Lessons for Innovators from the Founding of Google
In 1973 Mr and Mrs Page, who both worked at Michigan Sate University, were blessed with a son. The father was a Professor of Computer Science and the mother taught programming. They called their son Lawrence though he was known as Larry. At the age of six the boy was given a home computer, one of the very first models, and soon he was programming. Larry was a precocious child and went on to study Business and Computer Science at his parent’s University. He then applied to MIT but was rejected so instead he went to Stanford, which proved a happy choice. It was during his orientation program in 1995 that he met second year graduate student Sergey Brin. The two hit it off together and became friends. They were both smart, rebellious and geeky. They argued a lot. Page later said, “I thought Sergey was pretty obnoxious. He had really strong opinions about things, and I guess I did, too.”
Brin was born in Moscow in 1974. Both his parents were mathematicians but their prospects in Russia were limited because they were Jewish. In 1979 they emigrated to the USA. In a similar fashion to Larry Page, the young Sergey received a Commodore 64 as a present and programmed it. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science. In another significant coincidence he also was rejected by MIT before going to Stanford.
They were both fascinated by the World Wide Web which was exploding in use in the mid 1990s. Page’s dissertation topic was how to assess the relative importance of different web pages. He borrowed an idea from his parent’s world – academic research. On way to judge the importance of a research paper is to count how many other research papers reference it as a source. Page wanted to do something with web pages but although it was easy to see how many links went out from a page it was not easy to see how many other sites linked to it. Then he conceived an audacious question, ‘What if we could download the whole of the World Wide Web and analyse all its links?’
At that time in early 1996 there were over 100,000 web sites, with over 10 million documents and around a billion links. And it was growing exponentially. Page was undaunted. He built a Web crawler, a program which went through site by site and stored links and addresses. The project was called Backrub and it quickly grew to huge proportions. It absorbed over half of Stanford’s entire web bandwidth and caused the university server to crash but the University authorities were lenient and allowed him to continue. Brin was amazed at the boldness of the project and eagerly joined in.
They were still building a Web analysis tool. Page later said, ‘Amazingly, I had no thought of building a search engine. The idea wasn’t even on the radar.’ They built smarter ways to assess the value of a page based on the number and quality of incoming links. It then dawned on them that they had discovered the basis for a search engine of higher value than anything else around. They developed their approach so that they not only counted the number of incoming links but assigned a higher value to a link coming from a site with many incoming links. This was a novel and recursive method which gave greater accuracy in assessing the relative importance of sites.
Page and Brin called their search engine Google. They wanted to use the word Googol which is the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. But Googol.com was already taken so they settled for Google.com. In April 1998 they published a paper explaining their approach without giving away the exact details.
In order to commercialise the project, they approached the CEOs of the leading search companies of the day – Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Lycos and Excite. They presented their case and asked for $1m to licence their patents and tools. In each case they were turned down. Page said later, ‘It was not a significant expense to them. But it was a lack of insight at the leadership level. A lot of them told us, “Search is not that important.” Why did the big players make such a mistake? They believed that the key to gaining traffic and advertising was to add more content. They thought that people would explore the web rather than search the web.
After being turned down, Page and Brin started their own company, Google.
Insights for Innovators
Bring in an idea from another field. Page’s great idea was borrowed from academia – using the number of external references to rank a document’s value.
Challenge assumptions by asking an outrageous ‘What if?’ question. ‘What if we could download the entire internet and analyse all the links.’ It sounded impossible but they did it.
Find a collaborator who will provoke and challenge you. Brin and Page were both opinionated, smart and at times ‘obnoxious.’
If you can buy up a small company with a great new technology then do so before they become the competitor that kills you.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane