The man who put a local face on Google
By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson
Published: May 18 2008 17:28 | Last updated: May 18 2008 17:28
The job of running Google’s largest overseas outpost may be the most sought-after position in European technology but, when Nikesh Arora was approached about the role, he was not impressed.
In 2004, Google’s European, Middle Eastern and African operations amounted to fewer than 400 people, 80 of them crammed into a small office in London’s Soho. Mr Arora sat in the conference room and told Omid Kordestani, Google’s worldwide sales boss: “It looks like a great company but, honestly, these offices do not reflect what I’d expect of it.”
Most discussions about Google come round sooner or later to the premises. Like the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, Google’s London workplace these days is all fresh fruit and Italian coffee machines. Soft furnishings in primary colours, bunting and the occasional inflatable tiger make it look more like a kindergarten pre-school than home to a group of high-powered engineers.
Handpicked crowd of powerful friends asked to tap into Zeitgeist
Nikesh Arora will today trade his stylish offices for a country house hotel in Watford as he plays host to one of the more unusual corporate networking events. Google’s Zeitgeist conferences, originally devised in the US, have evolved into something akin to a one-company Davos, which book up months in advance.
Over the next two days, a handpicked crowd of 350 advertisers, broadcasters and politicians from around Europe, the Middle East and Africa, will listen to 40 speakers ranging from Mohamed Ibrahim, the African mobile phone entrepreneur, to Queen Rania of Jordan.
The themes this year range from climate change to copyright battles. Tomorrow, the most popular users of YouTube, StarDoll and Metacafe will be on stage with the chief executives of the three websites to discuss how they might be improved.
The accomplished networker says he personally called 30 of the speakers to persuade them to come. They are not there to talk about Google, he insists. But, in a year in which Google has needed political support for its Doubleclick acquisition in Europe and has been rehearsing its arguments against a Microsoft-Yahoo combination, such powerful opinion formers are increasingly useful friends.
Sprawling in a red leather chair in one of the building’s more restrained offices overlooking Victoria station, Mr Arora describes his achievements largely in property and personnel terms. The nine EMEA offices he inherited are now 33, he says; he spends a third of his time recruiting – staff numbers have swelled to 3,400 – and thinking “how do we make our people happy”?
For Google, he says, this is no cliché. “The only way we can scale a business which has probably grown faster than any other business in the world is to make sure we have the right people and to trust them.”
Another third of his time is spent with partners and advertisers, discussing products with “local flavour” to work beyond California. Logic dictates which products are developed locally, he says, noting that Europe’s mobile telephony strengths have given it a lead over the US in mobile search and that the Dutch like their online maps to include bicycle routes.
Mr Arora spends the rest of his time pursuing longer-term ideas. Top of the list at the moment is the phenomenon of “video when you want it”, he says. As people have more freedom to watch programming at different times, he notes, assumptions about their demographic profile are also having to change. This opens the possibility of customising video advertising not just on websites such as Google’s YouTube platform but also over television set-top boxes.
Already, Mr Arora says, his 11-year-old daughter “doesn’t understand you have to wait in front of a television screen for something to happen at 8pm”.
Her approach of setting the family digital video recorder having researched programmes on YouTube is a far cry from Mr Arora’s own childhood. Growing up in India, he and his family would gather at the house of an aunt who had a TV set. They would arrive before broadcasts started to get a good seat, then, “from 6pm to 6.30pm, I got educated about how to be a better farmer” before the Bollywood music programme he was there to see came on. “That was it. That was entertainment.”
Mr Arora, who has just turned 40, left India 19 years ago, but he credits his upbringing with setting him on the path to Google. One of 100,000 students who sat the same examination in 1985 for 2,000 places in the six best engineering schools in the country, he still remembers his rank – 1,292. When he beat 200,000 people to get one of 250 scholarships the following year, “that’s when I figured out I might be a little smarter than I’d thought”.
Asked why so many of his generation of Indian engineers went on to make their careers in the US rather than at home, he points out that, when he left the Institute of Technology in Varanasi for his first job at Wipro in India, he was paid just £500 a year.
A year later, the 21-year-old Mr Arora moved to the US with two suitcases and $100. “The thing I feel most proud of is that I went to business school for two years in a culture I didn’t understand but I graduated first. That to me was a significant achievement because that tells me I can adapt to different environments,” he says.
An MBA at Northwestern University took him to jobs as an analyst at Fidelity and Putnam, covering the booming telecoms industry. By the end of the decade he was at T-Mobile, where he launched T-motion, a mobile media business, before becoming chief marketing officer.
Despite his ringside seat at the TMT boom, Mr Arora claims the only thing he knew about Google by 2004 was that it had used an unusual Dutch auction process for its initial public offering.
When interviewed by Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin at the British Museum, however, he clinched the job after a discussion about machine-based translation services spurred by five minutes in the gift shop reading about the Rosetta Stone.
Eric Schmidt, Google chief executive, told him later that his primary role would be to build a sales force. Mr Arora had no direct sales experience – “but that’s what Google’s about. We don’t believe everything we are going to do has been done, so it’s hard for us to hire somebody who’s done everything we want to do”, he says.
Mr Arora dismisses European handwringing about whether the continent has the talent to compete with Silicon Valley, adding that every one of his staff would give their US colleagues a run for their money. “Clearly you don’t have a Google [in Europe] but show me how many Googles exist in the world,” he says.
Europe may have been fertile recruiting ground but it has also been the place where Google has run into the most resistance over copyright and privacy issues. Mr Arora plays down its battles in Brussels as “discussions”, saying that Europe’s multiple states will rarely have as consistent a view on such issues as the US.
The debates are very different in other regions under his wing. The Arab world, eastern Europe and Africa will account for two-thirds of the world’s new internet users over the next decade, Mr Arora estimates, but they have little digital infrastructure at present.
Google’s efforts to build a culture of internet use in such markets has included its giving tailored, local-language versions of its Google Apps applications to education ministries in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “You have access to the internet, you get access to information and it’s positive for economies, it’s positive for citizens,” he says.
Self-interest also plays a role, however. “We do it right and, in five, six or seven years, we’ll be working towards the same advertising benefits that we have in the developed world,” he says.
While analysts and bloggers hang on every word uttered by Google’s founders and chief executive, it is harder for outsiders to point to Google initiatives that have Mr Arora’s name on them. Asked about his achievements, though, he is clear: just above half of Google’s revenues now come from outside the US, he says, compared with one-third when he joined. Google does not break out regional sales but Europe is the largest of its international hubs.
“When I came here four years ago, the biggest concern partners had was they felt they had to go to California to do anything,” he says. Today, as telecoms companies, advertisers or governments beat a path to the multicoloured offices in Victoria and beyond, “we have put a local face on Google”.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008