How does a company go from a simple idea about how to index and search online webpages into one of the most valuable companies on the planet in just 18 years?
It's no accident.
The leadership team at Google made decisions early on that still impact their trajectory today.
Yes, industry-defining intellectual property was necessary. But that early search algorithm is only a small part of why Google is now trading places with Apple as the most valuable company on the planet. Google is far from a one-hit wonder. Like Google, any startup needs one killer differentiator to get going.
To keep going—and growing—far into the future requires much more.
What We Learn from Google's Culture
As a company, Google (recently transformed into the all-encompassing Alphabet) never accepts the status quo. Rather, they are always looking far into the future, planning for it, and building it. To do that takes an incredibly talented and motivated team and a commitment to doing right by them.
That's why Google is where they are today.
1. Value Ability Over Experience
According to Google's own statement on company culture, "We hire people who are smart and determined, and we favor ability over experience." Experience is a lagging indicator of what some can do; ability is an indicator of what they can do in the future.
When business moves fast, in some ways, experience can slow you down. After all, most young companies are trying to build something new, something that hasn't been done before.
This is the kind of thing author Jim Collins meant when he found that great companies consistently focus on "getting the right people on the bus." Without the right people in the office challenging each other to do better, any company would struggle to break out of the status quo and outperform the competition.
2. Be Open
If you're hiring people with higher than average abilities, chances are good they are competitive, too. While you want that competitive fire to fuel their ambitions, you want them doing it for your company, not within it. Creating an open culture can help ensure you're all on the same team and not several little ones.
Again, in Google's own words:
We strive to maintain the open culture often associated with startups, in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions. In our weekly all-hands (“TGIF”) meetings—not to mention over email or in the cafe—Googlers ask questions directly to Larry, Sergey and other execs about any number of company issues.
Being open also lays the groundwork to share and work with the most valuable decision tool you can put in front of any employee: data.
3. Practice Data-Driven Decision-Making
Data is nothing more than numerical facts, and facts are every company's best friend. Those who capture, understand, and make decisions based on facts are going to be more effective than those who don't.
Elon Musk, real-life Tony Stark and founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and Paypal, calls it "reasoning from first principles." He credits this style of thinking with his out-sized success and his ability to make arguments few others make.
Google's company culture values it, too. And the results show.
Most people reason by analogy, comparing a new idea to something that already exists, but that kind of thinking doesn't fly at a startup or in a department where employees are trying to make big changes. Avoiding a first-principles or data-driven mindset also allows bad ideas to creep in through politics and influence.
Imagine a well-dressed executive making the case for a strategic shift with a slick power point. Then imagine a hoody-wearing coder with little outward confidence and zero polish arguing back. In an office where politics rule, the executive wins, wrong as he may be. In a data-driven office, the numbers make the case, no matter who brought them to the table.
Of course, Google doesn't just apply data-driven decision-making to their products and services, but to their people, too. For example, Google dug deep to uncover what makes a good manager and then put systems in place to ensure their people were living up to the standards. A worthwhile question answered with data.
4. Spend 20% of Your Time on Special Projects
You may have heard of this now-mythical expectation that Google employees should spend an entire day each week working on "whatever they want." While this 20% suggestion did exist and was reportedly still encouraged at the time of Google's IPO, it has since waned.
To be clear, the 20% rule was always about working on things that employees thought could truly benefit the company, not just any random idea. Nevertheless, giving employees the space to explore and experiment has incredible benefits for trust, morale, and loyalty, regardless of any project's outcome.
It says, "I believe in you. I want you to have the chance to put your passion and creativity to work in new and exciting ways." Just the sort of message any enterprising employee wants from her company.
5. Create an Amazing Space to Work
Google's offices are renowned for their inventiveness, playfulness, and, above all else, their functionality. No two offices look the same, and most of them feature colorful, carefully designed spaces that evoke a sense of pride and excitement for anyone who works there (and envy in those who visit).
None of that detracts from the fact that they are workspaces, amazing places where employees do amazing work. In many ways, their offices are a physical manifestation of their culture and follow the idea (now proven with science) that happy, healthy employees are more productive.
That's a big part of the reason why cool new offices like the ones Google builds provide such an array of options when it comes to how and where employees work. From collaborative spaces to standing desks, smart employers eagerly invest in office features that their team members crave.
According to Google spokesperson Jordan Newman,"many employees at Google opt for standing desks, and we offer them as part of our wellness program."
The very idea that workspace choices are supported by a wellness program is not a concept many businesses would have entertained just a decade ago.
Culture Comes from the Top
It's easy to say what you want your company culture to be, but quite another thing to live it, especially over the long haul. None of these aspects of a strong culture can work in isolation or if you merely go through the motions.
Sergey and Larry knew from very early on that a company is only as good as its people. If they are happy and their talents are nurtured, amazing things happen.
Google continues to prove that's true.