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Google, Winners and Losers

Google time!

Pretty much everyone is familiar with Google’s idea of giving their employees a day a week to work on their own projects. (If not, see footnote*.) Of course, not every project ends up being successful, but Google works on the theory that the profitable projects pay for the others.

And, of course, that’s the way our society works too. Most businesses will fail. On a long enough time line, all will. But the successful ones create enough jobs and provide enough goods and services to keep the economy ticking over nicely. We study the successes, write books about them and encourage people to emulate them.

The ones that go out of business, we tend to ignore. In a few cases, it’ll be down to arrogance, a lack of attention to detail or just plain corruption, but for most, it’ll simply be because they weren’t successful enough for a number of potential reasons. Poor marketing, bad timing, poor pricing, or a lack of capital are just some of the possible reasons for a business to fail. But a lot of the time, it’s just plain bad luck.

“Disruptive innovation” is another reason that companies can go out of business. Put simply, if you have a sound client base and a good profit margin, you’ll often see no reason to change your business model. Unfortunately for you, though, the world is changing all the time, and you probably haven’t seen a good reason to embrace anything but a few minor changes. Suddenly, just as email reduced the number of letters being sent or downloading films reduced the need for the number of videos stores, there’s not as much demand for your product any more. In some cases, your product may disappear entirely and if you’ve left it too late to adapt to the new world, you join the other dinosaurs.

Some “losers” deserve our condemnation – Enron and HIH, for example – but the rest are just part of the capitalist system. At some level, we expect this to be happening. Governments will praise their entrepreneurial spirit, and be grateful for the jobs they’ve created. In fact, governments value this entrepreneurial spirit so much, that they offer certain businesses tax concessions or direct subsidies.

But let’s take a step sideways. Let’s look at the Arts for a moment. Governments of all persuasions subside the Arts, it’s only the extent of funding that’s the issue. And after all, why not? The Arts is a business providing jobs just like the car industry, or mining. But the big difference is this: If an exploration fails to find anything, no-one talks about ending the subsidies to all miners. The attitude there is that you’ll have to have a lot of unsuccessful digs in order to find the successful ones. In the Arts, money spent on “losers” are regarded as mistakes, as though everything in the Arts should be a success.

Whitlam was criticised for making creative grants too easy to obtain. And, undoubtedly, there were many laughable projects funded. But the trouble is that what seems laughable one day, may be pure genius in a few years time. “They’ve given three ships to that lunatic, Columbus – he’s going to sail off the edge of the world.” Sometimes the best way to pick winners is the Google approach – scatter enough seeds and the ones that grow make up for the others.

In an age of austerity, where certain things will be considered luxuries, we need to be very careful about thinking we can pick winners in advance. Sometimes, we just need to fund things like the Arts or research and development without demanding that we always get a result. Otherwise we end up sounding like the owner of the buggy whip factory, who didn’t see that maybe the car had implications for his business, or like The Salon in Paris who refused to exhibit the Impressionists.

And most importantly, we need to remember that making mistakes is part of improving any process or any system. If Alexander Fleming had just been a bit tidier, he would have never discovered penicillin!

* Another famous benefit of working at Google is the 20 percent time program. Google allows its employees to use up to 20 percent of their work week at Google to pursue special projects. That means for every standard work week, employees can take a full day to work on a project unrelated to their normal workload. Google claims that many of their products in Google Labs started out as pet projects in the 20 percent time program.

Jonathan Strickland How Stuff Works


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