You will never be able to take the branding risks, legal risks, or partnership risks that a real startup can take
I had exchanged DMs with Waze co-founder and CEO Noam Bardin a few weeks ago to ask about what he learned from his final years at Google. Waze is the over $ 1 billion acquisition that people have forgotten despite its size and growth. I mean, in all of the “big tech” regulatory discussions we hear regularly on Facebook / WhatsApp / Instagram and Google / YouTube, but Waze just flies under the radar. Bardin replied that he would be leaving Google in late January and sharing something after that. Boy, understatement.
Today Bardin published a personal essay entitled “Why did I quit Google or why did I stay so long?” and it’s a really insightful, thoughtful, honest post. You should read it all, but let me share a specific paragraph here:
I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could grow Waze within Google and break the myth about what happens to companies after they are acquired by big companies. In retrospect, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every western CEO believes that he or she will be the first to be a successful western brand in China and many are trying to start a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the western CEO leaves China with some experience and the Chinese partner keeps the intellectual property, the money, the business … You can’t fight the nature of the beast, that’s China. The same thing happened to me in China before the acquisition … To complete the analogy, I was the naive startup leader who believed that I could take full advantage of Waze on Google and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is crucial for a startup leader, but it is a challenge in the corporate environment.
There is no such thing as a startup in a large company. Your freedom has different line lengths, but you are no longer a startup. You get a lot of things in return and it can be a wonderful result for a lot of people, but you are no longer a startup. I think it’s great that Bardin accepted this challenge and stayed way beyond that to build a management team that can develop the product as a business unit.
I’ve seen the YouTube acquisition firsthand and I think for the first few years at least we were the best version of “Independent” anyone could ask for. Two people are primarily responsible for this: Chad Hurley and Eric Schmidt. Hurley and co-founder Steven Chen had gone through the merger of PayPal and eBay so they were literally “wise beyond their years” when it came to what was being bought and the tradeoffs involved. Schmidt had promised a high degree of autonomy and kept his word. We did business with Apple, Facebook and Twitter. We hired people directly on YouTube. We have made acquisitions. I even had to go through a few things Bardin identified as particularly frustrating with PeopleOps (firing people, tweaking high achievers bonuses).
When Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013, I shared some of my advice with the team, first publicly in a blog post and then in private conversation with some Yahoo people who read the post and made contact. We all know what happened there and I’m glad Tumblr is now on Automattic.
This stuff also works the other way around: if someone tells you there is an opportunity to “start a startup in a big company,” don’t believe them. It’s just not true. You can work on experimental products in a mechanism that tries to balance some of the attraction and processes that a large company otherwise uses to manage itself, but it’s not a startup. You will never be able to take the brand risks, legal risks, or partnership risks that a startup can take. To paraphrase someone I know who tried to lead one of these projects at Google (and who ran a startup himself), it can never be like a startup as long as my team has the Google badge on their belt and is in the chic cafeteria goes daily.
This was not a comment on collocation; It was a comment about the style of work, expectations, non-web flying that high performing startups require and the people they attract. It’s not that these Googlers were “better” or “worse” than startup employees, just that startups are completely different.
You can find experimental groups in larger companies – Area 120 on Google and NPE on Facebook – but they’re not startups.
If you want to be with a startup, join a startup. Says Bardin, “I am confident that the Waze acquisition has been a success. The problem was me – I think I can keep the startup magic in a company despite all the evidence to the contrary. “