Beautiful and Abundant

Publisher Bryan Welch on philosophy, farming and building the world we want.


7/9/2012

In each decade new institutions of power arise in the world that appear to have a stranglehold on free enterprise. The mighty metropolitan newspapers once controlled the flow of information to the mass audience. Their era is over. When I was a kid, the oil companies and television networks seemed to run the world. They are still powerful, but a lot less powerful than they were in 1965. In college I heard people fret about IBM’s monopolistic control of high technology. “Big Blue’s” wing-tipped minions ruled the computer industry. That didn’t last. 

In fact, the dominant global businesses in each decade of my life have followed the same pattern of growing power followed by decline. 

Google’s dominance won’t last forever. Some upstart with a bright new idea will take its place. But the company’s founders seem to be as proud of the company’s culture as they are of its financial success. Can the Google culture persist when the company’s economic power declines? 

More seasoned executives might say that it’s simple to supply free food and video games to your employees while you’re one of the world’s fastest growing companies. It’s easier to have fun at work when the company is making lots and lots of money. As the company and its industry mature Google’s culture will probably become more conventional unless its managers and shareholders make continuing investments in that culture. And as company resources become more constrained with the maturing of its industry and its business model, those investments will be harder to make. 

Googleplex photo by Flickr user David RecordonStill, managers in every industry should take note of Google’s ability to attract excellent employees with a combination of personality, conscience and equity. The opportunity of joining an attractive culture, building a business and sharing in that business’ economic success makes for an attractive offer. When Google’s growth slows, retention of great employees will be more important than attracting bright new stars. That may require some redefinition. What components of the Google employment contract are valuable after the stock options stop appreciating so rapidly? 

Google’s cultural innovations are probably repeatable in companies around the world. Most of us could invest more in the corporate lifestyle to attract good people. Most companies could be a little better at citizenship, and could publicize their citizenship a little more effectively. And most companies would benefit from investing more in culture and citizenship. 

Google has made its citizenship an integral facet of its product. Consumers today implicitly consider a company’s conscience a part of its value proposition. The consumer’s new mindset is probably here to stay. And workers worldwide are aware of the quality of life the staff enjoys inside the Googleplex. To compete for high-quality workers all employers must, on some level, compete with Google. Plus, the children of today’s workers won’t willingly accept a lower quality of working life. So we’ll keep on meeting these new standards in the future. 


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .



7/2/2012

Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” could be expressed as easily in the positive, “Be Fair.” The premise to which the company’s founders refer frequently – the notion that information should be easily accessible and freely available – describes the essence of fairness. Google stresses its meritocratic culture. The company hires and promotes people on the basis of their capabilities rather than their background or experience. Again, the essence of fairness. 

Don’t Be Evil is actually only a translation of one small part of the official Google philosophy, which is summed up in 10 points on the company’s website: 

1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
3. Fast is better than slow.
4. Democracy on the web works.
5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
6. You can make money without doing evil.
7. There’s always more information out there.
8. The need for information crosses all borders.
9. You can be serious without a suit.
10. Great just isn’t good enough.
 

Fortune Most Admired Companies 2010 logoThe company is regularly recognized as one of the world’s best companies to work for, by Fortune magazine among others. Fortune has also named it one of the world’s “Most Admired Companies.” In Fortune’s 2010 list it was ranked second right behind Apple. 

Of course the company has its critics. In many parts of the world Google’s open access model is considered a vehicle for alien values: capitalism, liberalism, and immorality. Journalists believe some of the company’s practices violate their intellectual property rights by reproducing their work without paying for it. Media companies sometimes complain that the search program’s valuation of content devalues high-quality analysis and opinion in favor of the sensationalistic and the popular. 

And some of the information so highly valued by Google is information about individuals. The giant communications company is looking everywhere, all the time, for clues to make its searches, its maps, its photos and stories more relevant and useful. In the process it sometimes looks into people’s private lives. Most recently Google collected about 600 gigabytes worth of users’ emails, passwords and other “tidbits of information” from computers hooked up to wireless networks. When something like that happens, Google says it happens accidentally. As Google becomes more powerful, the concern that it might use its insights to exploit individuals becomes more troubling. 

Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have accumulated great wealth over the past decade or so. They have also made thousands of their employees wealthy. When the company went public in 2004, at least 1,000 Google employees became millionaires on paper, including the woman who had been the company’s masseuse for five years. Brin emigrated from Russia when he was 6 and grew up in middle-class Maryland. Page came from a middle-class family in East Lansing, Michigan. Both founders have parents who are professors in technical fields and both went to Montessori schools. 

In other words Brin and Page had intellectual advantages but no particular economic advantages. 

Through it’s own nonprofit, Google.org, Google Inc. has pledged to contribute 1 percent of its equity and profits to charity “to address some of the world’s most urgent problems.” 

A single percentage point of its leviathan profits might not seem overly generous but it added up to about $100 million in grants and investments over the nonprofit’s first six years. As a percentage it is below average. The average big corporation tracked in the U.S. over the past 40 years gave about 1.2 percent of its profits away. U.S. individuals gave away about 1.8 percent of their income over the same period. 

The unanswerable question remains: Is it ever fair for anyone to have billions of dollars in net worth, private jets, palatial homes and an excess of every personal resource in a world where other people lack sufficient food, just because they were born in a poor part of the world? 

Perhaps not. But Google has succeeded in a game with clearly defined rules and it has, apparently, played by those rules. The company’s founders have become wealthy by playing the game of business more astutely than their competitors. Their employees have prospered. 

Inarguably, Google has been a powerful engine for creating prosperity. Search engines like Google have made information more widely available than ever before. If its inventors hadn’t seen an opportunity to become wealthy, would the Internet be as efficient and useful? Probably not. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple were all built in a capitalistic society by entrepreneurs out to make a bundle. That wasn’t an accident. Economic incentives compel human creativity and innovation. 


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundant by Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 



6/26/2012
That’s an easy one. Abundance is the most fundamental building block in the Google DNA. The founders called it Google in honor of a very large number, googol, which is represented by a 1 and 100 zeroes, or 10^100. Googol has been used to illustrate the difference between a very, very large number (googol), and infinity, which is immeasurable. Giddy with the notion of all the information out there on the Internet waiting to be indexed and searched, Brin and Page named their company “Google.” 

Google tools graphic from The Inquisitr 

If you are interested in, well, anything, Google offers a cornucopia of information, a digital horn of plenty. Without Google, or something like it, writing this series of blog posts would have required a thousand trips to the library or a staff of three people, or both. Not long ago writers like me spent hours poring over the card catalog and wandering through the stacks at libraries. We hired researchers and personal assistants. Now, when we need a bit of obscure information, we just “Google it.”  


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundant by Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.  



6/19/2012

Hummingbird photo by Bryan WelchGoogle’s mission is making information available. That includes all the beauty in the world (along with everything else, of course). Without question, our ability to craft a collective vision of beauty depends on the existence of a “collective.” Today the global collective depends on efficient Internet search more than any other source of information. 

When my wife and I get ready to plant some flowers around the farm, we sometimes use Google or one of its competitors to track down the varieties we want. When we redecorate our home we search the Internet. We found the company that provided our cork flooring through Google. Our drapes and our newest lighting fixtures we found, initially, through Google. 

More importantly, a beautiful new image or idea can be distributed, around the world, more quickly by Google than any other institution past or present. 

That’s a lot more important than the architecture at the Googleplex.  


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 



6/12/2012

 

On its website the company describes its culture: “Our commitment to innovation depends on everyone being comfortable sharing ideas and opinions… We are aggressively inclusive in our hiring, and we favor ability over experience.” Then the website describes the company’s offices around the world, “Bicycles or scooters for efficient travel between meetings; dogs; lava lamps; massage chairs; large inflatable balls. Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and huddle rooms – and very few solo offices. Laptops everywhere – standard issue for mobile coding, email on the go and note-taking. Foosball, pool tables, volleyball courts, assorted video games, pianos, ping pong tables and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes… Healthy lunches and dinners for all staff at a variety of cafes. Break rooms packed with a variety of snacks and drinks to keep Googlers going.” 

Conscientiousness is also woven into the company culture, quite intentionally. Free bicycles are scattered around the “Googleplex” headquarters and plug-in hybrid cars are provided, on a shared basis, for short journeys. When not in use, they sit under a carport, charging with solar power. Biodiesel shuttles bring about 1,500 people to work every day, local food is served in the cafeterias, food waste is composted and Google buildings are showcases for green building materials and energy efficiency. Google employees are eligible for special discounts on solar equipment for their homes. People who use human power to commute, “bike, walk, pogo-stick, unicycle,” etc., earn points that Google translates into donations to the employee’s chosen charity.At the California headquarters, 9,000 solar panels produce about 1.6 megawatts of electricity. 

Photo of the Googleplex by Eros Hoagland as a Redux for TIME magazineThrough investments and grants from the company’s nonprofit arm, Google.org, Google is promoting utility-scale renewable energy from solar, wind and geothermal power sources. The company is also providing incentives to car manufacturers who are developing plug-in electric and electric-hybrid vehicles and is working to develop its own Google PowerMeter to track home energy usage. 

Of course you don’t power a billion searches a day without burning some electricity. Most of the energy Google consumes isn’t related to commuting employees. Even though they reportedly run data centers very efficiently, consuming about half the power of similar “server farms” owned by other companies, recycling water and equipment and lobbying the industry to do better, a lot of power still goes into the Google servers. Google says each search uses .0003 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. Multiply that by a billion searches a day and you have about 300,000 kWh a day flowing into Google servers, more than 100 million kWh per year, about the same as the entire nation of Cambodia, or Belize, or Rwanda. That’s a lot of juice. 

And the Google executive team, in spite of its proletarian wardrobe, doesn’t completely eschew the trappings of great wealth, including aircraft. Founders Brin and Page with CEO Eric Schmidt control a company that owns, at last report, a Boeing 757 airliner, a Boeing 767, two Gulfstream V business jets and, just for fun, a two-seat European fighter plane called a Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet.  

Quite rightly Google websites point out that the electricity used by its servers represents a tiny fraction of the energy that would be consumed if all the same information was being distributed to people who drove to libraries or bookstores. And the leaders of giant multinational corporations have legitimate travel needs that can’t be met by the commercial airlines. In comparison with most giant corporations, Google is a highly conscientious institution. The Google executives are responsible citizens who do a lot for people and the planet. They are also billionaires, of course. 

And since the days of the ancient Greeks, human societies have understood the code of noblesse oblige. Those who enjoy great privileges bear great responsibilities for making a positive difference in the world. 

Journalists criticize Google for devaluing content. Activists want the company to pull out of nations that don’t recognize rights of free speech. Lots of people worry that Google’s technological eyes and ears reach into their homes and invade their privacy. 

The more prosperous and powerful the company becomes, the more strident the criticism. Any institution as powerful as Google has great potential for evil, and for good.

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.


5/29/2012

Google’s famous unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” 

The decade between the turn of the millennium and 2010 might justifiably be called the Google Decade. The company may have built more influence in less time than any other human endeavor in history. If you consider the number of people interacting with Google each month (about 150 million unique visitors at the time of this writing, according to Compete.com), the company’s worldwide computing power (more than a million servers processing a billion search requests and 20 petabytes – a petabyte is 1000 terabytes, or a quadrillion bytes – of data every day) or its raw economic might, Google must be considered the biggest media company of all time, exchanging more information with more people than could have been imagined just a decade ago. 

Google Logo 

The founders raised about $25 million to get their company rolling in 1999. Five years later their initial public offering raised $23 billion. In other words, between 1999 and 2004 Google’s market value appreciated at an average rate of about $12 million a day. In 2007 the company generated about $16.6 billion in revenue. In 2008 Google’s revenue swelled by 31 percent to $21.8 billion. In 2009, during one of the worst downturns in the history of the advertising industry, the company’s revenues, which come almost entirely from advertising sales, grew another $2 billion, in round numbers, to $23.7 billion. 

One of the moments that define Google’s corporate personality, and possibly the reason it has dominated its highly competitive industry, is described in Ken Auletta’s best-selling 2009 book about the company.Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were meeting prospective investors in 1998, including Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and David Filo. They were discussing Google’s search results and the fact that they were more relevant than Yahoo’s. That put Google at a disadvantage, the Yahoo founders told the Google upstarts, because the revenue model for search engines is based on advertising sales. The more pages a search customer sees, the more advertising can be sold. Google’s more relevant searches meant that fewer pages would be displayed for advertisers, ergo, Google would make less money. Brin and Page said they didn’t care. They wanted to build the best search engine. They wanted to deliver the most relevant results for their users, faster than their competitors. 

An investor in the meeting described Google’s strategy as “disruptive,” and put his money in. A few months later he introduced Brin and Page to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, another customer-focused entrepreneur who became one of their first few investors. 

“I just fell in love with Larry and Sergey,” Bezos is quoted as saying. “There was no business plan. They had a vision. It was a customer-focused point of view.” 

The fact that one of the greatest success stories of the digital era was conceived based on a collective vision of customer satisfaction – rather than a business plan – speaks to the power of a collective vision. Google’s success may be, in part, a demonstration of the economic potency of conscience. Google has succeeded at least partly because its founders kept their priorities straight. They focused their organization’s achievements on delivering the best product–the most efficient search. Their “Don’t Be Evil” culture reinforced their business strategy. In their view, the most enlightened, least Machiavellian approach to business was to provide the best product by the most conscientious means possible. 

Not everyone was impressed by the company’s informal strategy, or its culture of nerdy conscientiousness. For every early investor who fell in love – like Jeff Bezos – there were hundreds of important technology capitalists who steered clear. Media mogul Barry Diller tells the storyof meeting the Google founders in the early days. At the time, Diller controlled Ticketmaster and Expedia. Brin arrived late, on rollerblades. Page wouldn’t look up from his PDA, even after Diller asked him if he was bored. According to Diller he said, “I’m interested. I always do this.” 

But Google’s culture appealed to two audiences who, in the end, proved themselves to be more valuable than investors. Users approved of the search engine’s efficiency. Traffic and revenue grew hyperbolically. And the best and brightest young minds in Silicon Valley were drawn to the company’s style and its perks.

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook.


5/22/2012

 

At work, as at home, the queries have helped us add a number of constructive items to our agenda. 

Expand digital and web-based products. Most of the resources we consume in pursuit of our business are tied up in paper, printing and distribution of the printed products. Theoretically, we might someday completely replace our paper media with digital products for the Internet, e-readers, cell phones and other devices. When electricity is generated from clean, renewable sources of energy, the electronic media distribute information much more efficiently and sustainably than paper media, conserving both fuels and forests. For now, a lot of readers prefer paper but the digital possibilities are more compelling every day and we’ll try to stay up to date with the technology. 

Goals: Beauty, abundance and contagiousness. 

Push the Suppliers. Every consumer has the opportunity to influence innovation. Businesses have even more opportunities. By demanding new products that lessen the negative environmental affects of our enterprises, we inspire the invention of more conscientious new products. By asking our suppliers for recycled or environmentally responsible papers, energy from renewable sources and durable equipment we help those suppliers justify their investments in new techniques and technologies to deliver the goods. 

The specifics are less important than the intent. The networks of manufacturers, suppliers and modes of transportation on which we depend are extremely complex and sometimes it’s difficult to sort out the effects of our buying decisions. Recycled paper isn’t always the best choice. Virgin pulp grown in a responsible manner can have, in some cases, more benign effects than the collection and processing of repurposed paper, depending on the sources and systems we use. Sometimes products can be delivered from Europe or South America more efficiently than they can be trucked cross-country from Wisconsin or Maine. It’s dangerous for us to commit, mindlessly, to any given scenario. 

To run a business responsibly, we need to do our homework. We need to study the options and choose responsibly. And once we’ve chosen, we need to push our suppliers to provide the best option, even if it requires an investment to do so. When we push for innovation, suppliers have an opportunity to take market share by delivering innovative products and services. Our suppliers have done a good job of finding affordable recycled paper, tree plantations run in responsible and innovative ways, relatively nontoxic inks and more efficient methods of distribution. 

Would they have found these resources if we hadn’t asked for them first? Possibly not. In fact, probably not. We create change by bringing our conscience to the market. So rather than get too detailed in the discussion of the most environmentally responsible ways of running a media company – a worthy topic of a book unto itself – let’s just say that all of us, in any business, should be studying the alternatives and demanding the best of our suppliers. 

Goals: Beauty, abundance, fairness and contagiousness. 

Photo of a Chinese plane by Bryan WelchImplement Video-Conferencing. After manufacturing and distribution, business travel probably consumes more energy than any of our other activities. Technology is making it much easier and much less expensive to connect with clients and colleagues in videoconferences. The laptop computer on which I am typing (coincidentally, in the departure lounge of an airport terminal) has a built-in camera that can show my face, chatting away in real time, to my son in Hawaii, my friends in England or our suppliers in India, China or Spain. That way, we consume a few electrons rather than hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. 

Goals: Abundance and contagiousness. 

Push for Expansion. Since part of our mission as a company is to promote sustainability, our success can have positive implications. Any conscientious company has a bigger positive impact when it grows. We want to build bigger audiences for our message. That’s part of the inspiration for this book. 

Goals: Beauty, abundance, fairness and contagiousness. 

Explore new facilities. Our building is full, so we’re looking for appropriate locations where we could expand our footprint. We hope to find a neglected existing structure that we can retrofit for better energy efficiency and to integrate on-site power generation. We’ve taken most of the practical steps toward energy-efficiency at our current site, which we acquired with the business. If we chose a new building with energy-efficiency in mind from the beginning, we could accomplish more. We want our offices – as well as our homes – to be efficient and self-sufficient. 

Goals: Beauty, abundance, fairness and contagiousness. 

Stay skeptical. Businesses tend to drift into a state of inertia, especially when they are profitable. We try to keep questioning every aspect of our organization – the businesses we’re in, our sources of goods and services, our equity structures, our personnel policies, our payroll structures and our strategic goals. It’s through this process of questioning that enterprises improve. If we are aggressive enough, maybe we can accelerate our innovation to the pace of change in the marketplace. That’s critical, but it isn’t easy. 

Goals: Beauty, abundance, fairness and contagiousness. 


Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundantby Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 









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