What Google can teach start-ups about growth

7 Sep 2021

Image: © Andreas Prott/Stock.adobe.com

We speak to two start-ups participating in Google’s Scale Up programme for growth-stage businesses.

When Google was first incorporated in 1998, it had two founders, one employee, and was operating out of Susan Wojcicki’s garage. The company quickly started raking in investment and the rest is Big Tech history.

Today, the company started by Larry Page and Sergey Brin spans so many offshoots and divisions that it spun out its own parent company, Alphabet. And at the end of 2020, Alphabet had more than 135,00 full-time employees around the globe.

So you could say that Google knows a thing or two about scaling from small beginnings. And true to the ethos of the start-up community from which it sprang, the Big Tech behemoth continues to share this experience with others hoping to forge a similarly successful path.

In Ireland, the Google for Startups team is particularly proud of its work with late-stage start-ups. With its Scale Up programme, Google invites start-ups that have shaken off their training wheels to learn what they need for their next stage of growth.

Exemplar participants in the programme include LetsGetChecked and NewsWhip.

Founded in 2015, LetsGetChecked has rapidly grown from its roots in at-home diagnostic testing into a broader virtual care and online pharmacy offering. Its rapid growth and successive funding has seen the Irish company achieve unicorn status with a $1bn valuation.

The nature of its work meant LetsGetChecked saw opportunities in the global pandemic and last year Google came on as one of the first customers of its purpose-built diagnostic lab in Dublin. This new facility from LetsGetChecked supported Covid testing for Google employees, and the Dublin company has also worked with Google as an advertiser and app-maker.

Building on this relationship, LetsGetChecked signed up to the Scale Up programme for advice on business intelligence and analytics, cloud technologies and recruitment. The priority for this start-up is to keep its growth momentum going.

“The company went global from day one as a result of starting in the small Irish market, where the US quickly became a primary market, and continuing to scale in the massive US market remains a priority,” said Peter Foley, LetsGetChecked CEO and founder.

Foley said that what he found most useful from the Scale Up programme was getting an understanding of end-to-end data, from cloud architecture to analytics. “The programme has provided support for troubleshooting and accessing specific expertise, while also looking at a longer-term collaboration in healthcare analytics,” he said.

‘Sometimes programmes are very much one-size-fits-all. Google was very clear that we could decide what support and guidance was helpful for us and only focus on that’

The Scale Up programme is a voluntary initiative at Google Ireland giving Googlers the chance to give back to local start-ups. Participating start-ups gain access to experts from Google to help them accelerate their growth.

Unlike some other early-stage supports Google offers for start-ups, this programme targets mature start-ups at Series A to C stage.

When it signed up to the programme last year, Dublin-headquartered NewsWhip was nearing 10 years old. More mature, yes, and also more ambitious in terms of its scaling objectives.

NewsWhip’s social media analytics tools were launched to help journalists spot viral stories and understand audience interests. “We didn’t anticipate how much social networks were going to change news consumption and society, and how valuable our real-time insights would become,” said Dervilla Mullan, head of product at NewsWhip.

And so as well as counting top-tier media brands such as Bloomberg, AP and The New York Times among its clients, NewsWhip also provides services to brands such as Ford, Samsung and McDonald’s as well as the World Health Organization and Amnesty.

“This diverse tier customer base puts us on a firm financial footing,” said Mullan. Thus, NewsWhip has good grounding for a growth strategy, and Mullan revealed that the company aims to grow by 20pc this year.

‘It has been reassuring to hear that Google has some similar challenges, albeit at a different scale’

NewsWhip came to the Scale Up programme via Colm O’Grada, head of data at Google Ireland, who invited the company to participate.

Mullan said it provided a good fit for a growth start-up that had already proven its product market fit and traction, but which could benefit from guidance on scaling a company. The way the programme is tailored for participants was also a big draw.

“Sometimes programmes are very much one-size-fits-all, which can make them less relevant and waste precious resources,” said Mullan. “Google was very clear that we could decide what support and guidance was helpful for us and only focus on that.”

Initial discussions with programme leads covered NewsWhip’s business priorities and scaling needs. Introductions were then made to experienced senior executives at Google and dedicated sessions with subject matter experts were arranged.

“These have spanned people, commercial, technical and product functions,” said Mullan. “Some of the topics that they have offered help with include market analysis (we also serve large brands focused on reputation management), data engineering, UX, and culture in a remote working environment.”

Each session was tailored in terms of its format and goals. Some involved the whole team, some were one-on-one. Focused and frank is the impression Mullan gives.

“The Google mentors are incredibly open, candid and responsive. They share both what has worked – and more importantly what hasn’t – and any advice they think is relevant, recognising the completely different scale of the two companies,” she said.

“Across the board I have found the advice really relevant and valuable. It has also been reassuring to hear that Google has some similar challenges, albeit at a different scale.”

As a product lead passionate about UX, Mullan particularly appreciated the guidance offered by industry veteran Rich Brady, head of design for YouTube Creators and YouTube Shopping. Brady imparted knowledge about YouTube, Google Enterprise and his previous experience at Facebook.

“He has had two sessions with our team involving some rapid-fire questions about user research, experimentation, measuring impact and project failures,” said Mullan.

Not only did NewsWhip score time with such experienced professionals, Mullan assured that the programme also took an ‘ask me anything’ approach.

“There’s obviously a lot more we can learn from mentors at Google, and we look forward to doing more together,” she said.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.