Can A Public Company Keep a Start Up Attitude?

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Google is possibly the most interesting company in the world right now. But being interesting does not necessarily equate with being successful. And therein lies the rub.

Case in point. Google is taking another crack at Google Glass. Glass has the potential to be a disruptive technology. And the way Google approached it was very much in the Google way of doing things. They put a beta version out there and asked for feedback from the public. Some of that feedback was positive, but much of it was negative. That is natural. It’s the negative feedback you’re looking for, because it shows what has to be changed. The problem is that Glass V 0.9 is now pegged as a failure. So as Laurie Sullivan reported, Google is trying a different approach, which appears to be taken from Apple’s playbook. They’re developing under wraps, with a new product lead, and you probably won’t see another version of Glass until it’s ready to ship as a viable market-ready product.

The problem here is that Google may have lost too much time. As Sullivan points out, Intel, Epson and Microsoft are all working on consumer versions of wearable visual interfaces. And they’re not alone. A handful of aggressive start-ups are also going after Glass, including Meta, Vuzix, Optinvent, Glassup and Recon. And none of them will attract the attention of Google, simply because they’re not Google.

Did Google screw up with the first release of Google Glass? Probably not. In fact, if you read Eric Ries’s The Lean Start Up, they did a lot of things right. They got a minimally viable product in front of a market to test it and see what to improve. No, Google’s problem wasn’t with their strategy; it was with their speed. As Ries states,

“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build—the thing customers want and will pay for—as quickly as possible.”

Google didn’t move fast enough with Glass. And I suspect it was because Google isn’t a start up, so it can’t act like one. Again, from Ries,

“The problem isn’t with the teams or the entrepreneurs. They love the chance to quickly get their baby out into the market. They love the chance to have the customer vote instead of the suits voting. The real issue is with the leaders and the middle managers.”

Google isn’t the only company to feel the constricting bonds of being a public company. There is a long list of world changing technologies that were pioneered at places like Xerox and Microsoft and were tagged as corporate failures, only to eventually change the world in someone else’s hands.

I suspect the days are many when Larry Page and Sergey Brin are sorry they ever decided to take Google public. Back then, they probably thought that the vast economic resources that would become available, combined with their vision, would make an unbeatable combination. But in the process of going public, they were forced to compromise on the very spirit that was defined by that vision. They want to do great things, but they still need to hit their quarterly targets and keep shareholders happy. The two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but sadly they almost always are.

It’s probably no accident that Apple does their development in stealth mode. Apple has much more experience than Google in being a public company. They have probably realized that it’s not the buying public that you keep in the dark, it’s the analysts and shareholders. Otherwise, they’ll look at the early betas, an essential step in the development process, and pass judgment, tagging them as failures long before such judgments are justified. It would be like condemning a newborn baby as hopeless because they can’t drive a car yet.

Google is dreaming big dreams. I admire that. I just worry that the structure of Google might not be the right vehicle in which to pursue those dreams.

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