It's time to make some big decisions, so the Google guys are slipping on their white lab coats. After eight years in the spotlight running a company that Wall Street values at more than $100 billion, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are still just in their early 30s and, with the stubbornness of youth, perhaps, and the aura of invincibility, keep doing things their way. So the white coats go on when it's time to approve new products. For a few hours, teams of engineers will come forward with their best ideas, hoping to dazzle the most powerful men in Silicon Valley. Google paid crazy money to attract top talent--supercharging the nerd market in the process--and this is the recruits' chance to show the investments were worth it.
The Google guys can be tough sells. Page, a computer geek from Michigan who as a boy idolized inventor Nikola Tesla (you know, the guy who developed AC power), has a Muppet's voice and a rocket scientist's brain. Brin, born in Russia and raised outside Washington, is no less clever but has a mischievous twinkle in his eye. When he drops little asides--"Let's make the little windows actually explode when you close them," he tells a group presenting new desktop software--no one seems certain whether to laugh or start writing the computer code. Both men often rise from the conference-room table to pace or to grab a snack or just to appear bored. In a culture of creativity, there's nothing wrong with keeping people off balance.
A team of four engineers enters the meeting room, each clutching an IBM Think Pad. They have just 20 minutes: a digital clock projected on the wall ticks it down. You don't go before Brin and Page--joined by CEO Eric Schmidt, 51, the Silicon Valley veteran brought in a few years ago to provide adult supervision--until you have your pitch down. And the way Google operates, you don't have your pitch down until you have the numbers to quantify its superiority. The engineers tell Brin and Page that they can generate extra advertising revenue by adding small sponsored links to image-search results, as Google already does with text searches. "We're not making enough money already?" Page asks. Everyone laughs. The share price has soared as high as $475, making Google, in market-cap terms, the biggest media company in the world. (The stock plummeted early this month on earnings that Wall Street didn't like, although it's still far above its 2004 IPO price of $85.) The engineers press on. Their trials predict the tweak would be worth as much as $80 million a year in additional revenue. Brin isn't moved. "I don't see how it enhances the experience of our users," he says. It probably wouldn't hurt it much either. But the Google guys reject the proposal--"Let's not do it," Brin declares, to the engineers' obvious disappointment--leaving the $80 million on the table.