Meet Google's human search engine for innovation

Google startup-hunter Don Dodge sheds Microsoft roots, 'kisses a lot of frogs' in quest for cool technology

As developer advocate at Google, Don Dodge treks across the country looking for innovative startups that Google can help make successful.

It was November 2009, and Don Dodge had just been laid off by Microsoft. Instead of writing a new resume and collecting unemployment, he just waited for the phone to start ringing. Within two days, he had a new job at Google -- one of his former employer's biggest rivals.

"I would probably still be [at Microsoft] if they didn't lay me off," Dodge said this week during an interview at DEMO Spring 2011. "But two hours after I got laid off, Google called me and several other big companies called."

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Dodge became the developer advocate at Google, and now treks across the country looking for innovative startups that Google can partner with, sign business deals with, invest in, or even acquire. "We find companies that are building applications [on top of Google platforms] and we help them be successful."

It's roughly the same job Dodge performed at Microsoft, where he spent five years. But working for Google is quite a bit different than working for Microsoft.

"The job is the same," says Dodge, who's enjoyed a three-decade career in tech with such companies as Digital, Compaq, AltaVista and Napster. "I'm still working with developers and startups and venture capitalists and finding companies. The environment is what's different. Google is younger, and more eclectic and kind of fun and funky. Microsoft is older and has a more traditional structure, but that just comes with the territory. When Google is 35 years old we may be a different company too."

Dodge's home is in New Hampshire, but he's only there four or five days a month. He can often be found in Google's Mountain View and Boston offices, but last week he was at the Launch conference in San Francisco, this week he's at IDG's DEMO conference in Palm Desert, Calif., and soon he'll be on his way to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

You'd think startups would be begging to talk to Google, but if they're innovative enough, that's not necessary. Don Dodge will find them. "Over the course of these events, I'll see 250 to 300 startups," Dodge says. "You never know what you're going to find. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. We'll look at anything, but the sweet spot is mobile, location-based services, social, e-commerce, that kind of stuff."

At Redmond, Dodge was involved with about 30 companies that were eventually purchased by Microsoft, including Onfolio, Powerset and FAST, whose search technology is now integrated with SharePoint.

At Google, "there are some in the works, but acquisitions take time," Dodge says. Google bought 40 companies last year, and Dodge refers some of his startups to Google's mergers and acquisitions group. But there are plenty of ways Google can help a new vendor without purchasing it.

"I think there are several levels when we see companies," Dodge says. "The first one is can we partner with them. Can they build applications on our platform, and make the platform more valuable. The second level is can we do a business development deal with them, or a licensing type of deal. The third level is acquisition, and then there's even a fourth one which is Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google. We may find companies we want to invest in."

Taking a page from Microsoft

It's easier these days to create a tech startup. Instead of building out giant data centers and new hardware systems, you just need a talented team of developers to build software applications on top of existing platforms. The platform is often Facebook, but it can also be Android, Chrome, YouTube, Gmail or the Google Apps Marketplace.

Many startups are "a feature masquerading as a company," Dodge says. "But you can do that today. Applications are basically single features. You can do that today, but you couldn't do that 10 years ago."

The most popular platforms now are Web-based, such as those pioneered by Google, Dodge says. But it was his former employer, of course, that perfected the art of creating developer platforms.

"Microsoft wrote the book on building developer ecosystems back in the PC days," he says. "They were the best in the world and they're still very powerful when it comes to Windows-based applications."

Many Google executives would argue that the Web, and products such as the Chrome OS operating system, will eventually make Windows irrelevant, even though Microsoft's operating system still powers 80% to 90% of all desktops. Dodge uses the past tense when he talks about Microsoft's dominance.

"IBM had their time. Digital and Sun and Apollo, they had their time. Microsoft has had their time," he says. "And now the cloud-based systems, like Google and Facebook and others, will have their time. It's a natural progression of business. Microsoft had a hell of a run for 30 years. They're still a very powerful company, very profitable, growing very well. So I wouldn't say they're going to go down, I would just say that the market has moved."

Dodge himself traded in his Microsoft products for Google ones when he switched employers. He hasn't hopped on the tablet bandwagon, saying tablets are for "consumption, not for creation." But he has an Android phone and does all of his computing on a prototype Chrome OS notebook, known by its code name Cr-48, and a MacBook Pro.

All Web, all the time

But even on his Apple computer, Dodge is all Web.

"I don't have any desktop software on my laptop. None," Dodge says. Whether using Chrome OS or his MacBook, Dodge does his work on Gmail and Google Docs, he says. "I think there's a segment of the market that's ready to go completely Web, and I'm in that segment," he says.

The next wave of laptops may simply lack a Windows-like operating system, Dodge contends.

"I think we're not too far away from the day where your phone will be your computer. You'll walk into your office, take your phone out and plug it into a docking station, with a big flat screen and a keyboard. You decide which applications you want resident on the phone and which ones you want in the cloud and which data you want on the phone or in the cloud, or replicated between the two.

"There's a lot to do" before we get to that point, and Dodge's work with startups could help accelerate the move to Web-based computing.

Dodge's picks

The man at Google who called Dodge after he was laid off by Microsoft was Vice President Vic Gundotra, who had also left Microsoft to join Google. Dodge today reports to Michael Winton, Google's director of developer relations, and occasionally runs in higher circles. For example, Dodge is doing a special project for CEO Eric Schmidt in which he's bringing venture capitalists to Google's campus to develop a relationship with the people "that fund the companies we want to partner with, or that we want to acquire or invest in," Dodge says.

At DEMO, Dodge said he was intrigued by startups called Nimble and FaceCake. Dodge was impressed by how Nimble brings social technology to customer relationship management, while FaceCake's Swivel product uses a "virtual mirror" letting shoppers view themselves in clothes without actually taking anything off or putting anything on.

The fashion application "is kind of funky, probably not anything Google is interested in," Dodge says. But the technology behind the application could be used by Google for other applications. "The technology itself was pretty remarkable."

Dodge was also impressed by NeuAer, which was at the Launch conference. The startup "uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for proximity location identification," Dodge says. "It's a platform for connecting all kinds of devices, phones, cars and appliances and letting you know when they're in proximity to you."

Great technology alone isn't enough to catch Google's eye, though, especially when it considers making an acquisition. A billion-dollar merger could be mostly about acquiring technology, or moving into new markets by appropriating an existing customer base. But the sub-$100 million acquisitions are usually about acquiring talent.

One great example is Google's 2005 purchase of Android, which was founded by Andy Rubin and Rich Miner. The powerhouse growth of Android might not have been possible at a small startup, but under Google it was -- and Rubin still leads development of Android for Google while Miner is part of Google's venture capital team.

At DEMO, about 50 startups presented new technologies this week, hoping for venture capital investments. While the startup dream is to become the next Google or Facebook, getting purchased by one of those companies would also be a successful outcome.

"It's all about the team, really," Dodge says. "That's the No. 1 determinant of making an acquisition. That was true at Microsoft too. I think most acquisitions are No. 1 about acquiring talent, No. 2, acquiring technology, and maybe No. 3, acquiring customers. The most important thing is the team."

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