It’s the multibillion-pound monolith you’d be mad to leave – but a growing number of Google’s UK alumni are now forging their own paths, writes ex-Googler Barney Durrant
I stepped out of the air-conditioned lift, blinking into the hot afternoon sun, clutching a bottle of whisky, some cigars, my battered dayglo lime and black Google logo-embroidered laptop bag and a great deal of uncertainty about my future. That’s it, I thought, I have left the big G. That day was the first step on a journey, which has seen me set up a digital marketing consultancy business, Bluebell Digital, and a hyperlocal news website EastGrinsteadOnline.com about my hometown.
I learnt a lot from Google in the seven years I was there – how to sell, how to solve problems, work quickly, fail fast, learn from your mistakes and work with a great diversity of colleagues both located across a desk and virtually in international offices. I worked in the Mountain View, California HQ for a week and New York for a month and attended many sales conferences and client events in cities across Europe. I have stood behind Google-founder Larry Page in the (free) lunch queue and have seen Sergey Brin wandering round the Google campus, not wearing any shoes.
When I started in 2005, Google UK was 100 people in Soho and barely known by my fellow Brits. Today, its boasts a Star Trek-inspired engineering office in Victoria, and a sales and marketing office just off Oxford Street, with its own YouTube studios. Soon, both will merge into one super-office at a new development in King’s Cross, which will feature a running track on the roof and a swimming pool. In 2014, the company has more than 1,500 employees in the UK and many products and websites that didn’t exist when I joined – today there’s the video sharing site YouTube, a huge focus on mobile ads, the dominant mobile phone platform Android, wearable computer Google Glass, movies, app and music store Play, TV dongle Chromecast and of course military robots, internet balloons and self-driving cars. It is the biggest media company by revenue in the UK, having long surpassed old media rival, ITV.
Many of the colleagues, who I have spoken to about their post-Google experiences, have set up their own businesses, which made me think about the range of interesting projects people I knew personally were pursuing after leaving. I spoke to a number of them to get their take on being an entrepreneur and to discover what they learnt from Google.
Qubit was named after the pub around the corner from the Victoria office, the Thomas Cubitt, which inspired many post-Friday lunch conversations. Its founders came out of the sales, marketing and product teams at Google UK, where they were all working on improving the onsite conversion for Google’s key clients. Graham Cooke is the CEO of Qubit, accompanied by fellow founders Ian McCaig, CMO, Dan Shellard, COO and Emre Baran, CTO. They are building a formidable company that analyses the data the web produces to get improved results. The idea is to work with clients to harness their own big data to inform marketing decisions and to create a personalised experience for today’s demanding consumer.
They saw an opportunity while still at Google to improve the conversion of a site’s visitors into paying customers, because they were aware other online marketing metrics were actually decreasing in effectiveness. Greater intensity in the auction system by which online ads are often sold drives click costs up for advertisers, so this was one way to make the value of that advertising improve dramatically. In just over 4 years, they have expanded to more than 100 employees and have offices in London, Paris, New York, Boston and Chicago.
Ian McCaig attributes some of their success to using Google principles to help them grow. From day one, they tried to adopt a strategy that would allow the business to work just as well at large scale as it did in the very earliest days. They’ve used technology which has been hand-built but based on freely available, open-source software by top-class engineers.
Google culture has also been adopted by Qubit, with free food, open communications, a relaxed atmosphere and an agile working environment, designed for collaboration across disciplines. Google’s UK leaders were an inspiration and the founders still check in occasionally with former bosses like Matt Brittin, current vice president of sales for Northern Europe and former managing director of Google UK, for encouragement and advice. With $10m already received in investment and clients such as John Lewis, Farfetch, Shop Direct and Net a Porter, Qubit is already a company to watch.
Luke Smith left the team that deals with advertising agencies at Google in 2011 to found Croud, as he believed digital marketing could be improved. His solution paired crowd-sourced expertise from around the world with a cloud-based technology platform. The ambition is to build an agency that can compete with existing media and specialist digital agencies, taking advantage of the web’s ability to access huge numbers of experts in a range of fields without the need for expensive offices or infrastructure. Croud are now the fastest growing search agency in Europe, with offices in the UK and Australia. Their clients include Netflix, Interflora and Sony.
Keecker is the intriguing and original creation of Pierre Lebeau, a French national, who worked in the mobile product team at Google UK. It is described as the first ‘Home Pod’, an autonomous, robot-like mobile computer, which is equipped with a powerful video projection and 360° audio and video capture system, allowing the owner to project movies, listen to music, browse the web, make video calls and play video games all around their home. Also, it can create digital home decoration by turning any surface into a screen.
The key account team at Google, my former home, was resourceful in tempting clients to invest more in search, display, mobile and YouTube ad campaigns. Several of my close colleagues have taken this a step further by launching their own media businesses. Uloo is a digital market agency founded by Scott Williams, offering companies strategy advice on digital. Curated Digital is a start-up so fresh its offices only opened at the end of July under the guidance of former Tech Account Manager, stand-up comedian and digital expert, Simon Douglass. He spent several years gaining experience in senior roles at media agencies before founding his own business.
Philip Walford worked in a small agency-focused team with me when I first joined Google in 2005. He said: “Google has been obsessed with data from the very beginning, and the way it informs the company’s decision-making is something a lot of businesses now aspire to. It isn’t easy to change from being an experience or intuition-led business to one driven by data, but tools like Google Analytics have made it a lot easier, and really expanded the market for people who are able to help with the transition.”
Walford now divides his time between using his expertise on Google Analytics to advising big companies and writing his first novel: “Five years of Google’s breezy Californian attitude to balancing work with other interests made that decision a lot easier than it might have been,” he says.
Having worked at Google UK for almost five years in several business development, strategic partnership and sales roles, Sagi Shorrer started Brainbow (peak.net), with three others about two years ago. It is a mobile start-up that uses science and games to improve cognitive skills such as memory, focus and language. Now, eighteen months after getting funded, the team of fifteen engineers, scientists and designers, based in Soho, is continuing to grow. They have attracted prominent global investors, who have previously funded Supercell, Playfish, Waze and Shazam.
Looking back to his time at Google, Sagi said: “The experience at Google is very relevant to start-up life. At least the Google I remember from my first years – agile, dynamic, open. Obviously you learn how to scale and develop the platform, but you also learn how to measure and iterate quickly when something doesn’t work. You learn a lot about hiring, managing internal culture, and team-work.
“The ex-Googlers network is an asset in itself. I maintained contact with dozens of them, who mostly hold very senior roles in other top companies today. We meet regularly and have our own online groups to help each other with hiring, advice, funding and more.”
Mark Capps and I couldn’t have met any earlier, as we started on the same day in London and endured the Google Boot Camp together (intense initial training, often held in the Dublin office now). He founded online-retailer Sneaking Duck in 2011, which sells prescription glasses and sunnies (he lives in Australia now, having emigrated to Google Sydney). He said: “In six years at Google I saw many businesses transformed by online, so I felt I had to give it go. It’s rewarding being in control. The feeling of successful marketing initiatives with happy customers flooding in, is amazing. What’s harder is coping without the support companies provide. I’ve learned lots about contracts, accounts, product management and more. It’s stressful risking your own money, but it’s an amazing ride.”
On that very positive note, I can see some clear, recurring themes. The famous Google culture has influenced the structure and practices of many of these young start-ups, as it has much bigger companies – even rivals like Facebook and Twitter are very heavily influenced by Google, as they have hired many ex-Googlers on to their staff. Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) and Marissa Meyer (Yahoo CEO) are the most famous examples, but there are many more. Twitter UK is run by Bruce Daisley, who used to run YouTube sales at Google. Open communication, great staff benefits, collaboration, a fail fast and learn ethos are all things that these young British and international entrepreneurs have taken with them to their new ventures. Perhaps one will become the new Google, made in our own backyard. Or perhaps they will be acquired by Google and borought back into the fold.
But that won’t happen to me. As everyone who has worked at Google knows, consultancy – helping people on a one-to-one basis – is just not scalable.