Will growth chip away Google’s free spirit?

How long will the fun and games continue at a company being targeted by the fiercest competitor in the industry?

Even as Google threatens to become as big a behemoth as rival Microsoft, the atmosphere at the Googleplex, in Mountain View, California, continues to exude a Californian hippie vibe. But as the company grows, can it maintain its free-spirited attitude for much longer?

Google hosted about 100 press and analysts for an “informal” gathering recently and one of the goals was to foster a new spirit of openness from the company, which is known for being tight-lipped about its plans and unresponsive to press inquiries.

Although we journalists appreciate the show of friendliness, I must admit that attending press day provided me with a bit more information than I needed about Google, at least about its culture. It made me wonder how long Google can pull off its summer-camp mentality.

The gathering took place on a blazingly sunny California day. When I arrived on Google’s campus and approached the outdoor seating area, where breakfast was served, I felt what those kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory must have felt as they approached Wonka’s candy palace. Everything was a little too shiny, too happy, too perfect to be completely true. I half-expected a gaggle of Oompa-Loompas to come singing around the corner.

Half-naked men glistened as they played volleyball in the early-morning sun. People who appeared too young to drive regular cars whizzed by on electronic scooters, with little regard for who might be in their path. Google employees greeted the press with smiles previously worn only by synchronised swimmers during the Olympics.

Entering Googleplex was no different. Evidence of the company’s environmentally friendly policy was everywhere, and the restrooms not only have toilet-seat warmers but also individual personal hygiene systems that allow you to wash body parts better left unmentioned.

The behaviour of some of Google’s executives fitted the surroundings. In typical nondescript fashion, Google co-founder, president and 30-something billionaire Sergey Brin chatted with the tech-support guy who was trying to fix the Google guest wireless network, which was providing only limited access. (And San Francisco is going to trust Google to provide wi-fi to the entire city?)

I didn’t even notice Brin as I beseeched the tech-support guy, whose name was Josh Brien, to find out what was happening with the wireless network. As Brien asked me to bring him my laptop, so he could troubleshoot for me, I noticed that the man standing next to him, who I assumed was his IT buddy, was actually Brin.

A colleague recently told me a story of how her husband, who works at Microsoft, once saw Bill Gates dart, with bodyguards, from a set of trees on Microsoft’s campus to waiting helicopter. I thought of that as Brin conferred with Brien over my laptop. I suspect it might be the only opportunity I will ever have to see one of the top executives of a technology powerhouse peering over his employee’s shoulder at a company-issued ThinkPad.

It also made me wonder if US citizens with 401K plans that offer Google stock know where their retirement investment is going. While the company continues, at a fast clip, to release products and services to drive its search-engine advertising revenue — and is still making loads of cash — the view from the ground on Google’s campus seems more like kids throwing a party on a weekend when their parents have gone away. Should we really trust these people with our economic future, or should we start storing away the canned goods now?

One big problem Google faces is growing pressure from Microsoft, which is known for its tenacity and willingness to chip away at a market until it takes over. Right now, it’s gunning for Google, and earlier this week at another Silicon Valley event Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer made it clear he wants his company to be number one in internet advertising, even if it takes years to get there.

Maybe, instead of playing volleyball, Google employees should be fine-tuning the company’s internet-based services so they’re not always released in beta form. (To be fair, Brin suggested the company do something similar itself on press day.) Perhaps instead of giving employees Segway scooters and toilet-seat warmers to make them comfortable and happy, Google should give them incentives to come up with new ways to derive revenue in the long-term.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for a company to give employees a fun place to work, and technology companies, especially in Silicon Valley, are known for providing a lot of perks — like free meals and on-site exercise activities — because employees log long hours. I’m sure Google employees spend a hefty portion of each day at the Googleplex, as the company appears to be more a lifestyle for employees than just a job.

But, how long will the fun and games continue at a company being targeted by the fiercest competitor in the industry? Since Google didn’t spill all of its secrets to the journalists, there’s a good chance company executives know exactly what they are up against in Microsoft, and have a strategic plan to ensure Google’s longevity. Until we know for sure, though, I recommend you get your free lunch at Google while you can.

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