Google - Jonathan Rochelle - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Lessons for entrepreneurs from Google’s Jonathan Rochelle

Google - Jonathan Rochelle - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Jonathan Rochelle, co-founder of Google Docs and Google Drive

Google for Education partnered with UNC Kenan-Flagler to launch the inaugural Innovate With Google event in September 2015. The event brought together more than 200 educators, entrepreneurs and life-science researchers who are innovating with Google to build new teaching models, services and scientific advancements designed to improve lives.

Jonathan Rochelle, co-founder of Google Docs and Google Drive, shared an inside look at the idea that introduced collaborative productivity to the world and got his company acquired by Google.

For 15 years, I was a programmer and engineering manager at J.P. Morgan. In 2001, I left my Wall Street tech role to start a consulting company, ITK Solutions. In 2003, we spun off a product company, 2 Web Technologies, which was sold to Google in 2005.

When the Web came along, people on Wall Street had all of their intellectual property (IP) on spreadsheets that were locked up – they couldn’t share them. Sure, they could have sent out their spreadsheets via email, but then their IP would’ve been lost.

My co-founder came up with the solution: convert the spreadsheets into web apps. Then we got to thinking, what if we didn’t need the spreadsheet in the first place? What if people could work on the spreadsheet on the Web?

The solution that we developed was a product called Excel to Web, which ended up being the core foundation for what you now know as Google Sheets.

We connected with someone at Google that shared our vision. As we found out, Google was very interested in getting very complex apps like this working on the Web. Back then, browsers were just not ready to handle that kind of functionality. We didn’t have the funding to build out a fully-functional product, so we showed Google a prototype of our solution.

When we introduced the product to Google, it only had one feature: collaborative productivity.

Sending files via email was changing productivity into non-productivity. People had different versions everywhere. I experienced this first-hand on the trading floor on Wall Street.

We felt strongly that our collaborative feature was going to be the differentiator – and not just for spreadsheets on the Web.

Google had the back-end functionality to make it work. They acquired us, and together we launched Google Sheets.

Collaborative productivity is what Google Docs is all about. It rebooted productivity by allowing people to really work together. Googlers began using the product in the first quarter of 2005. When our usage graph quickly rose to align with the number of employees at the company, we knew we were on to something. We then acquired Writely, an online word processing company, and incorporated that functionality into Google Docs. We believe these products have really changed the way people work together – that’s the reason people started using them.

Through my startup experience, I learned several important lessons:

Be lucky.
I think luck is a skill. You can create opportunities to be lucky.

The most important thing is to meet the person next to you. Meet everybody you can and talk to them, because those are the people that will make your luck happen. Every single person involved in my experience of being acquired by Google was someone that I knew. The guy we met at Google was someone we’d met when we were at J.P. Morgan. It just so happened that we were nice enough to him that when we called to ask for advice – not knowing he was at Google – he was willing to talk to us.

Be nice.
Networking is really important, and the connections you make will work for you. They’re really important. Be nice. And if you’re not going to be nice, be funded.

Get your first customer immediately.
Get your first customer as fast as you can. Give them anything they want and make them happy. They will be a reference. They will tell other people. They will be the ones that make your company successful. Or, they will tell you that you won’t be successful – and that’s even more important.

Build your team.
The people that you work with are the most important people when you get to the next level. They have to be the best people you can ever hire.

My fourth employee was working for free. She wanted to work with us even though I couldn’t pay her. She ended up being part of the acquisition and has been a product manager at Google for over 10 years.

Measure everything.
Know if you’re succeeding or failing – and where. Make sure you understand what your measurements are. Build that into your product, no matter what it is. Measure anything and everything you do.

Pivot and focus.
In developing our business model, we pivoted three or four times. We were selling to corporations, and corporate sales is probably the most painful thing you could ever do as an entrepreneur. An 18-month sales cycle for a startup will put you under. We were lucky enough that at the 18th month, Deutsche Bank signed on as a customer for our Excel to Web product and kept us alive.

Build things that matter.
Build things that solve problems. That’s what will work. Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. I know it sounds crazy, but I was passionate about spreadsheets. To this day, I love spreadsheets. The most important thing is to discover your passion.

Adapted from remarks by Jonathan Rochelle, product manager at Google and co-founder of Google Docs and Google Drive.