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The Mind of Google's Resident Muse

By Ben Elgin Marissa Mayer prides herself on needing only four hours of sleep each night. But if anything could jeopardize even this precious little shut-eye for Google's (GOOG) consumer-products maven, it's likely to be the company's growing innovation challenge.

Mayer, who was roughly the 20th employee to sign on at Google in early 1999, has helped manage the formulas for Google's innovation ever since (see BW, 10/3/05, "Managing Google's Idea Factory"). Today, as director of consumer Web products, she acts as a conduit of sorts between Google's founders and its legions of engineers. Her job: to find and nurture the best ideas percolating in the brains and on the hard drives of Google's techies.

"UNWIELDY OVER THERE." But maintaining Google's pace of innovation could prove challenging, as its ranks have swelled from 100 to 4,200 staffers over the last five years. Some formulas that spawned great ideas with several dozen engineers simply collapse when applied to several hundred, or even thousands of techies. Moreover, indoctrinating a large number of employees with the same sense of opportunity and ethos is a challenge. "As we grow, scale is an issue," she concedes.

Some of the strain is beginning to show. While the Mountain View (Calif.)-based company has clearly innovated with its search technology, as well as its more recent e-mail and maps applications, it has also rolled out some snoozers. Its e-commerce search site -- dubbed Froogle -- as well as its blog-search tool, announced this month, have failed to surpass competitors' products (see BW Online, 09/22/05, "Google's Lackluster Blog Search").

Meanwhile, without ample guidance or support, some engineers can end up feeling lost in Google's sea of techies. "Things have gotten unwieldy over there," says a former Google engineer, who requested anonymity. "I've seen people have months of man-hours flushed because it wasn't clear what [Google co-founders Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] wanted."

LOST IN THE PACK? The biggest obstacle facing Mayer and her peers will be conveying a sense of empowerment to Google's engineers and product managers. Over the years, many of Google's biggest products have bubbled up from the personal pet projects of its engineers. These include everything from Google News to its desktop search product, to Google's social-networking offering, known as Orkut.

But as Google's ranks swell, convincing techies that they can have just as big of an impact will take work. "It's hard to imagine what it would be like to walk in and start at Google today," Mayer says. "How can you convey that sense of empowerment?"

Part of the solution, she says, will come from avoiding the mistakes that have plagued other fast-growing companies. Among them: the tendency for increased overlap among employees and projects. "When companies get large, rather than doing more things, they often have more people doing the same things," Mayer says.

FACE TIME. To avoid this situation, Google is redoubling its commitment to very small teams. Usually, groups of three engineers will work on even some of the most important projects at the company. By keeping team sizes small -- and teams often share the same office -- Google aims to maintain its nimbleness. "When you're in the same office, you don't have to declare a meeting," she says. "You can just turn around and work it out."

In addition, Mayer tries to meet and get to know as many people at Google as she can. She prides herself on keeping her office door open. And she holds thrice-weekly office hours, a tool she picked up while teaching computer science at Stanford University. Anyone can sign up or drop by to discuss an idea or project. Even with fast-multiplying ranks, she hopes to develop the personal relationships needed to draw out these ideas.

Plus, the face time presents her an opportunity to convey what rank-and-file employees have accomplished at Google. She cites the example of last year's launch of Gmail, Google's e-mail product. Despite its massive importance to Google's business, it was shepherded to fruition by a solo, first-year associate product manager. "It's hard to imagine a group of 23-year-olds with more responsibility on the planet," says Mayer of Google's several dozen product-manager associates.

THE MADONNA STRATEGY. Maintaining Google's speed will also be a challenge. Mayer has long tried to instill Google with her mantra of "launch early and often." That's easy for a small startup. But it's more difficult for a 4,000-person public company with a market capitalization of $87 billion -- and, seemingly, so much more at stake. Organizational inertia can begin to set in, making new product launches more difficult. "People will say, 'That doesn't live up to Google's standards,'" says Mayer. "But, ultimately, Google's reputation becomes a burden."

Mayer is striving to maintain a level of fearlessness with Google's launches. The idea, she says, is to avoid dwelling on one particular failure or success. That could lead to organizational paralysis. Instead, Google needs to take risks, while aiming for a good, overall average. She likes to hold up the examples of Madonna and Apple Computer (AAPL). Both are largely revered among consumers, despite sizable missteps along the way. "Nobody remembers the Sex book or the Newton," she says.

Mayer, it's clear, is fully alert to the challenges lying in wait for Google. Keeping the search giant on the cutting edge of Internet innovation, however, will likely consume all of her waking hours.

Elgin is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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