After five years as an executive in Google Inc.’s California operations, Chris O’Neill returned to his roots in 2010, moving to Toronto to run Google Canada, which is growing at an astronomical rate.
The company has sales and marketing operations in Toronto, government relations in Ottawa, and a small engineering office in Montreal. But most of the action is at its new facility in Ontario’s high-tech hub of Kitchener-Waterloo, where an expanding work force is making crucial advances in mobile computing and social networks.
How does Canada compare with the rest of the world in its use of the Internet?
From a consumer usage standpoint, Canada leads the world. We are the most wired nation. In the United States, more people spend time watching TV and less time on the Internet.
[However, there is]a gap in Canada between where consumers are, and where businesses are. We estimate that there are roughly two million small businesses in this country, and less than half of them have a website. That is a problem [because]consumers are out there actively looking for what businesses offer, and it really is a missed opportunity.
Why is Canada so far behind?
I think that Canadians’ risk tolerance tends to be a little lower. That serves us well in certain ways, such as in the banking world. When it comes to technology, however, Canadian businesses could use a little more of that risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – we could just use much more of it.
What about big businesses and the Internet?
I think a lot of companies are still in an experimental phase. They are past the point of wondering whether this is a fad or not, but they really haven’t organized to fully capture the benefits of the Web .
What is happening at your engineering group in Kitchener-Waterloo?
I think it is one of the crown jewels of Canada. [We have about]170 world-class developers. They work on all of our commerce-related efforts, including things such as Google Offers, which is similar to what Groupon does. They are behind [the social network]Google+, from a mobile perspective. And there are some smaller experimental things that happen. A lot of companies that become bigger lose their edge and they don’t innovate at the same pace. I see [our Kitchener group]as a perfect marriage of the entrepreneurial spirit, living within a large company.
Why is Waterloo a good place for that innovation?
There are a lot of ingredients. The connection to the university is fundamental. Research In Motion has an important role in this – you have a lot of startups there, spun off RIM. It creates a little bit of a halo effect. The depth and the sheer talent around mobile applications is astounding.
With your staff growing at more than 50 per cent a year, how do you make sure you are hiring the right people?
We rely primarily on referrals. There is no better source of information than people who have succeeded here and who can tap into their pool of professional or school friends. [Then]we have a very rigorous process that we put people through. We look at world-related knowledge and experience. We look for leadership. We look for people who can not only solve today’s problems, but can solve tomorrow’s problems.
In a company that is growing as fast as we are, and is pushing the envelope on innovation, I don’t want a specialist who can only do one or two things. We need people who can really morph and pivot into the next three or four or five problems that we will be solving. And lastly, we call it Googliness – whether the person is a good fit.
What is your strategy for getting into social networking with your Google+ product?
If you think about the Web, it has gone from hyperlinks to applications, and the next evolution is people. To maintain relevance in a world that is increasingly personal, we have to have a relevant social offering.
We started to look at the different social networks and we said, there has got to be a better way. I’ve stopped using Facebook because I had too many friends and I’m not comfortable sharing, and frankly I don’t want to hear from random people.
Our solution is essentially social networking that reflects real life. [On Google+] I have a “circle” for my family and I share very different things with them than I would with my colleagues. Real life doesn’t work like one monolithic blob of friends.
How important is it for Google to be successful in social networking?
It is essential. We have this explosion of the Web, and we are going to rely on people that we know and love and trust to help us distill this massive amount of information down to something that is meaningful. If you don’t figure out how to [do that]in a way that helps you cut through the clutter, the technology will only get you so far.
Are mobile devices where much of the action is?
About one-third of the phones in Canada are smart phones, and we expect that to be 50 per cent by 2014. The mobile Web itself is growing about eight times faster than the desktop Web did. Everything we do has a mobile implementation first. It really is a game changer.
Will advertisers approach the Internet differently as mobile computing takes hold?
I think they need to. The data we have suggest that 20 per cent of companies have a mobile-optimized site. So if you go to 80 per cent of business [sites]today, you are trying to navigate through their Web-based site and it is really annoying. You have to think about mobile differently [because]people are typically on the go.
What can other companies learn from Google’s success?
[A key approach is our]notion of sharing everything, being really open and trusting employees. That’s actually surprisingly rare.
Taking risk is important. You have to say “yes” more than you say “no.” I’m continually amazed by our engineers who maintain childlike curiosity. It is amazing to spend time with them because they ask “why” or “why not” about 20 times a day.
[Businesses need]to strive for continual innovation, as opposed to instant perfection. If you are not kind of embarrassed about your beta launch, or your first product prototype, then you probably waited too long. You have to launch and iterate. That’s what we do. We have maintained a sense of entrepreneurialism, even though we are getting large.
Is lack of innovation a problem for Canada?
It is the No. 1 issue [and]it has to do with risk. People glamorize Silicon Valley and [imagine]there are these geniuses there who can do no wrong. [But]most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have had one, two, three failures, and they have learned from them. They celebrate it as almost a badge of honour. Smart venture capitalists look for people who have failed.
There are other pieces in the Canadian eco-system that need to be addressed as well. We need to have better financing of startups. Part of the success of Waterloo, and certainly of Silicon Valley, is mentors. People collaborate and share information, and are okay with that.
How worried are you about competition?
There is a kid somewhere in a garage who is literally creating the next Google out there. Google is a very young company, so not only are we healthily paranoid about those sorts of things, [it also]drives us to continue to push the envelope and innovate. Competition forces us to do new and big things.
Didn’t you start your working life in the low-tech world, on the floor of Canadian Tire stores?
My father was a franchisee of Canadian Tire. He started in Acton, Ont., and then moved to Goderich, where I really spent most of my time growing up. One day you are putting together a bike or a barbecue, the next you are mopping the floor or unloading the truck. You do everything.
What did you learn there that stayed with you?
Everyone in their life should work in retail, or as a server in a restaurant. You learn a lot about customers and customer service. You learn a lot about people. I certainly did.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Title: Managing director, Google Canada, Toronto.
Personal: Born in Toronto, 39 years old.
BA in economics, University of Western Ontario.
MBA, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, N.H.
1995-2004: Worked as a consultant with Mercer Management Consulting.
2004-05: Director of marketing at HSBC North America.
2005: Joined Google Inc. in California; in 2008, became director of retail operations.
2010: Moved to Toronto to head Google Canada.