Google's three basic ingredients for a successful startup

As Google goes back to its roots with a series of events aimed at entrepreneurs and startups, its Australian engineering director offers three issues that bootstrappers need to examine to be successful.
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor

At Google's first Google for Entrepreneurs Day held in Sydney, the Australian branch's Engineering Director Alan Noble highlighted three issues that upcoming startups should look at if they wanted to be successful.

Noble said that there has never been a better time to become an entrepreneur and for them to follow their passion.

"For many businesses, the internet has [...] levelled the playing field. You can reach users and invite them as partners seamlessly," Noble said at the event today.

"It's never been easier to run your business, than it is today. You can move your core infrastructure and IT to the cloud in ways that [...] you couldn't do five years ago. You can now focus on the core idea — the thing that really differentiates your business."

While Noble highlighted where Google can obviously help, he also had more general advice for those who wanted to know where to kick-start their startup, stating that, while there's always a lot to work on, there are three issues that are necessary to get right: problems, users, and teams.


At the heart of every startup, Noble said that there must be a problem that must be solved.

"That's sounds like complete sense, doesn't it? But many great products start with the simple recognition that there's a problem — something is broken, something can be done better, something can be done faster," he said.

Noble said that many of these problems could be found in everyday life if entrepreneurs were attentive, but also imaginative.

"Definitely don't worry about chasing the competition. Look for new ways of finding and doing things."

Noble pointed to Gmail as an example of solving a problem (integrating search into email), but finding a new way of doing it.

"We didn't simply bolt a search engine on to an existing mail client. We could have done that and said, 'There's this great desktop client out there.' But we didn't. We essentially imagined a whole new product from the ground up."


Number one on Google's list of "Ten things we know to be true list" — essentially, the company's 10 commandments — is to focus on the user with the belief that all else will follow. Noble expanded on this by saying that users were a great source of finding problems to solve and generating ideas, but the upcoming entrepreneur needed to look even beyond what the customer says they want, if they want to be successful.

"Focusing on the user doesn't mean blindly following what they're telling you," he said.

"Really, what you have to do is: you need to look for problems that, maybe, customers haven't identified or articulated themselves yet. Some of the most innovative ideas from startups were for products that no one even realised; no one had actually conjured up yet."

"Whoever asked for a phone that could browse the web and play music? Whoever asked to put their music collection in the cloud? Or for a tablet computer?"

Noble said that, in some cases, the most innovative products that people rely on today aren't the result of users realising that they needed them.

Noble also said that users are a great way to test and refine a products, even when a startup is yet to have customers. He said that users have a role to play when prototyping and getting feedback from potential customers, in order to gauge interest and improve the user experience.

For startups that already had customers, Noble said that paying attention to user needs would create happier users, which has other obvious benefits.

"Happy users are the best marketing that you could ever hope for," he said.

"We don't always get that right. Sometimes, we put things out there that users don't like ... but our goal is always to focus on the user, and you should focus on the user too."


Noble said that startups have a natural, "almost unfair" advantage over corporations, due to the innovative culture that they tend to create, and the sort of people that that environment tends to attract.

"You need people. Not just any people — passionate people. You need to create a culture of innovation, and the best way of doing this is by letting people follow their passion."

Doing so is harder with a large, complicated company, he said, and recommended startups adopt a flat organisational structure and be very transparent. This would give employees the freedom they need to follow their passions.

"Be very open with information," he said. "At Google, the lowliest summer intern, who is only with the company for three months over the summer, has access to almost the same information as the most senior engineer, who has been with the company for 10 years."

He also suggested that, whatever problem a startup works on, it should be broken down into smaller chunks, so it is able to be tackled by small teams of about three to four engineers.

"Small teams and flat structures mean you can collaborate and share ideas really easily, and you can adapt quickly to challenges and opportunities," he said.

What if you fail?

Noble also addressed one of the most common fears that hold entrepreneurs back from experimenting with ideas — failure.

"Learn to recognise failing experiments, and learn to fail quickly. Experiment often — fail quickly," he said.

"When you're experimenting and failing continuously, it's not failing, it's called learning. If you're a startup, you can't afford the luxury of failing and failing and failing for too long, [or] any longer than necessary, so for the ideas that don't succeed, learn what you can, reshape the idea, keep the best [...] and move on."

He also said that entrepreneurs shouldn't be afraid to place "big, audacious bets".

"Big bets are about big ideas. It's not about your budget," he said, while also explaining that bets didn't need to be a win all or lose all situation.

"Google Wave was a huge bet [...] and although user growth didn't pan out, from a technology standpoint, we learned a lot from Wave. It was very influential, and it's actually influenced many other Google products. Not the source code necessarily, but the ideas."

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