Marissa Mayer is back where she began: 165 University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto—the office space where, as a newly minted Stanford graduate, in 1999, she became one of the first people to work at a tiny startup called Google. Mayer went on to spend 13 years at the company, helping to shape its key services, before leaving to become CEO of Yahoo, a gig that ended in 2017 when the web pioneer sold itself to Verizon.
Now Google’s onetime quarters are home to Lumi Labs, the 15-person startup Mayer cofounded in 2018 with longtime colleague Enrique Munoz Torres to develop smartphone apps that help people “save a few minutes every day,” she tells me. This returns Mayer to her roots in another way as well—in pursuing new productivity-enhancing technology, she’ll be revisiting territory she once explored as one of the people responsible for Google Search, Gmail, Google Maps, and other iconic services.
Mayer remains cryptic about the specific types of apps Lumi has under development, and the time frame for their launch. But she will say that Lumi stands to benefit from the kinds of AI breakthroughs that Silicon Valley researchers are making in areas such as teaching cars to drive themselves. This kind of work, she says, is immediately useful for the tools Lumi is devising to automate activities “so mundane and so time-consuming that a lot of people [choose not to] do them.” For instance, the company is applying machine learning to certain photo-related tasks such as figuring out whether a particular image “is blurry, whether it’s well lit, whether it’s one that someone is likely to want to share based on the history of photos they shared in the past.”
If Lumi’s apps take off, it won’t be through the company’s use of AI alone. “We want our products to be thoughtful, to feel nice when they’re used,” explains Mayer, who was once famous for zealously guarding Google’s search engine against complication and clutter. She admits that she misses the days when the products she launched reached hundreds of millions of people. But with Lumi, “the hope is to be able to have that kind of impact and scale at some point,” she says. “That’s certainly what we will be building for.”
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.