A success story that taps Silicon Valley's geeky roots
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, it seems, are reluctant billionaires.Skip to next paragraph
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For some time now, all that stood between them and a fortune of almost Gatesian proportions were a few bankers and reams of paperwork. Like the dotcom kings of old, they needed only to take their creation to the stock market and then watch as throngs of eager investors made them Rockefellers of the new century.
Yet they paused. Only now, forced to action this week by a Depression-era federal law, are the founders of the Internet search engine Google at last moving toward taking their company public. In some quarters, their reluctance is regarded as either endearing or infuriating - the idiosyncrasies of two 30-somethings who hired the Grateful Dead's chef and offer lava lamps to Google's honored guests.
In Silicon Valley, however, it is seen as something else entirely: It is a sign that the region may be returning to its roots. For a decade, the valley's start-in-a-garage spirit has been obscured - first by a gold-rush influx of Harvard MBAs, then by the collapse of the dotcom bubble. But the legendary success of people like Hewlett and Packard, Wozniak and Jobs, was never really about money. It was about ideas, technology, and the freedom to innovate.
Now, Google is reasserting those values even as it confronts how much the technology world has changed. After all, no one paid much attention when Hewlett-Packard went public. But the dotcom dream has changed the calculus, and Google stands as perhaps the first major post-bust test of whether Silicon Valley's startup culture can survive the demands of public scrutiny.
"[Google] is worried about going public because ... it means a change in culture," says Michael Malone of Wired magazine. "And I'm sure [they're] not real anxious to have that happen."
They have no choice. A 1934 law requires that any private company that reaches a certain size must provide its operation figures and finances to the federal government. Google passed that threshold last year and needed to comply by Thursday, according to reports. An initial public offering (IPO) of stock is expected to follow.
That Google essentially needed to be dragged into Wall Street is telling. This is not some half-cocked dotcom built on selling breath mints over fiber-optic cable. Google is unquestionably the most dominant presence on the World Wide Web. It has spawned a verb - to "Google" something means to search for it on the Internet. And it has revolutionized the way users negotiate the Web, listing search results in a seemingly intuitive order that no other website has been able to duplicate. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau called it the "Swiss Army knife of information retrieval."
Worldwide, users run more than 200 million searches a day on Google. When it goes public, Google is expected to be worth more than $20 billion.
If ever a dotcom was ripe for an IPO, this is it. Yet Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have always been peculiar corporate captains. Before now, Google has repeatedly refused to confirm even basic information: how many people it employs, financial statements, or details about its IPO, for example. Its algorithm for culling relevant websites from user searches has become a more closely held secret than the recipe for the Colonel's Kentucky Fried Chicken.