Ex-Googler tip: Build start-ups in packs of three

Googlers have long had a geeky obsession with numbers, so it seems only fitting that former employees are setting a new trend when it comes to starting their own companies.

Three: It's the magic number.

Googlers have long had a geeky obsession with numbers. The name Google, after all, is a play on the mathematical term "googol"; one of the company's office buildings is named "Pi"; and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set the search giant's public offering price at $2,718,281,828, the product of the natural logarithm "e" and $1 billion.

So it seems only fitting that ex-Googlers--of which there are many these days--are setting a new trend when it comes to starting their own companies. The equation? It takes at least three former Googleheads to start a start-up. It's like forming a triangle of Google juju.

The latest upstart to be formed in this mold is Mechanical Zoo, a social search application company started by Nathan Stoll, former product manager of Google News. Stoll is joined by Max Ventilla, a former Google business development executive, and Fritz Schneider, who worked on application security at the search company for more than five years. Like many other fresh companies from Google exes, Mechanical Zoo is still in stealth mode, but it plans to launch a beta product next month.

It takes a cue from Cuill, a stealth start-up based in Palo Alto, Calif. Cuill was founded by Anna Patterson and Russell Power, former technical leads of Google's large index search engine, TeraGoogle. Its Google threesome is completed by Louis Monier, who technically is better known for being the founding CTO of one of the Web's first search engines, AltaVista. Monier was a high-profile hire at Google, but he worked there only briefly on search design.

(Cuill recently raised $25 million from Madrone Capital Partners, among others.)

Then there's Ooyala, a Mountain View, Calif., video delivery software company. It was started by Sean Knapp, Belsasar Lepe, and Bismarck Lepe, former Googlers who worked products like Google's search and advertising services. It has raised $10 million.

There's also the much-publicized FriendFeed, a social Web application created by Bret Taylor and Jim Norris, two engineers who worked on Google Maps. Going one beyond the threefold, former Googlers Paul Buchheit and Sanjeev Singh also helped start the company.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Many of the companies started by former Google employees are developing services around some kind of Web search, whether they are complementary to Google's many products (read: they could be Google acquisition targets) or they are outright future competitors.

Cuill, for example, plans to take Google head-on with "a new kind of search." In contrast, companies like FriendFeed and Mechanical Zoo are building complementary services to Google's, rather than trying to out-Google the search giant. Mechanical Zoo, for example, is developing a social-search application that would help people find suggestions for movies or restaurants among their circle of friends or acquaintances.

Triangulating a new service that Google hasn't thought of yet, or simply hasn't devoted the resources to yet, seems to be another common theme of many of these start-ups. "It's stupid to try to outdo Google. I can do more good outside Google than inside by doing something complementary," said Max Ventilla, CEO of Mechanical Zoo.

Advice to Google: watch for engineers and product managers hanging out in the lunch room in packs of three.

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