How Google Ventures and the Glass Collective are taking Glass to the next level
"The initial versions of Glass were just Sergey [Brin]'s Oakleys with a phone taped to them," Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures, told me in a noisy cafe in Midtown Manhattan. Given his position and our topic of conversation -- Google's Project Glass -- he was conspicuous for wearing no eyewear whatsoever. "[Sergey's prototype] was not very compelling." You'd forgive him for being a bit skeptical back then about what the company's leadership was hoping would be the next big thing -- or, at least, a thing worthy of the time and money required to iterate from those humble beginnings to the sleek device we now know and covet.
So, then, how did we get from those initial doubts to the launching of the Glass Collective, dedicating millions of dollars to finding, funding and fostering innovative applications (not just of the software variety) for Google's new wearable? Maris spoke of Glass project lead Steve Lee and a later prototype that took photos every few seconds. "Imagine if you had this for your entire life. You could ask: 'What did I do 10 years ago today?'" That was compelling enough for Maris to commit to the foundation of the Collective, helping Google move the project beyond a single product and into the all-important realm of the platform. This is a platform, he believes, that could change our lives over the next 10 years just as smartphones have over the past decade.
Google Ventures started spinning up internally in 2008. Before that, Maris' interests actually lay more on the side of consumer health than consumer technology. He received a degree in neuroscience from Middlebury College, but after school drifted into the typically high-pressure stakes of the financial realm. He was a biotech and healthcare portfolio manager for Investor AB and, later, an engineer in the startup arena before coming to Google to spin up Ventures, which formally launched in 2009 -- with some particularly abstract goals.
Maris recounted his guiding directive from Google thusly: "We're going to give you 50 or 100 million dollars. Go do something important with it. If it looks like you're doing something important, we'll give you more." More indeed, with $1.5 billion under management now, Google is shoveling in hundreds of millions every year to keep the fires stoked.
Thanks to that, Google Ventures invests in between 50 to 100 salient startups annually, with a definition of "success" only somewhat less nebulous than the organization's founding principles. Here's how he phrases it:
There are two ways to look at it: there is how do you do against your peers, and how do you do overall? If everybody loses money and you lose least, it's probably still not great. It's better than losing most, but if you can make money is the question. I've been really, really pleased with how well we've done thus far.
Maris declined to give specific figures or returns on any of those dollars that have been funneled toward those fledgling innovators deemed compelling enough. But Ventures does have a number of success stories under its belt, including investments in the recently IPO'd Silver Springs and vacation rental marketplace HomeAway, as well as Nest.
Nest, Maris said, was a particularly compelling offering despite, much like Glass, not seeming so at first. It was the potential that captivated Maris. "When you apply computer science and machine learning to areas that haven't had any innovation in 50 years, you can make rapid advances that seem really incredible." While "incredible" might be a bit strong for an (admittedly impressive) intelligent thermostat, there's little doubt that the still-young Nest must already be chalked up in the success column. Looking for success too early, he says, can be risky too:
It's hard to tell at an early stage when entrepreneurs are going to do something that is really important. More often than not, the commercial enterprises that become really important tend to be financially successful ... If we invest in lots of companies that become really important but don't become billions of dollars, then I think that's still a job well done. But obviously the goal is to do both of those things.
So that takes us to the Glass Collective, Ventures' latest fling -- formed in partnership with VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and KPCB. The organization isn't directly investing in Project Glass itself, of course, with Google already having seen that its X division has what it needs in that regard. It's that commitment that attracted Maris and the other partners at Ventures, a commitment that he believes will help Glass achieve platform status.
A product is a thing, a single device that works -- perhaps quite well -- but does not foster the development of an ecosystem. The first iPhone, closed and limited in functionality, was a product. When the iTunes App Store was launched in 2008, leading to billions in revenue for developers, it quickly became a platform. Glass, Maris says, has the potential to be the next very important platform:
The technology needs to be pervasive and well-accepted and it needs to do more than one thing and it needs to do those things well. This device has the potential to do all of those things. If we're wrong about the potential, that's okay. That's the business that we're in ... The Glass team is building the product and we're along for the ride.
Where will that ride take us? It's too early to tell, said Maris, but I couldn't help asking the obvious question: how will third parties make money off of Glass? Google, of course, stands to make some money selling the things, but with advertising on apps expressly disallowed (for now) and with a very, very limited user base for the foreseeable future, where's the revenue? Intriguingly, Maris says, nobody knows:
None of us have even talked about a revenue model. That's probably the last thing anyone's concerned with at this point. If it gets popular and people want to use it and they sell a lot of devices, that will follow. If it doesn't go anywhere, then the revenue model never matters.
Crazily, that the potential revenue stream is unknown actually makes Project Glass more appealing to Google Ventures. It's par for the course, he said:
People have been asking that question about YouTube for years and now, it's okay. Now there is a revenue model. And Google was in the search business and search was not attractive. And Gmail was email, and that's not attractive. And MapQuest owned maps ... If it's obvious, then someone else is going to do it and it's probably not that great an idea.
That's not to say Ventures hasn't thought about potentially profitable applications. Maris imagines UPS deliverymen scanning and delivering packages with just a glance, nurses at hospitals receiving real-time information on patients without having to stop what they're doing and, indeed, patients with limited mobility having greater access to the world of information themselves. "There are things that go beyond just developing Farmville for this platform."
These applications are foreseeable in the near future, but it's the period a decade from now that Maris believes will be truly compelling, where wearables will be orders of magnitude more powerful than they are now; where they can truly change our lives.
So, then, if this is such an amazing platform-to-be, a device that will change our lives, why wasn't Maris wearing a Project Glass headset himself? Because, quite simply, he wanted to be on time. Days earlier, around when the first Explorer Editions started shipping, Maris tried wearing his Project Glass headset on the streets of New York City. "I got maybe three steps outside of the building before I got stopped."
Maris couldn't walk a city block without some new passer-by asking if that was Project Glass, how it worked and, of course, whether they could try it on. Maris politely obliged for many, but it quickly became apparent that if he wanted to get anywhere, he'd need to pocket the thing. So, in the name of expediency, he was making do without.
Though this will definitely pose a bit of a practical problem for early adopters in metropolitan areas, ultimately it must be seen as a very positive sign. If even extremely jaded Manhattanites are excited enough about it to stop a stranger on the street, Project Glass clearly has the potential to be Google Ventures' next success story.