintuitive, because the audacity of thinking so big is risky,” says Lawee. But if you put Google-scale resources behind a project, he says, “it’s actually less risky,” because you can try it out on more people, faster.

Into the Sunset

If Google’s M&A operations have a two-thirds success rate, that means one-third of the search giant’s acquisitions don’t work out as hoped. The company’s definition of failure? When the acquired firm’s technology doesn’t get incorporated into a Google product and the company sunsets it, or the team eventually leaves, or both.

When I quizzed them on the subject, Lawee, Butler, and Ventilla were remarkably open about such cases, and about what Google has learned from them. “Every failure is personal for me,” says Lawee. “When things don’t work out—let’s say, in the case of Aardvark—that hurts. It also hurts our reputation in the market.” Any thoughtful entrepreneur working at a startup being courted by Google investigates what happened to previously acquired companies, Lawee says. “And they are like, ‘Well, I would want to be an Android, not an Aardvark.'”

Before the reorganization, Google’s acquisitions sometimes went south out of pure carelessness, or lack of forethought. Dodgeball, Dennis Crowley’s New York-based mobile social network, was the archetypal case. “That was an example where Dennis was way ahead of us in terms of his vision,” Lawee says. “There was a misalignment. He didn’t get the resources he needed. In that case, it was a very small acquisition, and we weren’t as thoughtful about it.”

These days, the failure stories are usually more complex. Google isn’t on autopilot; the company’s priorities shift in response to a changing marketplace—with Google+, a response to the rise of Facebook, as the clearest recent example. Sometimes newly acquired teams get caught in … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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