Larry Page explains why dominant tech companies falter

December 4, 2014, 6:45 PM UTC
Key Speakers At The Google I/O Annual Developers Conference
Larry Page, co-founder and chief executive officer at Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Page disclosed a health condition that can result in hoarse speech and labored breathing, though according to doctors won?t impede him from running the Web-search provider. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Google is at the top of its game, and its chief executive, Larry Page, is pursuing a growing number of ambitious “moon shots” that could transform transportation, medicine, the Internet itself, and more. Page’s intensity of purpose and his company’s (GOOG) stellar financial results earned him recognition as Businessperson of the Year in Fortune. (See the cover story of our Dec. 1, 2014 issue, “Larry Page–The most ambitious CEO in the universe.”)

In a wide-ranging interview ahead of the article’s publication, Page discussed with Fortune why dominant technology companies fade and how Google hopes to evade that fate, among other things. Here are a few excerpts of his words from that interview, edited for clarity.

On why dominant tech companies fail:

I’m always asking the question, as the company has grown from a hundred people, “Would I want to work for Google?” I think in general the answer is “yes.” Part of my focus has also been making sure that we’re creating an environment for people who want to ask those questions and want to be curious and want to be entrepreneurial and want to do things that are really impactful for the world.

If I look at most of the tech companies that I felt have kind of reached a plateau or have generally atrophied or something like that, I would say “no,” they weren’t a good home for people who wanted to do those things. In general they kind of kept doing the same thing, kind of eking out a little bit more scale but not really being a place where people want to continue to really do impactful things.

On how Google’s fabled moonshots—self driving cars, nano-particles for cancer detection—fit into the arc of the company:

It doesn’t feel all that different than it’s felt before to me in the past. I remember when we started Gmail. Everyone was upset with us, including people in the company, like, “Why are we working on email? We’re a search company.” [We were] less than two hundred and fifty people I think when we started Gmail, and we were talking about that even before that. I think that was pretty ambitious, given the scale of the company.

So given that we have forty thousand people now [Google employs about 55,000 people, actually. —Ed.], the fact that we’re working on the [self-driving] car doesn’t feel that ambitious to me.

On seizing the opportunity in mobile:

I think my job as CEO, it’s always to be pushing people ahead. If I were to look at the percentage of people [working] on mobile, it’s not 100% in the company. And nor should it be 100%. But it should probably be larger than it is.

I think externally if you asked people on the Street, they’re going to worry mostly about monetization [on mobile]. And I think we’re doing pretty well there. There’s always more work to be done. I think that search is working well on mobile, the ads on search are working well on mobile.

But the work at this stage is probably more disruptive in nature too. We really need to say, “Well, if you’re on mobile, maybe it’s easier to call someplace, or it’s easier to visit the place, or it’s easier to have help with those things.” So maybe the ads should look a little different or work differently.

On the recent reorganization that put the fast-rising Sundar Pichai in charge of most Google products:

I only have 24 hours in a day, and any time I can delegate some things, I should. I’ve been working with Sundar for a long time. And I just started to realize that a lot of the stuff that came to me because of our organizational structure around some of the product decision-making that happens day-to-day, he could do a tremendous job of, and that would free me up then to do more things.

On former Ford and Boeing CEO Alan Mulally, Google’s newest board member, who has become Page’s latest go-to advisor on management issues:

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. And I think I do a pretty good job of that, but I mean, he’s like an A+ on that scale, and I think there are things I can learn from him.

On why Inbox—the company’s new, mobile-first email application—has features like reminders that make certain message pop up at different times:

You know one of the things they’re trying to do is really make it easier to keep track of tasks. We have Post-It notes. Why do we have those? I mean it’s kind of ridiculous. We have them because the software is not that good yet. A lot of times people actually will send an email to themselves, which is kind of insane when you think about it. It’s not really designed for that, and it gets lost after a while. So I think that’s one of the examples, when you’re really thinking about mobile, the kind of problems you need to solve are different.

On Google’s original mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”:

I think the mission statement is probably a little bit too narrow and we’re thinking about how to do that a little more broadly. But I do think we’ve been talking about it for a while and I think it’s pretty obvious what we’re doing.

We’re also trying to do something that not many other people seem to be trying to do, which is to make some big bets on some important areas. To make those things really real and to make sure they’re great products for people and they have real positive impact on people and the world.

I feel a little bit we’re in uncharted territory. Because I think that what we’re trying to do, you know I can’t just look to another company and say, “Oh, we should do roughly what another company is doing.”

To me it feels like the world as a whole is very subscale. When I see important things like the self-driving cars or even search itself, and I say is there really enough resource going into that. And I don’t think that there is. It could use a lot more resource to make those things better.