Here’s convincing evidence that Google Inc. isn’t growing arrogant in its success.
Google was, in fact, born arrogant, as illustrated by Douglas Edwards in his highly entertaining new memoir, “I’m Feeling Lucky.” He recalls company co-founder and current chief executive Larry Page asking in a puzzled tone at a 2002 meeting, “When were we ever wrong?” To be fair, in the realm of Internet search, the answer was not very often.
If Edwards wasn’t quite present at Google’s creation, he was pretty close. Hired in 1999 from the San Jose Mercury News to head up brand marketing, he was Employee No. 59, leaving in 2005 after the company’s initial public offering.
“I’m Feeling Lucky” is at its best, and most hilarious, in its account of the company’s earliest days. Edwards recalls his hiring interview with co-founder Sergey Brin, which set off a warning light in his brain: “This was the guy who didn’t think there should be a marketing budget, and he had hired a chef and dual massage therapists?”
But then the free sushi appeared. “Concerns about a business plan and revenue streams and organizational structure faded away,” Edwards writes. Once Google ran out of money, he figured, he could bail for the next start-up, or maybe return to the Merc. “In the meantime, I thought, I’ll eat well and maybe learn something useful.”
What Edwards brought to Google was experience and a sense of professionalism from the world outside the Googleplex -- only to see those values gleefully shredded. What’s worse, he learned that those doing the shredding were largely right -- and he was wrong.
Take, for instance, his firmly held belief in the inviolability of the corporate nameplate: “This is our logo. It looks like this. If it looks like this, it’s our logo. Because our logo looks like this.” Over his horrified objections, Brin insists on playing with the logo regularly: aliens abducting it, a beating heart for Valentine’s Day. Today, Google Doodles are as much a trademark of the site as the logo itself.
“Google’s brilliant strategy of humanizing an otherwise sterile interface with cute little cartoon creatures was an enormous hit -- and as the company’s online brand manager, the person responsible for building Google’s awareness and brand equity, I had opposed it as adamantly as I could,” Edwards writes.
The Google of those days, he concludes, “did that to you -- made you challenge all your assumptions and experience-based beliefs until you began to wonder if up was really up, or if it might not actually be a different kind of down.”
Eventually, Edwards shed his big-media background to the extent that he won an intense dispute over a branding issue by vanquishing his adversary in a video game. More important, he established a voice for the company’s communications with its users that was clear without being condescending and informative without being impenetrable. In doing so, he helped set an us-versus-them tone that put Google on the side of users against the forces of control and conformity -- most especially the Beast of Redmond, Microsoft Corp.
Edwards’s story gets less fun at about the same point the company does, morphing from an Old-Media-Guy-in-Wonderland tale into a more straightforward chronicle of corporate missteps -- many more of them by Google’s competitors than by Google itself -- and internal bureaucratic struggles.
For the most part, Edwards is a charitable guide who avoids the memoirist’s pitfall of excessive score-settling. But the most surprising aspect of “I’m Feeling Lucky” is its less-than-flattering portrayal of engineer and senior executive Marissa Mayer, dubbed by one magazine the “gorgeously geeky Googler.”
In these pages, Mayer emerges as brainy, intense and passionate. But Edwards also suggests she benefited from a romantic relationship with Page, her power and role expanding while other executives tiptoed around the issue. Edwards also finds her thin-skinned when she accuses him of misappropriating her idea for a privacy advisory group, a proposal of which he had been unaware.
Edwards’s account ends when he leaves the company after one too many bureaucratic run-ins -- and after the IPO that made millionaires of many colleagues and, one assumes, Edwards himself. While he’s notably circumspect about the impact of the IPO on employees’ lifestyles, one thing is clear: You can’t blame it for introducing hubris into the corporate culture. That was there from the get-go.
“I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (416 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)