How a Founder in Residence Identifies Areas of Innovation at Google
Having been at Google for 14 years and been part of several large products like Google Drive and Google Fonts, David Wurtz knows a thing or two about getting products off the ground.
Google Drive and Google Fonts are some of Google’s most popular products. Behind these incredible inventions are some hard-working, innovative people. One of them is our guest, David Wurtz.
David is a Founder in Residence at Google, a role that is part of Google’s Area 120, an internal incubator program for experimental projects. Google Drive and Google Fonts are some of the many projects in David’s rich portfolio of inventions.
In today’s episode of Reverse Engineered, our host Jon Penland and David discuss the challenges behind building tech products and the role stress plays in the invention process. In addition, David talks about his position at Google, the zero-to-one journey, and Area 120. Tune in to hear more about the process of developing technological products.
- What exactly is a Founder in Residence, and what’s their role within a company? David shares the advantages of his position and explains why it suits his personality. It all comes down to this: entrepreneurship is about seizing opportunities. “I’ve always gravitated toward the zero-to-one problem. I like identifying opportunities and putting together solutions in the form of products to address those opportunities to go after those opportunities. And the Founder in Residence’s role is an opportunity to do that. Founders in Residence are tufted with understanding what the company could potentially be doing that it’s not. And that’s a really fun job. At Google, there are so many things, so many teams, so much expertise, and lots of different subject matter. There’s a lot of opportunity in all sorts of directions.”
- The zero-to-one journey is an emotional rollercoaster. David talks about the upsides and downsides of building new tech products and inventions. He says it comes with a set of tough challenges and that it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. But is stress always a bad thing? Here’s what David thinks: “I think there’s also the concept of healthy stress and bad stress. And I think, if you can create environments professionally where you’re exposed to healthy stress, that’s a really good kind of stress, you actually want to be stressed. It means you’re growing. It’s just like building muscle; you have to break down the tissue for it to rebuild.”
- How do you determine a project’s chance of success? There are a few ways to identify whether a project has potential. Is it an interesting problem that’s going to attract top talent? Are you going to be able to stay engaged throughout project execution? While these indicators are key, David says it’s equally important to go beyond the honeymoon phase of a project as soon as possible. “Every idea starts in a honeymoon phase where everything is perfect. Everything’s going to work. You know very little about the realities of the business concept. I like to think that you want to escape that honeymoon phase as quickly as possible and get into the real work.”
Today’s Guest: David Wurtz, Founder in Residence at Google
David has been at Google for 14 years. Within that time, he co-founded Google Drive and Google Font. He was part of Y Combinator’s second batch (W06), and he also helped start a college. Passionate about ecommerce, David was one of the first successful Shopify merchants and even worked as the company’s advisor for six years.
- Company: Google
- Where to find David: LinkedIn | Twitter | Personal Website
Why It’s Important To Motivate Employees With Opportunities for Growth
“I’ve been at Google for quite a while. In all honesty, I didn’t think I’d ever be at a single place for 14 years, and it’s sort of crazy to think about. I think I credit that to just having opportunities to go from zero to one and all sorts of different areas, and I found it really enjoyable personally to climb the learning curve.”
The Challenges of Creating Google Drive
“It was about getting people to be bought in and getting them excited about the vision and aligning people, giving them a North Star to aim for. I think that was the challenge in the beginning. Our very first goal was to create a prototype that we could show people. And so we built this prototype that you could install on Windows. It was Windows first, and we were basically getting a few dog fooders, then hundreds of dog fooders.
Google has a term called dog food, eat your own dog food, basically, use your own products. We were very fortunate to have thousands of dog fooders using, basically, what was just a prototype and were very passionate about what we were building. We could grow the quality of our product from there, and besides selling it to the team that was going to build it, it was also selling it to our users.”
About Area 120, Google’s In-House Incubator
“Regardless of whether you’re in Area 120 or not, but you work at Google, you can be an entrepreneur that goes from zero to one. There’s plenty of opportunities to incubate new products, new launches outside Area 120. I think 120 is a formalization of this process and only adds to what the company can do.
Area 120 is a really special part of the company because it’s unique. A founder in residence is not supposed to launch anything. Unlike any other product manager at Google, when you become a founder in residence, you’re not measured on launching something. You’re measured on your exploration. And so, it’s a unique opportunity for you to take a step back. And I think that gives you also to think more holistically across the company.”
Escape the Honeymoon Phase As Quickly as Possible and Get Into the Real Work
”When you’re evaluating a new concept, I think it’s important to get into the real work as quickly as possible and identify your first few steps. It might be the first inkling of a prototype that you’re going to build, but I think it’s important to have your path, balancing where you would like to head and what the product could be with maximum success.
What I find happens is that when you hit that first milestone, that’s meaningful, and oftentimes it doesn’t take more than a few weeks even to get that first milestone, you end up getting that flywheel going, and you can feel the momentum start to build. And, when you get into that position where you are getting that flywheel to go faster and faster and faster, then it’s just a matter of patience.”
[00:00:05] Jon Penland: Hi everyone. My name is Jon Penland, and Reverse Engineered is brought to you by Kinsta, a premium managed hosting provider. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with David Wurtz, Founder in Residence at Google. David, welcome to Reverse Engineered.
[00:00:18] David Wurtz: Thanks, Jon. Happy to be here.
[00:00:20] Jon Penland: Yeah, well we’re so pleased that you have joined us today. So, to get us started, can you introduce yourself to our audience?
[00:00:27] David Wurtz: Sure. My name’s David Wurtz. I am a Founder in Residence at Google, and have been at Google for 14 years. Straight out of engineering school, back in 2007, landed my dream job of working at Google and building some really awesome products since.
[00:00:43] Jon Penland: So, landed your dream job, working at Google. What was it that made that your dream job? Like, how did you come to work at Google?
[00:00:52] David Wurtz: Yeah. So a couple of my classmates actually, and in classes above me had told me amazing things about the company, and I was just super excited to hear all the stories about how they were building products for millions of users and, and couldn’t have been more delighted to get a job offer back in 2007.
[00:01:11] I was actually studying bioengineering in school and every chance I got in the summer, I was actually working in tech. I actually dropped out of school and did a Y Combinator startup. And so, come senior year, when I was finishing up my engineering degree, it was pretty clear I wanted to be in tech and Google was just on that shortlist of companies that was really appealing, just based on all the stuff that, you know, that they were doing at the time and all the great things that I’d heard about the company.
[00:01:46] Jon Penland: So, you’d heard a lot of great things about Google from these other folks that you knew, and exposed to tech in general. Were you, like, a Google user yourself? Were you already involved with some of the products and whatnot that they had out in the ecosystem?
[00:01:59] David Wurtz: Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, I was using Google every day. And, you know, it’s funny, from the outside, a lot of people just think of Google as just the search engine and maybe, maybe they are familiar with some other things like Gmail, but one of the biggest surprises I had when I entered the company back then was just how much stuff was going on inside the company, how many cool projects there were, how many opportunities there were in other areas, and that’s been true even 14 years later with just the amount of stuff that we’re working on, that’s just mind-blowingly awesome.
[00:02:30] Jon Penland: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. As somebody who, you know, at Kinsta, our managed hosting platform is built entirely on Google, on Google Cloud, and we use Google Workspace and of course, everybody’s familiar with Google and then we’re also using, deeply relying on Google Analytics and Search Console and all this stuff. It’s a very content-driven company, and we’re buying Google ads, so yeah.
[00:02:56] I’m very, kind of, familiar with, there’s, you know, Google is a search engine and that’s a tiny piece, right? There’s, there’s a lot else going on there. So, but something you mentioned during your introduction, your role is Founder in Residence. What is a Founder in Residence?
[00:03:14] David Wurtz: Yeah. So, I’ve always, I’ve always gravitated toward the zero-to-one problem. I really like identifying opportunities and putting together solutions in, you know, in the form of product to address those opportunities, to go after those opportunities, and the Founder in Residence’s role is an opportunity to do that.
[00:03:33] So, Founder in Residence are tufted with understanding what the company could potentially be doing that it’s not, and, and that’s a really fun job because at Google, because there’s so many things, so many teams, so much expertise in lots of different subject matter, there’s a lot of opportunity in all sorts of directions, and so we serve the entire, you know, inside of the company looking for those opportunities and, and then pitch projects to invest further in and turn into products.
[00:04:11] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, as Founder in Residence, what’s something that you’re working on right now that you can talk about?
[00:04:16] David Wurtz: Yeah. So, I, for the last year or so I’ve actually, I guess you could say I graduated from Founder in Residence into Founder, so Founder in Residence, they search for opportunities and then when they find something, they go after and build a team and a product around it. So, for the last year I’ve been working on a FinTech in the corporate credit card space, it’s called Zest. And so, the premise there, and the reason why we were so excited about it is that large companies like Google have employee credit card programs. They give credit cards out to their employees so that the employees don’t have to burn personal credit when they’re going, traveling for business or just, you know, incurring charges associated with their job.
[00:04:58] But the maintenance associated with managing that program is actually really high. It’s very tedious. And so, what Google did about 10 years ago when we were first installing, rolling out our corporate credit card solution, was we built software to automate a lot of the maintenance tasks associated with the corporate credit card.
[00:05:21] And so, we actually had built that program into the second-largest corporate credit card program in the world and with, and the reason why we were able to get there with fairly small amount of, like, manual effort was because of that software. And so, as part of my Founder in Residence exploration, this struck me as an opportunity because it was a problem that almost every large multinational company has.
[00:05:54] And one where we had a unique perspective as users, we were, you know, we had built a solution to a problem that we had, and we had a really interesting and valuable vantage point that I think is pretty rare and hard to achieve. And so for the last year, my team and I, I hired a small team of folks that I had worked with in the past at Google, you know, some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with, and just phenomenal team and we’ve went and completely rebuilt the software to, with the idea of productionizing it. And so, we’re working with a few pilot customers and have some bank partnerships and we’re really, we’re really excited.
[00:06:39] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, so the idea here is Google had this problem within the company, which was the maintenance and administration of a corporate card program, they spun their own, and then you came along as a Founder in Residence and said, “We have this asset sitting here. It’s not really designed or suitable for external consumption right now, but there’s potential here.
[00:07:05] If this was a problem at Google, it’s going to be a problem somewhere else. And, how can we take this idea that we’re already using internally, how can we take this idea to market?” Does that, kind of, encapsulate the process there?
[00:07:16] David Wurtz: Yep. Yeah, that’s exactly it. And, and I think, you know, when you, when it comes to innovation within a large company, I think the Founder in Residence’s role is key to spotting those opportunities and, and making sure that, that Google’s, you know, doing all we can to go after the opportunities we’re well-positioned to go after.
[00:07:36] And, and, it’s also really fun to spot those opportunities as well, because you, you’re starting with a vantage point and a momentum and a skillset that is, otherwise would take a lot of time to gain.
[00:07:49] Jon Penland: That’s really interesting. So, there’s this idea that I’ve heard express, this is you’re kind of the third person to express this concept to me, which is of taking an idea within an organization, something that’s happening within the organization already and finding a way to bring it to market.
[00:08:12] So, I was, in another interview I had Shane Pearlman describe this as commoditizing the company by-product. So, in their case, they were developing plugins and different things and they were like, “We’re developing these things for clients, let’s get the licensing figured out so we can actually bring this to market.”
[00:08:32] And then, actually I was listening to another podcast with an interview with Jason Fried of Basecamp, and he talked about how Basecamp had come about, and basically they built their own project management system and then said, “This is an awesome product. Let’s figure out how to commoditize this product.”
[00:08:47] And what I’m hearing is just kind of this repeating chorus of within an established company, there will be times, there may be times where you can take something that the company is doing internally and bring it, and bring it to market. And, I just, I keep, I keep seeing that idea come up. Is that something that, that the Founder in Residence program at Google aims to identify potentially as these internal things that are already happening and how do we, how do we bring them to market?
[00:09:17] David Wurtz: Yep, exactly. And, I think I, I think it’s just as relevant for, for startups as it is large companies like Google. I think it all comes down to having context for what you’re building and being a user of your own product and having solved a real need is a really, it’s a very organic way for something to come into the world because it’s not hypothetical, it’s, you know that there’s a problem out there.
[00:09:46] And, oftentimes those products go on to achieve greater things than they were originally anticipated to achieve because they started with something real and grew from, grew from there.
[00:09:58] Jon Penland: So, Zest is not the only thing that you’ve worked on within the Google ecosystem, I know there’s some other stuff that you’ve worked on as well. Can you tell us about some other Google products that you’ve worked on in the past?
[00:10:12] David Wurtz: Yeah. So, you know, I’ve been at Google quite a while. In all honesty, I didn’t think I’d ever be at a single place for 14 years and it’s, sort of, crazy to think about. I think I credit that to just having opportunities to go from zero to one in all sorts of different areas.
[00:10:33] And, I found it really enjoyable personally, to climb the learning curve, various industries, currently the FinTech industry and corporate credit cards, but, you know, before that had an opportunity to go deep in Google, so I co-founded Google Fonts, and the world of typography and web fonts it’s just fascinating, such a really tight-knit community of creators and folks that are so passionate about design. It pained us as a search engine company to see websites embed text in images, because it’s not yeah, semantically, correct, it’s hard to parse, it’s usually slower to load using things, you know, embedding everything in image then actually just using the text, and so we decided to invest a bit of attention in this problem and give the web access to open-source, free-to-use, high-quality web fonts. And, and that was, that was really fun because it’s actually one of Google’s most popular APIs in terms of the amount of, billions of websites use the Font API to power all sorts of experiences. It’s built into third-party tools like Canva and Figma.
[00:11:53] And so anyway, that was a really fun one. It was a while ago, but it was definitely, it was definitely a highlight of my Google career. I also, I also was involved in the launch of Google Drive and, and that was, that was actually a five, that was a five-year stint from start to finish for me, in my career.
[00:12:14] But I was there super early and had the opportunity to see it come into being from the very earliest days, and that was quite a journey.
[00:12:26] Jon Penland: Yeah, Google Fonts is something I’m very familiar with. I started my journey into tech thinking I wanted to become a designer, right? And so, Google Fonts is one of the first tools, I think, that I was exposed to in the design realm, you know, learning how to use fonts and it’s, it’s a great source to get access to, you know, just thousands and thousands upon free fonts, and coming from the WordPress world, you know, I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would almost guess the majority of WordPress themes incorporate Google fonts because it’s a free open source option for bringing in lots of font options. So, I am curious though, so there’s one thing that you mentioned there, you said you’ve been at Google for 14 years and that you never thought you’d be somewhere for 14 years. And the thing that resonated with me there is this idea of, and you’ve said this a couple of times, of going from zero to one and that being a part of what kept you there, and I’m curious, I think, I think there’s a lesson here, if not possibly for founders and other, and other business owners, but also for people who are operating within a larger organization, I think, I think there’s an idea here around keeping highly ambitious people engaged in the work they’re doing in this concept, concept of zero-to-one, so I wonder if you can speak a bit to how this whole zero-to-one idea has kept you engaged at Google as somebody who admittedly said you didn’t think you’d be somewhere for 14 years.
[00:13:55] David Wurtz: So there’s sort of like a formality to it actually. There’s a program called Area120, which is an incubator within Google that is in, it’s actually designed for this purpose, it’s designed to go from zero to one and actually the Founder in Residence role is part of Area 120.
[00:14:16] And, I think the reason why that program exists is to shield, you know, these early brittle-nascent projects from the other, sort of, general forces at the company, give them room to breathe and to come into their own, and I think for, you know, for folks that are really interested in the zero-to-one, that’s a safe space to go to do that work.
[00:14:45] Now, I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve also been able to go from zero to one and the rest of Google, you know, outside of Area 120, and I think I just credit that to, you know, I was passionate about what we were going to do and at the end of the day, you need to, you need to convince others to work on the project, you need to convince, you know, leadership to give you the resources, and I think they get a sense when there’s a passionate set of individuals that want to go accomplish something and, you know, and then things build momentum. But actually, that momentum building is a tough game. It takes a long time to get those flywheels turning, but once they get turning, it’s incredible.
[00:15:40] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. Speaking of projects that at one point were probably turning slowly, that today are huge, Google Drive is another one that you mentioned, that you were involved in. So, tell us a little bit about that story. How did, how did Google Drive come to be? How were you part of that launch?
[00:15:57] David Wurtz: So we had a set of editors, the Google Docs Suite, Docs Slides and Sheets, and these products were just incredible from a functionality perspective, it’s sort of, the term was coined real-time collaboration, right? Suddenly, you went from editing static Word docs on your computer and syncing them, track changes over email to a world where it’s in the browser, you can see the people that are collaborating. And so, those products just naturally, we’re starting to get a massive amount of traction, and so, as the evolution of those products, we started what we called the Docs List, which was a list of all of your Google documents. It seemed like a fairly incremental improvement to the product suite, like, you know, if, if you had a couple hundred Google docs, you have to go to a webpage to go see all of them, right? Okay, so then we heard from our users, “Hey, I want to upload PDFs. I want to upload MP3s,”. At first, we were, we were thinking, “Oh, this is a feature,” it’s, I think at one point, at one, on one slide, it was called a Arbitrary File Upload.
[00:17:08] Like, it was sort of like, a thing we could add to our, you know, online Editor Suite, right? The volume of those feature requests started getting louder and louder, and we also were looking at what was happening in the market and what people were demanding, and realized that there was this opportunity for us to launch a Cloud Storage solution. And, and it, I should say it was actually fairly obvious that we should do this, like, the company had been getting signals that we should be doing this for years before, at least two years before I’d even started on the project, and we had actually attempted to launch it a few times, but maybe a bit too early.
[00:17:54] And so, it was the right time in history to start the project. We started with this very, like, concrete set of use-cases around the online editing suite. We layered, we brought that functionality in, we rebranded, and then I worked specifically, I worked on the local Sync clients, and that was a lot of fun.
[00:18:17] So, that was the application for Mac and Windows that allowed you to sync your Google docs and other files to your hard drive and across devices. That was a key pillar of our strategy, right, which was to bridge the online, see, users content was, sort of, bifurcated. They had all their PDFs and MP3s and Word Docs still on their computer, and then they had all their real-time collaboration, Google Sheets, Slides and Documents in their browser, and it was incredibly gratifying to merge them. The Sync client did that, it allowed you to see everything in one spot. And, I think that “wow” factor was really the signs that we were onto something early on.
[00:18:59] Jon Penland: Yeah. I’ve been using Google products long enough. I think I actually remember a time when Google Docs existed prior to Google Drive, right? Like, I’ve been using it long enough, I think I can actually remember that. You know, now it’s hard to imagine a world where I don’t have all of my set up, all of my stuff synced to the Cloud somehow, right? Like, it’s almost inconceivable to think that I would run the risk of only storing things locally, and anytime somebody emails me a file now, I’m like, “What in the world are you doing? Like, what are you thinking sending me this file as an attachment?”
[00:19:35] David Wurtz: Right. Yeah. I think, I think, every time I get a piece of paper mail, I’m scanning it into my Google Drive and throwing it right in the recycling bin.
[00:19:42] Jon Penland: Yeah. That’s exactly right. As a company, we actually rarely handle physical mail. Like, we just have a service that gets our mail, scans it in for us, and then we get an email that says, “Here’s your mail,” and we can either, 99% of the time we’re just shredding it, right? If it’s not a check or something from the IRS, right, it’s going to the shredder. So yeah, absolutely. So, obviously launching something as ambitious as Google Drive would not be without its fair share of challenges. So, talk us through within, you know, you’re in this large organization, what are some of the challenges or hurdles you faced while launching Google Drive?
[00:20:19] David Wurtz: Yeah, I think it’s that momentum building. That’s always a challenge. We, we started with just two engineers, Paul and Frank, out of the New York office, probably 2010ish timeframe. It was up to us as a team of three to prove that this was going to be the big deal we believed it could be.
[00:20:44] So, we were evangelizing. You know, I remember flying out to Boulder, Colorado, which I eventually moved to Boulder, just a couple of years later ’cause I was, I was working out of there so often. But I remember flying out to Boulder and talking to the engineers who were on the Docs List and [00:21:00] saying “Here’s, here’s what we believe the future is,” and, “Check out this vision.” And, we were actually sitting out on the nice patio, looking at the flat irons at the time, I still remember it vividly, and so it was, it’s about getting people to be bought in, and getting them excited about the vision and aligning people’s north, you know, giving them a north star to aim for.
[00:21:24] And so, I think that was the challenge in the beginning. Our very first goal was to create a prototype that we could show people, and so we built this prototype that you could install on Windows. It was Windows first, and we were a, you know, basically getting a few dogfooders, then hundreds of dogfooders.
[00:21:48] These are, these are people, so Google has a term called “dogfood.” “Eat your own dog food,” basically, use your own products. And so, we had, we were very fortunate to have thousands of dogfooders using basically what was just a prototype and very passionate about what we were building and could grow our, the quality of our product from there.
[00:22:10] And that, that’s part, besides for selling it to the team that was going to build it, it was also selling it to our users. In hindsight, it, it’s easy to, even for me to say, “Oh yeah,” like, “It was obvious what the product was going to be,” but actually there was a lot of really interesting and difficult product decisions, like, how deletes were going to sync. I don’t want to get into too much of the details ’cause it might bore you, but, like, deletes are actually, sort of, dangerous. Here’s why. Let’s say you have a nested-folder structure, you have a file that’s in a folder, that’s in a folder, and you also have multiple devices.
[00:22:48] Well, if you delete one of the folders that contains a file, maybe way down the hierarchy, it actually will propagate a delete for that file across all your devices. And so, it raises an interesting product question, one of dozens, which is, “Do you sync deletes bidirectionally?” In other words, if you say, “Yes” to that question, if you answer that question “Yes,” what’s nice is that your tree looks consistent across all your devices. If you answer the question “No,” it’s safer because you might’ve actually intended to delete the file on just one device, but then the downside is that you don’t have a consistent view across your screens. And so like, huge amounts of energy went into user studies to understand what people’s expectations were about interacting with their files in a local environment, especially Cloud files because, “What is a Google doc when synced to your local? Does it, does it actually delete if you delete it? Should it contain the data of the Google doc, or should it be just a pointer?”
[00:23:50] These are some really interesting questions we had to spend a lot of time thinking about, and, and that’s fun. That’s product definition work and having empathy for users in all the confusion points and making sure that the product we’re building is highly usable too, for the average internet user is, was a big part of the job and, a big part of the challenge of building a good product.
[00:24:12] Jon Penland: Yeah, yeah. That is interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it in that context where you’re taking a concept that has existed in one environment, in this case in a user’s local computer, and you’re pushing that to Cloud. And, how does that… you don’t know necessarily what user expectations are going to be until you spend some time letting users play with it and asking them, and a lot of times I think users don’t even intuitively know what the right answer to that question is. Like, I think if you just go to a user and say, “Hey, you’ve never used this product before. If you do X, what do you expect to happen?” That may or may not reflect what actually happens when they’re in the moment, focused on the task at hand and taking some type of action that, that does sound, like, a really, kind of, unique, a unique problem.
[00:25:04] We do some of the same type of thing, I mean, we’re not moving file systems into the Cloud for the first time or anything like that, but we have, like, a whole internal testing procedure, which does include our own internal team, and then we have customers who are beta-testers who have agreed to be the guinea pig, so to speak, for new products before we push them out to the entire customer base and, and the same type of a iterative process where you are putting something in front of a customer or in front of, in front of a user and then getting their feedback before you say, “All right, this is, this is how this should actually, actually behave,” and it’s interesting. So, obviously, Google Drive has gone on to be a huge success. In retrospect, looking back, is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known earlier in the process? So, in other words, if you could go back and do it again, what advice would you give to yourself?
[00:25:59] David Wurtz: Yeah, I feel like maybe it was just to, you know, enjoy it more. Looking back now, it’s easy to say this, but, you know, it was an incredible journey and we were in the thick of it with all of these, probably thousands of decisions we needed to make. It was a high, it was a fairly high-stakes launch, you know, Google was pretty serious about it and we needed it to stick the landing. And so we were appropriately stressed about getting it all right, and so, now I would just tell myself to relax a little bit and enjoy the process because that was a lot of fun.
[00:26:47] Jon Penland: Yeah, yeah, no, I think that that’s, that’s actually probably, resonates with me a little bit, as I look back at my own journey, and I’m, kind of, thinking about you now, as you’re going through a similar process here with Zest and it, it can be very challenging in the moment to have a good perspective on the positive parts of what you’re doing.
[00:27:07] Because a lot of times what you’re doing is very hard and it can be stressful and it can be challenging and you can be like, “I’m not sure that this is something I want to do,” right? Like, “Today, maybe I don’t want to do this,” right? And then, the benefit of hindsight is you go, “You know what, actually, that was, that was some of the most rewarding stuff I’ve done.” Yeah. So, I think that’s one of those things that, you know, you have to, kind of, occasionally step back and remind yourself, you know, how far you’ve come and, and almost like, imagine yourself a few steps down the road and go, you know, “If I look at my current situation, the current set of challenges I’m facing and what I’m building, how am I going to feel about this a year from now or six months from now?”
[00:27:53] And, I think that can really help move past or move through, work your way through some of the more challenging, difficulting, difficult times. As a founder, just as somebody, again, I’m not a founder, but I’m somebody who’s working in an organization that’s changing rapidly, and so dealing with some of those, those things that, that percents of perspective can really help.
[00:28:11] David Wurtz: It totally, I 100% agree. I feel like, you know, the zero-to-one journey is a roller coaster ride emotionally. There are times where you just want to give up and shut the project down and you wonder why you’re not working on easier, more incremental features for existing products.
[00:28:28] Bringing something new into the world is a tough set of challenges, and, and it’s not for the faint of heart and years, years after launch, you could look back and say, you know, “That was easy. Those are obvious,” but I think when you’re in it, it’s tough. I think there’s also the concept of a healthy stress and a bad stress, and I think, you know, if you, if you can create environments professionally where you’re exposed to healthy stress, that’s a, that’s a really good, a really good kind of stress. You actually want to be stressed. It means you’re growing. It’s just like building muscle, you know, you have to break, break down the tissue for it to rebuild, and think that’s exactly what I was experiencing then. Although at times it felt bad, it’s actually good for you ’cause it pushed me in all sorts of really important ways professionally.
[00:29:14] Jon Penland: Yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing that grows you as a professional or whatever it is you’re doing, you know, whether you’re a developer, whether you’re a sales person, whether you’re a marketer or whether you’re in operations, there’s nothing that grows your skillset like facing a challenge that makes you uncomfortable, like facing a challenge that is a little bit outside of your current skillset that requires you to develop new competencies or just to be more resilient, right? Like, there’s nothing that’s going to grow you, you’re never going to be as good at whatever it is you do, if you’re always comfortable. It’s just not going to happen.
[00:29:51] David Wurtz: Yeah, there’s a really good book called “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday, and its premise is exactly this, which is basically the challenge associated with the task is actually the only path forward in life and contentment and happiness because it’s about doing, it’s about action, it’s not about all hypothetical’s, it’s getting your hands dirty, having accountability to yourself, low ego.
[00:30:19] There’s a lot of really interesting lessons in that book and I highly recommend it.
[00:30:23] Jon Penland: Yeah. I want to come back to Google’s Area 120 because I think the idea of Google having an incubator, or just a way of launching new projects within a large organization, it’s going to be an interesting thing for some of our listeners to, to think through, to understand a little bit. So, coming back to Area 120, tell us a little bit more about what Area 120 is.
[00:30:47] David Wurtz: Okay. Yeah. So, it operates like a venture capital firm. There’s a, there’s a small handful of partners and each partner scouts the company looking for founders and folks that are going to build the next best thing. And, there’s a pitch process, there’s an application process.
[00:31:08] The partners are measured on how, how their investments pan out and, and success scenario 120 is graduating back into mainstream Google and, and being part, being the seed of a new product area.
[00:31:20] So yeah, it’s quite an interesting layout. And, I think it’s a really exciting, fairly new,it’s only three years old actually, and so, yeah.
[00:31:28] Jon Penland: Yeah. I was curious because you’ve been involved, you’re involved in this current project through Area 120, but then there are these other projects, Google Fonts, Google Drive, I get, I get the impression, those predated Area 120 being a thing. Yeah. Okay. So, just completely different.
[00:31:42] So, so you’re in, kind of, a new, a new process here, and you’ve described a bit at a high level what Area 120 is, you’ve got partners, you have founders and you have teams that they’re building out. So, dial us in a little bit on that Founder in Residence role within that specific context. What’s the responsibility of yourself as a Founder in Residence within that context?
[00:32:05] David Wurtz: Regardless of whether you’re in Area 120 or not, but you work at Google, you can be an entrepreneur that goes from zero to one.
[00:32:13] There’s plenty of opportunities to incubate new products, new, you know, new launches outside Area 120. I think 120 is a formalization of this process and only adds to what the company can do, you know, otherwise.
[00:32:30] And, I think it is a really special part of the company because it’s unique in that way, which is that there are people, Founder in Residence job, who explicitly, they’re not supposed to launch anything as Founder in Residence. They’re, unlike any other product manager at Google, when you become a Founder in Residence, you’re not actually measured on launching something, you’re measured on your exploration.
[00:32:56] And so it’s a unique opportunity for, for you to take a step back, and I think that gives you – also to think more holistically across the company because, you know, there’s, you know, as a product manager in Ads or a product manager in YouTube, you know, or whichever part of the company you’re working in, you’re obviously going to be thinking in your area, you’re developing expertise, and conviction in your future and thinking about the industry and all the things that you know. Having the ability to see across various product groups and also reflect holistically on where the internet is headed, where tech is going, what’s, what’s happening in FinTech, we know what’s happening in Blockchain, what’s happening in, you know, whatever area that, that is relevant to the future, that you believe is relevant in the future and then ask the higher-level question, “What is Google doing about it?”
[00:33:53] And, a lot of the times we’re doing all the right things. The Founder in Residence sees that there’s stuff there and it, sort of, leaves content, that area alone content, knowing that they’re, like, the bet they wanted to see Google make is happening. But then in many other areas that’s not the case.
[00:34:12] There’s something that they believe, the Founder in Residence believes Google should be doing and they’re not. And then the rest is now the Founder in Residence making that a reality.
[00:34:22] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So, you’ve, you’ve been involved in entrepreneurial activity there within Google and, and we’ll get to some of the stuff you’ve done outside of Google because you’ve done some pretty interesting stuff outside of Google as well. The thing that it draws to my mind is that you have a little bit of a unique perspective on launching a project within a large organization like Google, as well as launching a project outside of an organization. And, I’m curious what you view as, as the benefits of, what are some of the advantages to launching something within a larger organization, like the Area 120 program?
[00:34:58] David Wurtz: There’s a lot of momentum you can get with, if you, sort of, strike the right chord, with the right set of users, Google has a, you know, a respected worldwide brand, and it’s so amazing to pair those, those users up with a product that they wanted, and then just, sort of get that flywheel going with the, from the user adoption perspective. And, you know, that’s a luxury, and definitely something that’s hard, hard to achieve if you were to do a startup from scratch, right? Google has some of the best engineering talent in the world, and, you know, particularly in AI and machine learning, and there’s so much opportunity to work with these incredible engineers doing amazing work in their field, and wrap a product around that. And, I think that part of the most enjoyable, the most enjoyable part of, of Google for me is my, my coworkers and just the, they inspire me every day and all that they do and I just love, I just love being able to work with smart people and difficult problems, and it’s a playground for solving difficult problems with smart people. So, I think it’s a community of people that are passionate about building really fantastic products and we have a lot of fun, have a lot of fun doing it.
[00:36:21] Jon Penland: Yeah. It’s funny, you mentioned Google has these great engineers and AI in these different spaces. I have to think that it can sometimes be a challenge as a founder to be like, “I really want this developer to help me work on this,” and that developer is also wanted by, you know, 12 other people within the organization.
[00:36:40] Right? Is it a challenge to get some of those, you know, fantastic developers and engineers and whatnot designers working on your project?
[00:36:49] David Wurtz: Yes. Yeah, for sure. I mean there, the good, the good news is that Google has a phenomenal roster of people working at the company, and so, you know, you can, you can attempt to get them on your team, right? But it does not come by default, and good people have lots of good options. I think it’s about that north star that we were talking about earlier, you know, having a vision that people are excited about, I think generally want to be part of a big narrative, a big launch, a strategic launch, a difficult problem even, you know, they, they want to feel part of something, a movement.
[00:37:29] And, I think it’s the role of product managers and also Founder in Residence to inspire people to aim toward one singular vision, and I think in some cases, the more audacious the vision, the easier it is to attract that talent because good people want meaty challenges.
[00:37:47] Jon Penland: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. The more I hear you talk about the Founder in Residence program, the more it sounds like, I don’t know, I guess I’m struck by the breadth of responsibilities that flow from that role where you have to, you know, take a look at an area FinTech, just as an example, and say, you know, “What’s happening in this industry?
[00:38:12] How is Google interacting with this industry? Are there, is there an opportunity here, something that we should be doing differently?” And then, and then you, you have to, not just identify an opportunity, but, kind of like, think about the idea on top of that and marshal resources to it, and there’s definitely going to be competition within the organization for those different resources. So, I guess I’m, I’m just struck by the breadth of the role and, and the sense in which it sounds like you’re very much operating as almost, almost the way an entrepreneur operates outside of the organization, with the exception of you have, I almost want to say constraints, but I guess I would just say you have resources that you can draw on a little bit more readily. But am I getting the right sense here, that this is an extremely broad and open-ended thing that, that Google puts people into this, this Founder in Residence program?
[00:39:07] David Wurtz: I think that even outside the company, as, as a startup, you know, attracting talent is, is a really important part of success, right? And, of course there’s ridiculously good talent outside of Google as well as inside of Google. But I think that Google is, it’s almost like a community, if you will. You know, I have some really profoundly deep professional relationships with my colleagues who I’ve worked with for years on a variety of things. And so, it’s part of my way in which I bring product into the world, is knowing the people that I want to involve in that effort, and they trust me to lead them and to set that vision, I trust them with a whole lot about how to execute and the technical decisions of how to build. And so, it’s not necessarily that it’s an advantage because, you know, Google has all the great engineering talent, it’s more that it’s my comfort zone, it’s my, it’s my community. And, there’s just so many people, there’s just so many amazing people inside the company that I feel like it’s an endless supply, and I’m always, I’m always meeting more people that are doing excellent things. And, I don’t know, it’s probably the same, it’s probably the same outside of Google as well, but I’m certainly, I’m, I’m certainly at the bias, I mean, Google’s got some really amazing people.
[00:40:21] Jon Penland: Yeah, All right. So, moving a little bit outside of the Area 120 program, but, kind of, still focusing in on your experience as an entrepreneur, so you have done some stuff outside of Google. Can you tell us about some of the other products or companies you’ve been involved in?
[00:40:42] David Wurtz: [00:40:42] Yeah, sure. I did Y Combinator back in college, and that was what actually got me into tech. I was a web developer in high school and yeah, you know, had dabbled in tech, but it was, it was really Y Combinator that, sort of, opened my eyes to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area and how crazy it was and what it meant to really go for it.
[00:41:06] My buddies and I, three of us total, took a leave of absence and went and started a startup. It was in the Web 2.0 days, we were a Mashup on top of Google Maps, it was a social network on top of Google maps, actually. So, it was, it was, it was actually four, it was basically four-square, before the iPhone came out, and it was called, Flagr, F L A G R.
[00:41:31] And, it got to a hundred thousand users or so, and they had a really fantastic community that was developing on it, but it never reached escape velocity. But man, did it teach me a lot, building product and, and actually, I wouldn’t have been hired at Google if I hadn’t done Flagr because I had lived and breathed the zero-to-one product design. I was even coding. I was wearing many hats. I was preparing for the interview right from the start, right? So, when the Google was, was interviewing me, yeah, they were asking me the same, actually, you can, sort of, get a sense for whether you want to work at a company based on the interview questions.
[00:42:08] Right? So that was my first, that was my first company besides, you know, besides for the, the web design company in high school. And then, so I was given a job at Google and, if I hadn’t been given the job, I probably would’ve started a startup. I was, it was a really enjoyable experience, but anyway, decided to take a job at Google.
[00:42:31] And, the first job they gave me was a Associate Product Manager for Google Checkout, which is a tool for sellers, for merchants to sell items online. And, I had no experience with e-commerce. Google, by the way, they, they generally hired generalists. So, it’s like folks that don’t necessarily come from industry experience in the, in the role, but that they trust can figure it out, so to speak, and so fresh out of school, fresh out of engineering school, I was product manager for the seller, seller side of Google Checkout, and I wanted to learn my own tool, and so I built a, a web store and became a user of not only Google Checkout, but of AdWords, so learned all about how the paid advertising world works, analytics and how to think about funnels and conversion rates and engagement metrics, and lifetime customer value, and, you know, it just, it was, I was learning it firsthand. Actually, sort of, by mistake, grew that to a company with, you know, meaningful revenue, and I was actually, I had built a Shopify store. It was from my research, one of the best platforms at the time and still is, actually, to build a web store.
[00:43:52] And so, became one of Shopify’s, largest customers, and actually had a pretty good business selling TV wall mounts online, of all things. It was at a time when, it was at a time when everyone was updating their big TVs for flat screens and mounting them to the wall. And, we had, my wife and I had just, like, brainstormed that like, “Hey, I should just sell TV wall mounts.”
[00:44:16] At the time, we had just gotten an apartment in Brooklyn, and we had gone to, like, some store and it was like 150 bucks for this piece of metal, and we’re like, “But this is a, you can go on, you can go online and get this for 50 bucks.” So, we saw the opportunity to, to put a business together there. And so, yeah, so that, that was really interesting.
[00:44:36] I think that actually, it was one of the first examples of something that I like to have repeated, which is to be your own user, you know. And maybe, and maybe, like, what we were talking about with Zest, with Google being its own user, it just gives you a perspective on what to build and keeps it real and not hypothetical.
[00:44:57] And so, that, the e-commerce company no longer exists, but it had a good run. But actually, I invest in direct-to-consumer brands even today because, because I’m just so passionate about DTC and, as from those years operating that company became interested in the space of e-commerce. And, there’s something amazing by the way about e-commerce, in the sense that, you know, a lot of times in software, the changes you make take a while to materialize, like the metrics that you’re measuring sometimes take, they’re a little bit laggy, whereas in e-commerce, you have a conversion rate, you have lots of metrics, but, you know, your conversion rates is one of the big ones, and you make a change to your website and your conversion rate goes up and, you know, you’re making more money, you’re more profitable. And so, like, the immediate feedback loop of e-commerce is addicting, I find. And so, it’s a cool hobby to say the least.
[00:45:55] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, you have, like, this experience of accidentally building a fantastically successful or reasonably successful Shopify store just by accident, and you’ve also been involved in a lot of really successful products, Google Fonts, Google Drive. So, as you are approaching a project, and, and you’re looking for, like, leading indicators or, or key factors for identifying, “This is, this is a project worth pursuing.
[00:46:26] This is something that has some legs to it, something that might stand a chance of success.” What are some of those, what are some of those indicators? What are some of those guidelines that you look for to say, “This is a project that has, has some potential.”
[00:46:40] David Wurtz: “Is it an interesting problem? First of all, like, are you going to be able to attract top talent? Are you going to be able to stay engaged?” It’s every project, every idea starts in a honeymoon phase and everything is perfect, everything’s going to work. You know very little about the realities of the business concept.
[00:47:01] I like to think that, you know, you want to escape that honeymoon phase as quickly as possible and get into the real work, not imaginary work, but real work and real work is discovered oftentimes over the course of many months and years, actually, you never really stop. But I think the, so yeah, so having something interesting that attracts the talent you want to work with, then it’s going to keep your, you can be passionate about it because when things get real it’s, it’s important that you’re, you’re, you continue to be engaged. And then, having that path forward with that real work, I feel like the old way in which software was built was a waterfall method and it’s it, you know, some teams still practice this, but in the waterfall method, there was a spec, everyone agrees on the spec and then the team goes off for six months and builds it.
[00:47:56] And, that worked in a world where you had to ship something on a CD and mail it out to your customers. But actually, the web opened up an opportunity for a much more adaptive process. And, you know, there’s agile and there’s lots of other methodologies, doesn’t matter which flavor, but they’re all of the type that they’re more flexible than waterfall.
[00:48:21] And to me, when you’re evaluating the new concept, I think it’s important to get into the real work as quickly as possible and identify your first few steps. It might be just the very first inkling of a prototype that you’re going to build, but I think it’s really important to have your path, both balancing where you would like to head and what it could mean, what the product could be with maximum success.
[00:48:53] So, those are fun things to think about, but those are the things, the types of thoughts you think about in the honeymoon phase, and then, you know, instead, now channeling your energy into what are those first few iterations of a product.
[00:49:09] And, what I find happens is that when you hit that first milestone that’s meaningful, and oftentimes it doesn’t take more than a few weeks even to get that first milestone, you end up getting that flywheel going and you can just feel, you can feel the momentum start to build. And, when you get into that, when you get into that position where you actually are getting that flywheel to go faster and faster and faster, then it’s just a matter of patience.
[00:49:40] And, if you did your, you know, if you chose correctly based on the topic, obviously making sure that this is the thing that people want and that flywheel keeps on going fast, faster and faster, then it’s just a matter of patience, staying in the game until that thing is, you know, humming. And, the process of bringing that in, you know, product into the world, I think it’s just, in some ways it’s just a grind to get that flywheel going fast enough that it has reached, has reached an escape velocity and will continue to exist even if you step away yeah, as the founding team.
[00:50:12] Jon Penland: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s, that resonates a lot with what I see working at, at Kinsta as well, where, you know, like, like you described, we definitely don’t have a waterfall approach to software or to product. And I think that anybody who operates in the Saas space or just in any sort of web-based business, but if you’re operating with a waterfall mentality, your days are numbered and the number isn’t very big. The internet just moves way too fast.
[00:50:43] You cannot say, “This is our product. We shipped it. We’re done.” Like, that, that idea just doesn’t work. There has to be a continuous iterative approach to, “This is our product today, but what do our customers need? Where’s the internet going? Where’s the product going? How do we stay relevant? How do we stay actually a step ahead of the curve if we can?”
[00:51:05] But I think you’re right. You know, you, kind of, look at all these different pieces of what’s going to make this idea work, you know, there’s the distribution piece, and the marketing piece, and there’s the product piece design development, and you do, you, kind of, build those processes and you build the momentum.
[00:51:22] And then, as you go along, you do tweak things, you do, you do refine things as you go, but by and large, it really is just about keeping, keeping those wheels turning, like, establishing those processes, recognizing there, there is no single destination, like, this is a process that you have to build and then, and then move forward and then, and then watching it roll out.
[00:51:43] I just want to, I guess, say that I, I see the same principle at work, in Kinsta, which is obviously a much smaller company than Google, we’re a company of about 190 at this point, but I see the same sort of principles driving. What makes Kinsta work is what you’re saying have made you know, these different projects work for you, well, within the Google ecosystem.
[00:52:05] So as we move this conversation towards a conclusion, I’ve got a couple of wrap-up questions for you. The first, do you have any kind of a resource you would recommend to listeners of this podcast? This could be a book, you know, a newsletter, somebody to follow on Twitter, anything, like, is there something you’d recommend and say, “Listeners of Reverse Engineered, you need to check this out.”
[00:52:31] David Wurtz: Yeah, the Ryan Holiday books, big fan. “Obstacles Is The Way” is one of my favorites. “Ego Is The Enemy” is another. Just a phenomenal writer, just so densely packed with insight about the human condition and what we all strive for and how, how our ego can get in the way of success. And, I think it’s actually really relevant to product zero-to-one path.
[00:52:58] I really like Cathie Wood at Ark Invest. I’m not sure if, I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of her. She’s a public equity investor, runs a series of funds structured as an ETF, as ETFs. But I started becoming a fan of Cathie, she actually gives a lot of podcasts interviews, and I, the first one I listened to, maybe five years ago at this point, she was just so skilled at talking about the future and what innovation means in various ways, she has these five innovation platforms that her fund tracks, things like electrification, like, basically electric vehicles, I think she calls it energy storage, Blockchain technology, genomics, robotics, and there’s one more. And so, she basically breaks down how these innovation platforms are accelerating, and we as humans are really bad at extrapolating exponential growth, where, like, our minds can not comprehend what exponential means, if you compound that over many years, and so she has a really unique way of looking at the future of human progress and uses that as an edge to invest. And, I just really enjoy the work she puts out talking about what, you know, what the future looks like along all of those dimensions, and her content is always super interesting.
[00:54:31] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, Ryan Holiday and Cathie Wood. Is there something else that you wanted to recommend?
[00:54:38] David Wurtz: There, so yeah, you know, the Internet’s got a lot of really good content. I really like the “Accelerated” newsletter, from Justine and Olivia Moore at Charles River. They’re actually twins. I have two sets of twins, so maybe I have a liking you to twins, but just, Justine and Olivia are just, they, they write an incredible newsletter called the “Accelerated” newsletter, and it’s just, it covers a lot of things related to commerce and tech, and I just find it really on point every week. And so, that’s another one I would recommend.
[00:55:10] Jon Penland: Okay. Awesome. Good deal. So, where can our listeners learn more about you and about Area 120?
[00:55:18] David Wurtz: Sure. Yeah, I’m on, I’m on Twitter, David Wurtz, and I think area120.com is probably the best place to go to learn more about Area 120.
[00:55:27] Jon Penland: All right. Perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, David, and thank you, to our listeners. That’s it for today’s podcast, you can access the episode show notes at Kinsta.com/podcast. That’s K I N S T A.com/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to Reverse Engineered and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or the platform you’re listening on right now. See you next time.