One of the most enduring legends in the Silicon Valley culture is that of Google’s “20% Time.”
In the letter announcing Google’s IPO in 2004, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page told the world that giving their employees the freedom to pursue personal projects was fundamental to Google’s ability to innovate and compete.
“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” the letter reads. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”
AdSense, Gmail, Google News—many of the company’s most popular and widely used products allegedly emerged from Google’s 20% Time initiative. In the years since Google went public, the policy has become an enduring symbol of what can happen when creative, driven employees have the freedom to apply their ingenuity to projects beyond the scope of their regular work.
Whether or not Google’s 20% Time ever really existed—which, according to former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and former SVP of People Operations at Google Laszlo Bock, seems doubtful—isn’t necessarily the point. That’s because 20% Time is a much more powerful idea than it is a time management policy; given the time and freedom to explore and play, talented employees will alchemize personal passions into profitable products.
Instead, we’ve been intentional about being less efficient so we can create a safe, low-stress environment that allows innovative ideas to surface.
Many tech companies live and die by how well they innovate. Ask any prospective investor what they’re looking for in their next company or product, and innovation is likely to be high on the list. True innovation, however, is often scarce. Not every idea can change the world, and not every company can become the next Google—and that’s okay.
True innovation is rare
One of the things we’ve learned since founding Wildbit 20 years ago is that the reason real innovation is so rare isn’t because of a lack of creativity or vision. It’s because of our fundamental aversion to risk as human beings.
When we started building products at Wildbit, we just wanted to have fun working on cool projects. We wanted to solve interesting problems and explore new technologies with people who shared our drive and passion. As a small, newly formed company, this approach carried very little real risk. If a product or idea didn’t work out, we simply took what we learned from the experience and applied it to the next project.
But for larger companies, the freedom to explore and create comes with significant financial implications. Time spent on passion projects is time that could be spent developing and improving core products that drive revenue and enable growth. As companies grow, aversion to potential risk typically intensifies, making it even harder to experiment with new processes or try new ideas.
We’ve been as deliberate about lowering the risk inherent to experimentation as we have about creating space for that experimentation to happen. As our products and our company grow, the way we interact with those products and our business becomes more cautious, more serious. While this is the correct way to work on and maintain mature products, we want to create just as much room for our people to let go, take risks without fear of potential consequences, and not take their work so seriously once in a while.
We’re still very much a small company, but we’ve experienced this tension ourselves. We haven’t lost that sense of curiosity that inspired us to launch Wildbit to begin with, but our products have reached a level of maturity that requires us to be very intentional about products that have been around for a long time. Postmark is 10 years old. Beanstalk is 12 years old. So we strive to find a healthy balance between improving and maintaining our mature products while also giving ourselves time and space to experiment with new ideas.
As a profitable company, we’re fortunate to have the financial freedom to explore new ideas, but we’ve found that winging it isn’t really feasible for us anymore—we have to be much more deliberate about how we innovate as a company.
This is where the concept of people-first innovation comes in.
One of our priorities for the next decade is to be as intentional as possible about creating space for our people to experiment in their work and explore ideas that excite and motivate them. We know what it takes to maintain our suite of products, which means we also know how much space we can give to other projects. We don’t, however, view innovation as a value-add—it’s a fundamental part of Wildbit’s operating system. By consistently creating space for experimentation, everything we do can either graduate from an idea into a fully-fledged product or feature or be set aside with no adverse impact on our existing products or the profitability of our business. This approach has to be product-agnostic by necessity. Experimentation is not and cannot be restricted to new products or R&D—it’s a fundamental part of our culture and pivotal to everything we do.
People-first innovation aligns strongly with how we run our entire company.
Developing products people love is incredibly rewarding, but it can also result in creative stagnation. Giving our people space to detach from their work to explore different disciplines and ideas is as much of an investment in our people as it is an investment in our products.
To us, people-first innovation also aligns with the creative process. To many companies, innovation means identifying a need, then narrowing in on solving that need in an innovative way. But for us, many of the biggest leaps forward in our own products have been the result of spontaneity.
There’s so much pressure on business leaders to have all the answers—to possess the clarity of vision that has become synonymous with entrepreneurial leadership—that acknowledging that some of the best ideas happen beyond the confines of five-year product roadmaps becomes increasingly difficult. It becomes even harder when investors get involved; venture capitalists don’t tend to wait for innovation to just “happen.”
The case for the generalist
Our people-first approach to innovation doesn’t end at how we develop products. It’s also had a significant impact on how we hire new people and how we cultivate those people.
Many tech companies prefer to hire skilled, experienced specialists with deep expertise in specific areas, especially within fields such as machine learning. This may serve larger companies well, but it doesn’t work for us. As we’ve grown, we’ve learned that focusing intently on specialization may benefit specific products, but it doesn’t always benefit the individual or even the company as a whole. The more specialized a role becomes, the ability to change jobs within Wildbit becomes that much harder. This can not only lead to resentment, but it also risks talented people leaving the company to escape the pressures and restrictions of their specialization.
It may sound counterintuitive, but we’ve found that developing a culture of people-first innovation is a delicate balance of creating just enough structure and process to eliminate much of the overhead that often impedes truly innovative work. Too much structure stifles creativity and bureaucratizes the joy of learning and play. Too little structure can result in wasted time and effort and increase the risk of overlooking opportunities with commercial potential. Space to experiment cannot exist without structure, because without it, mature, demanding products will inevitably monopolize people’s time, attention, and energy.
Putting people first often means figuring things out as you go. We're currently rethinking how we work and organize to build experimentation into our process as a core function. It's a way to define maturity and risk in our projects, allowing us to treat them accordingly as they evolve. This intentional process will provide a path to help our people explore ideas that excite them. Ultimately, this is what people-first innovation means to us. Investing in the growth and development of our people tends to result in strong products and compelling ideas that can help Wildbit grow as a company.
And since companies are comprised of human beings, we can’t grow as a company if we’re not growing as people, too.