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Google Flashback -- My 2000 Interviews with Sergey Brin and Larry Page - Part 1

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When I started writing for Upside magazine in late 1999, my first assignment was a story about an obscure search startup with a weird name based in Mountain View, Calif. At that time, few people beyond the Stanford campus or Silicon Valley had ever heard of Google. With frugal founders operating on a shoestring budget, they had paid virtually nothing for advertising, relying on word of mouth and articles in print magazines like Upside. The big news that triggered the story was that they had just raised $25 million in venture funding from Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia. Adding to the buzz arguably the two most prominent VCs in the valley, John Doerr and Michael Moritz had taken board seats.

When Cindy McCaffrey, then head of the company's corporate communications department, was more than happy to block out a two-hour slot on the schedule of its co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Page came down with the flu, so I interviewed Brin alone for about 90 minutes, then a few weeks later, I interviewed Page. In the interim, I spoke with venture capitalists Moritz and Doerr, as well as angel investor Andy Bechtolsheim.

Today, of course, none of these people give press interviews. I caught these two 26-year-old entrepreneurs in January 2000, a moment in time when they were relaxed, uninhibited and more than happy to tell their amazing story in crisp detail, without the filters that now characterize most companies' PR efforts.

When I arrived, Brin was dressed casually. He and McCaffrey gave me a quick tour of Google's new digs in Mountain View -- the first Googleplex, later to be replaced by a Googleplex campus. Many cubicles were vacant as the company was staffing up. In the lobby we passed an oversized electronic screen that continuously updated the most popular search terms on the service.

He showed me a room where the company masseuse gave employees free afternoon massages and the cafeteria that, even then, offered free, quality cuisine to workers. When we arrived at the boardroom, where the interview was to take place, I did a double-take at the brightly colored rubber balls, several feet in diameter, sitting in a corner. Brin explained that employees bounced on them during meetings to burn off excess energy. Even then, Google was Google.

Here are some excerpts:

Ince: How did you get the name Google?

Brin: We were thinking about very large numbers... so we came up with the term "googol" which is the mathematical term for 10 to the hundredth (power). The correct spelling was g-o-o-g-o-l and I'm not sure that we realized that we had made a spelling error. But that was taken, anyway. There was this guy who'd already registered, and I tried to buy it from him, but he was fond of it. So we went with Google.

Ince: What other names were considered?

Brin: I think the previous contender to that was called the "Whatbox," which would have been OK. But then we decided that "Whatbox" sounded like "Wetbox," which sounded like some kind of a porn site or something, and we decided to stay away from that. Actually the old version of the system was called Backrub.

Ince: What was the origin of Backrub?

Brin: That was because our technology had to do with looking at the link structure of the Web and looking at the backlinks -- which pages link to what pages. So Backrub was sort of an immature technology and we turned the idea of looking at backlinks into a search engine.

The technology we developed back then, and it's just one of a number of technologies we use today, was called Page Rank. I'll give you an example: Back then, if you typed, "Bill Clinton" into a search engine, your first result would be this Web page which says, "Bill Clinton sucks," and then has a picture. So that's probably not terribly useful, but the interesting thing is why did the search engine return that? It did it because it was the result that looked most like the query. Your query was Bill Clinton and this page just has one more word than that. So the older search engines were based upon looking for documents that look like your query. not at all factoring in the fact that this page doesn't have any content and nobody cares about it. So our approach was to try to address that problem first, and later to combine it with a whole other part of the system that determines what pages are relevant. So Google's technology combines the relevance along with the Page Rank to produce your search results.

Ince: When did you and Larry first think about turning this technology into a company, and why?

Brin: It was in the summer of 1998. It was mainly because at that point we were having to scrounge around to find resources. Like we had stolen these computers from all over the (Stanford's Computer Science) department, sort of. We'd assembled them all together, but they were haphazard, like a Sun, an IBM AIX computer, a couple PCs. We had our own little computer storage cabinet we'd made out of LEGOs, essentially. So basically we were scrounging around and we decided, "Hey, there's a lot of commercial interest here. People will give us a lot of money to solve this problem of search. Why don't we go and do it commercially?" The resources just weren't there in the academic environment. So we started the company about August or September of 1998.

Ince: Who did you approach and how did you go about the process of raising capital?

Brin: Well it turns out Stanford is a very convenient place to start companies from because there's a big history of company building. We worked through the faculty and ended up with angel funding from Andy Bechtolsheim, who was, of course, out of Stanford, and David Cheriton, who was Andy's co-founder at Granite (a network switching company). It was recently bought by Cisco. And then also Ram Shriram, who was the president of Junglee (a database technology company acquired around that time by Anyway, these guys were really helpful. They helped us right off the bat.

Ince: Helpful how? You mean they said, "Shall I write out a check?"

Brin: Yeah, actually. That's what they said. But they were really helpful beyond that, also. But yes, we were showing (a demo on a laptop) to him (Bechtolsheim) and he said, "Oh we could go on talking, but why don't I just write you a check?"

Ince: How much did he write a check for?

Brin: He gave us a check for $100,000. The check was made out to Google Inc., which didn't exist at the time -- which was a big problem. So, we had to quickly get a lawyer, and we set up the company.

Ince: This was on your first meeting?

Brin: Yes, and we hadn't really discussed valuations and stuff like that. He just figured it would pay off, and he was right. We finalized all the details on the round after that.

Ince: What was your understanding as to what his percentage would be?

Brin: There was none. I guess we figured that if we didn't agree later, that it would be a loan. I think he saw that we had a pretty solid product. He liked us. I think he figured that we would do well, and he just wanted to push us forward.

Ince: When Andy said to you guys, "Why don't I just write you a check?" Did you two guys look at each other and go "Wow."

Page: Yeah, it was pretty unreal. It was like, wow, maybe we really should start a company now. The check sat in my desktop drawer for a month. I was afraid I'd lose it. But until it really happened, until then, it had sort of been this intermediate state. Things hadn't really happened yet. But when he wrote the check -- well, it certainly does speed things up.

Ince: It's very interesting to get your perspective on this, because from Andy's perspective one of the things that he commented on was how sure you and Sergey seemed about how this thing would work.

Page: Yes, well, we had spent a lot of time scoping out the industry. We had already talked with Dave Filo, Jerry Yang (co-founders of Yahoo), George Bell (CEO of Excite) and all these people in the industry and we had a really good feel for what was going on.

Ince: Did you have any trouble getting to see these people?

Page: I won't say that it was like easy. But being at Stanford and having a product that was really good. I mean, Backrub worked really well. It was much better than anything else, and so we would show them and say, "Hey we've got this great thing. It works better than anything out there. What do we do?"

End of Part 1 ...