It’s been two weeks since I left Google and I keep getting asked “why did I leave now”? I think the better question is “why did I stay for so long”? When Waze was acquired by Google, most of the people who know me did not believe I would last 7 weeks, let alone 7 years…
So the question of why I stayed has many different aspects to it. When we were evaluating the offers to sell the company, we asked ourselves what would really change by being acquired? Due to a bunch of mistakes early on, we did not own substantial amounts of equity and had a pretty bad relationship with some of our board members. I remember the bottom line: “wouldn’t you rather work for Larry Page than our current board”? We were committed to our mission and saw this as a change in the cap table rather than a change of mission. This counted on the fact that Google had promised us autonomy to continue to act as Waze and we believed them.
I saw independence as a critical aspect of our decision to sell. We loved our brand, mission and team and imagined continuing to work on it without the financial stress of fundraising. Being able to take more, not less, risk and experiment with new things on a longer time horizon. We assumed we would get jacked up distribution for our app through Google, basically the best of both worlds – speed and culture of a start-up and financial backing and distribution of a corporation. This model of independence was not very popular in 2013 but very quickly became the model for tech acquisitions of branded products. Instagram, Whatsapp, Nest, Waze – we were all granted autonomy and retained most of our team. In all these cases, the founders stayed for quite a while.
Autonomy for us meant that we could continue to be open with our community, build the functionality we thought would work, retain our technology stack in the cloud (vs porting over to Google’s internal systems), keep our brand, our Terms and Conditions etc.
Google was true to their promise and gave us this autonomy. Although we did not remain as a separate legal entity but rather became Google employees, operating as a Google team (this was pre-Alphabet) but maintaining our independence.
I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive start-up leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.
So what happened? I had all the independence I could ask for, no?
It’s the nature of the beast.
Working as an independent start-up is fundamentally different from a corporation and it is much more nuanced and deep than I had understood. I am proud of what we achieved within Google – when we started talking to Google, we had 10M MAU’s vs 140M MAU’s when I left. We went from 2.5B monthly driven Km’s to over 36B. We launched a completely new product, Carpool, and went through all the pain of MVP, iterations, launch until achieving product market fit. So what was so different from being independent?
Brand – in a start-up there is complete alignment between the product, the company and the brand. The employees, management and investors are aligned as well – product does well, company does well, investors do well, employees do well. In a Corporation, the employee alignment is to the Corporations brand, not to the product (i.e. Google, not Gmail; Facebook, not Instagram). The product is a tool to advance the employees career, not a passion, mission or economic game changer. Being promoted has more impact on the individuals economic success than the product growth. The decision which product to work on stems from the odds of getting promoted and thus we began onboarding people with the wrong state of mind – seeing Waze as a stepping stone and not as a calling.
Hiring, Firing and Promoting. The famous Netflix culture doc claims that culture is “who you hire, fire or let go”. I strongly agree with this, reality > theory. The challenge was that, as Google employees, we were subject to all of the Corporate hiring practices. It is practically impossible to fire someone for the basic reason that you don’t need this role any more or there is a better person out there or just plain old “you are not doing a great job”. This neuters managers and does not lead to great teams, driven by mission, pushing each other to do better. Fast paced products have different needs that change all the time. There are people who are great for a stage of the company and later, do not have the right skills as the company grows. It is not their fault, it is reality. But not being able to replace them with people that do have the right skills means that people are constantly trying to “offload” an employee on a different team rather than fire them – something that is not conducive with fast moving and changing needs. I learned the hard way that if another manager is recommending a great employee to hire, that they are probably trying to get rid of the employee since they cannot fire them.
Distribution – we quickly learned, the hard way, that we could not get distribution from Google. Any idea we had was quickly co-opted by Google Maps. The Android app store treated us as a 3rd party, there was no pre-installation option and no additional distribution. We did have a lot more marketing dollars to spend but had to spend them like any other company, except we were constrained in what we could do and which 3rd parties we could work with due to corporate policies. All of our growth at Waze post acquisition was from work we did, not support from the mothership. Looking back, we could have probably grown faster and much more efficiently had we stayed independent.
Focus – as much as I tried to keep the team focused, being part of a Corporation means that the signal to noise ratio changes dramatically. The amount of time and effort spent on Legal, Policy, Privacy – on features that have not shipped to users yet, meant a significant waste of resources and focus. After the acquisition, we have an extremely long project that consumed many of our best engineers to align our data retention policies and tools to Google. I am not saying this is not important BUT this had zero value to our users. An ever increasing percent of our time went to non user value creation tasks and that changes the DNA of the company quickly, from customer focused to corporate guidelines focused.
Compensation – at Corp-Tech, the salaries are so high and the options so valuable that it creates many misalignments. The impact of an individual product on the Corp-Tech stock is minimal so equity is basically free money. Regardless of your performance (individually) or your product performance, you equity grows significantly so nothing you do has real economic impact on your family. The only control you have to increase your economic returns are whether you get promoted, since that drives your equity and salary payments. This breaks the traditional tech model of risk reward. Corp-Tech gives you no risk returns on equity. Since 2008, FAANG stock have only gone up so employees look at the equity is a fixed part of their salary with the only option of increasing. We tried to build an innovative compensation model but quickly ran into the challenge that employees viewed their equity as a given compensation so why sacrifice it for a risk model? These realities lead to extreme focus on promotion vs product success — Me > We > Product/Users. I feel that the risk reward model in Corp-Tech is broken due to ever rising stock prices and lack of personal impact on your returns. Perhaps Corp-Tech should move to employee share buy back where employees must sacrifice some of their salary for equity or change equity to vest by a product related metric to connect the teams performance with the employee returns.
Transparency and directness – I have always been a pretty passionate guy, especially at Waze. After the acquisition, I was invited to speak on many different Google panels and events and very quickly, I began racking up my HR complaints. I used a four letter word, my analogy was not PC, my language was not PG… I actually stopped speaking at events where the majority appreciated what I was saying but the minority that was offended by something (words and not content) made it a pain. I began watching what I said, what I discussed and began wearing a corporate persona (I was still probably one of the less PC characters at Google but this was my cleaned up act…). I value transparency and feel that people should bring themselves to work but that also means a certain tolerance of people not saying something exactly as you would like them to or believing something you don’t. That tolerance is gone at Google and “words” > “content” is the new Silicon Valley mantra of political correctness. You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct or can say super important things but use one wrong word and it’s off to HR for you…
Work life balance. When I was growing up in Tech in the ‘90’s – there was no such thing as work life balance. We loved what we did and wanted to succeed so we worked like crazy to achieve great things. As I had kids, I learned the importance of being at home for them and that’s how I understood Work Life balance – its a balance, sometimes you need to work weekends and nights or travel, sometimes you can head out early or work from home – we balance the needs of the employee and the company. Today, in Silicon Valley, work life balance has become sacrificing Work for Life – not a balance. Young people want it all – they want to get promoted quickly, achieve economic independence, feel fulfilled at Work, be home early, not miss the Yoga class at 11:00am etc. Having trouble scheduling meetings because “it’s the new Yoga instructor lesson I cannot miss” or “I’m taking a personal day” drove me crazy. The worst thing is that this was inline with the policies and norms – I was the weirdo who wanted to push things fast and expected some level of personal sacrifice when needed. I don’t believe long hours are a badge of honor but I also believe that we have to do whatever it takes to win, even if its on a weekend.
Entitlement – everyone working in the tech space is SUPER LUCKY. If you happen to work for one of the tech corporations – you are even luckier. You get unbelievable conditions (food, gym, offsites, travel), amazing economic wealth creation, can work on amazing things surrounded by the best and the brightest. But many of the people I met did not understand or appreciate it. Tech workers leaving college directly to Corp-Tech and never working for a “real company” end up spending their time complaining about the wrong things. When COVID hit and we moved to work from home – a huge amount of complaints began around why can’t employees expense food since they are not in the office. While most “real” people were worried about keeping their jobs or finding one, many employees were complaining about expensing their food on top of their salaries/stock/bonuses. This entitlement continued everywhere – while Google is BY FAR the most employee centric company giving tremendous hard and soft value to its employees, employees keep creating imaginary problems to complain about, instead of appreciating the hand they have been dealt. After being acquired by Google, we had a “fun day” at the Google campus where we were shown around, wide eyed, to see the facilities. We had lunch in the cafeteria and while on line, a Googler ahead of us was overheard saying “What? Sushi again???” which became our inside joke around entitlement. But several months later, we had been co-opted as well and it was Waze employees complaining about the food…
All these issues drove me crazy. I believe in the Waze mission and love the company and wanted to continue to grow it. These aspects of corporate life slowly wore me down. at the end of every day, I always ask myself “what did I do for our users today”. This simple exercise helps keep priorities straight. When I found myself avoiding this question because I was embarrassed by the answer, I knew my time was up.
I feel we ended up with the worst of both worlds – the challenges of a start-up (scale, access, distribution) with the constraints of a corporation (forced to use internal not-best-of-class systems, cost structure, politics, culture etc) all aggravated by the inability to quickly hire and fire.
So, what can be done?
I think that the independent model is a must for acquisitions. No one buys technology, you buy a team and a way of doing things. I think this has worked in most cases. That being said, how to retain the start-up magic is extremely difficult. I think that the Alphabet model is the correct model (at Google) but not as a “moonshot factory” but rather as a holding company. Amazon did this with Audible – keeping it an independent legal entity with its own culture and processes. Yes, there is a challenge of how to compensate when there is no equity upside but I think the main point is to keep the company focused on the product, with the right employees there for the right reasons and empowering the leader to control her destiny. One of the main challenges with this is that people who grow up in a Corporate environment do not really understand these issues since this is how things are done in Corp-Tech so it makes these issues hard to negotiate.
What did I learn?
I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success. The problem was me – believing I can keep the start-up magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing opposite. Had I not set out to fight the nature of the beast, I could have focused on building for leaving rather than building for the users. 3 years ago I realized this and wanted to leave but the company was still too start-up’ish and dependent on me. I have spent the last 3 years building a new team and leadership that can carry on the mission without me, within the corporate constraints, to the point where I could leave.
I would recommend to the 2013 me to not try and innovate within but rather focus on exiting the company as fast as possible and building the right team/structure/succession plan to make it happen instead of fighting the nature of the beast. This is easy to say but extremely hard to do if you love your company and mission. When you decide to sell a company, you need to be honest with yourself that this is the end of your era, and not pretend that you will be able to continue to build the company but with a different shareholders. This will make the selling decision harder and looking back, would have forced us to be more honest about what selling means.
So, why did I leave?
I did not leave in a confrontational disagreement (which is what anyone who knows me thought would happen, as I have a short fuse…) but rather was just worn down by the nature of the beast. I have only positive things to say about the Google leadership that gave me all the independence it could. If I had to summarize it, I would say that the signal to noise ratio is what wore me down. We start companies to build products that serve people, not to sit in meetings with lawyers. You need to be able to answer the “what have I done for our users today” question with “not much but I got promoted” and be happy with that answer to be successful in Corp-Tech. I guess that’s just not me. As the tech regulation / anti trust heats up – the noise will continue to get louder than the signal. The innovation challenges at Corp-Tech will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down. Soon, Lawyers > Builders and the builders will need to go elsewhere to start new companies.