A while back I posted a note asking you all who you’d like to see interviewed here on Searchblog. The top vote getter was Bill Gross, of Goto/Overture, Picasa, Knowledge Adventure, and Snap fame. (He also starred in Chapter 5 of my book). Bill was gracious enough to agree to an email interview, and even more gracious to agree to answer some of your questions in the comments section, when time permits.
As those of who who’ve read The Search know, I’m a fan of Bill and his work. From Chapter 5:
By his own account, Gross has been starting companies since he was
thirteen. His problem was never ideas. No, he, in fact, has way too
many of those. His problem was scale—how could he possibly start
companies as quickly as he could dream them up?
Gross started in a linear fashion, building companies one at a
time. He’d grow them till he got bored or distracted (or both); then
he’d sell them. He funded his first year of college by selling solar en-
ergy conversion kits through ads in the back of Popular Mechanics.
While still an undergraduate (at the California Institute of Technol-
ogy in Pasadena), Gross hacked up a new high-fidelity speaker de-
sign and launched GNP, Inc., to sell his creations (GNP stood for
Gross National Products—an indication of Gross’s sense of humor
as well as an underdeveloped sense of modesty).
But Gross had reason to boast: GNP, Inc., grew to claim number
seventy-five on Inc. magazine’s 1985 list of the 500 Fastest-Growing
Companies. When he graduated, he sold the speaker business to his
college partners and started a software company that presaged much
of the rest of his life’s work. The company, GNP Development, al-
lowed computer users to type natural language commands that the
computer would translate into the arcane code needed to execute spe-
cific tasks. In other words, Gross’s company created a program that
in essence let you “talk” to the computer in plain English, as opposed
to computer code. Gross’s program was a small step toward Silver-
stein’s Star Trekinterface (as discussed in Chapter 1)—the holy grail
of nearly everyone in search today.
Searchblog: You’ve had tremendous success over your career, and in particular with search (Magellan, Goto/Overture, Picasa, etc.). But the world has woken up to search – and Google seems to gain market share monthly. Yet you are trying to once again take on the world with Snap. What makes you feel like there’s still an opportunity there?
Grosss: I’ve always thought that search is extremely important, but my interest in it has always been very personal in that I’ve always been trying to make things that “I” would really want. With Magellan, I wanted to be able to view my files faster than DOS allowed back then. With Goto, I wanted a way to remove the spam at that time from the Top 10 listings at the search results I was seeing. The pay model seemed like the best way to do it, and although ridiculed at first, really took off. And then again with Picasa, we really wanted a way to browse and organize our photos better than the PC-based tools allowed at that time.
Snap is very similar, in that a team of us at Idealab just brainstormed about what things we would like to have that would make search more productive for us. It might not be for everybody, but we feel there is a lot of room for innovation in particular areas, and we’re extremely excited to pursue that. I absolutely agree with you that the world has woken up to search, but that is far from saying that every idea in search has been done, and thus it is very exciting to us.
What do you make of Google? When folks ask you for your unvarnished opinion of the company, what do you say? What is its biggest weakness? Strength?
I think Google is an amazing company. They have a money machine, and they continue to introduce a broad array of new advertising offerings. I think they are turning out to be one of the best competitors in the history of business — and they have shown that with their ability to go up against MSFT and stay ahead. That’s a very impressive feat.
I think their biggest strengths in order, are their profit margins, their brand, their core relevance algorithm, their number of advertiser relationships, and their many smart mathematicians and developers. I think their only weakness, and it’s small, is the increasing challenge they will have to keep up their rate of innovation now that they are becoming such a large company.
I have to ask, given that you starred in a chapter in my book, what you thought of that chapter, and if perhaps you disagree with my characterization of you as a bit wistful that perhaps GoTo could have become Google, so to speak?
I don’t recall how it came across in your book, but I am certainly not wistful. I think Goto “did” become Google <smile> as I think 99% of Google’s revenues come from pay per click. Seriously, Google did an amazing job of building upon Goto’s early success.
Seriously also, we’re honored to have played a part in causing such a fundamental and profitable shift in the internet advertising space over the last 10 years.
Do you have any ideas about what search might look like in five or ten years? Do you think pure search sites will continue to prosper? How might they be different from today?
I do think pure search sites will continue to prosper, but I also think that there will be many new kinds of specialized search that continue to surprise us. I just made up a little table of the searches I do per day over the last 20 years, looking at some key milestones, like when I started using email heavily, and then when Netscape took off, and then when the first search engine companies went public, and then again when new tools came out, like X1 for searching email, iTunes for searching music, my TomTom for searching for locations.
Overall, I find myself increasing my searching from a few searches per day at the beginning of the 90’s to probably 40-50 searches per day now, but that includes my daily email and file searches with X1, searches with Snap and Google, patent searches, music searches, and so on.
So I think that search in the future is going to continue this march, impacting our lives with, say 25% compound annual growth in our usage. And I think search will continue to find a greater and greater place in our daily lives, where it’s just embedded in nearly everything we do, to find information, entertainment, friends, places, and 10 more things that are as hard to imagine now as it would have been 10 years ago that I would type 3 characters, then see some album art, and then click play.
Would you be open to answering a couple of questions from the Searchblog readers when we post this?
Yes, I’d be happy to answer some questions as long as it’s not overwhelming in time.