Entrepreneurial Lessons From Google All-Star and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer

When you think of the people who have made Google a success, Marissa Mayer should be in the top five. As the 20th employee at Google, she rose to become an executive at the company. Then she took a job as the CEO of Yahoo!, where she’s guiding the strategy for a turnaround.

When Mayer graduated from Stanford in 1999, she had 14 job offers waiting for her. She chose Google and remained with the company for 13 years. She went through the startup years, all the way through the IPO, and, in many ways, was the key spokesperson for the company.

So considering that she’s one of the top in tech, there are some things we can learn from her. She has over a decade of experience and has worked with very talented people who have built great products.

Let’s get into what she recommends for entrepreneurs, product managers, and everyone in between.

marissa mayer

Ideas Can Come from Anywhere

Google News came from an employee.

Google Maps came from an acquisition.

Google Desktop came from a user.

When talking about ideas, Mayer says:

“There’s a myriad of different places that ideas come from, and what you really want to do is set up a system where people can feel like they can contribute to those ideas and that the best ideas rise to the top in sort of a Darwinistic way by proof of concept, a powerful prototype, by demonstrating that’s it’s going to fill a really important user need, and so on and so forth.”

The only way to get great ideas from employees is to give them the freedom and tools to work on things that interest them. A number of Google products have come from their employees. Gmail came from a Google employee named Paul Buchheit and got the backing of Larry Page. Google News came from another employee, Krishna Bharat, who built the original tool for himself, then spread it to the company, and then the company released it to the public.

In another instance, Google built a product because of a question from a user:

“How come I can’t search my computer as fast as I can search the web?”

From this feedback, they built Google Desktop.

Google Desktop Search Home Page

Mayer says Google uses a number of ways to get feedback from users. They have:

  • Focus groups
  • User studies
  • Multiple email addresses for users to email Google
  • Tools to watch user patterns

You’ll end up with a better business and better products if you give employees the freedom to invent and you let users know that you’re listening to them. The worst way to treat employees and customers is to ignore them. After all, the customers are the ones using your product so they probably know it well enough to give great feedback. And the employees are the ones creating the product (and, in many cases, talking to the customers), so to ignore their insights is unwise.

Work with Smart People

People like to say these kinds of things:

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

or

“Entrepreneurs need to hire people who are smarter than they are.”

Mayer says that working with smart people “challenges you to think and work on another level than you thought possible.”

Have you ever worked with someone who changed your way of thinking or the way you look at and tackle problems? If so, chances are, you’re a better employee and more talented because of them.

Many companies, Google included, have a wide range of age groups in their employees. Some are as young as 20, and the oldest Googler is in his 80s. When you mix different age groups, you get people who have a high crystallized intelligence (the older crowd) working with people who have a high fluid intelligence (the younger crowd), and the synergy between the two transcends what just one age group could create.

Being smart doesn’t mean attending an Ivy League school. In fact, some of Google’s best employees didn’t go to elite colleges. Here are a few examples:

Jeff Dean, Google Fellow, University of Minnesota (undergraduate), University of Washington (Ph.D.)

Matt Cutts, Head of Webspam, University of Kentucky (undergraduate), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (masters)

Paul Buchheit, former Googler, Case Western Reserve University (masters)

The idea is that when you hire smart people, you’re hiring people who can bounce ideas and challenge each other. You’re also hiring people who are efficient, inventive, and more determined than an average employee. All these characteristics lead to better products, which leads to a better company.

There Is No Burnout – Only Resentment

Mayer says that burnout is really about resentment. When you get burned out from work, it’s more about resentment because of missing something than it is about exhaustion from work. She says:

[Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.”

In her early days at Google, Mayer and her colleagues regularly worked 130 hours a week and slept at their desks. Mayer credits these long hours as a reason for Google’s success and her personal success.

She advocates “find your rhythm.” Know what is essential to your life and don’t miss it. If you can’t miss the Monday Night Football game every Monday, then leave work for 3 hours and watch it. Or if you can’t miss the Friday night barbecue, then don’t skip it. It’ll make you resentful, which will make you feel burned out. Make time for what matters to you.

Focus on Your Users, Not Your Competition

When asked about competition from Bing, Mayer said that it’s important to take them seriously but to remain focused on users. She says:

“When you have strong competitors it makes everyone work harder, and that makes search better and that’s ultimately really better for users. We’re really aware of what Bing is doing and looking at that. That said, we’ve always done well focusing on our users and that’s really where our focus has stayed. Analyzing what are their problems, what are their needs, how can we roll out features that serve those users best and that’s what we’re staying focused on. It’s important not to get too distracted by the competition, especially when you’re building new features and new things.”

She says that she doesn’t focus on each feature of Bing, but rather on the total user experience. The speed, the search results, and the UX (user experience) are what users care about, so they stay focused in that area.

Biggest Threat

When asked what the biggest threat to Google was, Mayer said:

“I think threats are always opportunities…and I think the opportunity for us is to focus on the users and innovate. Then the opposite of that is really the biggest threat [, which] is that we would somehow become complacent.”

Listen to Users but Don’t Forget about Technology

One of the most well-known Henry Ford quotes is:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

While some say that he never said it, it’s still instructive.

If you always listen to users and build what they ask, you may never innovate. You have to follow technology and see what’s possible and what’s not.

For Google, an example of this is speech to text and Google Goggles.

Mayer says:

“When you’re a leader in search you really do need to be looking at both the user needs and also ‘where is the technology going to take us. What’s possible and what’s not’….

“Sometimes you have to follow the technology.”

Outside of Google, an example would be the electric car. Many said it’s impossible to make an electric car that’s reliable, stylish, and has a long range. Tesla has proven them wrong. If they had listened to what people said, then they wouldn’t have built the car.

Another example would be the iPhone. If you had asked people if they wanted a computer in their pocket, most would have said no. But once you show it to them, they want it. Listening to users is essential, but don’t forget about technology. It’s often years ahead of the consumer and can be the key to an innovation that no one saw coming.

Do Something You’re Not Ready to Do

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough. Sometimes that’s a sign that something really good is about to happen. You’re about to grow and learn a lot about yourself.”

How will you grow if you’re always in your comfort zone? Often, venturing out beyond a safe haven expands your horizons and shows you things you never would have seen or experienced. But getting out of your comfort zone shouldn’t make you miserable. Mayer says that it’s important to find an environment that makes you comfortable. For her, it was Google where she was surrounded by similar people.

Avoid Politics, Use Data

Facts and data are great. They speak the truth, they aren’t biased, and you can’t debate them. You can only learn from them.

And when used in a workplace setting, they guide better decision making and don’t make things political. If an organization is run on data, people can unite around it. This can eliminate office politics.

If an organization doesn’t run on data, it runs on opinions. In this setting, it can get political and become an organization dominated by hierarchy.

Google is an organization that runs on data. In a talk at Stanford, Mayer says:

“…even as large as we’ve gotten, I think that the internal politics inside of Google have remained minimal compared to other corporations of its size because we rely so much on the data and we do so much measurement that you don’t have to worry, will your idea get picked because you’re the favorite, or will someone else’s idea get picked because they’re the favorite or because they have a better relationship with the person who’s the decision maker. The decisions get made based on data, and that really frees people from a lot of those types of concerns.”

Avoid “I like” discussions. When it’s possible, use data.

Restraint Sparks Creativity

“A lot of times when you constrain your thoughts that’s when you ultimately see a lot of innovation happen.”

Mayer gives Google Desktop as an example. She says that they wanted it to run on 90% of computers, therefore it can’t:

  • Have a memory footprint larger than 8 megabytes
  • Take any more than a certain amount of disc space

Once they set the constraints, they could ask questions like:

  • What will we make with these kinds of limits?
  • How will files be stored?
  • What features can we include?

Mayer says, “That’s when you really see a lot of really interesting innovation happen is when you actually pen in the constraints.”

In an article in Businessweek, she says:

“Constraints can actually speed development. For instance, we often can get a sense of just how good a new concept is if we only prototype for a single day or week. Or we’ll keep team size to three people or fewer. By limiting how long we work on something or how many people work on it, we limit our investment. In the case of the Toolbar beta, several key features (custom buttons, shared bookmarks) were tried out in under a week. In fact, during the brainstorming phase, we came up with about five times as many “key features.” Most were discarded after a week of prototyping. Since only 1 in every 5 to 10 ideas works out, the strategy of limiting the time we have to prove that an idea works allows us to try out more ideas, increasing our odds of success.”

She adds that speed helps you fail faster. The reason some products fail is because teams spend too long developing them; and while they know it’s a bad product, they’ll still release it because they don’t want to throw away all the work and time they invested.

Mayer warns, though, that constraints can stifle and kill creativity. She says that while setting constraints is necessary, you also need a “sense of hopefulness to keep us engaged and unwavering in our search for the right idea. Innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision.”

Learn from Mistakes

If you want to be better at anything, you need to learn from mistakes.

Mayer emphasizes the importance of getting a product out and letting users tell you what’s important and where you should spend your time iterating and improving. She says:

“If you launch things and iterate really quickly people forget about those mistakes and they have a lot of respect for how quickly you build the product up and make it better.”

Failure is part of the process. If you learn from failures, you’ll be that much better going into your next project.

Mayer emphasizes constant iteration:

“The key is iteration. When you launch something, can you learn enough about the mistakes that you made and learn enough from your users that you ultimately iterate really quickly?”

Concentrate on Users, Not the Money

There’s a saying at Google:

Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

When Google first launched, there were questions about how a search engine could make money. Now the model of displaying relevant advertisements in search pages seems obvious. Mayer says:

“If you’re really successful and you get used a lot, there’s usually a very easy and obvious way to figure out how to monetize it.”

There are countless examples of consumer web companies that start with building a user base and then figure out how to make money. Twitter now serves relevant ads in users’ Twitter feeds. Facebook has sponsored stories and relevant advertisements in the News Feed.

It’s optimal to have advertisements that are built in and are part of the user experience. The best ads don’t get in the way and aren’t separate from the product. They enhance the user experience by helping the user discover things that are relevant to them. Any change that makes the product less functional for the user is a mistake.

Castle Building or Bird Walking

According to Mayer, there are two forms of product building. The first is called castle building, which involves designing products behind the scenes and then having a grand launch. Apple is the best example of this.

The second is bird walking, which calls for products to be launched early and often. The company then collects user feedback and walks their way into the solution. It’s trial and error and observation and testing. This is the method Google uses. Mayer says that “the beauty of experimenting in this way is that you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back.”

Other Marissa Mayer Tidbits

On the importance of people:

“I believe, fundamentally, that technology companies live and die by talent. That’s why when people talk about the talent wars, it’s not really that some of the companies that are in the talent wars are that competitive with each other; it’s just that when you start to see the best people migrating from one company to the next it means that the next wave is starting.” She says later: “I really do think companies…really succeed or fail based on the people. Their ability to attract people, keep the right people in the right roles, focus on the right things.”

“Really strong companies all have very strong cultures.”

On what makes a great product:

“I think a great product is something where you see an acute user need and you solve it in a way that is frictionless and beautiful. You really hope there’s an element of personality and delight there. But I do think it’s identifying the need and then finding an easy way to solve it. Sometimes you can solve it straight and head on….sometimes you solve it in an interesting way….sometimes it’s about innovation, sometimes it’s about coming at the product very much head on, but it’s really about having an eye for design and eye for the user need. How to not get in the users way. How can you just help someone immediately get something done especially if they’re doing something every day, multiple times per day, you really want it to be something that is easy and fast and simple with nothing in the way.”

“When you can make a product more simple, more people will use it.”

“When you see that notion in a product where you’re just like ‘wow this helps me do something I didn’t think I could do or helps me do something I didn’t think I could this easily; that’s the mark of a great consumer product.”

On hiding technology and complexity in products:

“A lot of these interaction technologies become really powerful when they do just fall away. I think the amazing thing about tablets is the fact that you can just flick and get rid of things and switch from page to page, the pinch [and] zoom, these are things that are so intuitive that you actually can see small children begin to use a tablet….what’s really powerful about that is it uses the natural paradigms that people already have embedded in their minds that are somewhat innate to us….I think that’s incredibly powerful. That’s overall what you really want to have happen is whittle away the technology such that all the complication lies underneath. Just like an iceberg, there’s just that thin little layer that you interact with.”

On innovation at large companies:

“You have to be very principled about it. If you have 10 engineers and you’re going to grow that be 20 or 30, do you want to be doing the same set of things 2 or 3 times better or do you want to be doing 2 or 3 times more things..if you really wanted to execute perfectly, get the design exactly right [and] really work through all the details, you’d amass 2-3 times more people per project.

“If you want to find those new ideas, those far flung ideas that you might not otherwise find, you want to take those same people and put them on something that’s far flung that you never thought about….I think that you can innovate at scale, but you need to save room to have small teams working on those far flung ideas.”

On innovation:

“If you think about what’s the opposite of innovation a lot of people will say it’s the status quo. It’s stagnancy. There’s another school of thought which says that the opposite of innovation is execution. That if you have to be in heads down execution mode [it's] very hard to have the space to innovate to have those new ideas and to pull things in.”

On how she gets stuff done:

“You have to ruthlessly prioritize.”

We’ll have to see how Mayer does at Yahoo! The company doesn’t have much of an identity right now and has some products that haven’t been touched in years. She’s made a few newsworthy moves, from giving employees their choice of smartphones to banning telecommuting. They have a few popular products, like Fantasy Sports and Mail, but having a few strong products hasn’t proven successful.

We’ll see how Mayer does. She appears to be the right person for the job.

Anything you’d like to add? Put it in the comments – I look forward to a good conversation!

About the Author: Zach Bulygo is a blogger for KISSmetrics, you can find him on Twitter here. You can also follow him on Google+.

  1. I really like that saying… “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
    I think people forgot that internet and websites are supposed to make our life EASIER :)
    Excellent entry, thank you!

    • Yeah it’s super important to make a product that’s focused around the customer. This expands beyond tech and really applies to any business. If you make something for the customer you’re more likely to be a success.

      Amazon has a saying:

      “Start with the customer and work backwards.”

      It’s really something to think about when creating a business or a new product.

  2. …you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back.”

    Awesome quote!

  3. I believe no one has a doubt that you need to keep the end user in mind. But by just saying that it does not solves the problem. The problem statement is that you need to give an ease to the user along with keeping your business goal in mind. If you do not mix both of these then you are definitely missing the core reason to build that product.

    I am now heading a business, but before that (and even now) I have been into Product management. It really helps me to take business decisions. I always asked my team / colleagues to think about the user, keep business objective in mind and try to simulate the offline scenarios (if it exists) into online, keep it biased to users but your extreme node should be a business goal.

    This has worked all the time. The time it failed, it was because of incomplete business requirement understanding or making a flow over strict with tons of validations / checks etc.

    • Yes, but if you can arrange things so that your business interests align with your customer interests, you’ll be more likely to have sustained success.

      There doesn’t have to be a trade-off. What’s best for the end user can be best for the business. Right?

  4. Awesome post man! Sometimes I wonder how do get such awesome content ideas. Would love to have a post on that :)

    Unlike Siegfried I love that saying… “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”. I think it’s a quote to live by.

    I love doing what I’m most passionate of. Picking one problem & providing an easiest solution for that one could hardly think of. As Bill Gates Says: I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job… because, he will find an easy way to do it.

    But now a days most of people are concerned about making more money rather than making other lives easier & money will follow.

  5. Concentrate on Users, Not the Money.. it is the #1 rule one has to follow I always believe that one has to follow his zeal and concentrate on generating things that will be useful for the end users/customers rest all will follow for sure.

  6. not sure about the statement – Focus on your users, killing products like Google Reader shows corporations actually do not care about user love but follow different patterns…

Comments are closed.

← Previous ArticleNext Article →