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Google's Larry Page: The co-founder's untold story.

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"During the last three decades of his life, it is probable that not one out of tens of thousands who saw him knew who he was,” the biography, "Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla,” concludes.

"Even when the newspapers, once a year, would break out in headlines about Tesla and his latest predictions concerning scientific wonders to come, no one associated that name with the excessively tall, very lean man, wearing clothes of a bygone era, who almost daily appeared to feed his feathered friends.”

"He was just one of the strange individuals of whom it takes a great many of varying types to make up a complete population of a great metropolis.”

Forty-one years after those words were published, in 1985, a 12-year-old in Michigan finished reading Tesla's biography and cried.

This was Larry Page.

So much more:

Cried because?

In that moment, Page realized it wasn’t enough to envision an innovative technological future. Big ideas aren’t enough. They need to be commercialized. If Page wanted to be an inventor, he was going to have to start a successful company, too.

Tesla’s story also taught Page to watch out for the Thomas Edisons of the world—people who will use you and place your dreams in the service of their own cynical ends.


"Inside the beige office building, the game was twice as tough. Yes, there was free food for all employees and a massage therapist on-site. And, with brightly colored exercise balls and couches everywhere, the place looked like a kindergarten crossed with a freshman dorm.

But for Page’s employees, working at Google felt more like a never-ending thesis defense. Everywhere you looked, there were know-it-alls ready to gleefully tear into you. Page had originally bonded with Brin over a day of fierce argument, and that’s how the relationship grew. Their debates were not shouting matches. They were a series of blunt points made by one side, and then the other, with a little name-calling thrown in. Page would call one of Brin’s ideas stupid. Brin would say Page’s idea was naive. They’d both called each other bastards.

Page never felt any deterioration of his friendship with Brin after these fights, so he styled his interaction with other Googlers in the same unvarnished way. Page once told a room full of Google’s first marketing employees that their profession was built on an ability to lie."

It's hard to argue with the success they've had, but that sounds fundamentally unpleasant.

Page encouraged his senior executives to fight the way he and Brin went at it. In meetings with new hires, one of the two co-founders would often provoke an argument over a business or product decision. Then they would both sit back, watching quietly as their lieutenants verbally cut each other down. As soon as any argument started to go circular, Page would say, "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Just do it.”

It wasn’t that he was a tyrant. It’s just that he connected to people over their ideas, not their feelings.


When Page went to Stanford after receiving his bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Michigan, he expected he’d have to make a choice between becoming an academic and building a company. Choosing the former would mean giving up the opportunity to become the inventor of widely used applications. But building a company would force him to deal with people in a way he didn’t enjoy. For Google’s first few years, he got to have the best of both worlds. He was building a product that millions of people used, and he created an interpersonal culture intensely focused on ideas and outcomes rather than emotional niceties.

For many years, Google thrived under this type of management.

For many employees, the combative atmosphere was a reasonable price to pay for working at a company with a real clarity of purpose.

The story of Tesla:

A Croatian immigrant born in 1856, Tesla invented the way almost all of the world’s electricity is generated today. He also envisioned and created wireless communication. But he died having spent the better part of his last decade collecting a pension and feeding pigeons, unable to persuade new investors to fund his latest wild visions. He died believing he could invent a weapon to end all war, a way for power to travel wirelessly across the oceans, and plan for harnessing energy from space. He died alone and in debt.

Tesla was a brilliant man. He spoke eight languages and had a photographic memory. Inventions would appear in his mind fully formed. But he was lousy at business.

In 1885, he told his boss, Thomas Edison, that he could improve his motors and generators. Edison told him, "There's $50,000 in it for you—if you can do it.” Tesla did as he’d promised, and in return Edison gave him a $10 raise.

If Page wanted to be an inventor, he was going to have to start a successful company, too. Tesla quit. He formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. But he soon disagreed with his investors over the direction of the business. They fired him, and he was forced to dig ditches for a year.

In 1900 he persuaded JPMorgan to invest $150,000 in another company. The money was gone by 1901. Tesla spent the rest of his life writing JPMorgan asking for more money. He never got it.

Page eventually wrote down his rules for management:

  • Don't delegate: Do everything you can yourself to make things go faster.
  • Don't get in the way if you're not adding value. Let the people actually doing the work talk to each other while you go do something else.
  • Don't be a bureaucrat.
  • Ideas are more important than age. Just because someone is junior doesn't mean they don't deserve respect and cooperation.
  • The worst thing you can do is stop someone from doing something by saying, "No. Period." If you say no, you have to help them find a better way to get it done.

The niceties of social interaction weren't the only rules Page was happy to violate.

Even in Google’s earliest days, Page had always wanted the company to do more than just basic Web search:

Since he was a kid, he’d been dreaming up world-changing schemes. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he’d proposed that the school replace its bus system with something he called a PRT, or personal rapid transit system—essentially a driverless monorail with separate cars for every rider. Later, at Stanford, he’d peppered his adviser, Terry Winograd, with thesis ideas that sounded as far out there as some of Tesla’s later schemes. One idea involved building a super-long rope that would run from the Earth’s surface all the way into orbit, making it cheaper to put objects in space. Another proposal called for solar kites that would draw energy from space.

With Google now essentially minting money from advertising and Schmidt managing its steady growth, Page began to realize that he was finally in a position to bring his visions to life.

By 2005, one of Page’s visions was to put handheld computers with access to Google in the pocket of every person on the planet. So, that year, Page directed Google corporate development to buy a small startup with the same ludicrously huge ambition. This startup was Android. Its CEO and co-founder was Andy Rubin, a former Apple executive who had also developed a failed but once popular Internet-connected phone called the Sidekick.

The Android acquisition was a Larry Page production. Page didn’t tell Schmidt about the deal—which set the company back about $50 million—until after it was done. Brin knew all about it, but he didn’t take much interest.

Page set up Android as a separate entity, one that was only nominally a part of Google, and allowed Rubin wide latitude to run it without interference from the parent company. Android even had its own building, one that regular Googlers couldn’t access with their employee badges. Schmidt essentially acted as if it didn’t exist, mostly because $50 million wasn’t enough of Google’s massive money pile for him to worry if it had been well spent.

For his part, Page turned Android into a passion project. He spend huge amounts of time with Rubin, so much that he often felt guilty that he wasn’t looking after the rest of Google more closely. Then again, that’s what Schmidt was for.

Good story:

Late 2010, Page sat down for an interview with Steven Levy for what would become In the Plex. Levy asked Page if he hoped to become CEO again. Page offered a bland reply. “I really enjoy what I do,” he said. "I think I’m able to positively affect a lot of things, which makes me feel really good, and I don’t see any likely change in that.”

Then he got up and left the room. The interview was over.

A minute later, though, Page came back. He told Levy, “I just feel like people aren’t working enough on impactful things.” He said Google was "not yet doing a good job getting the kinds of things we’re trying to do to happen quickly and at scale.”

Page recognized that Google’s search-advertising business, with its insane profit margins and sustained growth, was exactly the kind of cash-generating machine that his hero, Nikola Tesla, would have used to fund his wildest dreams. Now, he had the chance to do things differently. Seeing Google work on anything short of insanely ambitious was driving him a little nuts.

The frustration was audible in Page’s voice when he gave that commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 2009. He told the graduates about how he and his wife had gone to India a couple of years before. They visited a poor village where sewage ran in the streets. The sewage, Page said, was infected with polio—the same disease that killed his father.

"He would have been very upset that Polio still persists, even though we have a vaccine,” Page said. "The world is on the verge of eliminating polio, with 328 people infected so far this year. Let’s get it done soon.”

In the fall of 2010, Page’s frustrations flared out into the open during a product-review meeting. Eric Schmidt, Brin, Page, and Google’s top product executives were there along with their respective senior staffs. Page, as usual, sat quietly at the table looking at his phone. Up front, an executive pitched a new product that helped users find the right offline store to do their shopping.

The executive was well into his pitch when, suddenly, Page interrupted him.

“No,” Page said emphatically. “We don’t do this.”

The room grew quiet.

“We build products that leverage technology to solve huge problems for hundreds of millions of people.”

He went on. “Look at Android. Look at Gmail. Look at Google Maps. Look at Google Search. That’s what we do. We build products you can’t live without.”

“This is not it.”

Page didn’t shout. He didn’t have to. The message was loud and clear.

That December, Page, Brin, and Schmidt met to discuss the obvious.

During Google’s earnings call on Jan. 20, 2011, Schmidt announced he was done as CEO. The job was once again Larry Page’s.

Schmidt, who would become executive chairman, sent out a tweet later that day: “Adult-supervision no longer needed.”