Lars Rasmussen confesses that he doesn’t have much of a sense of direction. But that didn’t stop him creating Google Maps, one of the world’s leading tech success stories of the past decade.
In a recent trip back to Australia, where Google Maps was born, Rasmussen, now a top engineer at Facebook, chatted to StartupSmart about innovation, entrepreneurship and failure.
“Once you get a taste of entrepreneurship, it’s a bug that’s hard to get rid of,” he says. “Don’t tell Mark (Zuckerberg) this, but I almost had more fun when we were a struggling start-up.”
“What I like about Facebook is it is a young and fresh company that has an entrepreneurial attitude.”
Danish-born Rasmussen co-founded Where 2 Technologies with his brother Jens in 2003. It was subsequently bought by Google. The rest, as they say, is mapping history.
Here are some of his pearls of wisdom.
…Australia’s start-up scene
“I first met Rebekah [Campbell, founder of Posse, an online platform for bands to connect with their fans] at Tech23 last year and I thought it was a great idea for a business.
Rebekah is really onto something here. If she pulls it off, it will be a worldwide big deal. I thought I could add value so I was offered a seat on the board. Facebook allows you to have one board position elsewhere and I thought I’d choose Posse as I’ve never done anything like it before.
Google and other companies are looking for talented start-ups and they don’t care where they are. What’s great about Australia is that there’s now a critical mass of people who want to do something new. It’s not just one crazy person who wants to do things differently.”
“I got laid off from a start-up in Silicon Valley in the tech wreck days. Luckily my brother Jens was laid off three months before me, so he had time to polish the idea.
When I got the predictable redundancy pink slip he called me to talk about an idea in mapping. Maps were ugly back then and no one was doing anything with them.
Everyone said there was no money in maps, that people wouldn’t use it. But we realise if we were innovative, made them look good and let people interact with the maps, it would be interesting.
While people in California said that there was nothing in this, we had some friends in Australia who said ‘that’s cool’. So we decided to start a new life in Sydney and work on the idea.”
“There were a number of times that I thought the idea would die, but we kept going. There were two or three times when I was almost certain it was all over.
We couldn’t get people interested in the prototype, but then we nearly got capital from Sequoia, one of the biggest VC firms in the US. That was a big deal because if you backing from them, you were pretty much guaranteed to make it.
The trouble was that they were very skittish in the days following the tech wreck and they pulled out on the day we were meant to sign the deal.
On the day, Yahoo brought out a new mapping application and I thought ‘shit’. There was nothing wrong with us, it was just over.
I got a phone call from the VC that started, ‘Lars, we need to talk’. I never want to have one of those conversations again.”
“Everything can be traced back to a guy called Frank Marshall. He’s an amazing guy and was on the board of the Silicon Valley company that laid me off.
He didn’t really know me, but he knew my name. We targeted him as we knew that he could put us in touch with people who could help the business take off.
He was speaking at Carnegie Mellon University and we just crashed the event. He gave us an hour of his time, heard us out and put us in touch with VCs who would give us their time.
We got pretty close with Sequoia, maybe seven out of 10. That’s not bad. They introduced us to Google, which is where it got interesting.
The reason that Sequoia didn’t want to invest in us was exactly the reason Google wanted to buy us. Google didn’t have anything like that at the time and they wanted to keep up with what others were doing. It was a blow to lose the investment, but we had found another way to do it.”
…Hitting the big time
“Before Google, we ran the business on my severance pay, my brother moved in with our mum, he sold his car, maxed out his credit card and cashed in a pension. We had no money.
Every night I’d lie awake thinking about the pension I wasn’t paying into. That’s why I always have a lot of respect for people who will change their life to do something new and different.
Once I got to Google, everything changed. In many ways, it was the most enjoyable time of my career. I had the resources, a had a few engineers and we were left to our own devices.
It was so much fun. We set up an office in Sydney and decided we could change the world. In a way I was worried because none of the big guns were paying attention to what we were doing, which made me think ‘are we doing the right thing here?’
Since then, Google has become 10 times bigger than the small model, but the teams didn’t scale. There was a pretty dramatic shift to central control where everything was directed from the top. I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed it.
When they launched Google+, it went straight up on the toolbar, which was unheard of when I was there. Before, you had to prove yourself – Google didn’t link to Maps. Even if you searched for it on Google, you got another mapping provider.
We didn’t get traffic until we’d proved ourselves, which was good in a way.”
“I was pretty tense when Google shut down Wave. I can’t say they were really wrong to do so, but it was very hard. I knew it was time to move on.
I was disappointed as it was my creation and it failed. It was ambitious, and you should be ambitious, but the mistake was to rely a lot on the resources we had. We grew the team very quickly and based the idea on the resources we had and it’s not clear that it worked.
Sergey (Brin, co-founder of Google) always said ‘scarcity brings clarity’ and I wish I’d understood that a bit better. I still believe email is outmoded and we could do something better. But it was painful.”
…Proving people wrong
“You let time pass after failure and then come back with a vengeance. No one is a harsher critic of me than me. You learn and you grow.
People told me that Maps wouldn’t work and if you want to be entrepreneurial, you have to prove them wrong. If people say ‘this hasn’t been done before, it won’t work’, you need to get past that.
You try something and it’s a big deal or it’ll fizzle. If it fizzles, it will be painful, but it’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all.”
“I’m involved in a lot of exciting stuff at Facebook. We are working one project at the moment that was conceived on the inside that is very exciting. No, I can’t tell you what it is. But I’m having lots of fun.”