What does it all mean? Well, to be honest it was nice to be at the game, even if my team lost, while the first wave of coverage broke. I was with a great group of guys, all of whom care about the industry and who have opinions, some of them even informed, on the Google IPO. When I got home, I read through the S 1 . So herewith my first impressions, and they are only that, for I have not had time to really sit with the document, that will take days, if not weeks to really grok.
First the stuff you probably already know. Google filed for a prospective $2.7 billion (Wall St estimates) sale, valuing the company in the $20-25 billion range. Unusual aspects: There will be two classes of stock, one with supervoting rights (ten times those of regular shareholders), which keeps power squarely in the founders’ hands. The symbol was not identified (ie, it’s not “GOO”, yet), nor was the market (NYSE or Nasdaq). There are only two banks, Morgan on the left in the power slot, and Credit Suisse on the right. Hambrecht did not make the cut, but their ideas did. Google will auction all of its shares.
Having seen how the quest for IPO glory can ruin a company, it’s good to remember that an IPO is just the beginning of something, not an end in itself, though sometimes folks caught up in it can forget that. It certainly happened to us at Wired, for a while we thought we were reinventing the entire IPO process – we even redesigned the prospectus to look like our magazine. But high-minded claims of reinventing how the business world will work rarely come to pass, and it’s never in anyone’s interest to make such claims in the first place. I’ve seen it, trust me.
That thought came to mind as I read the five-page, Warren Buffet-inspired letter which opens Google’s S1, entitled “An Owner’s Manual” for Google Shareholders, which was written in the first person by Larry Page (full text in extended entry below). I can only imagine the eyes rolling at Kleiner Perkins, Morgan Stanley, and the rest of the veterans as the founders insisted on this, and I can imagine this letter is what broke the camel’s back last week and engendered the “let’s not get too cute” comment in the New York Times. The letter, which is unusual for an S1, borders on hubris. It’s personal, discursive, and rather defensive in tone, and it attempts to address an investor’s most pressing questions about the company. It claims, several times over, that Google is different, special, and remarkable. It also acts as something of a caveat, a pardon for future sins, claiming that going forward, Google will not act like public companies are supposed to act, because it is unique and long-term focused. “We’re different, and better than others,” is the tone. “Don’t ask why we do things the way we do them. We know best.” To be honest, the letter made me cringe a bit. “Yow,” I said to myself (and now to you…). “Do they really want to set themselves up like this?”
Well, yes they do. The letter states, among other things, that 1. We don’t need to do this for the money; 2. We have no plans to run our business to satisfy Wall Street’s need for smooth earnings predictability; 3. We plan to give no earnings guidance, not at least as it’s understood on Wall St.; 4. Don’t ask us to do so, we’ll simply decline the request; 5. We’ll do odd things that you won’ t understand; 6. We will make big bets on things that may not work out; 7. We run the company as a triumvirate, so there will not be clear leadership from one person like most other companies; 8. We bridge the media and tech industries (interesting), which are in flux, so we’ve chosen a two-class stock structure similar to the NYT, WashPost, and WSJ that helps us avoid being taken over by those forces; 9. We plan using an auction model, as it feels fairer and we understand auctions from AdWords; 10. Don’t invest in us if this scares you at all, or the price feels too high; 11. Don’t even think about asking us to cut expenses with regard to our employees; 12. We believe in the idea of Don’t Be Evil; 13. It’s evil to pay for placement or inclusion (a swipe at Yahoo); 14. We hope to bridge the digital divide through Gmail type free services and a foundation with at least 1% of profits and equity to help make the world a better place; 17. Betting on Google is a bet on Sergey and Larry (this was said multiple times, making me wonder if there wasn’t some odd future blame being assigned here by the VCs or bankers); 18. This letter is our way of answering the questions we can’t answer in the coming months due to the IPO quiet period.
While my summary of the letter may sound negative, it’s my honest and initial response: to me, the letter comes off pretty strong, and likely will anger many on Wall Street. But I have to commend the founders for sticking to their beliefs, and using the IPO as something of a megaphone/soapbox. It is brave, unique, and rather commendable to very publicly state that the founders are controlling the company, and the founders will decide what is best for Google, not Wall Street. They’ve set themselves a very high long-term bar, claiming they will best the system, in essence. I think it will be very interesting to see how Wall Street responds. There is a chance, in the end, that the Street will feel slighted, and turn its back on the company.
However, as something of a present proof, the financials are quite impressive, though not as impressive as some had claimed. Profits are on track to break $250 million or so this year, they hit more than $100 million last year. The company has been profitable since 2001 (scroll down).
Three directors, all impressive, have been added to make the board looks robust and public facing: John Hennessy, President of Stanford, Paul Otellini, President of Intel, and Arthur Levinson, CEO of Genentech. More grist for the chip in brain conspiracy theorists, no doubt.
Also interesting: Google has an exclusive license to the PageRank patent from Stanford, but only through 2011. Then it becomes non-exclusive. And, as of March 31, Google had 1,907 employees. If you added in contractors, my guess is that’d go well past 2500. The articles of incorporation and bylaws have anti-takeover clauses, among other things. More on these details later.
As with all S1s, there is a very lengthy section on risks, with the first and foremost one labeled Microsoft and Yahoo. The risk sector reads like a response to all the criticisms of Google we’ve heard over the past year, from the Gmail privacy storm to index spamming.
There are tidbits throughout that will give all sorts of insights to competitors, the percent of revenues that are in the Google Network (ie not on the site itself, like AdSense), for example (18% last year, rising to past 20% this year). There are details on how they structure some deals with partners, on some accounting/regulation issues with stock options, on legal issues, and many other things. In reading through the entire thing, I realize it’d take me all night to report it all. I won’t try. More as time goes by. For now, it’s nice to know, the other damn shoe has dropped. Now, on with business.
LETTER FROM THE FOUNDERS
“AN OWNER’S MANUAL” FOR GOOGLE’S SHAREHOLDERS1
Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one. Throughout Google’s evolution as a privately held company, we have managed Google differently. We have also emphasized an atmosphere of creativity and challenge, which has helped us provide unbiased, accurate and free access to information for those who rely on us around the world.
Now the time has come for the company to move to public ownership. This change will bring important benefits for our employees, for our present and future shareholders, for our customers, and most of all for Google users. But the standard structure of public ownership may jeopardize the independence and focused objectivity that have been most important in Google’s past success and that we consider most fundamental for its future. Therefore, we have designed a corporate structure that will protect Google’s ability to innovate and retain its most distinctive characteristics. We are confident that, in the long run, this will bring Google and its shareholders, old and new, the greatest economic returns. We want to clearly explain our plans and the reasoning and values behind them. We are delighted you are considering an investment in Google and are reading this letter.
Sergey and I intend to write you a letter like this one every year in our annual report. We’ll take turns writing the letter so you’ll hear directly from each of us. We ask that you read this letter in conjunction with the rest of this prospectus.
SERVING END USERS
Sergey and I founded Google because we believed we could provide a great service to the world—instantly delivering relevant information on any topic. Serving our end users is at the heart of what we do and remains our number one priority.
Our goal is to develop services that improve the lives of as many people as possible—to do things that matter. We make our services as widely available as we can by supporting over 97 languages and by providing most services for free. Advertising is our principal source of revenue, and the ads we provide are relevant and useful rather than intrusive and annoying. We strive to provide users with great commercial information.
We are proud of the products we have built, and we hope that those we create in the future will have an even greater positive impact on the world.
LONG TERM FOCUS
As a private company, we have concentrated on the long term, and this has served us well. As a public company, we will do the same. In our opinion, outside pressures too often tempt companies to sacrifice long-term opportunities to meet quarterly market expectations. Sometimes this pressure has caused companies to manipulate financial results in order to “make their quarter.” In Warren Buffett’s words, “We won’t ‘smooth’ quarterly or annual results: If earnings figures are lumpy when they reach headquarters, they will be lumpy when they reach you.”
If opportunities arise that might cause us to sacrifice short term results but are in the best long term interest of our shareholders, we will take those opportunities. We will have the fortitude to do this. We would request that our shareholders take the long term view.
Many companies are under pressure to keep their earnings in line with analysts’ forecasts. Therefore, they often accept smaller, but predictable, earnings rather than larger and more unpredictable returns. Sergey and I feel this is harmful, and we intend to steer in the opposite direction.
1 Much of this was inspired by Warren Buffett’s essays in his annual reports and his “An Owner’s Manual” to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
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Google has had adequate cash to fund our business and has generated additional cash through operations. This gives us the flexibility to weather costs, benefit from opportunities and optimize our long term earnings. For example, in our ads system we make many improvements that affect revenue in both directions. These are in areas like end user relevance and satisfaction, advertiser satisfaction, partner needs and targeting technology. We release improvements immediately rather than delaying them, even though delay might give “smoother” financial results. You have our commitment to execute quickly to achieve long term value rather than making the quarters more predictable.
We will make decisions on the business fundamentals, not accounting considerations, and always with the long term welfare of our company and shareholders in mind.
Although we may discuss long term trends in our business, we do not plan to give earnings guidance in the traditional sense. We are not able to predict our business within a narrow range for each quarter. We recognize that our duty is to advance our shareholders’ interests, and we believe that artificially creating short term target numbers serves our shareholders poorly. We would prefer not to be asked to make such predictions, and if asked we will respectfully decline. A management team distracted by a series of short term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half hour.
RISK VS REWARD IN THE LONG RUN
Our business environment changes rapidly and needs long term investment. We will not hesitate to place major bets on promising new opportunities.
We will not shy away from high-risk, high-reward projects because of short term earnings pressure. Some of our past bets have gone extraordinarily well, and others have not. Because we recognize the pursuit of such projects as the key to our long term success, we will continue to seek them out. For example, we would fund projects that have a 10% chance of earning a billion dollars over the long term. Do not be surprised if we place smaller bets in areas that seem very speculative or even strange. As the ratio of reward to risk increases, we will accept projects further outside our normal areas, especially when the initial investment is small.
We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in “20% time.” Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.
We may have quarter-to-quarter volatility as we realize losses on some new projects and gains on others. If we accept this, we can all maximize value in the long term. Even though we are excited about risky projects, we expect to devote the vast majority of our resources to our main businesses, especially since most people naturally gravitate toward incremental improvements.
We run Google as a triumvirate. Sergey and I have worked closely together for the last eight years, five at Google. Eric, our CEO, joined Google three years ago. The three of us run the company collaboratively with Sergey and me as Presidents. The structure is unconventional, but we have worked successfully in this way.
To facilitate timely decisions, Eric, Sergey and I meet daily to update each other on the business and to focus our collaborative thinking on the most important and immediate issues. Decisions are often made by one of us, with the others being briefed later. This works because we have tremendous trust and respect for each other and we generally think alike. Because of our intense long term working relationship, we can often predict differences of opinion among the three of us. We know that when we disagree, the correct decision is far from obvious. For important decisions, we discuss the issue with the larger team. Eric, Sergey and I run the company without any significant internal conflict, but with healthy debate. As different topics come up, we often delegate decision-making responsibility to one of us.
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We hired Eric as a more experienced complement to Sergey and me to help us run the business. Eric was CTO of Sun Microsystems. He was also CEO of Novell and has a Ph.D. in computer science, a very unusual and important combination for Google given our scientific and technical culture. This partnership among the three of us has worked very well and we expect it to continue. The shared judgments and extra energy available from all three of us has significantly benefited Google.
Eric has the legal responsibilities of the CEO and focuses on management of our vice presidents and the sales organization. Sergey focuses on engineering and business deals. I focus on engineering and product management. All three of us devote considerable time to overall management of the company and other fluctuating needs. We are extremely fortunate to have talented management that has grown the company to where it is today—they operate the company and deserve the credit.
We are creating a corporate structure that is designed for stability over long time horizons. By investing in Google, you are placing an unusual long-term bet on the team, especially Sergey and me, and on our innovative approach.
We want Google to become an important and significant institution. That takes time, stability and independence. We bridge the media and technology industries, both of which have experienced considerable consolidation and attempted hostile takeovers.
In the transition to public ownership, we have set up a corporate structure that will make it harder for outside parties to take over or influence Google. This structure will also make it easier for our management team to follow the long term, innovative approach emphasized earlier. This structure, called a dual class voting structure, is described elsewhere in this prospectus.
The main effect of this structure is likely to leave our team, especially Sergey and me, with significant control over the company’s decisions and fate, as Google shares change hands. New investors will fully share in Google’s long term growth but will have less influence over its strategic decisions than they would at most public companies.
While this structure is unusual for technology companies, it is common in the media business and has had a profound importance there. The New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company and Dow Jones, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, all have similar dual class ownership structures. Media observers frequently point out that dual class ownership has allowed these companies to concentrate on their core, long-term interest in serious news coverage, despite fluctuations in quarterly results. The Berkshire Hathaway company has applied the same structure, with similar beneficial effects. From the point of view of long-term success in advancing a company’s core values, the structure has clearly been an advantage.
Academic studies have shown that from a purely economic point of view, dual class structures have not harmed the share price of companies. The shares of each of our classes have identical economic rights and differ only as to voting rights.
Google has prospered as a private company. As a public company, we believe a dual class voting structure will enable us to retain many of the positive aspects of being private. We understand some investors do not favor dual class structures. We have considered this point of view carefully, and we have not made our decision lightly. We are convinced that everyone associated with Google—including new investors—will benefit from this structure.
To help us govern, we have recently expanded our Board of Directors to include three additional members. John Hennessy is the President of Stanford and has a Doctoral degree in computer science. Art Levinson is CEO of Genentech and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Paul Otellini is President and COO of Intel. We could not be more excited about the caliber and experience of these directors.
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We have a world class management team impassioned by Google’s mission and responsible for Google’s success. We believe the stability afforded by the dual-class structure will enable us to retain our unique culture and continue to attract and retain talented people who are Google’s life blood. Our colleagues will be able to trust that they themselves and their labors of hard work, love and creativity will be well cared for by a company focused on stability and the long term.
As an investor, you are placing a potentially risky long term bet on the team, especially Sergey and me. The two of us, Eric and the rest of the management team recognize that our individual and collective interests are deeply aligned with those of the new investors who choose to support Google. Sergey and I are committed to Google for the long term. The broader Google team has also demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to our long term success. With continued hard work and good fortune, this commitment will last and flourish.
When Sergey and I founded Google, we hoped, but did not expect, it would reach its current size and influence. Our intense and enduring interest was to objectively help people find information efficiently. We also believed that searching and organizing all the world’s information was an unusually important task that should be carried out by a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good. We believe a well functioning society should have abundant, free and unbiased access to high quality information. Google therefore has a responsibility to the world. The dual-class structure helps ensure that this responsibility is met. We believe that fulfilling this responsibility will deliver increased value to our shareholders.
BECOMING A PUBLIC COMPANY
Google should go public soon.
We assumed when founding Google that if things went well, we would likely go public some day. But we were always open to staying private, and a number of developments reduced the pressure to change. We soon were generating cash, removing one important reason why many companies go public. Requirements for public companies became more significant in the wake of recent corporate scandals and the resulting passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. We made business progress we were happy with. Our investors were patient and willing to stay with Google. We have been able to meet our business needs with our current level of cash.
A number of factors weighed on the other side of the debate. Our growth has reduced some of the advantages of private ownership. By law, certain private companies must report as if they were public companies. The deadline imposed by this requirement accelerated our decision. As a smaller private company, Google kept business information closely held, and we believe this helped us against competitors. But, as we grow larger, information becomes more widely known. As a public company, we will of course provide you with all information required by law, and we will also do our best to explain our actions. But we will not unnecessarily disclose all of our strengths, strategies and intentions. We have transferred significant ownership of Google to employees in return for their efforts in building the business. And, we benefited greatly by selling $26 million of stock to our early investors before we were profitable. Thus, employee and investor liquidity were significant factors.
We have demonstrated a proven business model and have designed a corporate structure that will make it easier to become a public company. A large, diverse, enthusiastic shareholder base will strengthen the company and benefit from our continued success. A larger cash balance will provide Google with flexibility and protection against adversity. All in all, going public now is the right decision.
IPO PRICING AND ALLOCATION
Informed investors willing to pay the IPO price should be able to buy as many shares as they want, within reason, in the IPO, as on the stock market.
It is important to us to have a fair process for our IPO that is inclusive of both small and large investors. It is also crucial that we achieve a good outcome for Google and its current shareholders. This has led us to pursue
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an auction-based IPO for our entire offering. Our goal is to have a share price that reflects a fair market valuation of Google and that moves rationally based on changes in our business and the stock market. (The auction process is discussed in more detail elsewhere in this prospectus.)
Many companies have suffered from unreasonable speculation, small initial share float, and boom-bust cycles that hurt them and their investors in the long run. We believe that an auction-based IPO will minimize these problems.
An auction is an unusual process for an IPO in the United States. Our experience with auction-based advertising systems has been surprisingly helpful in the auction design process for the IPO. As in the stock market, if people try to buy more stock than is available, the price will go up. And of course, the price will go down if there aren’t enough buyers. This is a simplification, but it captures the basic issues. Our goal is to have an efficient market price—a rational price set by informed buyers and sellers—for our shares at the IPO and afterward. Our goal is to achieve a relatively stable price in the days following the IPO and that buyers and sellers receive a fair price at the IPO.
We are working to create a sufficient supply of shares to meet investor demand at IPO time and after. We are encouraging current shareholders to consider selling some of their shares as part of the offering. These shares will supplement the shares the company sells to provide more supply for investors and hopefully provide a more stable fair price. Sergey and I, among others, are currently planning to sell a fraction of our shares in the IPO. The more shares current shareholders sell, the more likely it is that they believe the price is not unfairly low. The supply of shares available will likely have an effect on the clearing price of the auction. Since the number of shares being sold is likely to be larger at a high price and smaller at a lower price, investors will likely want to consider the scope of current shareholder participation in the IPO. We may communicate from time to time that we would be sellers rather than buyers.
We would like you to invest for the long term, and to do so only at or below what you determine to be a fair price. We encourage investors not to invest in Google at IPO or for some time after, if they believe the price is not sustainable over the long term.
We intend to take steps to help ensure shareholders are well informed. We encourage you to read this prospectus. We think that short term speculation without paying attention to price is likely to lose you money, especially with our auction structure.
Our employees, who have named themselves Googlers, are everything. Google is organized around the ability to attract and leverage the talent of exceptional technologists and business people. We have been lucky to recruit many creative, principled and hard working stars. We hope to recruit many more in the future. We will reward and treat them well.
We provide many unusual benefits for our employees, including meals free of charge, doctors and washing machines. We are careful to consider the long term advantages to the company of these benefits. Expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time. We believe it is easy to be penny wise and pound foolish with respect to benefits that can save employees considerable time and improve their health and productivity.
The significant employee ownership of Google has made us what we are today. Because of our employee talent, Google is doing exciting work in nearly every area of computer science. We are in a very competitive industry where the quality of our product is paramount. Talented people are attracted to Google because we empower them to change the world; Google has large computational resources and distribution that enables individuals to make a difference. Our main benefit is a workplace with important projects, where employees can contribute and grow. We are focused on providing an environment where talented, hard working people are rewarded for their contributions to Google and for making the world a better place.
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DON’T BE EVIL
Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.
Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating. We also display advertising, which we work hard to make relevant, and we label it clearly. This is similar to a newspaper, where the advertisements are clear and the articles are not influenced by the advertisers’ payments. We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.
MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place. With our products, Google connects people and information all around the world for free. We are adding other powerful services such as Gmail that provides an efficient one gigabyte Gmail account for free. By releasing services for free, we hope to help bridge the digital divide. AdWords connects users and advertisers efficiently, helping both. AdSense helps fund a huge variety of online web sites and enables authors who could not otherwise publish. Last year we created Google Grants—a growing program in which hundreds of non-profits addressing issues, including the environment, poverty and human rights, receive free advertising. And now, we are in the process of establishing the Google Foundation. We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Google’s equity and profits in some form. We hope someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Google is not a conventional company. Eric, Sergey and I intend to operate Google differently, applying the values it has developed as a private company to its future as a public company. Our mission and business description are available in the rest of the prospectus; we encourage you to carefully read this information. We will optimize for the long term rather than trying to produce smooth earnings for each quarter. We will support selected high-risk, high-reward projects and manage our portfolio of projects. We will run the company collaboratively with Eric, our CEO, as a team of three. We are conscious of our duty as fiduciaries for our shareholders, and we will fulfill those responsibilities. We will continue to attract creative, committed new employees, and we will welcome support from new shareholders. We will live up to our “don’t be evil” principle by keeping user trust and not accepting payment for search results. We have a dual-class structure that is biased toward stability and independence and that requires investors to bet on the team, especially Sergey and me.
In this letter we have explained our thinking on why Google is better off going public. We have talked about our IPO auction method and our desire for stability and access for all investors. We have discussed our goal to have investors who determine a rational price and invest for the long term only if they can buy at that price. Finally, we have discussed our desire to create an ideal working environment that will ultimately drive the success of Google by retaining and attracting talented Googlers.
We have tried hard to anticipate your questions. It will be difficult for us to respond to them given legal constraints during our offering process. We look forward to a long and hopefully prosperous relationship with you, our new investors. We wrote this letter to help you understand our company.
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We have a strong commitment to our users worldwide, their communities, the web sites in our network, our advertisers, our investors, and of course our employees. Sergey and I, and the team will do our best to make Google a long term success and the world a better place.