Coincidences that made Google Successful

If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all. – Futurama

If I hadn’t gotten in the car accident that year, I wouldn’t have quit school and I might never have started Apple. It’s weird how things happen. – Steve Wozniak- I, Woz

Over 25 years ago, IBM’s *accidental* visit to Microsoft ultimately ended up making Bill Gates the richest person in the world [1]. Was luck the only reason attributed to his success? No way. Though without it, Bill Gates might have been working for Apple today. I have a theory; for something to be successful a large series of coincidences must sum up exactly right…at least, such was the case with companies such as Microsoft and Google. In that regard, the difference between Microsoft and Google is that Microsoft’s luck ran out while Google’s luck continued to flourish. Indeed, God worked in mysterious ways for Google; ever since its emergence in 1998, Google has repeatedly scored high on luck [2]. That is not to say that Google didn’t deserve its dramatic rise to success; on the contrary, a successful company seeks out opportunities. Taking advantage of an opportunity means recognizing that there is an opportunity to take advantage of. For the purpose of this article, I will reveal a few unpredictable events that led Google on its road to riches but were, more or less, a coincidence.

Had few of the following events not occurred, Google would probably not have existed today.

Google’s Coincidental Success

I thought Sergey was pretty obnoxious. He had really strong opinions about things, and I guess I did, too
– Larry Page

- It was out of a chance meeting that Sergey Brin met Larry Page at Stanford University in the summer of 1995. Sergey had volunteered to show Larry, a newcomer, around the campus. Both found the other obnoxious. Though it was not love at first sight, the stars had already begun smiling on them; the two gradually developed a mutual friendship based on their common interests. So it is true; successful people have to be born at the right time, in the right place, meet the right people, and go to the same university :) [3]

- Interestingly enough, neither co-founders had any intention on creating a search engine, yet alone a business! Crawling the web was simply an interesting research project for Larry, and a mathematical challenge for Sergey. It was only later that the two hacked up a search application that would query the sites they had been indexing for research purposes. The first version of Google was released on Stanford University’s website, not as a separate domain.

Google Early Days

Sergey and Larry had a sloppy grip on HTML; not surprisingly, the search interface they hacked up for barely contained any HTML. Google’s homepage turned out to be remarkably simple. Today, simplicity has become the prevalent theme in all of the the company’s products. Certainly, a major attribute attracting millions of surfers to its search engine roots from the fact that even our grandparents can use it. Had Sergey or Larry known fairly decent HTML skills, the two would’ve ended up mimicking the cluttered interfaces of other web portals (i.e Excite, Lycos, Yahoo, Infoseek, etc). Their lack of HTML knowledge unexpectedly resulted in an interface so simple that its simplicity alone made Google remarkable enough.

- Due to their academic upbringing, the co-founders preferred academic life over starting and running a business. It didn’t help that, by 1997, the consensus view held that there were already tons of search-related business thriving on the web. Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, the list went on. Considering these facts, the co-founders reasoned that the safest course would be to license their PageRank technology to another company and go back to finishing their PhD’s.

In a sense, Google happened unexpectedly. The PageRank algorithm that put the relevancy in Google search was the child of academic curiosity. Later on when Larry and Sergey realized its potential, they improvised their search algorithm so that it may be sold to existing companies like Yahoo, and Altavista. Well known venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, came very close to persuading Excite to buy out Google’s technology. Over the course of 18 months, the co-founders gave demonstrations of PageRank to nearly every search company in the Silicon Valley. Had Excite or any of the other companies shown interest in the PageRank, neither co-founders would’ve felt it necessary to leave their PhD’s behind to start Google.

We probably would have licensed it if someone gave us the money…but they were not interested in search…We said to ourselves, ‘We don’t care, we’ll work on it some more. Maybe it’ll turn into a company, or maybe it’ll just be great research”
– Larry Page recalls

Rejection by other search portals forced them to form their own company. Two programming geeks with PhD’s on hold probably never seriously considered starting a company. What started out as a research project coincidentally turned into a multi-billion dollar business.

- Around this time, Microsoft was occupied with a PR nightmare involving anti-trust lawsuits filed against the company as a result of its monopolization of Internet Explorer during the browser wars [4]. Partly due to this reason, the software giant, instead, chose to keep its focus on the desktop while Google passively stretched its legs over the web. Google was not a giant then; neither was it generating any revenues. To their fortune, Google did not have to face Microsoft until very late.

- Unlike other companies at the time, Google chose not to receive excessive investments from venture capitalists. As a result, at the height of the unforeseeable dot-com burst, while other startups were packing their bags, Google continued to flourish. At the peek of the dot-com boom, while other companies were losing market share, Google’s growth remained unaffected. In fact, the dot-com burst forced the best developers to leave other bankrupt companies to join Google. Tens of thousands of young technology workers became unemployed overnight and no one was hiring. No one, that is, save Google. Had it not been for the dot-com burst, Google would’ve found it quite difficult to hire many key engineers it needed early on.

- NASDAQ’s market crash also brought an end to multi-million dollar banner ad campaigns. The banner advertising giant, DoubleClick saw its stock plummet from a high $150 to a low of around $15. Marketing consultants quickly switched to a more efficient and less costly means of reaching the web audience. In a quick turn of events, text advertisement that had previously been ignored had now suddenly brought legions of advertisers to Google’s doorsteps.

In short, the dot-com burst initiated a random chain of events that ultimately benefited Google.

Larry Sergey Eric – Rapid growth made Google’s investors nervous; here were two computer nerds running a potentially billion dollar business with their money. Naturally, as time pressed forward, the investors began pushing for a new CEO to replace Larry Page. Over the course of 18 months, the co-founders reviewed more than seventy five candidates for the CEO position. After several months it became clear that the founders did not want a business mind running Google-they simply did not speak the same language.

On the other hand, Eric Schmidt, Google’s current CEO, was reluctant to meet the two founders for an interview. He had two decades of experience as a top executive in multi-billion dollar corporations, and risking that sort of reputation over some startup company (with an unproven revenue model) was the last thing on his mind. It is worth noting that around this time, Eric Schmidt already held the position of a CEO at Novell.

One of Google’s early investor John Doerr, who also happened to be a friend of Eric, insisted that he at least consider a small management role at Google. Eric Schmidt tried whatever to delay the meeting for he had no interest except a mutual courtesy to Doerr as a friend. Mind you, Larry & Sergey were also wary on hiring a business minded person like Eric…both parties were merely meeting each other to satisfy Doerr and other investors. So when Schmidt finally walked into the room for an interview, Page & Brin ridiculed his strategy at Novell. Schmidt fought back and argued back and forth for nearly two hours until finally walking out.

I thought that [Google] was pretty foolish. I thought search was not that interesting
– Eric Schmidt

Long story short, 6 months later, Eric Schmidt found himself chairing Google as the CEO!

Google would claim its first quarter of net profits the very month he joined. And since then, the company has never had a down quarter. Either Schmidt was a genius, or he was very, very lucky
– John Battelle

- While working at Sun Microsystems, Eric challenged Microsoft by leading the development of the Java platform. He failed at it, but it gave him the strategic and tactical experience that would later prove to be vital in Google’s battle against Microsoft. When MSN finally steered itself against Google, Eric Schmidt was ready to take on the decisive challenge. Did anyone perceive this advantage when hiring Eric Schmidt for the CEO position back in 2001? Not likely. Once again, Google got lucky.


It is a scary thought that luck can have so much to do with a company’s success. How can a company possibly account for coincidental success or worse, failure? In my opinion, companies can live in peace knowing that the success of their competitors is hanging by chance, as well. All coincidences are mathematical probabilities. Since probability is a calculable number, therefore, it is possible that, on average, companies receive about the same amount of coincidental opportunities and potential downfalls. So for a company to be truly successful, it has to be remarkable. A remarkable company creates its own opportunities, unknowingly at times. Google happens to be a remarkable company.


[1] IBM had less than one year to deliver a personal computer along with an operating system. Gary Kildall’s CP/M was the obvious choice for the OS, however upon IBM’s visit, Gary was off on a vacation. It is important to note that Microsoft, at this point, did not have the know-how or the time to develop an OS in time for IBM. However, using shrewd business tactics, Bill Gates convinced IBM that they already possessed the OS the company required for its computer. Next, Microsoft bought a CP/M clone for $50, 000 and resold it to IBM, this deal alone put Microsoft on the forefront of the personal computer revolution. Had Gary Kildall been available that day, IBM would’ve certainly ported CP/M on its personal computers instead of its clone, the Q-DOS. Please refer to “Accidental Empires” by Robert X. Cringely for a deeper insight on this.

[2] Some people attribute success directly to luck. I disagree, successful people think in very specific patterns which then create opportunities for them that they can seize. The average person thinks that is luck. Even coincidences are, more or less, a result of some form of tactical initiative. I will elaborate more on this in an upcoming article on devising strategies.

[3] Blaise Pascale summarized this well; “When I consider the small span of my life absorbed in the eternity of all time, or the small part of space which I can touch or see engulfed by the infinite immensity of spaces that I know not and that know me not, I am frightened and astonished to see myself here instead of there…now instead of then.”

[4] Netscape’s demise was a central component of Microsoft’s antitrust trial, where the court ruled (among other things) that bundling Internet Explorer with Windows was an illegal monopolistic business practice. – Wikipedia

[5] My ideas are never my own. In fact, I don’t think any idea can ever be independently developed. The thoughts presented here were inspired by the authors of these books:

"The Google Story"
"The Search", and

"The Accidental Empires"

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