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Young geniuses need moments of clarity. Larry Page had his own in the mid-1980s. He was around 12 years old – he doesn’t remember exactly how old he was anymore – when his big brother gave him a biography of Nikola Tesla. Five hundred pages about the Serbian-American inventor foreseeing 120 years ago how we would use alternative current and communicate wirelessly today. Tesla was an eccentric pioneer, who became the darling of New York high society and won over the largest investors of his day as patrons. But he was never a businessman. Cheating some, he was abandoned by others, only to die poor and lonely without ever having realized his vision.
The young Larry, son of a computer scientist and a programmer in Michigan, read the book in blur. After he was done with it, he began to cry and it took him a while to stop. At the beginning of the book he had thought: "Wow, how amazing, he could be this mind-blowing inventor developing transformers and other things we still use today." But Tesla’s story became sadder by the page. "It appeared to be a failure that he could hardly finance his research," Mr. Page recalls. "Just think what he could have achieved if he’d just had more money."
Larry Page was born a technology freak. Even as a young schoolboy, he would disassemble computers and put them back together. And he was the first at his school to do his homework on a computer. A shy pupil, later on he dreamed up with wild innovations: a cable into the sky allowing satellites to simply be raised into orbit, or a futuristic raised railway with passengers travelling to their own cars to their individual destinations.
But starting that night with Tesla, he became more than just the ultimate nerd – in his head he also became a businessman. He thought: If I want to reach truly a lot of people and made the world a better place, I’ll have to do one thing: Quickly and radically commercialize my inventions.
Scientists often need 10 to 20 years to bring their inventions to the masses. But it happens much faster at young Californian tech firms. Mr. Page was fascinated by that and applied for graduate school at Stanford, the university in the heart of Silicon Valley.
At first his interests took many different directions: Telepresence, or technologies allowing people to sense something far away. Self-driving cars. But his professor found the idea of exploring the structure of the still-young World Wide Web most exciting. And so, Mr. Page got to work and soon realized that the importance of specific content was relative to how many links there were back to it. Shortly thereafter, his work became the foundation for a new Internet search engine. He and his partner Sergey Brin called it Google, after the extremely long number with 100 zeros known as a googol.
Larry Page learned the lesson from his youth reading extremely well, or as he says: "So far, I can’t complain." Google is now 17 years old. It employees 55,000 people and has turnover of around $60 billion (€54 billion) and net profit of almost $15 billion – predominately from advertising on the Internet, used by more than two billion people.
It’s no wonder therefore that the California company with a market capitalization of some $350 billion is one of the most valuable firms there is. And the 42-year-old Mr. Page isn’t merely founder and boss – he also holds the controlling stake along with his business partner. That doesn’t exist anywhere else among the world’s leading companies.
It also makes the inventor from Michigan one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the world. And he uses this influence to make technological breakthroughs. Google is building self-driving cars, developing robots, flying wind turbines and giant communication balloons, as well as attempting to revolutionize medicine with high-tech.
Others, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, put their money into foundations, but not Larry Page. He wants to change the world with entrepreneurial means. He is a kind of Jules Verne with money.
Mr. Page has undertaken a historic experiment: Can a company so completely dominating and defending its business become even more successful with further innovations?
All the giants of America’s corporate past have failed under similar conditions. General Motors wanted to become the world’s leading industrial firm – and had to be bailed out by the government following a long decline. IBM lost the software market to Microsoft after personal computers became widespread. And Microsoft, in turn, had to concede its position as the leading Internet company to Google.
During this experiment, Larry Page has to contend with two groups of critics: While investors in America are worried he might burn through Google’s billions, Europeans on the other side of the Atlantic are concerned he could prevail and end up controlling their lives.
It was time to speak with the man who is so reticent, long overdue, in fact. But it took years and many conversations with his employees.
That the interview request was finally approved could be in part due to Google’s recent charm offensive in Europe. Under pressure from competition authorities, the firm has just announced an initiative for European newspapers. Google says it wants to work with the Continent’s publishers to find new opportunities in digital journalism, offering €150 million for innovative ideas. Die Zeit is a founding member of this cooperation, but that in no way impairs its journalists from reporting independently about Google.
Visiting Mountain View, the town in southern Silicon Valley might as well be called Googleland. The grid-like streets are lined with mid-sized buildings sporting colorful logos. Play zones with lounge chairs and bike racks are sprinkled between them, as are parking spots for electric cars.
This is the Page Empire – a playful copy of the Stanford campus. Each year, two million people apply for jobs here, but only 5,000 are accepted.
Until the eco-friendly new main building is completed, the boss is continuing working in a glass structure near the old center of the campus.
The interview took place in mid-April in a non-descript conference room on the second floor.
It should be mentioned that Larry Page is not a healthy man. For the past decade, he’s suffered from Hashimoto’s disease, a rare autoimmune disorder causing chronic infections of the thyroid gland. Requiring hormone tablets, Hashimoto’s can cause periods of weakness and weight gain, as well as other symptoms. Mr. Page says the "rather benign" disease doesn’t impair him. Whether it causes his noticeable vocal chord disorder is unclear. But his left vocal chord never recovered from a paralysis long ago and the right side was affected in 2012. This caused even him to stay away from important business appointments such as the Google shareholders’ meeting. Ever since, his appearance and the way he sounds have taken on particular importance.