Fraser Harper puts it simply: “The opportunity to get an insight into how Google operates was simply too good to pass up”. In September of 2011, Fraser – CEO of internet retailer LN-CC.com – boarded a bus taking a selected group of entrepreneurs on the first of the Breakthrough programme’s ‘Masterclasses’ to the headquarters of market-leading companies. In this case it was an opportunity to hear senior executives at Google explain the business practices and philosophies of a company that, in the space of less than 15 years, has taken the road from technology start-up to iconic global business.

At one level that success can be attributed to having a highly popular core product – a search engine that ranks pages according to importance – and the commercial ability to monetise the popularity of that tool through a system of personalised advertising triggered by keywords entered by users.

But Google has proved itself to be much more than a one-trick pony. While the search facility remains firmly at the centre of Google’s operations, the company has diversified into the smartphone market through the Android operating system. Google has also recently launched its own range of stripped-down laptops operating on software that is stored not on the machine itself, but on remote servers accessible via the internet. Equally important, the company has had to retain its distinct working culture in the face of stratospheric growth. This culture is partly defined by the informal corporate motto “don’t be evil”, but is sustained by Google’s commitment to constant innovation and excellence; a mindset established when the business began life as a Stanford University project.

It’s Google’s commitment to innovation that has helped the company stay ahead of the curve. Anyone who regularly uses the company’s search engine – and that means the overwhelming majority of internet users – will know that the basic search service is constantly refreshed to allow rapid access to specific areas of interest such as blogs and social media. Commercially astute, Google also regularly improve the services available to advertisers.

Google is a company that thrives on looking forward. So it’s no surprise that Fraser Harper and his fellow visitors were keen to look under the bonnet of the company and find out exactly what makes it thrive.

 

 

Setting out

The Breakthrough programme’s Masterclasses are designed to provide attendees – all owners or managers of fast-growth businesses – with direct access to senior executives at the host company, and those visiting Google were certainly given plenty to think about.

Presentations by Google included an overview of the company’s new products, an assessment of trends in online marketing and a talk on human resources (HR) and employment practices. And as Jonathan McGill, Director of McGill Pharmacy, recalls, the section of the day that dealt with HR practices proved particularly interesting. “Listening to Google, I could really appreciate how important [HR] can be.”

The Google approach to recruitment

In particular, Jonathan was struck by Google’s recruitment culture. All companies start out with a corporate culture that is usually defined by the personality and ambition of the founders. When there are just handful of employees that culture is relatively easy to maintain, but once a business begins to expand, sucking in new employees and managers, the original ethos may become lost. “Google have addressed that very well,” says Jonathan. “They have a very strong induction programme, which makes it crystal clear what your responsibilities are, and they have a system in which you can’t employ someone without five other people voting for it.” On the face of it, that might seem cumbersome but the vote/sign-off procedure means that hiring decisions extend beyond one person and are therefore less likely to be skewed by individual preference, and more likely to conform to the cultural consensus.

LN-CC.com’s Fraser Harper shares the view that Google’s HR procedures are fascinating, noting that, in addition to a careful watch on recruitment, the company uses policies designed to drive loyalty. “Around 20% of employee time is spent thinking about their own projects,” he says. “This really helps to drive motivation and loyalty.”

Mobile evolution

Recruitment and staff development policy clearly struck a chord among the visiting entrepreneurs, but as Andrew Ash, founder of the Grove Lodge Veterinary Group Ltd, points out, Google’s predictions regarding future use of the internet were also valuable. “I have been looking at ways in which Grove Lodge can improve its use of the internet and found it very interesting to hear Google discussing how the net is likely to look over the next five years,” he says. Figures on mobile usage were of particular interest, with Google sharing statistics showing internet access via handheld devices outrunning PCs and laptops in certain markets. This prompted Andrew to think about ways in which his company could communicate with customers via mobile handsets.

Ultimately, the Google Masterclass was all about generating ideas that could be adapted by the visiting entrepreneurs. On the journey home, the entrepreneurs were encouraged to talk to their neighbours about what they’d seen and what could be learned. McGill Pharmacy’s Jonathan McGill saw practical benefits in looking at Google’s recruitment policies. “One of the things they covered was how you can get the culture right every time you begin operating at a new site. I’m going to look at that,” he says.

LN-CC.com’s Fraser Harper also cites recruitment as a key area of learning, while noting that predictions on the growing importance of video search had direct relevance to his online lifestyle products business. “I will be reviewing how we use promotional video.”

With guest speaker Mike Soutar of fast-growing lifestyle magazine publisher Shortlist Media also sharing insights on how to grow a business rapidly, the Google Masterclass was a full and practical day. It was also an experience that highlights the overall value of the Masterclasses initiative. As Grove Lodge’s Andrew Ash says, “Where else would you get the chance to get such a close look at Google?”