Larry Page remembers exactly what inspired his life's work: a book he read at the age of twelve, about Nikola Tesla.
He was moved by the story of the Serbian-American inventor who foresaw 120 years ago how we would use alternative current and communicate wirelessly today.
Tesla was an eccentric pioneer who became the darling of New York high society and won over the biggest investors of his day as patrons. But he wasn't a businessman and died poor, never having realized his vision.
Mr. Page, son of a computer scientist and a programmer, zoomed through the book, full of wonder at the inventor who created things we use today but saddened by the limitations of money.
Mr. Page, fascinated by technology from a young age, never forgot the importance of commercializing inventions.
As a boy, Mr. Page was a technology freak. He took apart computers on his bedroom floor, and put them back together just for the fun of it.
He was the first at his school to hand in his homework that he had done on a computer.
A shy pupil, he dreamed of wild innovations: a cable into the sky allowing satellites to simply be raised into orbit, or a futuristic raised railway with passengers travelling to their own cars to their individual destinations.
But after having read Tesla, Mr. Page was more than a nerd – a young businessman was born.
Fascinated by technology from a young age, he never forgot: If I really want to reach a lot of people and make the world a better place, I’ll have to commercialize my inventions – and fast.
After graduating, Mr. Page applied to Stanford, the university at the heart of Silicon Valley. His interests at first took him in every direction: Telepresence, or technologies allowing people to sense something far away. Self-driving cars.
His professor found the idea of exploring the structure of the early world wide web most exciting.
Mr. Page soon realized that the importance of specific content was relative to how many links there were back to it. Shortly thereafter, his work became the foundation for a new Internet search engine. He and his partner Sergey Brin called it Google, after the extremely long number with 100 zeros known as a googol.
Google is now 17 years old and employs 55,000 people. It has turnover of $60 billion and net profit of almost $15 billion. Mr. Page isn't just its founder and boss – he also holds the controlling stake along with his business partner. Nowhere else is that the case among the world’s leading companies.
Mr. Page, one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the world, is still dreaming of technological breakthroughs.
Google is working on self-driving cars, developing robots, flying wind turbines and giant communication balloons, as well as attempting to revolutionize medicine with high-tech.
While others, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, put their money into foundations, Mr. Page wants to change the world.
His life is a kind of experiment: can a company that dominates the market succeed with innovations?
Mr. Page: evangelist, businessman, engineer, is determined to keep trying.
His work, shaping Google, dreaming up visions and determining to solve the world's problems, has won him enthusiastic support and skepticism.
Investors in America worry Mr. Page might burn through Google’s billions; Europeans are concerned he will wind up controlling their lives.
Mr. Page is withdrawn, reticent; perhaps it is because of the criticism of Google and the search giant's corresponding charm offensive that the request for an interview was approved.
Visiting Mountain View, the town in southern Silicon Valley might as well be called Googleland. The grid-like streets are lined with mid-sized buildings sporting colorful logos. Play zones with lounge chairs and bike racks are sprinkled between them, as are parking spots for electric cars.
This is the Page Empire – a playful copy of the Stanford campus.
Each year, two million people apply for jobs here; only 5,000 are accepted.
Until the eco-friendly new main building is completed, Mr. Page works in a glass structure near the old center of the campus.
The interview took place in mid-April in a nondescript conference room on the second floor.
It should be mentioned that Mr. Page is not a healthy man. For the past decade, he has suffered from Hashimoto’s disease, a rare autoimmune disorder causing chronic infections of the thyroid gland. Requiring hormone tablets, Hashimoto’s can cause periods of weakness and weight gain, among other symptoms.
Mr. Page says the “rather benign” disease doesn’t impair him. It is unclear whether that is the cause of his vocal chord disorder is unclear. But his left vocal chord never recovered from a paralysis long ago and the right side was affected in 2012. It has forced him to miss business appointments like the Google shareholders’ meeting. Ever since, his appearance and the way he sounds have taken on additional importance.
He entered the room quietly, avoiding eye contact, as he is known to do. Wearing jeans, a striped t-shirt and light jacket, he clearly still doesn’t put a premium on his appearance.
He looks just as he did in 2009, when he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, though his hair is grayer. But he is still the same grinning boy, an avid kite surfer and technology dreamer.
Only his voice is jarringly different, it sounds like he is speaking from a PA system with a faulty mike. Pure and slightly weak, it's the voice of hoarse angel.
Mr. Page's favorite topic is technology.
He is also a fan of the unexpected.
I’m constantly reminded: The more I learn to be an inventor and entrepreneur, a businessman, the more I’m aware not to trust my intuition too much. Larry Page, Google chief executive
Last year, labs at Google created a contact lens that is able to monitor a diabetic’s blood sugar level from their tears.
Mr. Page said they would never have tackled the project if an engineer working on the Google glasses hadn't passionately campaigned for it.
"Basically it would have been very easy for us to say no,” Mr. Page said. The message was: “It’s a highly doubtful idea, but if you’re really passionate about it, that’s fine.” The idea turned out surprisingly well, “and suddenly you have something that looks like a product and could be approved." Mr. Page said, "I’m constantly reminded: The more I learn to be an inventor and entrepreneur, a businessman, the more I’m wary of trusting my intuition too much.”
Mr. Page spends his time thinking – about physics, about transport and traffic, about the artificially high prices of land, about carbon fibers and errors in systems. He loathes inefficiency.
Video: Larry Page in a TED talk.
Right now, what's he's interested in is a city in Latin America, where long buses make stops nearly every minute at bigger stations, almost like a subway.
“I think about things that burden us,” Mr. Page said.
He is an optimist and believes that things are improving, from people's health to their happiness, though it's easier to focus on the everyday problems close by.
What's helping more than anything, Mr. Page said, are digital technologies and their commercialization.
While Mr. Page draws hope from that thought, it causes others to lose sleep.
Many people, especially in Europe, are fearful that the digital revolution threatens not only their sovereignty over their personal data but also their jobs.
Mr. Page countered that some day, computers and robots might boost productivity 10 or 20 times from today’s levels. This is surely a good thing, he argued. It will free people up from doing hard jobs like welding. Greater efficiency means lower prices, so people can satisfy their basic needs like shelter and safety more easily. “That means that you can spend more time with your children,” he said.
He said the world should just be better organized; if problems are created by Google’s progress, then we find ways to solve them and improve life.
For Mr. Page, the real danger is opposing technological progress and greater efficiency. These are dangers that lurk in the Old World in particular.
“Especially in Europe, it seems it's easy to ignore the fundamental physics of a question in order to claim everything is just fine when things cost twice as much as elsewhere. That attitude worries me because it hinders the work of entrepreneurs,” he said.
Shouldn't societies also have the right to say “No” to superior technology? Sure, Mr. Page said. But that isn't particularly smart. “If you make everything twice as expensive, you reduce people’s quality of life.” And do you really want to keep local entrepreneurs from making their contribution to the global economy? Naturally it’s great when citizens have the feeling they can decide. “I’m just saying that when they make decisions contrary to a global system of capital, then they have to do that consciously. I don’t think that's what's happening.”
Mr. Page doesn't want to offend Europeans; it's just there's so much still to be improved.
You might think he's achieved enough already. He's married to the beautiful and charming Lucinda Southworth, a Stanford graduate in bioinformatics, with two children. The billionaire 30 times has all the signs of success: an eco-residence in the Valley, a boat that's a combination of super-yacht and expedition ship and an airplane that dwarfs the jets of other ultra-rich people.
Mr. Page isn't satisfied yet though.
Perhaps because his early path to success wasn't straightforward.
Mr. Page and Mr. Bring started their company in 1998, with Mr. Page becoming the first boss.
He was 25 years old, a radical nerd with little regard for his employees' feelings. Google grew fast and made a name for itself as an effective search engine. But Mr. Page also caused controversy – the most when he got rid of a whole level of high-ranking product managers. He didn’t like it that people who didn't know much about technology were above his engineers, limiting their freedom.
That recognition of the value of software developers at Google was never forgotten. But it caused huge uproar and led to the hiring of new product managers and investor concern that led Mr. Page to hand over his post to the Eric Schmidt, a computer executive almost 20 years older.
In the interim decade – known as a period of “parental supervision” at Google – Mr. Page got rich. He celebrated a glamorous wedding in the Caribbean. He created Street View, the virtual street map of the world that became so controversial in Germany. He launched the world’s leading mobile operating system Android, which enabled Google to tap the smartphone market. He had the last word in hiring and ensured the company mainly took on engineers.
He also retreated, let his office assistants go and cleared his diary of press appointments.
No matter how well we do something, we want to make it a little bit better, so we can improve people’s lives.
He was no longer in charge of daily operations, and despite coordinating with Mr. Schmidt, Google was not what he hoped.
According to the American media, the firm’s top management wasted their time talking about projects whose nature, in his opinion, was too small.
Google’s innovations were supposed to solve big problems for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. Mr. Page didn’t – and doesn’t – want anything less.
Mr. Page returned as chief executive in 2011. Was he a different person, more trusting, more cooperative?
His fundamental style of management is unchanged, he said. He rarely dives deep into specific areas unless he needs to truly understand what his people are working on and if they’re doing a good job.
He doesn't shy away from conflict either, believing a company needs both, though conflict should be about issues, not personal.
He refused to be drawn into criticism of Mr. Schmidt.
The firm’s leadership all share the same crazy dream, he said: “No matter how well we do something, we want to make it a little bit better, so we can improve people’s lives.”
When he returned to Google's helm in 2011, his plans and ambition had only grown.
Mr. Page reorganized the management and gave more freedom to the executives in charge of the different units like the search engine and video channel YouTube.
All Google products were revamped so they had the same corporate look.
But more than anything, he put all his energy into moonshots – radical projects that could take 10 years or more to be realized.
The self-driving car is meant to revolutionize transportation, intelligent industrial robots are to renew factories and trade, Google researchers into artificial intelligence want to improve on human thought.
Physicians and technicians from the Google unit Calico are developing methods to combat ageing and the maladies it brings.
Solving the planet’s energy problems are on Google’s to-do list too.
Mr. Page has acquired several billion-dollar companies – and along with them, the world’s best subject matter experts, such a iPod and iPhone designer Tony Fadell and his startup that focuses on networked living, or the brilliant brain researcher Demis Hassabis and his company, Deepmind Technologies.
Google now even has its own venture capital division for long-term investments.
Mr. Page and his partner Mr. Brin, who is in charge of the futuristic lab Google X, are doing everything they dreamed of as boys – and still dream of as grown men.
Take project Loon, for example, whose name could either describe a crazy person or the second syllable of the word “balloon.”
Mr. Page, happy to be talking about technology rather than himself, explained that people at Google had long asked themselves how to connect remote parts of the world to the Internet. “Satellites are really expensive. Why not use balloons?” Mr. Page thought.
He searched (using Google) and discovered that 40 years ago, a balloon had sailed around the Earth several times. “I thought: People did that a long time ago. Now, we have much better materials and it’s not that heavy,” he said. In 2013, Google tested the first gas balloons in New Zealand.
Searches like these supply most of the company’s profits via advertising, making Google powerful and wealthy, with $60 billion in the bank.
That gives Mr. Page a chance to turn his wildest visions into reality, rather than sitting around and letting other companies shape the world.
For Mr. Page, the tech revolution offers the historic opportunity to do it differently than the General Motors, IBMs and Microsofts out there.
Even ahead of the initial public offering, Google’s founders wrote that they would still retain the freedom to pursue long-term projects.
One of the most important people Larry Page used to talk to was the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, who died in 2011. Apple concentrated solely on a few products and Mr. Jobs allegedly told Mr. Page often that Google made “too much stuff.” Mr. Page replied, “and you don't make enough stuff.”
Nowadays, Google has even more projects on the go. Was Steve Jobs right after all?
“We ask ourselves that every day at Google,” Mr. Page said. “But there's an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction I feel, and so do many others at the company." We ask ourselves: There are all these big firms, he said. "But is what they’re doing really important and effective enough for us to feel good about it? We want the answer to be ‘Yes’. That's how people will judge us, on whether we're making things that are meaningful to them? And if we're doing that more than others do? That’s a great opportunity.”
Mr. Page, now four years back at the helm, is still the company's heart and soul.
What may seem like a contradiction all somehow fits together: Google, the ultimate nerd company is fighting off the competition, banking billions and still trying to save the world.
In Germany, these seeming contradictions make many uneasy.
In a commentary, Mathias Döpfner, the chairman of German publisher Axel Springer, described Google as a terrifying company that swallows people’s data and the media’s profits. He addressed this to the wrong person – Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive at the time, Eric Schmidt. It should have started “Dear Larry Page.”
“I think you talk about us in unusually negative terms in Germany,” Mr. Page said carefully.
It is the most difficult moment during the whole interview; no matter how controversial the other topics were, Mr. Page was clearly more at ease discussing them. He even made contact with his brown, slightly sad eyes after three-quarters of an hour. No longer.
In response to the fear that all the information harvested by Google could fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Pages said this fear is sparked by German history.
Google recognized this a while back and changed its behavior in Germany.
Many people want access to data, Mr. Page acknowledged – criticizing first and foremost his own government, which freely collects people's personal information. “I don’t think a democracy functions when your government collects data and doesn’t at least explain what it’s doing.”
It's a subject Mr. Page is concerned about.
Everybody wants data, Mr. Page said. In Europe, he has often been approached by telecommunications companies eager for data. Google, he said, has stood up to many countries by protecting its users' data.
He had one message for people worried about their data.
“We use a lot of data in order to offer better services. That’s how we improve the search, that’s how we achieved speech recognition. Whoever offers the services will have the data and use it for improvements," he said. "It's fine to have a debate but you can’t just say the world should be like it was 20 years ago.”
Google's worldview doesn't include self-restraint when it comes to taxes either.
Mr. Page’s logic is clear: missing out on the data or hindering its collection undermines progress. Nobody can really want that.
Google's worldview doesn't include self-restraint when it comes to taxes either.
Does Mr. Page understand that taxpayers get mad when a rich company like Google does everything it can to avoid taxes?
“I understand why people are annoyed by this tax question,” he said. “But we don’t make the rules. We follow the law and our competitors do the same. That doesn’t mean that I support a global tax system, but it’s unbelievably complex and companies have a hard time with it. If you created a new system, it certainly wouldn’t be like this.”
The list of complaints about Google is long.
Companies have accused Google of privileging its own ads when people make shopping queries, even if they're not for the best deal; it is now the subject of an investigation by the European Union. Competitors in the Valley have even coined the phrase: “A Google search is a search for Google.” Is Google violating the imperative of impartiality?
“I absolutely don’t believe that,” Mr. Page responded.
But that’s what his competitors say.
“Sure. What a surprise,” he said, the only time in more than two hours that his tone becomes derisive.
Nobody has accused Google of offering its users poor services, though.
That’s what counts.
“If I were a young entrepreneur today and I could choose between starting my Internet firm in Germany or Silicon Valley, it wouldn’t be a hard choice," he said. "And regulation will only get worse in Europe. It will be very hard to build a company of global import there. And data protection, all these laws just make it harder.”
It is criticism worth considering. Perhaps instead of fighting yesterday's battles, Europe should create the right conditions for its entrepreneurs to conquer the markets of tomorrow.
It is not easy, Mr. Page knows, to focus away from the past and towards the future.
Most companies find it extremely difficult to change themselves into something new; their entire history works against it, he said.
He’s aware he's risking Google’s huge resources for quantum leaps into the unknown – that's why he’s trying to invest early as possible. They more audacious his projects, the better. He can attract the best people and there’s no competition.
Can Mr. Page escape the curse that weighs on market leaders? The digital glasses known as Google Glass were a widely-heralded project from the company’s future lab, though they’ve flopped – at least for now.
But looking at Google's progress, Mr. Page is confident that the company has already made an enormous impact. “We’re doing something right,” he says. “And that applies at least a bit for all of Silicon Valley.”
There are people who say that only one or two of these grand plans have to work to make Google even more successful and powerful than it already is. That's what Mr. Page is betting on.
What then? For many, the big question is whether Google will dominate our lives?
All these developments are still “at a very early stage,” he said, reassuringly.
Besides, he joked that he feels “somehow old and conservative measured by Silicon Valley standards.”
However, Mr. Page is undoubtedly living what he learned long ago from the book about Tesla’s failure.
The oft-derided do-gooder company motto “Don’t be evil” contains the belief in the power of the market. Capitalism isn't evil, but the best way to realize great inventions.
Google’s official goal “to organize the world’s information to make it generally available and useful” still applies.
So what's next?
“I can’t tell you," Mr. Page said.
But what’s he focusing on these days?
“The problem of people suffering because they were born in the wrong place. That is also the biggest potential business. Billions of people have no money. That makes no sense and doesn’t help anyone.”
Mr. Page said here, the Internet can make a big impact and enable people to determine their own fates.
“We can offer someone in Africa the same product as the President of the United States. And we don’t have to take any extra money for it.”
Internet for everyone means Google for everyone.
Perhaps Mr. Page’s big bet will pay off. Then everyone will be driving cars with Google programs and work with Google-controlled robots – until these, thanks to Google Deepmind, become smarter than we are and replace us at work and know our personal wishes before we can even utter them.
Larry Page is trying to change the world for all of us.
But what if humanity can no longer control this progress? Where will it end?
Maybe Mr. Page should have gone to Google’s “Zeitgeist” conference in London.
At the end, a star took to the stage: the wheel-chair bound British physicist Stephen Hawking, whose life story was recently turned into a popular film.
Mr. Hawking can only communicate via a speaking computer using artificial intelligence.
He optimistically expressed that this artificial intelligence was on the verge of a major breakthrough.
But his speech was primarily a warning to humanity: Now is the time to set the framework for intelligent machines, we now should decide what goals they should follow.
Otherwise machines will one day make these decisions – with consequences which cannot be foreseen.
This article originally appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]