As Google’s core business continues to thrive, Larry Page is making huge bets on new technology—ingestible nanoparticles, balloons that beam down broadband—that could define the future.
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 GOOG0.27% 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.
A TECHNOLOGY BEHEMOTH THAT JUST KEEPS GROWING Since Page became CEO in 2011, Google, No. 46 on the Fortune 500 with $60 billion in sales last year has prospered. Its stock lags Apple’s but has solidly outpaced the NASDAQ.Graphic Sources: FACTSET Research Systems; S&P Capital IQ
Apple today considers Google its No. 1 competitor. But tellingly, so do Amazon AMZN1.52%, Facebook FB0.10%, Microsoft MSFT0.13%, Yahoo YHOO-0.37%, 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-0.06%, 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.