VC Corner: Bill Maris of Google Ventures

Bill Maris is the founder and CEO of Google Ventures, the official venture investment arm of Alphabet (previously Google). GV provides venture capital funding to bold new companies. In the fields of life science, healthcare, artificial intelligence, robotics, transportation, cyber security and agriculture, GV’s companies aim to improve lives and change industries.

GV operates a team of world-class engineers, designers, physicians, scientists, marketers, and investors who work together to provide these startups support on the road to success.

Founded in 2009, GV has $2.4 billion under management. Among its 300 investments are Uber, Nest, Slack, Foundation Medicine, Flatiron Health, and One Medical Group. GV is headquartered in Mountain View, California, with offices in San Francisco, Boston, New York, and London.

Bill Maris joined Startup Grind to share his journey as an entrepreneur and his team’s strategy as an investor.

Read our highlights below or watch the full video here.

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Tell us about where you grew up and your first job.

I was born in New Jersey, so I’m from the East Coast. I still spend a lot of time in New Jersey. I spent a lot of time time in Vermont, and went to college in Vermont.  My first job was mowing lawns for the neighbors,  then I upgraded to working at the Gap, and then I was a ticket taker and usher at a concert venue concert venue in New Jersey.

Were you born an entrepreneur, or is it something you discovered along the way?

I don't know who was born an entrepreneur. I was born the king of person who really wanted to control my own time. I really didn’t enjoy reporting to someone else, so I kinda always tried to find ways to do my own thing.

Tell us about college, what you studied, what you planned to do.

I went to Middlebury I got a degree in neuroscience, so I was planning to become a doctor. I had a sort of romanticized vision about what that would be — helping people, saving lives — and there's a big part of that in being a doctor. But reality set in when I spent some time at Duke University in the medical center and my then mentor took me downstairs to the lunchroom with all the medical students. They all had their heads buried in books. He asked me one question: which of these people looks happy to you? None of them did. I spent some time talking to some med students and doctors, and was convinced I didn’t want to become a doctor.

So what do you do when you get a degree in neuroscience? I decided to drive down to San Francisco and be unemployed for a while.

I ended up by in San Francisco with some friends. I lived there for a while and needed to get a real job. The only real job that I applied for is the one that I got, which was being a biotech analyst at a private equity fund called Investor AB — a Swedish company that was looking for someone they thought could read scientific reports and figure out which drugs make it to market. I sufficiently duped them them into thinking I was their person.

That was in New York City. I spent some time in Stockholm. I was so miserable in August in New York City in a suit that I immediately knew that i’d be finding a new job.

So what came next?

I spent a few months there, but I really didn’t like the idea I had to be in at a certain time. I had a boss who would be mad when I would stroll in at 10:30 AM. He would say “you know, the market opens at 9:30,” and I would say “oh yeah, I know,” and just go to my office. They were not happy with that, so I started to think about starting my own company.

I research the whole bunch of ideas like a magazine and a travel company, but it was 1997 at the time, and if any of you have the chance to start an internet company in 1997 — you should do it.

That was the best time to start a web hosting company — and honestly, I've never taken a computer science course in my life. I just went to Barnes & Noble (which by the way is a bookstore) and I bought an actual book about computer science, and I decided I would start a web hosting company.

Was it just you?

It was just me. Just me, my credit card, a lot of debt. I moved out of New York City, rented an apartment in Burlington, Vermont — which is where I was familiar with and the rent a lot cheaper — and I ordered some servers from Dell on the phone. They showed up, and I decided to start a web hosting company.

How long did it take to get the initial product ready?

Probably three months of really — honestly — lonely, difficult times. A lot of Spagetti-Os, a lot of sleeping under the desk, and a lot of introspection about whether this is actually going to work or not. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but beer is the invention of the entrepreneur.

The fear of having to move back home or declare bankruptcy was very motivating.

I had no cash. I had credit cards. I applied for a whole bunch — and if you’re going to do that, do it at the same time, so the companies don't know that they are all issuing you cards.

I was fortunate to have some family and friends that either believed in me or are really bad investors. They gave me some money.

There were no web hosting companies, there was no software — so I had to write the software, essentially. Which I did — frontend, backend, all of it. No one was really doing this, either, so I wasn’t really behind the curve. I figured even if I’m average or below-average, this is gonna probably work out ok.

What book did you get? It sounds like really good.

Hah, I don’t remember.

Do you remember your first customer? Your first product?

I do, I do. I built our website. We were going to be half web design and half web hosting. The day I learned to make a rollover button work was a great day for me. Our first customers were tough to come by, because who wants to pay — in 1997 — for a website from someone they've never heard of.

Most of them didn't have website so I went door to door, and said, “If I build you a website and host it for free, can I tell other people you’re my customer?” I did that for probably 10 or 15 people that all said yes — and from then on, the rest paid.

And the name Burly?

We had to register a domain name that wasn’t taken, and we were in Burlington, so I just made up a word and it worked. Kind of like Google. That worked better, though.

So you launched a product, you get 10 or 15 customers — did you then, hey, this is going to be a huge success?

Hah — oh, yeah, it was going to be great. I had no idea. I thought the whole time, until I signed the papers to sell it, it was going to be a disaster. Fear is a big motivator.

We got customers, but frankly when you have the weight of payroll on you, you’ve got fifty people or more — they have families and paychecks. We never missed a payroll but it was close sometimes and that's a lot of responsibility.

You have their friends and family that put money in your company. My advice is usually don't take money from friends and family, as that makes it very personal and that takes a lot out of you.

Do you remember your first hires?

Sure, they’re really good friends of mine — still today. I knew them, trusted them, liked them. One was a philosophy major, another was an English major — we all were unemployed, needless to say.

When did you move into an office?

Remember, this is 1.0 web, so we were getting buyout offers from like the first few months from Charter Communications and a lot of now bankrupt companies who are offering us hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m on the phone next to my bed thinking, “you don't really know what you're talking about, you might wanna come visit first, do a little due diligence.”

We actually stayed in my apartment for the first year, then we rented the next level above, which was another apartment and expanded into that. Then I moved out, and we built an actual data center — a real facility — but there were all kinds of adventures prior to that happening.

This is still in Vermont, so did you feel a disadvantage by not being in Silicon Valley?

I really like it there. The people are nice and the city is of a nice scale — it’s not different from Palo Alto, in that way. It was a lot easier to own the market there. It’s where I was, where my business was, where my friends were — what I knew.


We know the end is a success, but did you have any failures along the way?

A doctor told me once, “you never want to go to a surgeon that can’t tell you about any of his mistakes.” I failed a lot.

The first one that pops into to mind — this is a minor one: we expanded into the second level of this building, and we were set up for interviewing to hire people. We set up a desk, an African violet, a little Post-It note pad — we thought it looked really nice.

Someone came in for an interview, and they said, “Bill, they’re upstairs if you wanna go talk to them. I go upstairs, look around, and they’re not there. This was someone we were really excited about hiring. On the Post-It note, she wrote, “I don’t think this is the workplace for me.”

I looked around and it did look really weird. It was this empty room with just a desk and a plant, and so I called back the person who brought her in, and asked her to come back in and to know what happened. I learned, “She thinks we do pornography here. She doesn’t want to work for us.” So that was a fail.

There are big failures, too. Getting the servers to work, the power goes out, the roof leaks — things you can’t predict — and when you’re a web hosting operation out a residential complex, which is not exactly legal — you can’t call the landlord and say the roof is leaking and I have all these servers and we’re going to set the building on fire. So you have to fix the roof yourself.

There’s lots of these big and small, and I think the biggest one was in 2000 when we were set to sell the company. It was going to be a great sale for us because it was 2000 and things were going great. I had used the oncoming proceeds from the sale to buy everyone in the company a BMW. I thought, “This is going to be a great surprise!” The trucks are pulling up to the building — right before the deal closes — and if I remember right, this is like March 6th 2000, which is the day the market fell apart and went into total meltdown.

Then the company that was going to buy my company calls to say, “You know that sale? That’s not gonna happen — so you’re on your own.” So I had to send the trucks away, and everyone in the windows were like, what are all those cars? They figured all these BMWs showed up, something good was about to happen. I ruined the day: not only are we not selling the company, but you were gonna get a BMW which you can see in the parking lot but now you can't have it. So that was a tough day, because we had to look inside and say, “Do we have what it takes to keep at this for another few years, or is it time to call it quits?” Which we didn’t do.

Tell us about when came along.

2002, the company was at scale. It was doing well. It was profitable very early on. I always say it’s easier to control expenses than generate revenue so we ran it to be profitable, so we were fine being on our own. It was clear that that was gonna be the last good train leaving the station. The choice was going to be sell the company now or put in another five or more years and really scale it to a much larger operation. And frankly, I was just bored — the company was running itself, making money, and I was not required. That was a signal to me that it was time to do something new.

What made it you guys that survived during the bust?

Well, we tried to run an actual business — that sold something, that made money, that got more money than it spent, and that actually, remarkably, helps you keep it going. So it’s not that difficult — but at the time I was under a huge amount of pressure from people to build data centers all over the country and expand and take down deadlines and a lot of companies went out of business in our industry after having done that. I chose not to do that, and a lot of it — I’ll be honest with you — is dumb luck. If you can choose between being smart lucky, pick lucky because there are a number of places where I could have gone wrong had I not hired the right person, or taken the wrong advice, and things could have gone off a cliff. They didn’t, and that put me in an incredible fortunate position — just like all of you, by sitting here, in the scale of the world. It’s important to remember that.

So you got acquired?

We sold the company in 2002 and I stayed on to help them in M&A and data center rollup through the end of the year, but they knew I was planning to depart.

Tell us about the first time you met Sergey and Larry, the founders of Google.

So it was like ’98 or ’99 — I was king of the world with this giant company, and my friend Anne Wojcicki said, “these two guys just a company in my sister’s garage — it’s a web hosting company.” So I met them that way. The first time I met Sergey, he was on rollerblades. Granted, it was the ‘90s, but I don’t think those were ever cool. They were very much like they are now: out-of-the-box thinkers and engineers and very technical. It was an interesting conversation because here were two guys that have no business experience, no business plan, no revenue, no plan to get revenue — it doesn’t seem like such a great idea. I had this actual business, and it became clear that Google was starting to take off, but observing their journey from that perspective has been really interesting.

Was it clear to you where Google was going?

If it was clear I would have thrown it all away and moved back to California. It was absolutely not clear that it was going to become this. I’d be on a giant super yacht right now if it was clear. It wasn’t that clear.

How did that relationship evolve over time?

We stayed in touch. I came out to California now and then, and we became friends, basically. Most of the important relationships in your life are deep relationships. They learned about my business, I learned about theirs. Anne and Sergey started dating, and that was an interesting twist. And here we are.

Fast forward us to 2008, when you came to Google.

So I sold my business and just started thinking about what I was going to do next. Larry and Sergey, and especially David Drummond in particular, who’s Google’s Chief Legal Officer, were thinking, “we need to do something around startups and investing that has an actual strategy around it. They’ve done some investments, but if we are going to keep doing this, we need to do it in a more thoughtful way. Do you want to help us with that?”

That was in late 2007 or 2008. I came to Google and spent six or nine months kinda thinking through, talking to venture capitalists and startup people thinking about what we could do in this industry that could be a bit different, if anything.

What did you come up with?

My conclusion was that doing what Sequoia or Kleiner-Perkins were doing is great, but if we replicate that, on our best day we will get one-third of the deals that we would be looking for. That wouldn’t actually be that interesting. We have a really unique resource. We call it Google Ventures for a reason: because there are 50,000 people at Google who are expert at things, we have the largest computer infrastructure in the world — you can kinda go down the list of special resources that we could unlock for entrepreneurs that might help their companies become something they never would have become without that resource.

I just started with the question, “what would I want from Google to take Google’s money when I was a startup person, and let me make that wish list.” Rich Miner joined in and helped me flesh out that list. We showed the list to Larry and Sergey and David and Eric, and they said wish granted — go ahead.

So where did you start?

It was just me. I was sitting in a desk in open workspace in the Corporate Development department at an anonymous desk. This was the second time I sat next to someone who did quite well: the guy sitting next to me was working on a little app called Bourbon. He said he might switch it into something else. Then he left Google, and switched it into something else — Instagram. It was Kevin Systrom. We didn’t have a venture fund at the time so it’s not like, “I wish we had invested in that.” We didn’t have any money to invest.

It’s all relationships, and getting to know people, finding smart people, working hard — and if you meet enough people, some of them are going to hit on the right combination.

Tell us how you work with companies you invest in.

We’ve built out a number of teams internally to help startups solve problems, from marketing to communications to engineering to technical recruiting to product design to development to user research — areas that, as a startup entrepreneur, with just one or several people, is really hard to have the expertise or even the money to hire those people. So we built out a team of 60 people at Google Ventures that spends the majority of their time trying to help our startups solve all those problems.

A lot of it is data-driven — it’s Google Ventures, so we spend a lot of time thinking about data — but a lot of it is relationship and instinct driven. You want to invest in people that you know and trust, and so it’s always a mix of those two things.

Where do most of your deals come from?

I’d say 100% of them are referred. It’s either someone we know or someone we know knows someone. They’re never cold calls, they never get mailed in, they never attach us at an event. You’re getting thousands of these a year, so you need a filter.

I always make the analogy to dating. If you have the choice of a blind date and someone who tells you I really know this person, they’re really awesome, you’re probably going to choose the referral. We have to use some sort of screen. Lots come from inside Google, because you can imagine with 50,000 people, they’re referring a lot of founders. A lot or from our personal network of entrepreneurs we’ve known over the years, who started things and are going to start other things.

What’s interesting to you right now in terms of startups?

Each of the people on our investing team has a focus, but the macro trends are probably somewhat obvious, like mobile, big data, data security — things of that nature. But I spend a lot of my time at the intersection of life sciences and technology, because I think what 1970 or ’71 was to the transistor, 2003 is to life sciences, which is when the human genome was mapped. You’re about to see a huge acceleration in what’s possible in life sciences over the next 10 to 15 years. It also has the dual benefit of feeling really good to invest in companies that want to cure cancer.

You sit on the boards of companies like 23andme and The Climate Corporation. What’s interesting about them to you?

So Climate Corporation is not necessarily a science company, but 23andme and Foundation Medicine certainly are. We just invested in a company called Synoptics started by a guy who I know from a past like who started a company called SciTech. SciTech developed this way to screen pap smear slides in an automated way rather than having an individual look at each slide and the cells in them. Synaptic is developing a blood test for autism. Initially, you think how is that possible, but when you spend time with the team and look at the technology it’s not impossible, and we’re really excited about that.

Talk to us about Nest, whom we talked a few months ago.

I’m at the board of Nest, so I’m a little biased. I think Nest — my big hope is that it becomes the next big consumer electronics company. They came in to pitch. Before they came to pitch, in all honesty, I was told they developed a new kind of thermostat. I said, “Do I really have to come to this meeting?” I didn’t know who it was — just that it was a new thermostat, and I’m not that interested in those kinds of things.

Our team said it’s Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, here are their bios. I knew Tony by reputation for sure, as did others on the team — and that’s what captures your attention. It’s really about who’s doing it rather than exactly what they’re doing. Tony basically created the iPod and all kinds of important things at Apple, and so it was worth meeting. We went, and when you see the pitch, and what the ambition is, and what they’ve developed, and that it doesn’t just stop at a thermostat, you look at how little innovation there has been in the last 40 years, then it starts to click.

What do you look for within founders, or things you see repeated in good founders?

That's a tough one because they're all really different.

Some farmers have a certain amount of arrogance, which can be a turn-off. I probably did when I was 22 — like I was going to conquer the world. You kind of have to think that on some level, because if you don’t believe in yourself, then why would anyone else? Especially when you’re asking people to come work for you.

Larry and Sergey had that little bit of arrogance as well, but there’s a point where it crosses the line. A lot of the traits you’re looking for are also the traits of insane people. You’re looking for incredible persistence and focus — you’re not going to give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. When you look at those on a piece of paper, you could be describing a really scary person, or you could be describing a really great entrepreneur.

At the end of the day, we’re looking for people that are nice people, that you’re going to work with for years. Life is short, so you’re going to want to find people that want to do something good in the world, that share your values, and would treat you and their employees the right way. The stage isn’t important to us.

When pitches don’t get funded, do you ever have founders removed by security?

The line between crazy and genius is really difficult to tell. If you met Larry and Sergey, even today, you’d think they’re crazy people. Elon Musk talks about the Hyperloop, and if he hadn’t been successful, you could say this could be a homeless guy that’s just mumbling to himself. Who knows?

But if they’re referred in and there are things they’ve done before — so look, some founders are really shy and some are really outgoing, some are funny, some are quiet. They’ll usually find someone to work with that will bring out the other best qualities in them. I think Larry and Sergey have done that, Chad and Steve did that.

You guys have a lot of money under management — $1.2 billion [now $2.4 billion]. How do you go about spending it?

Hopefully we’re not spending any of it, hopefully we’re investing all of it — key difference.

Let’s go through it, the math is pretty straightforward. We do 50 to 70 seed investments a year. Those investments are usually under $250,000 — so high number, lot of effort, but not huge dollar amounts in a relative sense. Then we’ll do 15 to 25 investments a year in the millions of dollars or maybe into the tens of millions, and then we’ll maybe do one or two investments that go into the high tens of millions or maybe even larger than that if we see a late-stage opportunity we like.

We started out in this model, which Rich Miner — the cofounder of Android — and I came up with: we’re going to make a bunch of investments in early-stage things will take some time to pay out but we want to demonstrate that we can actually good investment so they don’t shut us down. So we invested in Silver Spring Networks, which just recently went public as a way to balance the portfolio. So you have a lot of early-stage risky investments and this one sort of de-risks the investment that won’t return 1000x but it will return at least the entire fund. The rest will be gravy on top of that. That was the model, and it has worked out quite well.

What does the future of Google Ventures look 5 years from now?

If you had asked me at any point in my life, what does the next 3 years look like for you, I would have been so wrong every time, so I could give an answer but it would probably be wrong.

I have extremely high hopes. There has been an extremely good team that has been put together. We’re really excited about the portfolio, and I really love the people I work with, so I can only think it will be better. But even two years ago to think we'll be investing $300 million a year would've been hard to believe.

Talk to us about Google for Entrepreneurs. What’s the purpose of the program?

Google Ventures invests only in the US — that’s really our focus, and we’re getting our arms around that. But Google is a global company, and touches entrepreneurs all over the world. Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs around the world.

Innovation isn’t limited to this country. There are people in Pakistan that are trying to set up startups, and I’ve met a bunch of them, where there are bombs going off around them. There’s a lot that Google can do and offer those companies. It made a lot of sense to David, Mary, and myself to try to organize all of the efforts Google has to help entrepreneurs that are not direct investing.

We spend tens of millions of dollars a year — not in direct investing — to try help entrepreneurs get where they need to be, and to access tools that Google has, great people, facilities like Campus London for events like this.

We thought we could also make partnerships with groups like Startup Grind, and it just seemed like it made a lot of sense to organize those hundreds of efforts going on inside of Google under one umbrella. We’re really proud of that team, and this is a great place for them.

Tell us a few of the things you’ve been impressed with in regards to startups and founders through this initiative.

Just to be clear, I have not been to Pakistan —people on our team have. It’s amazing the sacrifice people will make to start companies. What it was about for is trying to make a better life and being in control of your life and providing for your families. It’s remarkable to hear those stories coming in from places like Pakistan, Israel, London and all over the world.

One of the reasons we started Google Ventures is partly because it got venture funding, and completing that circle of the ecosystem is important. Google is an incredibly fortunate company — capitalization of hundreds of billions of dollars — and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. Investing in the ecosystem that was so good for Google? Our view is, that can probably only benefit us. That’ll bring hundreds of entrepreneurs to Campus and hear their ideas and see their energy — we thought that’d be a positive thing, and I think it has proved out to be true.

We have our own building and we make our own investment decisions and hire our own people, but it is Google Ventures, so we have badges, we eat in the cafe, our friends are Googlers. The reality is we’re happy to invest in things that are competitive to Google — we're not investing to help Google products, Google is doing great on its own. The intention in setting up Google Ventures was not to find ways that small companies could help Google do things. That always seemed backwards to me when I was trying to raise money from Intel Capital — works for them, so it’s a great model. But ours is the reverse of that: how can Google, with all of its resources and all of its great fortune help startups and small companies that we’ve invested in be successful? We sort of jiu jitsu’d that around.

How does Google Ventures work with

We know all the people at extremely well. Their mission is different from ours. Their mission is philanthropy around some very specific areas and they have some great people that I love working with there, but founders who are looking to raise money to create a commercial enterprise come to us, and it's usually a lot of NGOs and nonprofits that work with, so there's isn’t a lot of overlap by there's a lot of communication between us and them.

What’s the biggest challenge you wish someone would come to you with a solution for?

That’s easy, the same one since 1997 when I started, which is HR. Hiring, keeping people happy and motivated, trying to make as few people cry in your office cry each week as you can — the real is that this is a people business, especially in venture, and none of us want to disappoint someone so we try to start with the yes and try to make people happy. So keeping the team motivated and happy is really the biggest challenge.

Finding qualified people is hard. We always say we try to hire people, not roles, and they’ll find something good to do, and that’s really difficult. Once you have them, you’re spending 8 to 10 hours a day with them. You may be spending more time with them than with your family in some cases, so you want to make sure you have a good, productive, healthy, happy workplace. I think that’s always the challenge.

What do you do when a company begins to struggle or fails?

We have about 180 companies in the portfolio [now 300], and about 10 have failed. I don’t say this flippantly. These are people who have invested time and money — and maybe our money was the least precious thing they were investing — and it’s important to be respectful of that. So we’re not ashamed of the people or the companies that didn't make it. It’s really hard to do what these entrepreneurs are doing, and it takes a huge amount of luck.

I’ll cite a quick statistic, and I’ll get the numbers roughly wrong. If you start a company that’s venture funded, the odds of you succeeding to a positive exit are something like 18% if it’s your first company. If you’ve done a company before and you’ve succeeded, the odds of you succeeding are roughly 30% — a significant increase in likelihood. If you’ve started a company and failed, you wonder if there’s a penalty. The answer is it’s basically like 19% — you revert to the mean. So there's no real penalty for failure, so if someone has done a startup and they haven’t succeeded, they’ve learned something and probably won’t make the same mistakes again, at least.