Big Ideas: Google’s Larry Page and “the gospel of 10x”

Big Ideas

Here is a brief but timely excerpt from an interview of Google co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, by Steven Levy that appeared in the March 2013 issue of Wired magazine. To read the complete article, c heck out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration: Victoria Ling

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Larry Page lives by the gospel of 10x. Most companies would be happy to improve a product by ten per cent. Not the CEO and cofounder of Google.

The way Page sees it, a ten per cent improvement means that you’re doing the same thing as everybody else. You probably won’t fail spectacularly, but you are guaranteed not to succeed wildly.

That’s why Page expects his employees to create products and services that are ten times better than the competition. That means he isn’t satisfied with discovering a couple of hidden efficiencies or tweaking code to achieve modest gains. Thousand-per-cent improvement requires rethinking problems, exploring what’s technically possible and having fun in the process.

This regimen of cheeky aspiration has made Google an extraordinary success story, changing the lives of its users while fattening the wallets of its investors. But it has also accomplished something far beyond Google itself: in an industry rife with bandwagon-hopping and strategic positioning, Page’s approach is a beacon for those who want more from their CEOs than a bloated earnings statement. Although Google has made some missteps in recent years, and its power has deservedly drawn the scrutiny of regulators and critics, it remains a flagship for optimists who believe that innovation will provide us with not just delightful gadgetry but solutions to our problems and inspiration for our dreams. For those people — and maybe for the human enterprise itself — a car that drives itself (to name one of the company’s recent triumphs) is a much more valuable dividend than one calculated in share values. There’s no question which is more important to Larry Page.

Note: In one experiment, it took just three days for a digital colony of 1,000 machines, with a billion connections, to surpass previous benchmarks in identifying photos of faces and cats.

Page thought big even when he was little. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he found inspiration in a student leadership-training programme called LeaderShape, which preached “a healthy disregard for the impossible”. By the time he got to grad school at Stanford, it was a natural step for him to 10x his potential thesis idea — a tool to annotate web pages — into a search engine that transformed the web and the world. And once Google’s riotously successful ad business provided a plump financial cushion, Page was free to push for innovations that bore only a passing relationship to his core business. Google would build an email service — with 100 times the storage of competitors. Google would provide translations — for the entire web, from any language to any other. Google would give readers instant access to a global library — by scanning nearly every book ever published and putting the contents in its indexes. More recently, Google launched its own version of an ISP service — laying its own fibre and providing broadband service to Kansas City customers at 100 times industry-standard speeds.

That moon-shot mentality is the basis of Google X, which the company established in early 2010 to identify and implement once-impossible sci-fi fantasies: Hail Mary projects such as the self-driving car or Google Glass. Or an artificial brain, in which a cluster of computers running advanced algorithms learn from the world around them, much like humans do. (In one experiment, it took just three days for a digital colony of 1,000 machines, with a billion connections, to surpass previous benchmarks in identifying photos of faces and cats.)

In one of the rare interviews he has granted as CEO, Page recently discussed thinking big and other Googley issues with Wired at the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. Later that same day, Page, who turns 40 in March, announced a new philanthropic venture. After observing epidemiological behaviour via Google Search’s flu-tracking service, he decided to pay for free flu shots for kids in the entire Bay Area. How 10x of him.

Google encourages its employees to tackle ambitious challenges and make big bets. Why is that important?

I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.

So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental. Take Gmail. When we released that, we were a search company — it was a leap for us to put out an email product, let alone one that gave users 100 times as much storage as they could get anywhere else. That is not something that would have happened naturally if we had been focusing on incremental improvements.

But you have to gradually improve your existing products too, right?

Of course. But periodically, every n years, you should work on something new that you think is really amazing. The trick is coming up with those products. I could probably give you a list of ten major things that are wrong with email. I try to maintain lists like that in my head.

Now you have a separate division called Google X, dedicated to moon-shot projects such as self-driving cars. Why did you decide you needed to set up an entire department for this?

We need to be doing breakthrough, non-incremental things across our whole business. But right now Google X does things that can be done more independently.

We always have these debates: we have all this money, we have all these people, why aren’t we doing more stuff? You may say that Apple only does a very, very small number of things, and that’s working pretty well for them. But I find that unsatisfying. I feel like there are all these opportunities in the world to use technology to make people’s lives better. At Google we’re attacking maybe 0.1 per cent of that space. And all the tech companies combined are only at, like, one per cent. That means there’s 99 per cent virgin territory. Investors always worry, “Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things.” But those are now the things they’re most excited about — YouTube, Chrome, Android. If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.

Why don’t we see more people with that kind of big ambition?

It’s not easy coming up with moon shots. And we’re not teaching people how to identify those difficult projects.

Where would I go to school to learn what kind of technological programmes I should work on? You’d probably need a pretty broad technical education and some knowledge about organisation and entrepreneurship. There’s no degree for that. Our system trains people in specialised ways, but not to pick the right projects to make a broad technological impact.

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Steven Levy is a senior writer at US Wired.

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