Life after Google, with millions

A horde of nouveau riche have moved on from the company, trading on Google credentials to reach new heights in tech or attempting to save the world.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read
What would you do if you were flush with $10 million or $100 million? Would you retire, go to work every day at the company that made you rich, or chase other dreams?

That's the multimillion-dollar question for hundreds of early Googlers. By some estimates, more than 900 employees became instant millionaires when Google went public in August 2004, and that total has likely ballooned along with the stock price. On Friday the stock closed at $600.25, up more than 600 percent from its opening price of $85.

According to the company's most recent securities filing, Google employees held 11,662,917 outstanding stock options as of September 30, 2007. At the current stock price, those shares would carry a potential value of about $4.48 billion for employees. Google co-founder Larry Page's stock holdings are also worth about $18.85 billion and Sergey Brin's, $18.51 billion, according to analysis from executive compensation firm Equilar.

But as those bank accounts have filled up, many early Googlers have left the company. By some estimates, nearly a third of the first 500 Googlers have departed, and many more of the estimated 2,200 pre-IPO employees are planning an exit as their stock vests. (A Google representative did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some ex-Googlers are chasing summer around the world, raising families, or just sleeping late. Others are teaching art, going to law school, writing books, or stumping for politicians. Still others, having made their fortune, are taking on all those things. Olana Hirsch Khan, for example, who ran Google's international sales professional services team, is now chief operating officer at charitable micro-finance site Kiva.org (which President Bill Clinton promoted in his recent book, Giving). She also does philanthropic work of her own and just had a baby.

Another crop of Xooglers (as one alumni site calls them) are emerging as Silicon Valley's newest entrepreneurs, angel investors, and venture capitalists. They're following a long tradition of technology companies like Netscape and PayPal, which minted millionaires who then started their own companies. This is, after all, how Silicon Valley has always worked, stretching all the way to Fairchild Semiconductor, where Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce worked before founding chip giant Intel in 1968.

The micro-messaging service Twitter, for example, was co-founded by an ex-Googler. It has also raised money from other former employees at the search giant. Former Google sales manager and current venture capitalist Aydin Senkut has invested in municipal Wi-Fi developer Meraki, along with several other former employees.

What's unique about Google is the vastness of the wealth it has created in such a short time and the impact that money could have in coming years. Have the Xooglers had a big hit yet? No. But Google expatriates are likely to play a greater role in the Valley's business and culture than any other group, bringing their company's brainy and shoot-for-the-stars sensibilities to new tech companies, philanthropic causes, and even a wine bar or two.

CNET News.com interviewed several former Googlers, ranging from the masseuse who struck it big to several entrepreneurs who are trying to prove that their wealth was as much about their talent as it was their luck.

"The question for early Googlers now that they have financial independence is not whether they can be smart, but whether they will be profound," said one insider.

Georges Harik, one of Google's first 10 engineers, former director of new products, now investor and founder of a nonprofit artificial intelligence lab
In the spring of 1999, Georges Harik was looking for a break from the engineering world after a job at Silicon Graphics and was planning to travel the world for a year. But a mutual friend introduced him to Larry Page--a fellow alum from the University of Michigan--and he spent a few hours talking to him about search. After that, Harik shelved his travel plans and signed on as a Google software engineer.

Georges Harik
Credit: Courtesy
Georges Harik
Georges Harik

Now, Harik understandably believes he was lucky he made that choice. He left in November 2005, and his fortune affords him freedom he didn't expect--like flying business class or buying a 3,000-plus square foot home in Palo Alto, Calif., where he lives with his brother and sister, who are also computer scientists. (His sister works at YouTube.)

But it's the association with building Google that has him hooked on the idea of changing the world. "Walk into any coffee shop and people are using stuff you worked on, and it just feels good. It's rewarding," said Harik, who in seven years at Google helped launch Gmail and Google's advertising platform.

Like some of his peers, Harik is investing in small companies like Wi-Fi company Meraki, and he's helping to develop a Web-based video conferencing company called Imo.im with his brother. Harkening back to his college studies of mathematical models of genetic algorithms, he's also opening a yet-to-be-named research lab in Palo Alto to develop artificial-intelligence software for the fields of biotech and medicine. He plans to invest about $100,000 in the lab this year.

"The largest intelligence system at Google is in AdSense and the Gmail spam system, but I've always really wanted to see our work applied to medicine and biology, which is sort of hard to do at a company," said Harik, adding that the software will be open-source with access to the entire medical community. The nonprofit is partially funded by Google, Harik said.

Scott Hassan, early Google architect, now robotics advocate
In 1996, Hassan was a doctoral computer science student at Stanford University when he crossed paths with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were also working on the Stanford Integrated Digital Libraries project under a National Science Foundation grant. At the time, Page and Brin were also working on a side project--developing the predecessor to Google. Hassan helped Page with the code; as thanks, the Google founders later gave Hassan a large chunk of shares after Hassan started eGroups (bought by Yahoo for $412 million in 2000).

Lore has it that Hassan owned close to a percentage point of Google, acquired through the early shares and later through a hefty investment in a company called Neotonic, which Google bought in 2003. With that large stake in Google, Hassan's wealth could stretch to the high hundreds of millions of dollars or more than $1 billion.

Hassan keeps a low profile. He lives with his wife and kids in a multimillion-dollar house in Palo Alto. He keeps a personal Web site (password-protected), which includes lists of people he might write a reference for, including Page and Brin, movies he's seen, and poems. He said in an e-mail that he only wants to talk about his current venture--a year-old robotics think tank called Willow Garage.

Willow Garage, based in Menlo Park, Calif., stands out in Silicon Valley because it has no immediate ambition to make money. Rather, the mission is to make Willow Garage a hub for robotics development in the areas of personal assistants, autonomous boats, and driverless cars--with the hopes of attracting talent and partnerships across the country. The company is collaborating with Stanford in the robotics field, having donated $850,000 to its computer science lab. With Hassan's fortune, Willow Garage has plenty of time to develop new markets for robots.

Evan Williams, co-founder of Google acquisition Pyra Labs, now entrepreneur and investor
If Evan Williams, founder of Blogger creator Pyra Labs, were to have gone through Google's notoriously difficult hiring process in February 2003, he's fairly certain he wouldn't have been hired. He's an entrepreneur, but he's not formally trained as an engineer, nor does he have a degree. Williams only stayed at the company a year and eight months after the search giant bought Blogger for an undisclosed sum.

Evan Williams
Credit: Sara Morishige
Evan Williams

"Part of the reason I decided to go to Google is because when I came out the other side I would be able to operate at a higher level. It was clear that they were playing a bigger, better game than I had ever played," said Williams, a self-described guy from the sticks.

Now, with enough money not to work (though like most ex-Googlers, he wouldn't say how much), Williams is still on the entrepreneurial track. Last May, he sold the podcasting company Odeo he started right after Google to rival Sonic Mountain, and now he's advising messaging service Twitter, a company he also co-founded. And through his company Obvious, Williams is investing in new start-ups and developing a prototype of a new consumer Web product, yet to be introduced.

Bonnie Brown, former massage therapist, now author and philanthropist
Down on her luck from a fresh divorce and a failed business (she ran a private Christian school for 10 years), Brown was starting a new career as a masseuse in 1999 when Google, then with only 40 employees, hired her over a rival who couldn't start right away. At the time, in her mid-40s, she was savvy enough to ask for stock options to complement her lower-than-standard wage of $45 an hour, versus the average $65. She accrued a special deal of automatically vested stock through 2003. That, she said, worked out "incredibly great."

Bonnie Brown
Credit: Courtesy
Bonnie Brown
Bonnie Brown

Now, with millions in the bank since leaving in December 2004, she has retired, set up a charitable foundation, and written a book called Giigle, which went on sale at Amazon.com last week. She spends her time between a house in Nevada and a Southern California beach house, where she sees her grandkids. She calls her book an "I Love Lucy" account of her experiences at the search giant. Prone to laughing a lot herself, she said she wrote the book to make others laugh because "it's the best medicine."

She's also spreading another kind of medicine through her foundation, which also helps her indulge a travel bug. Brown just got back from Uganda, where she visited an orphanage to evaluate whether she should help fund the development of a new water system. Against that lifestyle, she said she feels "filthy rich," even though she doesn't indulge in things like first-class travel. Because she knows money can be fleeting, she's also back at school learning about alternative medicine. "I have learned in life that money comes and goes. You never know."