Google Gulag Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

Google buys things. Lots of things. The companies that get purchased by Google are usually pretty excited about the prospect. Google's offices have the unstructured vibe that startup entrepreneurs love, and of course everybody likes money -- Google certainly has that. But it's starting to dawn on the startup businesses that Google might buy that they could disappear into Google and never be heard from again, or see their startup butchered like a farm animal to have the choicest bits added to Google's existing stable of widgets. Besides watching your Google-purchased baby languish or die, you're just an employee there, and Google decides what digital mine you'll be hacking at binary ore in now.

Consider the fate of Dodgeball, an innovative mobile service that was a predecessor to Twitter, Jaiku, and the many "location-aware" apps that now clog up the iPhone. The company, which launched in 2003, enabled people to send texts indicating where they were hanging out. In response, you'd get texts telling you which of your friends (or friends of friends) were nearby. In 2005, Dodgeball's creators, Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert, had just finished up grad school at NYU and were looking for investors in their service, which had become popular among techies in Manhattan. Of all the prospective offers they heard, Google's seemed to come with the fewest strings. Google paid Dodgeball a small outlay of cash and stock—the exact terms weren't disclosed—and Crowley and Rainert moved into Google's New York office.

Immediately, Dodgeball's founders saw that their corporate overlords didn't want much to do with the acquisition. It took six months for Google to assign a single software engineer to Dodgeball. After a while, execs began pushing Crowley and Rainert to work on other things. The founders started to believe that Google had bought Dodgeball simply to acquire their savvy in the mobile social-networking business, not for the service they'd built. The pair quit Google in April 2007. The Dodgeball site is still alive, but no one runs it.   

There's a disconnect between the general public's image of Google and reality. Because Google supplies their employees with the physical trappings of a nimble startup, they are viewed much more favorably than a company like Microsoft, which looks very corporate to the average hipster entrepreneur. But Google's enthusiastic takeover targets are learning the hard way that like any job, you're told which cubicle is yours, what to do, and that's that -- no matter who purchases you. Have you seen my Google stapler? It's a red Swingline.
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