Bus. Std: Of Black Swans and Google

My latest column in Business Standard:

I recently came across a report on search engines from 1999. Among the companies it discussed was Google. As I read it, I wondered if I (or anyone else) could have imagined then that five years later, this start-up would have so transformed the search space, build the worlds largest computing platform, and be getting ready to do an IPO that will create $25 billion of wealth for its founders, employees and investors.

What is remarkable about Google is that it flourished right under the noses of its competitors without being acquired or crushed. The likes of Yahoo and Microsoft did not do anything until it was too late to prevent Google from getting where it is now. That is the incredulity of it all.

A Google happens once in many, many years. It is almost impossible to predict before hand that such a company will at some point of time in the future occupy a position of great power and influence over not just across its vertical but across the industry. Because, if we knew, we would do something about it. Competitors would seek to put roadblocks and hurdles, or failing that, try and possibly acquire it. Even otherwise helpful partners may think carefully if they realise they are going to help in building the next big behemoth. In other words, events and circumstances which lead to the creation of the once-in-a-lifetime companies are rare and almost unpredictable.

That is what makes Google a black swan.

Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and founder-chairman of Empirica LLC, a research laboratory and financial products trading house in New York, has this to say: A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are.

In a paper entitled The Black Swan: Why Dont We Learn that We Dont Learn, Nassim elaborates on the black swan notion: The Black Swan is defined as a random event satisfying the following three properties: large impact, incomputable probabilities, and surprise effect. First, it carries upon its occurrence a disproportionately large impact. The impact being extremely large, no matter how low the associated probability, the expected effect (the impact times its probability), if quantified, would be significant. Second, its incidence has a small but incomputable probability based on information available prior to its incidence. Third, a vicious property of a Black Swan is its surprise effect: at a given time of observation there is no convincing element pointing to an increased likelihood of the event.

Think a little about what made Google thrive to get to the point where it has reached now. One, it had only one round of venture capital investment, giving the founders sufficient management control on the future direction of the company including the right to refuse takeover offers. Second, they focused on an area which others had given up on search. When Google started up, search was a forgotten area in the Internet backwaters. They not only made search work well, but also created a business model around it via the text ads. Third, they built up scale rapidly over the years. Their use of commoditised hardware and open-source software at the backend gave them the platform to keep costs low even as they layered their proprietary algorithms on top of the GoogleOS.

What Google has done is to build an alternative computing platform. This is becoming obvious as it starts our to roll out various services which go beyond just search a shopping service, social networking, a blogging platform, email with a difference (not to mention plenty of storage), and a local search/yellow pages engine. Rick Skrenta had this to say: Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It’s running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It’s looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application. While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.

Tim OReilly takes it further: In a brilliant Copernican stroke, [Googles] gmail turns everything on its head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, making the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system.

We have seen the emergence of a black swan before our very years in the past five years. Can the next black swan in the technology space come from India? In an interview with The New Yorker, Nassim Taleb quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume: “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” Just because something has not happened before does not mean it is never going to happen in the future. It is for Indian entrepreneurs to prove Hume and Taleb right by envisioning a future very different from today and building it out. Ill be watching for a black swan in 2010.

[I would like to thank Chetan Parikh of CapitalIdeasOnline for introducing me to Nassim Talebs concept of black swans.]

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.