Google Gave Us a Building
We couldn't ride the shuttles or eat at the cafes, but the building was ours.
Somewhere amidst Google's sprawling Mountain View campus, there is a nondescript building with an empty parking lot. The badge reader – which normally gates entry to Google employees – is disengaged. The door is unlocked. Inside, there is a fully-equipped open floor plan: hundreds of standing desks are paired with the latest Herman Miller chairs, 27" monitors, and color-coded waste bins. There are ping pong tables, oversized beanbags, Xboxes, rolling whiteboards, and a fleet of rainbow Google bikes.
Hundreds of people could work there, but no one does.
Building 1129 was the original location of the Google Ventures Startup Lab, an experimental space offered to portfolio companies of the venture firm. In 2010, I cofounded a company (then called Firespotter Labs) with three ex-Googlers. Our $3 million dollarSeries A was lead by Google Ventures ("GV" these days). Their first contribution, along with some branded cupcakes, was a spot in their newly minted – completely unoccupied – startup lab.
Back then, the concept of a "lab" or incubator was all the rage. Firespotter Labs, Google Startup Lab, Churn Labs, Idea Labs etc. None of us were actual laboratories. The term was aircover in the early days of a company (sort of how "beta" functions now). It was a way to experiment, iterate, and grow without pressure. I’ve seen the accelerator concept return to the mainstream at least three times since then; it’s a tempting idea and almost always unsuccessful. However, in our case, it worked exceptionally well (3-4 companies were created, as planned).
Other than the makeshift Startup Lab sign at the front, 1129 was a Google building like any other. Nothing made this more apparent than the color palette of primary blues, reds and yellows, applied to everything in the weirdest possible way. If Facebook's office looks like a closet of tangled USB cables, Google's office looks like a pediatrician's waiting room. I often wondered if the interior design was the result of a single person with famously terrible taste, or a computer running on the misplaced belief that it could solve any problem. "Interior design? Easy. We'll map the visual spectrum to a scatterplot, divide it by the 1990 Census, and use square root of human potential to determine the optimal hue."
It felt like we were living inside a homely algorithm.
We picked desks using the same innate random-placement instinct that governs where you stand in an empty elevator: never in the middle or on the edge, certainly not in front of the door, and probably somewhere in the back left quadrant, with room for a step in either direction, should you be joined by another traveler. We used each of the seven meeting rooms, on rotation. We drew on every whiteboard. We didn't know what to do with all the space, other than use a different part of it each day, like slowly coloring in a blueprint.
The most unfamiliar part of the building was the microkitchen. Despite our population of 4, Google kept the oversize kitchen stocked at all times – to feed hundreds – with exotic snacks and drinks that I'd never seen before: fava bean chips, goat milk smoothies, Belgian waffle wafers, vanilla extract gummies, hemp somethings, crickets, etc. It was serviced like a really big hotel minibar – every morning the same two guys would wheel in replacements of whatever we'd stolen from the day before.
Food-as-benefit had only recently become a thing; surely if the tech press was aware of our endless fava bean depot, there would have been plenty of scandalous articles. "Larry Page Will Pay You $250K to Eat This $16 Granola Bar", "Microkitchens: Sexist?", “How Google Ruined Cold Brew”, “Did This Startup Lab Incubate a Live Chicken By Accident?”.
During downtime, I'd bicycle around inside, slaloming between desks. It was during one of these excursions that I discovered another portfolio company had taken up residence on the outskirts, at the back of the other wing of the building. They had a different settlement strategy – rather than unfurl all over the floor, they had sequestered themselves away into a single meeting room with the door closed. Their sticker was peeling off the window. AdSmock, BeltMine, HellDive; I don't remember what they were called but it was something like PillowFoil or MuckLuck. HouseBeGone? I never saw their faces.
We stuck to our side for a few months and fell into a pleasant daily routine. I was learning how to design for the iPhone; mornings were spent reverse-engineering Apple's default applications, learning about mobile typography, device constraints, and which colors rendered properly on those early iPhone 4s (green was surprising difficult to get right). Between brainstorming sessions we'd play ping pong. Lots and lots of ping pong. For lunch, we'd walk to eateries off-campus; even though we worked in a Google building, we were deprived of a few key benefits: commuter shuttles and on-campus cafes.
Our company grew quickly and we moved out after only a few months. 4 became 6; 6 became 10; and we traded a 1.5 hour commute to Mountain View for a 1.5 hour commute to Pleasanton, a place which is actually just as delightful as it sounds. Our new office was a top floor with roof access. Most importantly, it came with permission to use the flagpole which we negotiated into our lease. Naturally we designed a 8' company flag which we flew proudly over our new building.
We weren't a "lab"anymore – by then we were UberConference, and the first of a few company transformations was complete.
This was back when $3 million dollars was a Series A. Fast-forward to 2018 – my last company, Cocoon, raised a $3 million dollar Seed round. If you didn’t already know, those categories are completely made up. Perhaps you just raised a $3 million dollar Allowance.