Google: Is it getting big and stodgy?

There have been lots of “whither Google?” stories in dozens of publications, and no doubt there will be dozens more to come. Some talk about competition from Microsoft on the advertising side, and some talk about how Google hasn’t really had any big hits apart from its ability to coin money on keyword-related search. But Adam Lashinsky’s latest piece for Fortune magazine puts its finger on what I think is one of the biggest issues facing the company: namely, the simple fact that it has become a gigantic entity (and one that is getting more gigantic every day), and it’s hard to be as creative or move as swiftly.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, but a couple of things jumped out at me: one was the fact that Google is hiring on the order of 100 people every week. When Google went public in 2004, it had about 2,000 employees — now it has almost 10 times that many. And with all of those employees, and the billions of dollars that the company brings in every quarter, Google has no doubt developed a bureaucracy of sorts, even if it is a bureaucracy composed of kids in Threadless T-shirts riding scooters on their way to the free massage area.

This growth has also led to departures, like the ones that Lashinsky describes — including that of Paul Buchheit, one of the developers of Gmail and the co-founder of FriendFeed.com, who is quoted in the article. As he puts it at the end of the piece:

“I was always so excited at Google, because I didn’t know what would happen next … then I knew what would happen next.”

That may not mean the imminent death of Google — far from it. But it is still a fact that companies cannot grow at the kind of rate that Google has been growing for very long; and when they do grow at those kinds of rates, they almost inevitably become less fun, less creative, less flexible. It’s almost a law of nature. Microsoft still has Nerf toys and free movie nights and that kind of thing too, but does anyone think it is as creative or flexible as it was a decade ago? I doubt it. Not even Bill Gates would make that claim with a straight face. Google’s biggest enemy now is itself, and its own slowing metabolism.

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