Larry Page and Sergey Brin Biography
c. 1973 • East Lansing, Michigan
August 21, 1973 • Moscow, Russia
Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, the Internet search engine, while they were graduate students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Since its founding in 1998, Google has become one of the most successful dot-com businesses in history. Both Page and Brin were reluctant entrepreneurs who were committed to developing their company on their own terms, not those dictated by the prevailing business culture.
Not instant best friends
Page grew up in the East Lansing, Michigan, area, where his father, Carl Victor Page, was a professor of computer science at Michigan State University. The senior Page was also an early pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, and reportedly gave his young son his first computer when Larry was just six years old. Several years later Page entered the University of Michigan, where he earned an undergraduate degree in engineering with a concentration in computer engineering.
An innovative thinker with a sense of humor as well, Page once built a working ink-jet printer out of Lego blocks. He was eager to advance in his career, and decided to study for a Ph.D degree. He was admitted to the prestigious doctoral program in computer science at Stanford University. On an introductory weekend at the Palo Alto campus that had been arranged for new students, he met Sergey Brin. A native of Moscow, Russia, Brin was also the son of a professor, and came to the United States with his family when he was six. His father taught math at the University of Maryland, and it was from that school's College Park campus that Brin earned an undergraduate degree in computer science and math.
Brin was already enrolled in Stanford's PhD program when Page arrived in 1995. As Brin explained to Robert McGarvey of Technology Review, "I was working on data mining, the idea of taking large amounts of data, analyzing it for patterns and trying to extract relationships that are useful." One weekend Brin was assigned to a team that showed the new doctoral students around campus, and Page was in his group. Industry lore claims they argued the whole time, but soon found themselves working together on a research project. That 1996 paper, "Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine," became the basis for the Google search engine.
A hit with fellow students
Page and Brin created an algorithm, or set of step-by-step instructions for solving a specific computer task. Their algorithm searched all the hypertext documents in cyberspace, which are the basis for Web pages on the Internet. A typical search engine such as Hot Bot, which was popular at one time in the mid-1990s, worked by looking for a term the user entered—"New York Yankees," for example—in all of those documents. If the phrase "New York Yankees" was written into one Web site's hypertext code several dozen or even a hundred times, that document would come up first in the search results. But it might just turn out to be an Internet store that sold sports memorabilia.
Page and Brin wanted to create a search tool that would find the most relevant Web page first. If someone typed in "New York Yankees," for example, the official Yankees site would be the first result returned. Their algorithm analyzed the "back links" in a hypertext document, or how many times other sites linked to it—the more links, the higher the relevancy of the page. As an article in Time explained, their search technology was the first to "treat the Internet as a democracy. Google interprets connections between websites as votes. The most linked-to sites win on the Google usefulness ballot and rise to the top of the search results."
"I hope they will be able to return answers, not just documents.... In the future, Google will be your interface to all the world's knowledge—not just web pages."
Sergey Brin, Guardian (London, England), November 23, 2000.
The search engine with Page and Brin's unique algorithm was initially named "Backrub," but they later settled on "PageRank," named after Page. It soon caught on with other Stanford users when Page and Brin let them try it out. The two set up a simple search page for users, because they did not have a web page developer to create anything very impressive. They also began stringing together the necessary computing power to handle searches by multiple users, by using any computer part they could find. As their search engine grew in popularity among Stanford users, it needed more and more servers to process the queries. "At Stanford we'd stand on the loading dock and try to snag computers as they came in," Page recalled to McGarvey. "We would see who got 20 computers and ask them if they could spare one."
Maxed out credit cards
During this time Page and Brin were running the project out of their dorm rooms at Stanford. Page's room served as the data hub, while Brin's was the business office. But they were reluctant entrepreneurs, not wanting to shelve their Ph.D. studies and join the dot-com rush of the era. In mid-1998 they finally relented. "Pretty soon, we had 10,000 searches a day," Page told Newsweek 's Steven Levy. "And we figured, maybe this is really real." They initially set out just to defray their costs. "We spent about $15,000 on a terabyte [one million megabytes] of disks," Brin explained to McGarvey. "We spread that across three credit cards. Once we did that, we wrote up a business plan."
The freewheeling corporate culture at Google has produced the occasional prank since its founding. The company had been known to post fake press releases around April 1, or April Fools' Day. In 2000, for example, it launched "MentalPlex," which offered Google site visitors the ability to "search smarter and faster" by peering into a circle with shifting colors.
In 2003 Google explained its novel search technology "PigeonRank" in an April Fools' Day insertion on their Web site that offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into "the technology behind Google's great results." It was pigeons, the page explained, that helped deliver such quick and accurate search results. In a FAQ, or Frequently Asked Questions, section of the page, it addressed the question, "Aren't pigeons really stupid? How do they do this?" Google responded, "While no pigeon has actually been confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, pigeons are surprisingly adept at making instant judgments when confronted with difficult choices."
Page and Brin had the idea to license their PageRank technology to other companies to pay off their credit card debt, but none were interested. David Filo (1966–), another Stanford graduate who had started Yahoo.com, suggested they form a search-engine company. They named their company "Google," after the mathematical term Googol, which specified the number one followed by a hundred zeros. They took it to Andy Bechtolsheim (1956–), a Stanford graduate and co-founder of Sun Microsystems. One of their professors set up an in an early morning meeting with Bechtolsheim. They showed him their Google demo, but Bechtolsheim had another meeting on his schedule that morning, and needed to leave. He liked their idea, however, and offered to write them a check on the spot for seed money. It was for $100,000, and was made out to "Google." In order to deposit it, Page and Brin first needed to open a bank account with their company name on it.
Page and Brin went on to raise more money from friends, family, and then from venture capital firms that funded new businesses. By the end of 1999 they had set up headquarters in an office park in Mountain View, and had officially launched the site. In June of 2000, Google reached an important hallmark: it had indexed one billion Internet URLs, or Uniform Resource Locators. A URL is the World Wide Web address of a site on the Internet. Reaching the one-billion mark made Google the most comprehensive search engine on the Web.
Hired industry pro
In their first years in business, Brin served as president, while Page was the chief executive officer. The company continued to grow exponentially during 2001. Google even became a verb—to "Google" someone or something meant to search for it via the engine, but it was most commonly used in reference to checking out the Web presence of potential dates. Page and Brin's company was the subject of articles in mainstream publications, but they continually rejected offers to go public—make their company a publicly traded one on Wall Street. They did, however, hire Eric Schmidt (1955–) as chief executive officer and board chair in 2001. Schmidt was a veteran of Sun, where he had served as chief technology officer. As Brin explained to Betsy Cummings in Sales & Marketing Management, "Larry and I have done a good job," but conceded that "the probability of doing something dumb" was still likely. "It's clear we need some international strategy, and Eric brings that."
Google kept expanding in cyberspace. It added search capabilities in dozens of languages, and began partnering with overseas sites as well. It also attracted legions of devoted new employees. Its headquarters were informally known as the "Googleplex," and workers were relatively free to make their own hours, with the idea that employees should be able to work when they felt they were most productive. Google staff were also encouraged to use 80 percent of their work hours on regular work, and the other 20 percent on projects of their own design. One of those side projects emerged as Orkut.com, a harder-to-join version of the social-networking phenomenon Friendster.com. Orkut was named after the Google engineer who created it, Orkut Buyukkokten.
Page and Brin strove to keep Google's corporate culture relaxed in other ways, which they felt benefited the company in the long run. Its perks were legendary. There was free Ben and Jerry's ice cream, an on-site masseuse, a ping-pong table, yoga classes, and even a staff physician. Employees could bring their dogs to work, and the company cafeteria was run by a professional chef who used to work for the rock band the Grateful Dead. Brin discussed his management philosophy with Cummings. "Since we started the company, we've grown twenty percent per month. Our employees can do whatever they want."
By early 2004 Google was one of the most-visited Web sites in the world. Its servers handled some 138,000 search queries per minute, or about two hundred million daily. Analysts believed it was taking in approximately $1 billion in revenues annually, and the company finally announced plans to become a publicly traded company with an initial public offering (IPO) of stock. Theirs, however, would utilize a unique online auction process to sell its first shares to the public. This meant that the large Wall Street firms that handled the IPO underwriting—which investigated the company's books and then placed a monetary value on it—would not be able to give the first shares out to their top clients as a perk. It was estimated that Google was going to be valued at least at $15 billion, and possibly even as high as $30 billion.
Page and Brin each own thirty-eight million shares of Google stock. They would become overnight millionaires when Google began trading on the NASDAQ, or National Association of Securities Dealers Automatic Quotation system, sometime in 2004. Business journalists were calling it the most hotly anticipated IPO of the post-dot-com era. Many other Internet companies had quickly become publicly traded ones in the late 1990s, but began to crash when the economy slowed over the next few years. Just prior to launching their IPO, Google entered a legally required "quiet period," in which they were not allowed to discuss their plans or strategies with the press. Brin told Levy in Newsweek just before that period that he and Page were content to keep tinkering with their research-paper idea. "I think we're pretty far along compared to 10 years ago," he said. "At the same time, where can you go? Certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off. Between that and today, there's plenty of space to cover."
For More Information
Cummings, Betsy. "Beating the Odds: Now That Frivolity Has Killed Many a Start-Up, Relaxed Management, On-Site Restaurants, and In-House Massages Seem Like Dot-Com Death Wishes. Google.com Proves Otherwise—Thanks to Top-Rate Technology, a Rare Sales Model, and an Aggressive Vision for What's Ahead." Sales & Marketing Management (March 2002): p. 24.
Flynn, Laurie J. "2 Wild and Crazy Guys (Soon to Be Billionaires), and Hoping to Keep It That Way." New York Times (April 30, 2004): p. C6.
Helmore, Edward. "Float Revolution: Google Takes the High Road: The Founders of the Internet Phenomenon Have Announced Flotation Plans — But They Are Determined to Go Public in Their Own Inimitable Fashion." Observer (London, England) (May 2, 2004): p. 3.
"In Search of Google: Watch out, Yahoo. There's a Search Engine Out There with Uncanny Speed and Accuracy. And It's Way Cool." Time (August 21, 2000): p. 66.
Keegan, Victor. "Online: Working It Out: Searching Questions: Sergey Brin Is the President and Co-Founder of the Search Engine Google, Which Was Set Up in 1998." Guardian (London, England) (November 23, 2000): p. 4.
Levy, Steven. "All Eyes on Google; In Six Short Years, Two Stanford Grad Students Turned a Simple Idea into a Multibillion-Dollar Phenomenon and Changed Our Lives. Now Competitors Are Searching for a Way to Dethrone the Latest Princes of the Net." Newsweek (March 29, 2004): p. 48.
Levy, Steven. "The World According to Google: What If You Had a Magic Tool That Let You Find Out Almost Anything in Less than a Second? Millions of People Already Have It—and It's Changing the Way We Live." Newsweek (December 16, 2002): p. 46.
McGarvey, Robert. "Search Us, Says Google." Technology Review (November 2000): p. 108.
Poliski, Iris. "Page Revs up Google's Engine: The Google Search Engine is Virtually a Household Name among Computer Users, and Larry Page, Its Developer, Was Voted R&D's Innovator of the Year for Bringing It to Fruition. Not Only Is Google a Powerful Finder, Its Spinoffs May Change Computing History." R & D (November 2002): p. 40.
Sappenfield, Mark. "A Culture of Idealists Creates Startup Success Google Founders Hold Firm to Their Geeky Roots." Seattle Times (April 30, 2004): p. E4.
Waters, Richard. "Idealists Bound for Reality: Men in the News Sergey Brin and Larry Page: As Google Prepares For Its Stock Market Debut, Richard Waters Asks How the Men Who Founded the World's Most Popular Search Engine Will Cope with the Transition from Internet Visionaries to Corporate Billionaires." Financial Times (October 25, 2003): p. 15.
"The Google Timeline." Google.com. http://www.google.com/corporate/timeline.html (accessed on July 13, 2004).
"Our Search: Google Technology." Google.com. http://www.google.com/technology/pigeonrank.html (accessed on July 13, 2004).