Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.
“We both found each other obnoxious.“
That’s how Sergey Brin characterized the first time he met Larry Page.
Larry had just come to Stanford to start grad school, and Sergey was giving his group a tour of the campus. Right off the bat, the duo started bickering.
Each of the two had strong opinions, and a stubborn will to emerge out on top.
However during those first few days in a new environment, deep down Larry was suffering from heavy doses of impostor syndrome:
“At first it was pretty scary. I kept complaining to my friends that I was going to get sent back home on the bus.“
Sergey is the joker, while Larry has always been the more serious, quiet type. Yet, their personalities complement each other perfectly. Their individual minds have a specific flair of genius which when brought together adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
When two minds meet, the results are never straightforward. It’s the only world where mathematical rules don’t apply. When Larry and Sergey put their brains together, 1+1 ended up equaling 3.
1 + 1 = 3
This 3 turned out being Google, internet juggernaut and one of the most powerful companies in the world at the moment.
Luckily, Sergey assures us that total world domination is still not in the cards.
“We are currently not planning on conquering the world.“
Too late. They already did.
Let’s screw with everyone
On the eve of their IPO, the Google founders decided to give an interview.
To “Playboy” magazine.
It caused a huge ruckus. Up to that point Google had been very vague when it came to handing out information on the inner workings of the company. Could the interview fill in the blanks?
Suddenly, all over Wall Street you saw guys in ties with a smutty magazine in hand. The financial analysts could finally pretend that they were reading “Playboy” for the articles.
However, instead of being happy they could tell their wives and girlfriends they were doing “research”, the entire financial industry was in uproar over the situation. Apparently, that’s not how you do things. You are not supposed to release new information so close to the date of the IPO.
Sergey and Larry did not give a f*%k. They just included a copy of the article in the official documents for the event. Minus the pictures of course.
It was not the first time the two showed everyone who is the boss. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I want to download the entire internet - Find a problem you want to solve
The idea for Google search came in a round about way. Page had been playing around with an early search engine when he discovered that it gave back not only a bunch of websites, but also information on links.
This caught his curiosity. What do these links mean? He knew that it could be important, but didn’t know how yet. At the time, Page was trying to decide on his research topic, and put this into the running.
Luckily, his advisor Terry Winograd picked it for him.
“Well, that one seems like a really good idea.“
That brought with it another conundrum. How to do this? How to analyze the meaning of the links?
No problem thought Page, I will just download the entire World Wide Web.
Putting the whole web on his computer was a wild scheme that only an impossible thinker of Larry Page’s caliber could come up with. Almost everyone else questioned the achievability of such a task. Not Page.
He liked the challenge, calling his approach a healthy disregard for the impossible.
“Having a healthy disregard for the impossible. That is a really good phrase. You should try to do things that other people would not.“ - Larry Page
The key characteristic of Larry Page is that he sees reality differently. While most people think in terms of what is not possible, Larry looks at the world through brightly colored glasses. His eyes are instead open to the possibilities.
Faced with an impossible challenge, knowing full-well that he might fail, Page rolled up his sleeves and went to work. However, he also knew that he couldn’t do it alone. For this, he enlisted Brin.
His buddy Sergey had been working on a different project, one focused on data mining. Larry’s idea intrigued him. The web has lots of stuff to mine, so he agreed to join forces. With a tough task ahead, they rallied the full power of Stanford’s resources and got on it.
When the guys got back the data, they started to see patterns. With the structure of the entire WWW stretched out in front of their eyes, they were slowly discovering how it works. Some pages had a lot of links going to them, while others very few.
Then in a flash of brilliance, Page had an idea. The way the links to pages were structured reminded him of citations. In the academic world, the more important a paper is, the more citations it gets. Maybe webpages function in the same way? The more authoritative ones have more pages linking to them?
This was a genius insight, and the key to unravelling the mystery.
Ideas often arise in strange ways. Archimedes discovered his famous law when he was getting into the bathtub. While these types of moments appear to come out of nowhere, in reality they have been ruminating in your subconscious for a long time. Deep inside your brain there are processes being stirred, connecting things, until one day they come out to the surface.
One strength of Larry Page was his analogical thinking. His mind was able to notice the similarities between two totally disparate systems, academic citations and web pages.
This type of ability often sits at the core of history’s greatest innovations. Henry Ford’s car assembly line drew inspiration from a meat-packing factory. Steve Jobs’s genius lay in how he was able to draw analogies from the unlikeliest of places.
For Page and Brin, this analogy solved the problem of search.
Being unconventional means you will often be misunderstood
This insight formed the basis of Google’s search algorithm. With further research and Sergey’s math whiz skills, they perfected it. Now you could go on the web and find what you were looking for.
They decided to shop their search engine around. The duo were sure that takers would come knocking at their door. A few bucks in their pockets before continuing their research at university could come in handy. This should be a slam dunk.
Yet, the real world is often different from what one hopes it to be. Despite the brilliance of their invention, no one wanted to buy their baby! They would go demonstrate the power of their search engine by firing it up next to all its rivals. While the the other search engines had trouble even finding their own homepage, Google produced great results.
The executives just shook their heads. We don’t want it. It’s too good!
They said that if the users got results that they were looking for, they would quickly leave the site. The strategy of the big internet players was to keep people wandering their site for as long as possible. That’s why these sites were often big, flashy, and full of different features. The logic was that the more time they spend there, the more money will end in the site’s coffers.
The guys running the internet giants actually wanted their search engines to be deliberately bad!
In emoji talk that’s a Facepalm.
The Google guys were left baffled. Shouldn’t the purpose be to provide the user with what they are looking for? For them, it was relevance that should be the only thing that matters. How relevant are the search results to the thing that the user is actually searching for?
There was a huge disconnect between their philosophy and the one of the people running the big incumbents.
“Our mission was to organize global information and make it accessible and useful to everyone.“ - Larry Page
The mission of the other players on the market was to make money.
By being focused on trying to make a buck, the executives missed the forest for the trees. Sure, people would linger a bit longer on their sites. However, the lousy search results they were getting also meant that they were growing more frustrated.
This left the Google guys in a unique position. Their unconventional thinking made them try to figure out problems that no one else was working on.
“The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.“ - Peter Thiel
This problem orientated way of thinking has been the key to Google’s success. The fact that their primary drive is not making the most money possible also means that they are OK with making mistakes.
“We do lots of stuff. The only way you are going to have success is to have lots of failures first.“ - Sergey Brin
The Google guys have a mindset that encourages lots of failures. The only way you will find what works is by discovering what doesn’t work first. Their process pushes serendipity and exploring different paths. After all, originally they didn’t set out to create a search engine. The search engine was just a result of them trying to solve an interesting problem.
“We need to be the kind of company that is willing to make mistakes. Because if we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not taking risks. And if we’re not taking risks, we won’t get to the next level.“ - Larry Page
Google has a culture that encourages learning from mistakes. “Fortune” magazine writer Adam Lashinsky calls it controlled chaos.
“Narrowly controlled chaos - or managed chaos, which is what they call it - is exactly what they are trying to do. They want to encourage zaniness. On the other hand, they want to figure out a way to control the zaniness.“ - Adam Lashinsky
The Google founders were not about the money at all costs. They made the unconventional choices, the ones that people told them would make them less money. It turns out, they made even more money.
Simple, yet elegant execution
The books you read are a window into your soul. Growing up, Larry was a voracious reader. One of his favorite books was the autobiography of Nikola Tesla. He loved how the whacky scientist went about making his discoveries. However, there was also one main lesson that he took out of it.
“Invention is not enough. Tesla invented the electric power we use, but he struggled to get it out to people. You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people.“ - Larry Page
There is a simple equation for success: idea + execution = result.
Tesla had great ideas, but failed at the execution. Larry was determined not to end up like his hero. This reminder has influenced his tremendous drive. He knows that it’s not enough to have lightbulbs constantly flashing in your head. You have to also roll those ideas out in the real world. Execution is what matters.
While Google’s idea was great, it was not completely original. Jon Kleinberg had come up with a similar algorithm while working in an IBM lab. More intriguingly, Robin Li, a Chinese software engineer working for Dow Jones in New Jersey even patented an algorithm called RankDex a year earlier. However, their companies didn’t see the value in these ideas, and so their inventions lay on the wayside.
What differentiated Google from earlier efforts was how they put everything into practice. When Page and Brin decided to go full speed ahead, they turned it on. Often working long hours deep into the night, their product started to take shape.
Their path was not straight-forward. As with any young start-up, they encountered many problems on the way. One was capacity. In order to get their search to work, they needed lots of computing power.
They resorted to begging, borrowing, even sometimes downright stealing computers for their project. They didn’t have the money to buy huge servers, so they came up with cheaper alternatives. Like real MacGyvers, Sergey and Larry basically made their search engine run on a soap on a rope, and some matches.
This has become known as the concept of pile-up computing. They would buy a bunch of cheap computers, strip them down to essential parts, and then connect them. Voila, you have a data center.
This type of resourcefulness made it much cheaper to run their infrastructure than what their competitors were doing. They also built in redundancy, meaning that if one computer fails, another one takes their place almost immediately.
They would fret over details, trying to make everything run faster and more efficiently. Larry realized that if you were going make their site sticky, it needed to be fast. People want everything now, and speed on the internet is king.
The Google homepage was kept simple. They didn’t have the talent to design something catchy, so they decided to leave it be. Unintentionally, they stumbled onto a gold mine.
Yup, because they sucked at something, they managed to make bank.
In the process, they came up with the way that Google rolls out their products to this day. They adhere to the philosophy of permanent beta. Google releases unfinished products and then tweaks them as they go along. Gmail was in this status for many, many years. Their strategy is to put stuff up in the air and see if it flies.
“Launch early, iterate often.“
However, what pushed them forward to execute is the fact that they enjoyed what they were doing. Albert Einstein, in a letter to his son wrote that the best way to learn almost anything is to do something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice the time pass:
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.“ - Albert Einstein
Not just learning, this is also the best way to build a product. Reaching states of flow can keep you working at times when other types of motivation would give out.
“What is the one sentence summary of how you change the world? Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting!“ - Larry Page
Building monorails, and going to the Moon
While Sergey and Larry will forever be remembered as the “search guys”, their breadth, and their scope are much wider. Before building the Google search engine, Sergey tried out several projects, and was involved in many activities, even trying trapeze.
Larry had about 10 different topics he was considering for his PhD thesis. At Michigan, he was especially interested in the problems of transportation, and was a member of a championship solar powered car racing team.
Sergey and Larry are expert-generalists, modern day Renaissance Men. They are constantly thinking about different things, and learning on the go. Due to the wide range of interests of its founders, Google has expanded into a variety of domains.
They have even established a division focused on what they call “Moonshot thinking”. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s bold vision to go the Moon, “moonshots” are visionary projects that everyone else thinks are crazy. In many ways, they exemplify the traits that Google was founded upon: curiosity, imagination, and boldness.
In his foreword to the book “How Google Works”, Larry Page gives a short overview of his philosophy on first principles thinking:
“When I was younger and first started thinking about my future, I decided to either become a professor or start a company. Either option would give me the freedom to work from first principles. This autonomy of thought is behind almost everything we do at Google, behind our greatest successes and some of our impressive failures.”
This has been reflected in the way that Google is run. The idea is not just to improve things incrementally, but to try to think radically out of the box. Page calls it 10x thinking. Instead of improving something by 10%, just radically rethink something from scratch. It’s not about putting a lot of effort into working on old problems, instead it’s about changing the question itself.
However, first principles thinking isn’t the only thing that Google innovates by. Thinking by analogies has its place too. After all, the idea for Google search came from a brilliant analogy. The great thing about the Google guys is that they intuitively know when to use analogical thinking, and when to go for thinking in first principles instead.
A shorter version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here. The version above is longer and covers more points.