Required reading this week was Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

Auletta wants us to believe that Google succeeded in moving from a garage start-up to a $20 billion company because of passion, focus and vision (amongst other things). From a management perspective, perhaps, Googled sieves out the key lessons well, although midway through, one gets the feeling that Auletta is more Google apologist than objective business writer/commentator.

“Focus”, for example, is the explanation for why Larry Page did not look up from his PDA during a meeting with with Barry Diller. IMHO, this is bad manners, not focus, and Google succeeded in spite of it.

In fact, I think that it takes something more than passion, focus and vision (and all those other things) for a technology to company to move from zero to google.

In the dot com boom era, there were no shortage of companies with these “prerequisites”. Admittedly, a good many were founded on suspect business models, but there were also those which failed because they had ideas ahead of their time.

In 2001, for example, I interviewed with a company that was building mapping software.

The company (and I can’t even recall its name anymore) had a young and passionate staff, who were pretty much focused only on the mapping application, and had a vision of an application similar to Google Maps, several years before the latter existed. They even had government support in terms co-funding and subsidized premises in a technology park that probably had the fastest Internet access Singapore had to offer.

But it closed about a year later when seed funding dried up … along with dozens other start-ups with similar attributes.

I don’t think that this company had a bad idea per se because of the concepts they had in mind then can be found in GPS and other mapping applications today.

I do not discount Auletta’s observations of (and praise for) Google’s management practices, but fundamentally, I believe that it succeeded because — like other successful ventures — it was in the right place at the right time with the right product.

Google was not the first search engine by a long stretch — inter alia, there was Yahoo!, Lycos and Alta Vista — but it came into the picture at about the time when the world was on the brink of the Internet revolution. Search-term advertising was still quite new; Internet advertising then comprised largely of banner ads which were sold mainly by eyeballs and click-thrus. The dominant online advertising company in the late 1990s was DoubleClick (which was acquired by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion).

As a search engine, Google is at the cross-junction of the Internet, well placed to tap on a massive share of Internet advertising revenues.

What struck me when I first used Google (probably in the early 2000s) was unlike the other search engines, there was no advertising on the initial webpage. What made me continue using it, however, was probably the fact that it gave quick and good search results. Google’s acquisitions broadened its product line to include killer apps like email, maps (Google Earth and Streetview), photo-hosting and now, social networking. It is probably safe to assume that almost every netizen is familiar with the brand.

Google has indeed changed the world as we know it. Its success can be attributed to the passion, focus and vision of its founders and staffers. There was also a great deal of creativity, innovation and risk-taking, that might be more difficult to come by.

And a good dose of serendipity never hurt anyone.

Further thoughts:

This article where Google CEO Eric Schmidt discusses their relationship with Apple brings to mind another issue.

Google is a big business, and big businesses are oftentimes associated with evil, if only because scale breeds monopolies.  For example, what if Google uses its dominant position in Search to disadvantage its competitors … and could anyone prove it?

Is everyone else now a small fish, waiting to be gobbled by Google?