Richard Brandt: An interview by Bob Morris

Richard Brandt

Brandt is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about science and technology for 25 years. He was a correspondent for BusinessWeek magazine for 14 years and editor-in-chief at Upside magazine for five years. He writes about entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley, medical and biological technology, Internet technology and environmental issues. He has profiled Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and other executives leading their field. He acts as a consultant to entrepreneurial companies, writes three blogs, and opines about the news and promotes his book on his Web site, He is author of Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain (Portfolio/Penguin, 2009) and co-author (with Thomas W. Weisel) of Capital Instincts: Life as an Entrepreneur, Financier and Athlete (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). His latest book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the triumph of, will be published by Portfolio/Penguin (October, 2011).

Morris: Here are two separate but related questions. First, why did you pursue a career in journalism? Also, what led you to concentrate primarily on the business world and high-tech companies?

Brandt: I always wanted to write. I also love studying about science and technology, so I first studied mathematics for two years at Harvey Mudd College, then switched to marine biology and environmental issues at U.C. Santa Barbara. My focus then morphed into microbiology, then neurobiology, and I ended up with a degree in biology without any specialization. I then started studying engineering at the University of Delaware, working for Dupont as an engineering technician at the same time. Obviously, I could never settle down into one specialty. So I finally decided to become a journalist and write about all this stuff instead. I won a summer fellowship at Business Week and was hired at the end of the summer. I started out covering science at Business Week, but there was so much demand for covering technology, which is primarily advanced by companies, that I ended up with a strong focus on business and technology. I’d like to get back into more science writing soon.

Being a journalist is recording history as it happens. I get to write about science and technology at a time of unprecedented growth and change. The people I interview and write about are fascinating, exceptional people who are making those changes happen, who are changing the world around us. I’m not part of their world, but I’m an observer, and that’s a special position to be in. At this point I don’t know what else I would do.

Morris: Over the years, what have been the most significant changes within the Silicon Valley culture?

Brandt: The fundamentals are the same as they’ve always been. It’s full of all the kinds of people needed to incubate companies–VCs, bankers, smart executives, daring entrepreneurs, enormous egos–that ecosystem just keeps attracting more of those people. Marketing and PR folks are still largely young and creative. Investment bankers are the same they’ve always been. But the VCs have gotten younger and stopped wearing ties. Entrepreneurs have gotten younger, and more of them are dropping out of college or grad school to start companies. There’s a wider array of skills and interests, because the Internet can change almost any business, from entertainment to communications to retailing to news to finance. The Valley has grown enormously, become incredibly diversified, and keeps breeding new types of entrepreneurs. It’s livelier, more creative, more interesting every year.

Morris: Of all the CEOs you have observed thus far, which – in your opinion – is the most impressive in terms of her or his leadership and management skills?

Brandt: I’d have to pick five. Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. There are few people who can deeply understand technology well enough to exploit it and also understand business well enough to build a company around it. Those five are the best I’ve seen. Each has different strengths. Grove understands technology and did a brilliant job maneuvering Intel through all the changes in the industry and all the new companies coming after him. Gates was the first entrepreneur to recognize the potential of software as a separate industry, and knew how to drive his company to the top of the heap. Jobs doesn’t know how to build the technology himself, but he knows what it can do and he’s able to get others to build it. He has an incredible design sense and is probably the most brilliant marketer in the world. Page and Brin haven’t stood the test of time yet, but they will. You can recognize who will be in that top tier the first time you meet them. For one thing, you’ll notice they all have multiple skills. Someone who’s just a great CEO will not be innovative enough. Someone who’s just a great engineer will get outmaneuvered in the market. The only real synergy that creates greatness in this business is the synergy of having many skills in one person. Those are the legendary folks with the legendary companies.

Morris: What do you now know about blogging that you wish you knew when you launched your own blog, Entrepreneur Watch?

That the sooner you start, the better.

Morris: In addition to all your other activities, you also provide consulting services to entrepreneurial companies. In recent years, how have their greatest needs changed and what have you urged them to do to address those needs?

Brandt: Much of my consulting has been about how to deal with the press. The big change is that professional journalism has broken out of the mold it was in for decades. It’s more freewheeling, both professional and amateur, with both high standards and low, high ethics and incredible naiveté. All the different elements play a role and are valuable in different ways. You have to take a much broader approach to spreading the word, including viral spread through the Internet.

The other changes are obvious outcomes of the Internet, but few companies have completely embraced them. Anything that can be digitized will be free. There is just no way around that one. Advertising is the only way to make money on the Internet right now, but most people don’t do enough to make their ads relevant to people visiting their site. Ethical standards, customer service, dedication to customers and products all have to be the absolute best. People have too many choices for it to be any other way, and you can’t fool them forever.

The test I use to see if you’re really dedicated to your customer is this: If you’re faced with an extreme choice — one path would significantly increase profits but decrease customer satisfaction just slightly, while the other path would lower profits substantially but increase customer satisfaction just a little, go with the latter. Because if you don’t someone else will, and you’ll lose.

Morris: In your opinion, are the prospects for a start-up better, worse, or about the same than they were (let’s say) five years ago? Why?

Brandt: Better, always better. There are more opportunities. The transformation of industries is accelerating. The industries that appear to be in decline — mine, for example — are just in the early state of change. The old business model is dying, but the new business model hasn’t worked its way in yet. And the only reason for that is because the old executives, Rupert Murdoch is a prominent name but there are many, refuse to let go of their old models and embrace the new, or at least let others do it.

Morris: Now please focus on your recently published book, Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain. What kind of access did you have to them when putting together the book?

Brandt: I had enormous access to most people at Google, but not to Larry and Sergey themselves. They rarely give interviews, which I, of course, think is a mistake. If people are going to trust Google, these guys need to be out in the open more. I’ve run into them many times over the years, and bought a little stock in their IPO so I could go to annual meetings and ask them questions there. I occasionally ran into them at Google HQ and went to their annual holiday party for the press, and talked to them then, but most of that stuff was off the record. I had enormous access to other people, including CEO Eric Schmidt and other senior executives, their professors, friends, colleagues at Stanford, competitors, most of whom know Larry and Sergey well.

Morris: At one point in the book you refer to Page and Brin as the “roadrunners” of Silicon Valley.” How so?

Brandt: They move very fast and you never know what they’re going to do next. Microsoft is like Wile E. Coyote these days, trying to catch up with Google but mostly falling off a cliff. Bing is looking like good technology, but Microsoft can’t seem to come up with the momentum Google has.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain, please explain when and where Google began, the goals that Page and Brin had for it initially, and to what extent those goals have changed in subsequent years.

Brandt: Google, then called BackRub, started in their dorm rooms at Stanford where they were both pursuing Ph.D.s in computer science. It was funded as part of a project known as the Digital Libraries Initiative, which was a Defense Dept. funded project to allow scientists to find and view each other’s papers. The Internet made such a system moot, and Larry was very ambitious, so he decided to create a search engine for the entire Internet instead. Sergey joined his project because he had created a spider to crawl the Web and collect the data to be searched.

They first saw it as an academic exercise, then as an important thing to do for the world, because access to information means power. They felt it was important to spread that power to the masses. They first wanted it to be run by a non-profit organization, tried to sell the technology, then finally started their own company. They didn’t want the search results to be influenced by ads, so built a strict wall between the advertising and search groups. Literally — the ad groups are housed in separate buildings, kind of like second-class citizens.

The basic motivation Larry and Sergey have has not changed, but they have grown more ambitious with success. They want to bring all the features of the Internet, not just information, to everyone. They want people to be able to inexpensively or freely watch videos, listen to music, collaborate with others, make cheap phone calls. I do not think Google is an online media company. It is an Internet software company. It wants to get involved in any product that helps people use the Internet.

Morris: Please compare and contrast Google’s co-founders in terms of what it’s like to work for and with them.

Brandt: They do so many things together that people at the company refer to SergeyandLarry. They let product designers create their own projects, but they step in several times during the process to have formal product reviews, which both founders attend. They’re supposed to be brutal. Larry and Sergey freely express their opinions internally, at least to engineers and computer scientists.

Most of the employees at HQ only see them at monthly meetings in which they and CEO Schmidt give an update on progress and answer questions. They’re usually light-heated at those meetings.

For anybody else, especially business-types at companies with which they have partnerships, they come across as arrogant. Probably mainly because they fail to show up at meetings or arrive late. The truth is they simply don’t like talking to business people. They’re uncomfortable with people who are not computer geeks like them.

Morris: As you began to explore their “brain,” what did you find in it that surprised you the most? Why?

Brandt: How playful they can be. Sergey is very athletic and a bit of a rebel at Stanford, and likes to walk on his hands to impress people. Larry is the one who likes working with Lego blocks. And it’s surprising, given the growing mistrust people have for Google, that anybody who knows them thinks they are very ethical and idealistic young men. I mean everybody, including people they don’t know I talked to, many of them off the record.

Morris: How and why have they worked so effectively together for so many years?

Brandt: Complementary skills and combined genius. Larry dreams up new product ideas, Sergey can determine right away what’s feasible. They have the same goals and ideals, both like to stay on top of product development, and they seem to have a good friendship, often bouncing jokes off each other.

Morris: What do their respective family backgrounds reveal about their values?

Brandt: Both came from academic families with strong left-wing roots. They grew up learning that it is important to serve the less powerful, the individual, than the wealthy or elite. Larry’s family came from Michigan, worked in the auto industry, strongly supported unions and did battle — sometimes literally, physically, with management. Sergey’s family is Jewish, from the old Soviet Union and faced incredible discrimination and hard times. He was too young to remember much, since the family emigrated to the U.S. when he was six, but the core values of both men came from the working class and oppressed roots that grew out of oppression. It’s the culture they grew up with.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, to what extent are those values imbedded in the Google culture?

Brandt: They are very strongly imbedded in Google. Larry and Sergey used to do all the hiring, still interview the most important candidates, and they look for those core values. Interviews with them might end up being about alternative energy, philanthropic work, ways to improve the world in some way. Also springing very tough questions that put candidates on the spot, such as asking them to describe innovative ways to solve very difficult problems they had never considered before — or perhaps faced in the past. The company culture emphasizes doing good, rewards people for it, and makes the employees proud to be part of the company. It also gets them to work very hard.

Morris: When and why was Eric Schmidt hired to become Google’s CEO? How well do he, Page, and Brin work together?

Brandt: Google’s venture capitalists insisted that they would have to hire a CEO with business experience, or they wouldn’t get funding. Larry and Sergey delayed that for several years. They don’t like most business people, remember. They interviewed many candidates but kept rejecting them. Finally, John Doerr, one of their venture backers, made them talk to Eric Schmidt. He’s a Ph.D. computer scientist (UC Berkeley) former chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems, then CEO at Novell (a job I always felt he only took to get experience at being a CEO before moving to a less hopeless company. He denies that.) The trio communicate well. Schmidt’s ego is enough in check that he doesn’t try to change them — unlike almost every other CEO I know in Silicon Valley, and I know a lot. Schmidt lets them run the technical side of the business, creating new products and overseeing the technology, while he runs the business side of things. He shares their core values, and doesn’t try to push for higher profits at the expense of employees and Google users. They get along extremely well, in large part because he lets them do their thing, although Schmidt does have to occasionally rein them in from some of their most wild ideas. But they also seem to genuinely like each other. Nobody else I know of could have taken that job and succeeded at it.

Morris: In your book, why do you devote substantial attention to the Great Library of Alexander founded by Ptolemy in approximately 300 B.C.? What’s its relevance to Google and the company’s co-founders?

Brandt: I was just struck by the incredible similarities. The Ptolemy clan started with a general in Alexander the Great’s army, in which he helped Alexander conquer Egypt. Larry and Sergey can be ruthlessly aggressive with competitors when they believe they are right and their competitors are wrong when it comes to serving the people. Ptolemy wanted to collect all the world’s written information, and created the first public library. the best scholars from around the world went there to study, just as Google has attracted the best computer scientists. And the Ptolemys were willing to do anything to collect and organize the world’s information, including confiscating all documents on ships that entered the port of Alexandria.

Once he stopped being a warrior and pillager, Ptolemy was driven primarily a desire to spread knowledge and Greek culture throughout the world, a quest that his family largely succeeded in doing. Larry and Sergey want to spread the knowledge and Geek culture (that’s a good line, should have used it in my book!) When you look at the reasons the Ptolemys did the things they did, it helps understand why Larry and Sergey do the things they do.

Morris: In your opinion, how likely is it that there will be another start-up that is comparable with Google? Why?

Brandt: As close to 100 percent as it is to be in an uncertain world. Every time a major new technology comes along, a few great new companies arise. When the microprocessor was invented, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Dell and a few others were born. When the Internet spread, Google, Facebook and Twitter were born — although Google is the only one I can confidently say has staying power. In the Internet Age, Intel is still Intel, but Google is becoming the new Microsoft, Apple, Dell, and phone company. Apple will survive as an Internet company, but mostly on the hardware side of things, and will slip into the same role it had in the PC era. It will have the best and most expensive products, and will be a distant second in market share to Google.

Morris: What is your next book all about and what motivated you to write it?

Brandt: I’m currently writing about Jeff Bezos, the first dot-com era entrepreneur to survive and hit the big time. It’s a very different story because Jeff Bezos in more enigmatic than Larry and Sergey. Their motivations and thinking is clear. You can easily define the philosophy and motivation that drives them. Not so with Bezos, and he’s just as closed off to outsiders as Larry and Sergey.

Morris: My own crystal ball imploded more than 20 years but perhaps you are willing to respond to this question: If Page and Brin have their way, how different will Google be in the year 2019 from what it is and does today?

Brandt: Google will be an extraordinarily powerful company with leading market share, but will have more competitors than Microsoft had. Microsoft controlled proprietary standards, while Google is more open, allowing more competitors to come in with similar technology. As long as the Internet is a driving force in technology, Google will be one of the major catalysts behind it. I also think Google will help set a new and more honest standard for major corporations. People are tired of greed and fear, and on the Internet, the people rule.

The caveat is how soon some new disruptive technology comes along. It could very well be within 20 years. But Larry and Sergey are smart, and more likely to move in to buy promising young companies in order to stay ahead than Microsoft was. Microsoft was too dedicated to its own architecture, a strategy that made it great in the PC era, but weak in the Internet era.


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