This unwritten policy allows employees to spend up to one day a week or four days a month or 75 days a year on side projects which they want to pursue, using the company’s own resources. Many such projects later went on to become part of Google’s core offerings, including Gmail, AdSense, and Google News.
Google engineer Paul Buchheit was the person responsible for the creation of both AdSense and Gmail. Both began as side projects by Buchheit. Today, AdSense is Google’s second biggest revenue earner after AdWords. Gmail is probably the biggest web-based email in the world. It was revolutionary when it was introduced. It still leads from the front, and is the pivot around which Google Apps for Business suite on the cloud is offered by the company.
So successful and threatening did Google Apps for Business become for Microsoft’s core bread and butter Office suite that it was forced to offer a cloud version of the same in Office 365. This meant the Outlook email client had to be made available as a Web offering. So Microsoft ended up renaming Hotmail as Outlook. Look how a 20% project started by an engineer at Google ended up affecting even the company’s competitors!
Much of what I am going to write here is taken from Ryan Tate’s book, The 20% Doctrine, where the first chapter chronicles Buchheit’s Operation Gmail and AdSense.
BEGIN BY SOLVING A PERSONAL ITCH
Tate says 20% side projects usually begin as an attempt to satisfy some personal itch. In the early years of the aughts, Buchheit’s itch was clearly email. Most of the popular Web-based offerings majorly sucked for him. For one, their storage capacity was minimal and users had to constantly work at trimming and deleting mails. Also, search capabilities were sadly lacking in email. Most providers didn’t have the knowhow to search mails for keywords appearing in the body of the text.
Buchheit was conveniently placed. He had just finished fixing Google Groups, which was an archive of online conversations earlier known as Usenet. Buchheit’s fix involved making the archive searchable. He realized that email messages were fairly identical to messages in a board like Google Groups. The ‘To:’, ‘From:’, ‘Date:’, and ‘Subject:’ fields were shared, and the formatting rules were common as well.
So Buchheit had an itch to solve, and he knew what to do. And it took him just a few hours to release the first version of Gmail. He shared it with a few colleagues, with code supporting only his own account. It would be good if the code supported our accounts too, they replied. And so, Gmail 2.0 was soon released, which supported search for users’ own email accounts.
He followed the ‘release early and release often principle’ which is today the defining theme of the agile software development school. An early innovation was ‘Conversation View’, which displayed all replies to an email message as a unified thread. This prevented colleagues from talking past one another as was the practice before. “They would have to read all prior replies to an email before they could send one of their own,” says Tate. Very early, Gmail distinguished itself by its search capabilities. As mentioned before, this was an area where other email providers sucked. But Gmail quickly nailed comprehensive email searches.
HOW TO SUCCEED WITH A 20% PROJECT, THE BUCCHEIT WAY
Tate writes that to succeed with a 20% project, “the trick is to find a way to make a small initial prototype and then take small steps forward”. Tech start-ups refer to this as the Minimum Viable Product, notes Tate. “The sooner you release, the sooner you get information from your users about where the product should go,” writes Tate. For instance, the Gmail churn was so intense that the front-end was rewritten about six times and the back-end about three times.
The next concern for a 20% project developer is to know when to stop. As in, when do you consider your project sufficiently developed that you are ready to ship? Buchheit took to heart the advice from then Google CEO Eric Schmidt that he should launch only after getting 100 happy users for Gmail inside Google. Buchheit later said that he and his team would approach people directly for their feedback, and if the bar was set too high, they would abandon that user saying they were unlikely to ever satisfy him. But in short order, they won over 100 happy users by making small tweaks to the code based on user feedback.
Humility is an important quality to have for such a project developer. Tate quotes Chris Wetherell, the lead developer of another 20% project called Google Reader (now shut down) as saying about the Gmail project, “Can you imagine working on it for two years? No daylight. Very little feeback. Many iterations, many. Some so bad that people thought, ‘This will never launch. This is the worst thing ever.’ I remember being in a meeting, and a founding member of Google said, ‘This is brand destroying. This will destroy our brand. This will crush our company’.”
But Buchheit never gave up even after such withering criticism from within the company. In the next part, we will take up how he created AdSense as a way of monetizing Gmail since it came with a till-then unheard of one gig of free storage for users. There are many lessons to be learned for innovators and entrepreneurs from understanding the strategies used by Paul Buchheit in getting the buy-in from the company’s top leadership to invest its best resources in both Gmail and AdSense.