July 22, 2011 5:03 pm

I’m Feeling Lucky

Insider tales of Google in its cultish early years
People in a cafeteria

Employees in the Googleplex cafeteria

The first thing you look out for, on arriving in Mountain View to meet anyone from Google, is the little shuttle that ferries workers to and from the company’s San Francisco Bay area headquarters. I ended up as the bus’s only passenger, and was treated to a guided tour by the elderly driver. Mountain View is a company city and the stretch of it occupied by Google is a sprawl of low buildings and perfectly sculpted greenery. Inside might be the toys and sweetie jars that make Google’s headquarters sound like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. From the outside, however, everything seems eerily peaceable – like a real-life version of the neighbourhood-building computer game The Sims.

Douglas Edwards spent six years in the Googleplex as Google’s first brand manager, and I’m Feeling Lucky is a rare insider’s account of the company’s birth pangs and its early years. He can personally vouch for the goodies. “The office was so much more fun than home,” he says, “which was tragically sugar-free and devoid of video games, bouncy balls, and air hockey.”

For the most part, however, fun was an afterthought. The point of the PageRank algorithm that powered Google’s search engine was that it was fast, accurate and easy to use. In search terms, says Edwards, it was “the difference between judging a stranger by his looks and gathering opinions from everyone who knew him”. But it was a brilliant feat of engineering by Google’s mercurial young founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page – an elegant mathematical response to the problem of how to find a needle in the internet’s haystack.

Edwards calls himself employee Number 59, and the Maoist designation neatly conjures up the cultish flavour of the company in its early years. Both Brin and Page are keenly interested in the views of their staff but don’t seem to care at all for soliciting the views of anyone outside the company – the fashionable mantra of “crowd-sourcing”. Google, says Edwards, was a “company that enforced closeness more than most, from overpopulated workspaces to shared meals to all-company ski trips ... privacy was hard to come by, and personal hygiene took on added importance”.

In Edwards’s telling, Page is the efficiency nut while Brin is impulsive and more of a joker; Eric Schmidt, the arriving executive chairman, is hired to be the weary voice of business pragmatism. There are some telling vignettes. At one point, Brin suggests taking the entire marketing budget and using it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera or to give out free Google-branded condoms to high-school students – for those who are feeling lucky, presumably. After one of those periodic panics about what Google is up to with our data, he begins pacing up and down the room and demanding that more technical information is put up on the site so that everyone knows that “There is no privacy issue”.

No one wants for ambition, and everything is susceptible to a geeky solution. At one point, Page floats the idea that Google could be the online publisher of all online content, that it could collect the money and reimburse the creators of everything from books to music – not a bad idea, in retrospect, given the problems facing the established media. Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the patriotic Brin trawls through Google’s logs for searches that involved “Boeing”, “aviation schools”, “Logan airport” and “fuel capacity”. It turns up nothing of interest. When the company first goes public in 2004 and its stock races through the roof, both Brin and Page seem less interested in the valuation than in the technology used by the traders.

For the most part, however, this insider exposé makes working for Google sound rather dull. He devotes most of a chapter to the story of how Google hired a chef to feed its Oompa-Loompas, and records the menus he e-mailed out daily: “Soups: cream of asparagus, savory mushroom & lentil. Salads: Thai noodle, old-fashioned potato salad, carrot dill, organic mixed greens.” In the hands of a David Foster Wallace or a Douglas Coupland, this sort of stuff could have been mined for satire, or shoehorned into an artful tale about the humming tedium of the electronic office. Here, however, it’s delivered straight-up, as if reading what Google had for lunch might tell us something profound about its rise to power.

What Edwards’s story can’t quite get around is the fact that he was a conventional brand manager in a company which didn’t much need one. True, he thought up the name for Google’s enormously lucrative AdWords advertising programme, which fillets search keywords for advertising opportunities. Most of the time, however, he was pretty much surplus and he’s smart enough to know it. “I don’t claim to have ‘built’ Google’s brand,” he says. “In a company where products were the brand, brand management would become product marketing. I knew that was the natural order of things.” In one meeting with Brin and Page, Edwards hears a Google engineer say that “brand is what’s left over when you stop moving forward”, which is as good a way of putting it as any. For a long time, Page doesn’t even allow the B-word to be used at Google – it would imply that the product alone wasn’t enough.

If there’s one business lesson worth taking away from I’m Feeling Lucky, in fact, it is that Google’s enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of its products over the free-floating attributes of its brand was one good reason why it just grew and grew. Google went from upstart to quasi-monopolist, nimbly avoiding the vanity parade of big companies who were busy polishing up their images.

When Edwards gets around to drafting a memo laying out the company’s brand strategy for Schmidt, its guiding principles include the notions that “paid ads work against our brand” and “we’ll grow faster getting current users to search more than by mass marketing”. Both of which tend to empty the brand manager’s cupboard of its traditional tools. As Edwards finds himself increasingly sidelined, his story begins to reek of sour grapes – and then he leaves. On this evidence, it was probably for the best.

James Harkin is the author of ‘Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream’ (Little, Brown)

I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, by Douglas Edwards, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 432 pages

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