Rafe Ring
Nov 20, 2012

Innovation insiders: Julian Persaud, Google managing director for Southeast Asia

In his series that goes inside global companies to see how they're making innovation a central part of how they do business, Rafe Ring, CMO of Global Insights Group, sits down with Julian Persaud, driving innovation for Google in SEA.


Rafe Ring: Every company we've talked to has a different take on innovation. Many cite Google as a standard bearer—a global leader in innovation. How does Google define 'innovation'?

Julian Persaud: Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, and innovation is very much at the heart of this approach.

Since the beginning, we've focused on providing the best user experience possible. When we try to understand what the people who use our services want, from emails to Maps, we start by focusing on our user. And when we build new tools and applications, we believe they should work so well that you don't have to consider how they might have been designed differently.

We try to anticipate what our users will need, even before they ask, and meet those needs with products and services that set new standards. When we launched Gmail, it had more storage space than any email service available and effectively set a new standard for email storage. When we launched our browser, Chrome, and committed to releasing updates every six weeks, we weren't just giving our users a great experience, we were influencing the browser space as a whole; raising the standards for speed and security, and ultimately making the web better for everyone.

Those are the kinds of changes we seek to make, and we're always looking for new places where we can make a difference. Our constant dissatisfaction with the way things are is the driving force behind everything we do.

Ring: What do you personally see as Google's most innovative development in the last two years? What excites you about it?


Julian Persaud

Persaud: One of the things I'm personally very excited about is Google Fiber. This is an ambitious project to offer Internet connection speeds 100 times faster than today's average broadband. We're piloting it now in Kansas City in the US. While this is still in its early stages, I think it sends an important message to the world about the importance of investment in high-speed broadband networks. After years of building Google search and many other apps, we know that on the web, speed matters. If you give people more speed, they will do more on the web. When the world transitioned from dial-up to broadband, we saw an explosion of new applications—online video is one great example, but there are many others, from online shopping to online banking. Ultra high-speed bandwidth will lead to new and unpredictable innovations. With Fiber we're hoping to help build the next chapter of the web.

Larry Page is fond of saying "People tend to over-estimate technology's impact in the short term, but massively under-estimate it in the long term." Broadband is an important tool for technological advancement. Future innovations in health care, education, engineering, and many other fields will rely on the high speeds of broadband.

Ring: You talk about the impact of technology. Do you believe that innovation is completely intertwined with technology? How would you describe the relationship between the two?

Persaud: For me innovation is really about finding new, creative and most importantly, useful solutions to problems that evolve as our societies and economies evolve. So innovation is distinct from technology. That said, I think as our own lives get increasingly intertwined with technology, innovation and technology are increasingly fueling each other.

For instance, how do we create a browser that allows people to access all the multimedia available online quickly and easily? Or how to create a standard language that accommodates all the new formats and content that's becoming available to us? It's thinking about questions like these that lead to advancements—like the creation of modern browsers like Chrome or the evolution of a standard like HTML5.

Ring: Eric Schmidt is quoted as saying that 'Google has proved that you can systematize innovation'. Does that involve any specific defined process or methodology you use internally? How does it work?

Persaud: We set ourselves goals we know we can't reach yet, because we know that by stretching to meet them we can get further than we expected.

Through innovation and iteration, we aim to take things that work well and improve upon them in unexpected ways. For example, when one of our engineers saw that search worked well for properly spelled words, he wondered about how it handled typos. That led him to create an intuitive and more helpful spell checker, which is why you see those helpful 'did you mean' prompts when Google thinks your query may have been misspelled.

We give our employees the room and support they need to think and develop great products organically. For example, we accept employees can make mistakes as part of the creative and innovation process. This is something that is part of our organizational DNA, our culture.

Collaboration and openness within and between teams is another cornerstone of our process. More often than not, you'll find Googlers sharing ideas and giving each other feedback on Google Docs in real time. This sort of instant back and forth doesn't just cut down on process and speed up the workflow, but it can also really stimulate creative thinking.

Another thing we like to do is to 'eat our own dog food'. Wherever possible, we use our own prototypes and services in our everyday lives. This helps us detect flaws and identify possible improvements from the very beginning.

Ring: You say Google gives employees the room and support they need. What does 'room and support' mean practically in a day-to-day working life of your people?

Persaud: Well, one of our key pillars is the environment itself—we have a very open kind of philosophy in terms of physicality of the office. I'm the managing director but I don't sit in an office hiding away, I sit with everyone else, as I should do, and it opens up the pathway to dialogue and feedback.

As you can see from the space around us here, we have communal spaces, we have micro kitchens, places you can sit and chat, and we have plenty of fun little spaces that allow people to be creative and to mix with each other. (View a gallery of Google office images.) One of the things about innovation is if you get different groups working together, playing together, you foster an environment of interaction and interchange. Many of our products have actually come out of conversations over food in the Google café or kitchens.

So innovation comes from enabling different kinds of people to mix and exchange ideas. We place a lot of emphasis on diversity. In Singapore we have 30 to 40 different nationalities here and a good age and gender mix. We have a big lesbian and gay community as well. We have many kinds of 'Googlers': from 'Nooglers' (for new employees) and 'Greyglers' (for older Googlers) to 'Gayglers' (for the LGBT community). We pride ourselves in our openness and celebrate our diversity as a key source of our innovation.

Ring: You mentioned that you accept that employees will make mistakes as part of the innovation process. Innovation inevitably leads to some failures. In your experience what has been Google's biggest failure—and what did you learn from it?

Persaud: You're right, failure is a natural part of the innovation process, but no one actively goes out with the intent to fail. Another way of looking at it is what we call 'iteration'. One of the things we have learned, and have been very successful at, is very quickly adapting our products around our users. We put them first. The great thing about the web is that if you take a product that isn't working so well, you can iterate and develop it. There are lots of examples where Google has adapted its product set. Google Buzz, for example, was a social experiment that didn't work as planned, but we took a lot of the lessons we learned directly from that experience to Google+.

So we believe that it is important to learn and to fail fast, and to have an open feedback loop with our users. We listen, and we learn continuously. If you believe you have to get 100% of your decisions right you become constrained as an organization and stifle innovation.

One of the things our CEO says, and it's permeated throughout the company, is that even though we are big—now 70 offices in 40 countries—we have to maintain the 'soul of a start-up'.

Ring: Has there been any palpable change to how innovation is approached inside Google since Larry Page took over as CEO and pledged to rejuvenate 'that startup spirit'?

Persaud: Well, from our founding days we've focused on the user and believed that all else will follow. This is just as true, if not more so today, as it was then. We're strongly committed to creating a smooth experience across Google.

As co-founder Sergey Brin would say, "We've let a thousand flowers bloom; now we want to put together a coherent bouquet". But this doesn't mean we lose our start up spirit or scrappiness.

In our region we feel this everyday with new offices and growing teams. We all have to roll up our sleeves, make room for growth and set big, ambitious goals. We are not so much rejuvenating that spirit in Southeast Asia as ramping it up.

Ring: What do you mean by Google 'ramping it up' in SEA? Can you be specific?

Persaud: Well, I didn't see us as having to have open-heart surgery on that side of things because by nature we are in a fast growing environment in South East Asia. So the 'start-up spirit' in the region manifests itself in several ways. First, there is considerable investment underway. When I arrived here we had only the Singapore office so we began investing heavily in physical presence across the region. Last year we opened up offices in Malaysia and Thailand, this year we opened Indonesia offices. These are small offices, more agile and more like little startups.

Secondly, we are making big bets in terms of infrastructure and products. On the data centre side for example, we have invested several hundred million dollars in APAC data centres. So in terms of where Larry is going we are closely aligned in this region; we realize that we have to remain agile and responsive to the needs of our users.

Ring: Can you talk about any regionally focused product developments that are designed to meet the needs of your users in APAC?

Persaud: Yes. We have global products that are very strong but we try to localize where it makes sense. Some products are local by nature. Maps is a great example that is obviously local, but is not just the street maps that are local, we try to localize the features. Traffic, for example, is a big problem across this region and making those features available to local Asian users is extremely important. In Japan for example, users need the 7-elevens marked in the maps, and everywhere our users need the local bus, traffic and public transit details.

Ring: Everyone's talking about the explosive growth of mobile. How does this impact on innovations like Google Maps in the region?

Persaud: Of course the big trend in this region is mobile, so the mobilization of maps is absolutely critical. We want to delight our users with a very local experience so putting mobile and tablets at the centre is key. We are having 1.3 million activations a day globally, that's a global number but in terms of mobile Asia is very strong.

We are seeing a trend toward different types of searches, more mobile searches including local entertainment or restaurants, and maps comes at the center of that experience. Innovation in this area will continue in the region. People have similar needs, and the more local the overlaid data the better for people. Another innovation unique to the region is YouTube. In the last 18 months we've launched 4 local versions—Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. That has allowed us to enable local content producers to create content and also generate revenue for them. So instead of seeing US content our users are getting much more local, more relevant content.

Ring: What do you see as the single biggest competitive challenge facing Google in SEA? How will you deal with this?

Persaud: The most interesting and exciting thing about this region is the explosive growth it's experiencing, not only terms of Internet and mobile penetration, but in economic growth. At the same time, generally speaking, across Asia there's a gap between time spent online and the percentage of advertising spend. For instance, Indonesia has over 55 million (over 22% of the population) internet users, but digital advertising spend was only $0.33 billion in 2011. Similarly, while nearly 60% of China is online, digital ad spend in 2011 stood at a relatively low $5.3 billion. In contrast, digital ad spend in the UK, which has around 53 million internet users, was much higher, at $7.7 billion in the same year.

The reality is that today's Southeast Asian citizens don't distinguish between screens, whether it's their TV, phone, desktop or tablet. More and more people are coming online in Asia from their mobile devices for the first time and more Asian companies are expanding their businesses and reaching new audiences online. Over 80 percent of Singaporean internet users visit the internet every day, and more than half of Indian smartphone owners said they'd rather give up TV than their smartphones.

Asian companies like LG, Hyundai and Lenovo are starting to push the boundaries of engagement with moves like sponsored global YouTube events. The key to growth will be tapping on this exponential growth in the region, and learning how best to serve our users across all platforms equally and seamlessly.

Ring: As a marketer, what's the most exciting opportunity you see in bringing Google innovations to market?

Persaud: Our success depends on our ability to provide products and services that make the internet a more useful and enjoyable experience for everyone. Innovation is more than just our ability to take a good idea and turn it into something great. It's about giving our users, our customers and our partners new ways to get more out of the Internet—when we work together to build a better web, everybody wins.

The great thing about encouraging a culture of innovation is that once people start innovating, it is never limited to just one thing—one area or product or service—our efforts to improve one area generally result in improvements across multiple areas. Take Search for example: we're constantly looking for ways to improve the relevance, usefulness and speed of our search results. More than 1000 man-years have gone into developing the Google search algorithm since it first launched in 1998. At any given time, we're running more than 200 live search experiments. Last year, we ran over 58,000 and launched more the 520 changes to improve search quality by eliminating website and serve up better results, faster.

Ring: Finally, what advice you would offer C-level executives who want to foster a culture of innovation inside their own organisation?

Persaud: Our culture is built around being transparent, taking ownership, keeping our start up mindset and collaboration. Googlers' believe in audience participation and are encouraged to ask questions. In our Mountain View headquarters, we have weekly company-wide town hall meetings where anyone can ask anything to senior management.

We work in small teams that take ownership for their own projects, stay nimble and have a big impact. And our benefits and perks are designed to foster team spirit and collaboration at Google. We are always mindful of the importance of environment and celebrating diversity.

So yes, it's about culture, environment, openness and rewards. But more importantly it's about people. If you invest time and energy into finding and hiring energetic, innovative thinkers who care about doing great work and developing your culture, which is driven by your people, you will bring innovation alive inside your company. Not only for your staff, but in the end, for the benefit of your customers.

If you're an 'Innovation Insider' with a story, email [email protected]

Campaign Asia

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