Google’s Larry Page: The Most Ambitious CEO in the Universe
There’s a joke about Larry Page that’s been making the rounds at Google X, the “moon shot” factory where Google is developing self-driving cars, high-altitude wind turbines, and a fleet of stratospheric balloons to blanket the world with Internet access: A brainiac who works in the lab walks into Page’s office one day wielding his latest world-changing invention—a time machine. As the scientist reaches for the power cord to begin a demo, Page fires off a dismissive question: “Why do you need to plug it in?”
It’s a tall tale that is repeated affectionately by the whizzes inside the futuristic lab because it captures the urgency and aspiration of their boss to move technology forward. The Google CEO is the kind of guy who thinks the improbable is a given and the seemingly impossible is likely. He’s not one or two steps ahead of his engineers and research scientists; he often seems to inhabit an alternate universe, where the future has already happened. When the leader of the Internet balloons project posited that if all went well, Google (GOOG) might be able increase the Internet’s total bandwidth by 5%, Page asked why they couldn’t double or triple the global network’s capacity. “He wanted to make sure there was a moon shot after the moon shot,” says Astro Teller, who heads Google X. “Reminding us that his ambitions are this high,” Teller says, raising his hand well above his head, “helps people aspire to more.”
Andy Conrad, who leads the lab’s newest futuristic project—ingestible nanoparticles that would monitor people for diseases—says discussing ideas with Page is a singular experience: “You feel terrified, inspired, and nurtured at the same time.” If setting high expectations and challenging employees to meet them is a time-honored management tradition, then Page has taken the approach to another level altogether.
But there’s another side to Page the Dreamer—and that’s Page the Executive. For a decade Page participated in one of the most unorthodox management experiments in corporate America: Google was run by a triumvirate that included Eric Schmidt as CEO and co-founders Page and Sergey Brin as presidents. In 2011 the triumvirate dissolved, and Page assumed the CEO role. In that capacity he has asserted himself and demonstrated his operational expertise. Inspired by management icons like Alan Mulally, the former Ford CEO who is Google’s newest board member, Page has pushed the Google juggernaut forward while transforming it to fit his grand vision. He has reorganized top ranks (twice), cut numerous products, unified the look and feel of the remaining ones, and leaned on engineers to simplify. And with a firm hand he has pushed the entire company to put mobile first. More than three years into his tenure as CEO, Google is as powerful as ever. Its always-expanding core businesses—search, ads, maps, Gmail, apps, Chrome, YouTube, Android, and more—are growing at a healthy clip and touching every area of computing.
Apple today considers Google its No. 1 competitor. But tellingly, so do Amazon (AMZN), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO), and a long list of lesser-known tech firms. “I don’t think we’ve seen a company like Google in technology,” says John Battelle, a serial entrepreneur and the author of The Search, a seminal book about the company’s early years. “It’s the whole package: the financial results, the reach in terms of what markets they touch, and the ambition.”
Google’s business success is undeniable. It has grown more than 20% annually for the past three years, with revenue topping $16 billion in the most recent quarter. Google’s cash hoard, about $37 billion when Page became CEO, has been growing too. The company is now sitting on some $62 billion in cash and equivalents. All that has allowed Page to invest even more aggressively in both Google’s core businesses and its far-flung projects. “I used to have this debate with Steve Jobs, and he would always say, ‘You guys are doing too much stuff,’ ” says Page. “He did a good job of doing one or two things really well.” While the formula worked wonders for Apple (AAPL), Page says his vision for Google is different: “We’d like to have a bigger impact on the world by doing more things.”
In less than four years Page has made enormous strides in that direction. Google’s famed moon shots are not new. The company was working on driverless cars before he became CEO. But now Page—along with Brin, who oversees Google X—is embarking on all sorts of new groundbreaking projects. In the past year, Google has made major investments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and delivery drones. Google has dramatically expanded its venture unit, which has invested in hundreds of startups and serves as something of a scouting arm for ideas fermenting outside the Googleplex. It bought Nest for $3.2 billion to pursue the dream of a fully automated home. It has put hundreds of millions behind Calico, an independent biotech firm hatched by Google and run by former Genentech CEO Art Levinson, to fend off aging. It’s begun commercializing glucose-monitoring contact lenses. And it continues to push Glass, its virtual-reality eyewear that’s been met with a mix of indifference and mockery.
Google’s original mission—“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”—once seemed preposterously audacious. Today that vision “is probably a bit too narrow,” Page says. He wants the company he co-founded as a Stanford grad student to continue altering the world in ways unimaginable to most. It’s the combination of that intensity of purpose with Google’s eye-poppingly strong financial results that makes Page Fortune’s 2014 Businessperson of the Year.
One could easily dismiss Google’s most far-reaching efforts as pipe dreams. But consider this: When the company first revealed it was working on self-driving cars in 2010, few took the effort seriously. Four years later, autonomous vehicles seem tantalizingly close, and the auto industry is spending billions on the technology in hopes of catching up. It’s a powerful example of how Page pushes the world around him into his vision of the future. “The breadth of things that he is taking on is staggering,” says Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz. “We have not seen that kind of business leader since Thomas Edison at GE or David Packard at HP.”
Page’s grand ambition doesn’t sit well with everyone. Few outside the Googleplex believe the company’s “Don’t be evil” motto is anything other than a vacuous PR line. Indeed, a growing chorus of critics—including rivals, regulators, and consumers—argue that Google is wielding its immense market power in brutish ways as it makes grab after grab for new businesses. The criticism is especially sharp in Europe, where the company faces an ongoing antitrust probe that could result in billions in fines.
Another criticism is that Google is a one-trick pony, relying on its cash-cow search advertising business to fund fantasy projects. But while the company still earns the majority of its revenue from advertising, during his tenure Page has helped to diversify the business. Notably, YouTube is expected to generate nearly $6 billion in revenue this year, according to estimates by Jefferies, an investment bank. At the same time, the Google Play store and the company’s enterprise sales—apps and services bought by businesses—are said to be multibillion-dollar businesses. And Android, the world’s most successful computing platform, while distributed for free, is helping Google shift its revenue mix toward mobile across the company’s portfolio of products. Many of Page’s current investments can be seen as smart wagers to secure his company’s future and hedge against a slowdown in search advertising. “He’s making the right bets on long-term technology trends,” says Mark Mahaney, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets. “Google would be less valuable if it didn’t have credible bets off the home, the car, and wearable devices.”
But Page doesn’t pay critics much mind. He says he is simply driven by a desire to have a positive impact. He is also determined to avoid the fate of earlier tech giants that merely kept doing what they did best—and eventually lost their relevance. The world’s top engineers and scientists don’t want to work at a place that keeps repeating the same tricks. And Page wants Google to keep attracting the world’s best talent so that he can build an entirely new kind of company—one that can stay at the top of its game not for a decade or two, but perhaps for generations. “It’s what’s continuing to drive me,” he says.
DREAM IT, THEN GO BUILD IT
How does a tech company remain dominant? CEO Larry Page believes the best way is to invent the future. Through its moon shot factory, Google X, and a handful of other skunkworks projects, the web search giant is busy doing just that. Here are a few of its most ambitious bets.
1 HIGH-TECH BALLOONS
To reach the billions of people across the planet who are not online, Google is experimenting with high-tech balloons that would float in the stratosphere and beam down broadband. Today the balloons can stay up in the air for 100 days at a time. In tests they’re delivering speeds of 10 megabits per second.
Google’s newest, most secretive effort aims to turn medicine on its head: Ingestible “painted” nanoparticles that can bind to cancerous cells and other biomarkers in your body and allow scientists to “read” what they find. Cancer and other diseases may be detected as soon as they manifest.
In another secretive effort, last year Google acquired a handful of the buzziest robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics and Schaft. There’s a four-legged robot called BigDog that can carry large loads and some two-legged humanoids that are good at getting around autonomously.
Amit Singhal joined Google 14 years ago, and he still remembers the day in 2000 when the company launched its first ads. That night Page stayed up late in his office, typing query after query into Google. When Singhal, now the senior vice president in charge of search, walked in the next morning, the corridor walls were papered with printouts of dozens of searches. On each sheet Page had scribbled a pointed comment or question: Is this ad good for our users? Why is that ad showing up? What went wrong here? “He is our über-user,” says Singhal.
Today Page remains very much the No. 1 Google user advocate that he was back then. It’s a role that suits his attention to detail, his demanding standards, and his introverted personality. Page, 41, speaks in rambling sentences and something of a raspy monotone. His voice, which became almost inaudible a few years ago as he suffered a rare condition called vocal cord paralysis, has stabilized, but he rarely raises its volume. He has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and thick eyebrows. His facial expression alternates between serious intensity and broad grins, which he flashes with regularity, especially when he gets animated about some technology that “excites” him. (In an hourlong conversation he volunteers that he is “super-excited” about this and “really excited” about that and “very excited” about something else nearly two dozen times.)
On a recent afternoon, as he’s getting ready for his weekly TGIF (thank God it’s Friday) talk to the entire company, Page is dressed in jeans, red running shoes, and a black Lululemon zip-up top over a plain red T-shirt. (The TGIFs, a tradition since Google’s earliest days, are now held on Thursdays so that employees around the world can tune in via teleconference or watch a replay before the weekend.) Page’s office is at the end of a large fourth-floor suite furnished with a handful of sitting areas and workspaces. As Page sits down in a nearby conference room, he pulls out a brand-new Nexus 6, Google’s latest flagship phone, which is made by Motorola. “If you just bump it, it displays your notifications,” Page says. “You don’t have to enter your password or anything to do that.” He then holds the phone at arm’s length and compares its size and display capabilities to those of a large flat-screen TV further away on the wall. “It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “This device at this distance has many more pixels than an HDTV.”
But if Page gushes to the outside world about the progress of Google’s technology, he’s often one of its loudest critics internally. As part of his push to focus the company on mobile, Page forces himself to do without a computer during much of his day. He makes a point of attending meetings carrying only his phone, and he has encouraged engineers and product managers to try to spend at least a day every week just on their mobile devices. When something is not to his liking, he lets people know. “I think my job as CEO—I feel like it’s always to be pushing people ahead,” he says.
Alex Gawley often finds himself on the receiving end of Page’s grousing. As the director of product management for Gmail, he frequently finds missives from Page in his inbox with very focused questions. “Sometimes it comes in flurries,” says Gawley. “He gets in this zone, and he spots two or three things.”
Periodically Page will demand more radical change. Two years ago Page summoned Gawley and some of his cohorts. Gmail was great, Page said, but it was also 10 years old. It had been created before smartphones or social networks. He laid down a challenge for the team: Create a new communications service for the next 10 years. Importantly, Page told the team not to think about creating Gmail 2.0. That was liberating. “You don’t end up having to design around the way we have been using a product for the last 10 years,” says Gawley.
The work of Gawley’s team was showcased in October when Google introduced Inbox. It’s a completely reimagined email app that’s been designed for mobile phone screens. It groups messages by categories like promotions, social, or finance, and it lets users pin important emails or set up reminders with a simple swipe. Inbox is still in limited release, available only to those who have been invited to use it by Google, but the reviews have been positive. The Verge, a popular technology blog, called Inbox “the future of email.”
Is Page’s focus on the minutiae of email the sign of a micromanager? Not necessarily. Sure, Page runs a 55,000-person behemoth with dozens of products and business units. But veteran technologists say that a critical service like email warrants probing attention to detail by the CEO. Gmail has become vital to Google. It is at the core of Google’s suite of business apps, itself a multibillion-dollar business, and is a pillar of Google Now, a personal assistant that alerts users about upcoming appointments, flight delays, or traffic jams on their routes home. With an audience of more than 400 million, Gmail’s position may seem secure. But consider that a potential competitor like WhatsApp amassed hundreds of millions of users in record time, only to be bought by Google rival Facebook for a staggering $21 billion. In a hyper-competitive industry, the CEO had better keep everyone focused on innovation.
Over the past three years Page has brought the same level of scrutiny to many of Google’s most vital products. For instance, he leaned on the search team to improve the capabilities of Google Now and to make its “conversational search” sound more natural. “That tiny kick in the back made us increase the size of our speech recognition team,” says Singhal. When the Google Maps team demonstrated a new product for small businesses on PCs, Page insisted that they had to first release it on phones. Fresh from building a new house in Palo Alto, Page brainstormed with Nest CEO Tony Fadell on topics ranging from air and water quality to safety, security, and home automation.
Page believes in regular evolution in Google’s organizational structure as well. He brings an engineer’s mentality to management—perhaps making up for what he lacks in natural charisma and public speaking chops. Page often seeks counsel from trusted sources and then carefully makes moves to optimize the corporate structure. Shortly after taking over as CEO, he reorganized the company around product units to speed up development. By all accounts it worked. Now Page is leaning for counsel on Mulally. “I’m excited about trying to spend more time with him and really learn the lessons he’s learned about how to run organizations well and efficiently,” Page says.
In October, Page announced a new reorganization that he says will allow him to “scale” his impact. He put oversight for most Google products under the direct control of Sundar Pichai, 42, a fast-rising executive who previously ran important areas like Android, Chrome, and apps. People close to Page say that while he hopes to free himself of the bureaucratic decisions involved in running large product organizations, he plans to retain his role as unofficial “chief product officer.” In a memo to Googlers, Page said that the new structure would allow the company to continue to push forward on its core businesses while also getting the next generation of big bets off the ground.
Innovating for the Long Term
In a secret facility on Google’s campus, a team of elite scientists are working on Page’s most ambitious bet yet: He intends for the company to rewrite the rules of modern medicine. From the outside, the research center looks like any other building in the Googleplex. (Before being allowed in, a visitor had to promise not to reveal its location.) Inside, it’s a different world. Lab coats and protective eyewear are required. A series of labs spread across two floors are packed with equipment—beakers and pipettes, a mass spectrometer, centrifuges, a programmable array microscope, a 3-D printer. More than 100 scientists work side by side, including oncologists, cardiologists, biochemists, cell biologists, immunologists, optical physicists, and experts in nuclear magnetic resonance, as well as software engineers. For the past year they’ve been joining at a rate of two to four every week from places such as Stanford, MIT, Caltech, and Genentech.
The main actors in this fast-growing life-sciences startup, however, are nowhere within sight. They are nanoparticles, about 1/2,000th the size of a red blood cell. Google’s plan is roughly the following: to chemically “paint” the nanoparticles with a protein, amino acid, or genetic material so that they can bind to certain things like, say, a cancer cell; to put the nanoparticles in a pill that can be swallowed so that they can course through people’s bodies; and to concentrate them through magnetized wearable devices so that they can be “queried.” In theory the system would allow constant monitoring so that a whole host of diseases could be detected—and treated—well before they would with existing diagnostic tools. Conrad, who as head of Google X Life Sciences oversees the project, says it could change medicine from “reactive to proactive.” Today we go to the doctor when we are ill, he says. It’s as if we changed the oil in a car only when the car breaks down. “There has to be a better way,” Conrad says.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is a sci-fi movie plot. But Google and a host of biotech and nanotech startups, including some that are Google partners, have already proved many of the project’s component parts in principle. While immense hurdles—scientific, regulatory, societal—remain, MIT’s Robert Langer, one of the world’s leading biotechnology experts, says Google’s willingness to venture where other companies won’t may help turn the theory into reality. “A lot of companies in the medical area, sadly, are more afraid of taking risks,” says Langer, who has advised Google scientists but is not affiliated with the project.
Regardless, no one is likely to pop pills with the Google logo anytime soon—or perhaps ever. Conrad says that if Google succeeds, it will partner with others to commercialize the technology. And in classic Google fashion, Page has already made a bet that’s complementary in Calico. Conrad says that while Calico focuses on extending “maximum” lifespan, his group works on “median” lifespan by trying to fend off disease. “Larry looks at one or two ways in which a problem should be solved and places very strategic bets on both,” Conrad says.
Page says he is often drawn by what he calls the “zero-million-dollar research problem”: an interesting challenge that no one is working on. Before Google X’s Project Loon launched balloons that could stay aloft for more than 100 days, covering vast distances at an elevation of 60,000 feet, the idea of using balloons for telecommunications was a quintessential example of such a project. Page says he’d been interested in it since graduate school in part because satellites, which power most of our communications, take years to build and cost millions of dollars to launch—a huge barrier to innovation. So a few years ago Page began researching—by Googling, of course—the properties of balloons. “Eventually, I found this balloon image from 1960,” he says. It “had gone around the earth, like, five times.” Half a century later, with much better materials available, he concluded Google could improve on that.
Page has the capacity and curiosity necessary for deep academic study. Today he can debate the subtleties of Project Loon’s tech specs with any of his engineers. During a meeting with Teller last year, he began discussing how Google could exploit different wind speeds at different elevations to concentrate bandwidth over densely populated areas and cover larger swaths of territory in rural areas. “I’ve never had a conversation where he wasn’t at least in danger of being ahead of me, even in the areas I spend way more time on than he does,” says Teller, the grandson of the physicist Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Page says it’s also part of how he manages the company’s armies of alpha scientists. “Deep knowledge from your manager goes a long way toward motivating you,” Page says. “And I have a pretty good capability for that.”
Management trick or not, Page’s research-rooted mindset also explains how different a company from, say, Apple Page is aiming to build. Fadell, who before founding Nest led the development of the iPod and iPhone at Apple, says Page and Jobs approached innovation in radically different ways. “Steve was a marketer who really loved product and got the user-experience details right,” Fadell says. “Larry is a serious technologist and someone who is really steeped in science and in theory, and he has a real love of product.”
Of course, even visionaries get things wrong. Google has tried projects in areas like energy and philanthropy that have not panned out. And the list of Google product flops and disappointments, including some championed by Page, like Google+, is lengthy. At the same time, there have been enough successes that many investors are willing to go along for the ride. What if Google’s medical project revolutionizes cancer treatment? There will be great value in that. “They have almost cartoon-like ambitions,” says Ben Schachter, a longtime Google analyst at Macquarie Securities. “Some, including us, think of that as a positive.”
Page looks at Google’s projects as a portfolio, a “bucket of investments.” Some are short-term, others are medium or long-term bets. He says he is fairly certain some will pay off. And while the investments are sizable, they are also gradual. “By the time you know you want to put a significant amount of money into something, you’re pretty sure you’re going to make money from it,” says Page. “It’s not that the risk is so high.” To the most ambitious CEO on the planet, clearly the bigger risk is in not trying to conjure the future.
This story is from the December 1, 2014 issue of Fortune.