In the third of our industry profiles, we take a look at Larry Page, CEO of Google and the visionary leading the company’s lofty ambitions into self-driving cars, modular smartphones, and “Project Loon” – a fleet of high altitude balloons bringing the Internet to developing nations.
Larry Page, the dreamer
Larry Page is often said to live in an alternative universe, and is well known for his fondness of offbeat “moonshot” projects at the search giant’s Google X. When the leader of the balloons project recently suggested that they might be able to increase the total bandwidth of the Internet by 5%, Page instead wondered why they couldn’t triple the global network capacity.
“He wanted to make sure there was a moon shot after the moon shot”, said Astro Teller who heads up Google X. “Reminding us that his ambitions are this high” said Teller, raising his hands in the air.
Staff at Google X say that bouncing ideas around with Page “makes you feel terrified, inspired, and nurtured at the same time”.
Larry Page, the CEO
For a long time, Page held the position of president of Google, along with co-founder Sergey Brin, with Eric Schmidt acting as CEO. But in 2011, the arrangement dissolved and Page took on the CEO role himself. It’s a role that he has excelled in, at least in terms of operational experience, pushing the search giant into unchartered territory while moulding it into his vision.
He has already killed several products, re-ordered the management teams, and attempted to unify and streamline others. He has also promoted mobile as an important part of the firm’s strategy, not only with Android, but by expanding its core businesses such as maps, search, YouTube, and ads. It seems that there’s nothing Google isn’t involved in.
The rise of Google
It’s interesting that nowadays, Apple thinks Google is its main competitor, largely due to Android. But so do other firms such as Facebook and Microsoft, as well as search companies like Yahoo!, perhaps because Google’s reach extends into nearly every avenue of technology and across the Internet.
The success of Google cannot be denied, and despite missing analysts’ financial expectations for several quarters in a row, it’s hard not to be impressed by the company’s revenue. It has managed to grow more than 20% per year for the last several years, with revenue of $18.1 billion in Q4 2014.
When Larry Page became CEO, Google had around $37 billion in cash and securities, which has now ballooned to $64.40 billion in the most recent quarter. All that spare cash has enabled Page to invest not only in Google’s main search business, but also to pursue more unusual projects.
“I used to have this debate with Steve Jobs, and he would always say, ‘You guys are doing too much stuff’ ” says Page. “He did a good job of doing one or two things really well”.
That worked for Apple (which just announced world-record profits for the last financial quarter), but Page insists that he has a different goal for Google: “We’d like to have a bigger impact on the world by doing more things”, as evident in the sometimes off-the-wall projects at Google X, as well as the non-profit organisation Google.org.
In the few years that Page has been CEO, they have made amazing progress in such areas. The “moon shots” are not in fact a new concept, as Page was working on driverless cars long before he became CEO, but now there are even more ambitious projects underway. For example, robotics, artificial intelligence, smart contact lenses, and Project Wing – which aims to deliver goods across cities using flying drones.
We’re at maybe 1% of what is possible. Despite the faster change, we’re still moving slow relative to the opportunities we have. I think a lot of that is because of the negativity… Every story I read is Google vs someone else. That’s boring. We should be focusing on building the things that don’t exist – Larry Page
Page has also been instrumental in pushing Google to invest significant sums in startups, such as Nest, which it bought for $3.2 billion in order to get in on home automation and smart homes. It’s also invested heavily in firms like Calico Labs, a biotechnology company that is investigating anti-aging technologies. Google has also continued to promote Glass, the VR eyewear that has received mixed reactions – however the Explorer program was recently halted, and the project has been seen as something of a failure for Google.
“When teams aren’t able to leap hurdles, but we think there’s still a lot of promise, we might ask them to take a pause and take the time to reset their strategy, as we recently did in the case of Glass”, said Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette on the Google earnings call earlier this week.
Page wants the company he co-founded with Brin as Stanford students to make an impact on the world in ways that most of us can hardly imagine. That’s one of the main reasons, combined with Google’s sound financials, that helped him to become Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year in 2014.
When Google announced that they were working on self-driving cars back in 2010, it was met with a degree of ridicule, but now, autonomous cars are nearly a reality, and billions of dollars are being spent on the technology as it nears commercialisation. It’s clear that Page’s vision helped propel Google to the forefront of the technology.
But the ambitions of Larry Page doesn’t always go down well with everyone. There is a growing dissent of people who believe that Google is becoming too powerful as it makes a play for more and more businesses. In Europe, the company has faced stiff criticism and antitrust lawsuits that may end up costing billions in fines.
Despite the fact that Google’s revenue is largely driven by its advertising revenue, there is no doubt that Page has helped diversify the company’s interests. YouTube for example, already generates billions in revenue, and the Google Play store also contributes significantly to the bottom line, as well as helping Android become the world’s most popular mobile operating system.
Larry Page doesn’t seem to heed the negativity and critics too much, but says he just wants to make a positive impact. He also wants to ensure that Google doesn’t become irrelevant in an age where it’s no longer possible to rely on the financial institutions and banks to bail out when things get rough.
Google still attracts some of the most talented people in the industry, and that alone will help him and Google stay at the top for a long time to come…