Just five years ago a googol was an obscure, unimaginable concept: the number one followed by 100 zeros. Now respelled and capitalized, Google is an essential part of online life. From American cities to remote Chinese villages, more than 65 million people use the Internet search engine each day. It helps them find everything from the arcane to the essential, and Google has become a verb, as in, "I Googled your name on the Internet and, uh, no thanks, I'm not interested in going out Friday night."
In addition to being the gold standard of Internet search engines, Google is setting a new example for business. It's difficult to imagine Enron or WorldCom with a creed similar to Google's: "Don't be evil," a motto the company claims to take seriously.
This maxim was perhaps most apparent in May when the company announced it was going public. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page explained their lofty ambitions. "Searching and organizing all the world's information is an unusually important task that should be carried out by a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good," they wrote in an unprecedented letter to Wall Street. With the release of the letter, Newsweek reported, "The century's most anticipated IPO was on, and the document, revealing the search giant's financial details, business strategy and risk factors, instantly eclipsed Bob Woodward's Iraq book as the most talked about tome in the nation."
Page, 31, is the son of Carl Page, a pioneer in computer science and artificial intelligence at the University of Michigan. Larry was surrounded by computers when he was growing up and once built a programmable ink-jet printer out of Legos. Reticent but wide-eyed and reflective, he is Google's clean-cut geek in chief, the brilliant engineer and mathematician who oversees the writing of the complex algorithms and computer programs behind the search engine. His partner, Brin, 30, is a native of Moscow, where his father was a math professor. As Jews, the Brins were discriminated against and taunted when they walked down the street. "I was worried that my children would face the same discrimination if we stayed there," his father told Reuters. "Sometimes the love for one's country is not mutual." The family emigrated to the U.S. when Brin was six. A part-time trapeze artist, Brin is the company's earnest and impassioned visionary -- a quieter, nerdier Steve Jobs. Early on, when Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked how the company determines what exactly is and is not evil, he answered, "Evil is whatever Sergey says is evil."
Page and Brin met as graduate students at Stanford University. After years of analyzing the mathematics, the computer science and the psychological intricacies involved in searching for useful information on the ever-growing World Wide Web, they came up with the Google search engine in 1998. It was far superior to existing engines, and many companies, including Yahoo and MSN, licensed it. (Yahoo recently severed its ties with Google, introducing its own search engine. Bill Gates, who once admitted that "Google kicked our butts" on search-engine technology, has announced that Microsoft will launch its own search engine next year.) With its simple design and unobtrusive ads, Google has quickly become one of the most frequented websites on the Internet, and the company is one of the fastest growing in history. The financial press has estimated that after the initial public offering, Google will be valued at $30 billion, and Brin and Page, each of whom owns about 15 percent, will be worth more than $4 billion apiece.
The two are unlikely billionaires. They seem uninterested in the accoutrements of wealth. Both drive Priuses, Toyota's hybrid gas-and-electric car. It is impossible to imagine them in Brioni suits. Brin often wears a T-shirt and shorts. Page usually dresses in nondescript short-sleeve collared shirts. Both rent modest apartments. Their only indulgences so far fall into the realm of technology, such as Brin's Segway Human Transporter, which he occasionally rides around the Googleplex, the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. (Page often scoots around on Rollerblades or rides a bike.) Page bought a digital communicator that employs voice-recognition technology to place phone calls. Both men are notorious workaholics, though The Wall Street Journal, which uncharacteristically did some sleuthing into their personal lives, reported that they have girlfriends. "Mr. Page has been dating an employee at Google, according to people close to the company," the Journal reported. "Mr. Brin has started going out with the sister of a Google employee."
Contributing Editor David Sheff met with the Google founders at the Googleplex. It is unlike most other offices, with free Odwalla juice, random toys, a pool table, a courtyard lined with scooters and bikes, and an on-site masseuse. In the company's airy cafeteria, the former chef to the Grateful Dead prepares lunch. Sheff arrived at Google just before the company entered the quiet period prior to its IPO, but he found Brin and Page less interested in the billions of dollars on the horizon than in the day-to-day challenge of running a hugely successful company that provides a valuable service, does good in the world and is fun to work for."When I arrived, Brin was indeed having fun, playing a sweaty game of volleyball in an open-air plaza," reports Sheff. "Dragged in shoeless from the court, he contemplated questions with great seriousness while occasionally stabbing at a salad. Throughout our conversation, he and Page, who wore shoes, rarely sat down. Instead they stood up, leaned on their chair backs, climbed on their chairs and wandered about the windowed conference room. It's apparently impossible to sit still when you're engaged in changing the world."
Playboy: Google has emerged as one of the most watched companies in the world. Since deciding to go public, have you worried that Google could become less fun because of quarterly reports and the scrutiny of thousands of investors?
Google Guys: I worry, but I've worried all along. I worried as we got bigger and there were new pressures on the company. It wasn't so long ago that we were all on one floor. Then we moved to a new, larger office building and were on two floors. We added salespeople. Each change was huge and happened over a very short period of time. I learned you have to pay a lot of attention to any company that's changing rapidly. When we had about 50 people, we initiated weekly TGIF meetings on Friday afternoons so everyone would know what had happened during the week. But those meetings have broken down because we now have too many people, about 1,000, including many who work in different time zones. We try to have a summation of the week's work via e-mail, but it's not the same. When you grow, you continually have to invent new processes. We've done a pretty good job keeping up, but it's an ongoing challenge.
Playboy: It's one thing to have volleyball games, refrigerators full of free juice and massages when you're a start-up, but can you maintain such a laid-back culture as a public company?
Google Guys: We think a lot about how to maintain our culture and the fun elements. I don't know if other companies care as much about those things as we do. We spent a lot of time getting our offices right. We think it's important to have a high density of people. People are packed together everywhere. We all share offices. We like this set of buildings because it's more like a densely packed university campus than a typical suburban office park.
Playboy: We read that you originally wanted a building without telephones.
Google Guys: That was Larry. He was making the argument that you call most people on their cell phones because you're not sure if they're at their desk. Why bother having land lines? We decided to have them, though, because the quality is better. It's nice to have them.
Playboy: Do you subscribe to any particular management theories, or do you make them up as you go?
Google Guys: We try to use elements from different companies, but a lot is seat-of-your-pants stuff.
Playboy: How will you avoid the mistakes of many other dot-coms? After their IPOs, employees became more focused on the stock price than on their jobs. Many of those companies are gone.
Google Guys: Those companies are not good analogues for Google.
Playboy: But like you, they were Internet focused technology companies. What's the difference?
Google Guys: A lot of those companies were around for less than a year or two before they went public. We've been around for five. We're at a pretty significant scale, too. We have more than 150,000 advertisers and a lot of salespeople. Millions of people use Google. It's a completely different thing.
Playboy: And you're profitable.
Google Guys: That's a difference, yes. The dotcom period was difficult for us. We were dismayed in that climate.
Playboy: What dismayed you?
Google Guys: We knew a lot of things people were doing weren't sustainable, and that made it hard for us to operate. We couldn't get good people for reasonable prices. We couldn't get office space. It was a hypercompetitive time. We had the opportunity to invest in 100 or more companies and didn't invest in any of them. I guess we lost a lot of money in the short term -- but not in the long term.