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An exclusive look inside Google’s in-house incubator Area 120

Managing director Alex Gawley and entrepreneurial Googlers explain how the two-year-old program helps bright ideas go places.

An exclusive look inside Google’s in-house incubator Area 120
Managing director Alex Gawley says Area 120 seeks to solve “problems that people encounter daily.” [Photo: Cody Pickens]

Google’s “20% time”–the long-standing perk that invites employees to carve off a fifth of their working hours to devote to personal projects that might have value to the company–is among its most iconic traditions. It’s given birth to some highly successful products, from Google News to the Cardboard VR headset. But Google’s demanding day jobs, it turns out, often don’t shrink to accommodate ambitious side hustles. There’s a sardonic joke inside the company: 20% time is really 120% time.

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Twenty-percent time may be more ethos than inviolate corporate benefit. But as Google and its parent, Alphabet, have swelled to 89,000 employees, the company’s commitment to bottom-up innovation remains a foundational value. Which led Google to ask itself a question: What if Googlers with big dreams could devote their full attention to tackling them, with enough structure and resources to maximize the odds of success?

The answer it came up with is Area 120, a two-year-old in-house incubator whose very name slyly alludes to 20% time’s limitations. “We built a place and a process to be able to have those folks come to us and then select what we thought were the most promising teams, the most promising ideas, the most promising markets,” explains managing director Alex Gawley, who has spent a decade at Google and left his role as product manager for Google Apps (since renamed G Suite) to spearhead this new effort. Employees “can actually leave their jobs and come to us to spend 100% of their time pursuing something that they are particularly passionate about,” he says.

“There have been many, many kinds of corporate incubators over the years,” Gawley acknowledges. “We wanted to do something with a very specific Google approach to it.” Area 120’s open call to Googlers for ideas aims to democratize its startup-creation system and inject it with existing know-how from all over Google–a far cry from incubators, which typically get their founders externally and then intentionally wall them off from the rest of the company.

Even within Alphabet, there are multiple venues for exploring new ideas–the most high-profile of which may be X, the moonshot factory, formerly known as Google X, responsible for epoch-shifting gambits such as autonomous driving. Then there’s Google’s own Advanced Technology and Products Group (ATAP), which has engineered some out-there inventions, including the tech for a Levi’s denim jacket with embedded gesture control.

Area 120, by contrast, focuses on projects which, though ambitious, feel classically Google-esque. “The types of ideas that we’re interested in, fundamentally, are the types of ideas that are exciting to pursue inside Google,” says Gawley. “And the types of people that we’re looking for are people who are excited about pursuing those ideas inside Google.”

So far, Google employees have pitched more than a thousand projects to Gawley and his team of around 15 people, who have green-lighted around 50 of them. Staffers accepted into the program permanently depart their old jobs and work out of one of Area 120’s three office locations–San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York City–and receive enough financial support to begin turning their brainchildren into real businesses, including the ability to staff up with recruits from within Google or outside the company. They run their own shows on a day-to-day basis, with consultation from Area 120 leadership, fellow founders, and relevant experts throughout Google. (Google doesn’t disclose how Area 120 founders are compensated.)

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These enterprises aren’t about open-ended research. Instead, Area 120 is looking for concepts with the potential to pass what Google cofounder Larry Page called the toothbrush test: things that become necessities, not occasional niceties. That’s how landmark products such as Google Search, Gmail, and Google Maps grew to billion-user scale. “You want to build products that solve problems that people encounter daily,” says Gawley. Over time, the goal is to launch businesses capable of reaching Google scale–and to spin them out into the most appropriate groups within Google as they gain traction.

Google veteran Laura Holmes had an idea to teach non-tech adults to code and is now developing the concept through Area 120. [Photo: Cody Pickens]

Lofty aspirations

None of the Area 120 projects that have become public to date feel like they could become the next Gmail, but each has its own set of high aspirations. Three years ago, Google product manager Laura Holmes, who joined the company in 2009, was sitting in a meeting of the top 20 managers for a 500-person team when she noticed that she was the only woman in the room. “I don’t think it was intentional,” she says. “It’s just what happens sometimes.” Holmes pledged to find a way to help underrepresented people achieve successful careers in technology.

During a three-month sabbatical, she contemplated her future and even interviewed at other tech companies. But she concluded she could make a bigger difference by showing non-technical adults how to code–and that Area 120 could help. Upon her return, she sold the incubator’s leaders on her idea for Grasshopper, a smartphone app that teaches users JavaScript programming through playful quizzes, with plenty of positive reinforcement along the way. The app went live in April in Google’s and Apple’s stores, where it’s racked up more than 20,000 ratings from users across both platforms and maintained a five-star average.

For Google, incubating Grasshopper is about loftier goals than short-term profit potential, though not entirely selfless ones. “The more people who know how to code, the more people can leverage Google products and resources, and that expands the digital ecosystem,” explains Holmes. With that in mind, Gawley’s management team has encouraged her to concentrate on building Grasshopper’s audience rather than worry too much about how to turn a profit. Just a handful of staffers are currently dedicated to the project. “It’s not like we have Google-size budgets to work with,” Holmes says. “We’re trying to be lean, trying to be scrappy, feeling that pressure to deliver.”


Related: These five Google successes began as employee passion projects


Area 120 founders may need to scrimp, but running even a tiny startup provides an education that might be tough to get anywhere else at Google. Along with four fellow Googlers, Bickey Russell joined Area 120 to found Kormo, a job-hunting app tailored to the needs of emerging markets, where many work opportunities are so informal and short-term that they never turn into a conventional job listing; it launched in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka in September. Previously, Russell had worked his way up to a leadership position in Google’s sales operations, and though he’d always considered himself entrepreneurial, he still lived within a siloed world. Once Kormo got the go-ahead, “trying to build a team of engineers and product managers and designers was very new to me,” says Russell, who was in Dhaka when I talked to him via videoconference but normally operates from Area 120’s Palo Alto quarters.

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In some ways, Area 120 resembles a venture-capital accelerator such as Y Combinator–a parallel its San Francisco office plays up with conference rooms named after venture buzzwords such as “public offering.” But the fact that it’s part of Google lets founders piggyback on some of the mothership’s bounteous expertise, such as artificial-intelligence research. “It’s really nice to be able to tap into all of this science,” says Ofer Ronen, who joined Google in 2015 when the company acquired his mobile app performance-monitoring startup. His Area 120 effort, Chatbase, builds tools to help companies optimize AI-infused chatbots for purposes such as customer service and taps into Google technologies to get the job done. “On the outside, the road map would have had to be much longer, and we’d probably never get to these kinds of capabilities,” he says.

On the outside, venture-backed startup founders are famous for working so hard they don’t have time for luxuries such as sleep. Google, which sure isn’t acting like it’s operating Area 120 purely to get a direct monetary return on its investment, may offer a more humane environment. If Holmes had pursued Grasshopper by raising money and running the company to satisfy investors, she says, “I don’t think I would have had as much support.” Pregnant at the time she was jump-starting her project, she was even able to take a real maternity leave: “I had three months where I was basically just totally dedicated to my daughter, and then was able to come back in the same role within Area 120. I would have had to keep checking in all the time if I had been founding externally.”

Whether the Area 120 approach to invention will pay off–and become something other companies might want to emulate–remains to be seen. After all, even the projects from the original 2016 batch are still bootstrapping themselves. Their short-term goals are about discovery as much as anything. “You’re not measured by how many millions of users you have yet,” says Gawley. “You’re measured by how much you have learned, how many people you have been able to talk to, and how much evidence you have gathered that this is the right direction or the wrong direction.”

Then again, another part of the incubator’s mission is to help Google efficiently weed out ideas that are unlikely to live up to expectations. Part of that process is a check-in every six months between startup founders and Gawley’s team. About half of the 50 projects launched to date have shut down, while others have pivoted away from their initial vision.

Among the Area 120 hatchlings that died was product manager Reena Lee’s concept for a platform that would let consumers provide feedback to companies by simply talking to a smart speaker such as Google Home. Though potentially less tedious than conventional surveys, the idea turned out to have some pitfalls–among them the fact that folks who own such speakers are likely to be early-adopter types, which could skew their responses. Six months into Lee’s effort, Area 120 management told her not to proceed further. “I didn’t make the decision,” she sighs. “I would have loved to continue the opportunity.”

Don’t feel too sad for Lee, though. She’s now one of a reported 100-plus Googlers at work on Fuchsia, the company’s radical, secretive effort to write a new operating system from scratch. The time she spent on her short-lived startup, she says, imbued her with “a hustle mentality–you build and learn and iterate and figure things out.” If Area 120’s value to Google ends up being as much about the lessons it teaches as the products it creates, even its failures may count as successes.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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