Almost as soon as Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, announced they would step down from their executive roles at parent company Alphabet, it was being framed in the press as an end of an era. It’s certainly not hard to see why.
The two launched Google out of a Menlo Park garage more than 20 years ago and built it into a colossus that now touches seemingly every corner of our lives — the phones in our hands, the televisions in our homes, the cars on the street and, of course, the way we find information online. More than that, Google and its founders shaped Silicon Valley and the corporate world more broadly with their focus on lavish office perks, a famous “20% time” policy for employee side projects and a culture of transparency.
And yet, Tuesday’s announcement that Page and Brin are giving up their titles as Alphabet’s CEO and president, respectively, is not so much the end of an era as the culmination of a years-long disappearing act. Indeed, it can’t even be considered an end at all as the two men promised to “remain actively involved” with the company in their roles as board members and, most importantly, as shareholders with unmatched power to shape Alphabet’s future.
Page and Brin currently maintain voting control over Alphabet, thanks to a special class of shares they own. This all but guarantees the pair can approve or shoot down major decisions at the company, regardless of whether they hold executive positions at Google, Alphabet or nowhere at all.
When asked if the founders intend to maintain their voting stakes in the company for the foreseeable future, a Google spokesperson told CNN Business there are “no changes here.”
A slow disappearing act
Four years ago, Page announced in another letter that Google would create Alphabet, a holding company of sorts to support and grow new businesses, from healthcare and venture capital arms to a mix of ambitious, money-losing moonshot projects. But it also had the effect of removing Page from the day-to-day responsibilities of running Google.
Sundar Pichai, a longtime insider who helped oversee Chrome and Android, took over as CEO of Google while Page took the title of Alphabet CEO. Pichai set to work pushing the company deeper into hardware and cloud computing while juggling mounting scrutiny from politicians and regulators over Google’s size and impact on elections and society. In recent years, it’s been Pichai taking the stage at Google’s product events, fielding questions on quarterly earnings calls and getting grilled by Congress.
Page, on the other hand, focused on more far-fetched pet projects like flying cars. He and Brin were seen less inside and outside the company, absent from earnings calls, this year’s annual shareholder meeting and reportedly even skipping Google’s employee town hall meetings. Last year, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article headlined “Where in the World is Larry Page?“
Still, Page’s shadow loomed over Google. As the CEO in charge of the company that controls Google, Page was asked to testify on Capitol Hill, but never did. There was also scrutiny and outrage over Google’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against top executives while Page was CEO of Google.
The Google spokesperson said the timing of Page’s and Brin’s announcement had nothing to do with this scrutiny. The spokesperson said it “simply reflects the fact” that “Alphabet’s structure and portfolio of companies is now well established and they’re operating effectively as independent companies.”
“Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President,” Page and Brin wrote in the letter published on Tuesday. “Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets.”
Page’s decision to cede his position as Alphabet CEO won’t likely do much to change how Google is run given that Pichai has already been running it. But it may give Pichai that much more authority when he represents the company in speaking with regulators, politicians, employees and the general public. No one needs to ask what Pichai’s boss thinks, because he no longer has one.
Founders can check out anytime they want, but never leave
Just as Google’s founders shaped Silicon Valley with the company’s big bets and office culture, their gradual not-quite-departure could set a template for how other powerful founders in the industry attempt to cede the spotlight without fully giving up control.
A growing number of tech companies have followed in Google’s footsteps in recent years and created special classes of stock to ensure their founders have an outsized say over the direction of the business.
The short list includes: Facebook, Snap, Lyft and, before its IPO fell apart, WeWork.
Today it’s Page and Brin who have the power to unilaterally dictate a company’s course despite having no official title at that company. Tomorrow, it could be Mark Zuckerberg.