Google Talent Departs for Unicorn Herd

Where do unicorns hunt executives? Increasingly, they go to Mountain View.

On Monday, Re/code reported that Neal Mohan, Google’s VP for display and video advertising, is leaving for the top product job at Dropbox. He is part of a wave of execs departing the search engine in recent months for fast-growing, pre-IPO startups.

It’s not a new trend. Young tech companies, flush with cash, have regularly turned to the trailblazer to find smart, idiosyncratic staff.

Earlier, the poachers were Facebook and Twitter. (Two years before Twitter went public, nearly a sixth of its staff had worked at Google.) Now it’s the newbies.

More recently, Uber claimed Tom Fallows, who had led Google’s same-day delivery service, in November, followed by communication and policy chief Rachel Whetstone. Jawbone nabbed Fallows’s boss, Sameer Samat. Indian e-commerce unicorn Flipkart snatched two Googlers: The VP of product at Motorola and the person who ran the low-cost handset Android One project. On the smaller startup side, the ads product head at YouTube recently headed to Luxe, an on-demand parking startup. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Google downplays exits, citing them as regular industry churn. But they come as Google’s core business faces rising threats and fears that it has grown too large and too uninspired to retain ambitious top tech talent.

Billion dollar-plus tech companies give former Googlers the chance to get their hands dirty again, helping to rapidly grow a young organization instead of maintaining the status quo at a mature company. Frequently, the executives brought in will have a direct line to the CEO of a big startup as opposed to back at Google, where there’s distance in the hierarchy even at the upper echelon of leadership.

And for the startups, many of whom are reaching a tipping point in growth, it’s crucial to hire experienced professionals to ease the way into maturity.

“The appeal of Luxe was being able to go to something that felt as small as YouTube ads when I first joined,” Phil Farhi, YouTube’s former ads product head, said to Re/code. “I want to have a run at growing and scaling a team there.”

Google’s salaries are nothing to sneer at, but companies like Uber, Luxe and Dropbox offer equity and the chance to multiply benefits through work and ingenuity. It’s a romantic startup ideal that doesn’t fade for those entrenched at a public company.

It’s tough to say what percentage of these unicorns are composed of ex-Googlers. During a recent public interview, Fallows estimated that a third of Uber staffers are former Google employees. Pinterest and Uber declined to comment.

There are plenty of former Microsoft, Apple and Facebook staffers at these companies as well, but Google appears to dominate the executive ranks. At Dropbox, for example, the company’s COO, CFO, head of HR and general counsel all came from Google.

“Product management at Google has always been a ‘buck-stops-here’ role,” said Hunter Walk, a long-time product director at Google who left to start his own venture investment firm. “The result? Product executives who are skilled in not just building a product strategy for fast growing companies but [working] across groups to move a company forward.”

“Google is very supportive of people moving around [internally],” Farhi said. “Once you prove out that an idea has legs, you can grow quickly by pulling from a large pool of employees.”

A source tells Re/code that’s one of the reasons why Mohan was recruited by Dropbox — his experience coordinating between engineering, marketing, sales, operations and executive departments.

Mohan, who joined Google in 2007 as part of its $3.1 billion acquisition of ad server DoubleClick, has been a key operative in Google’s display ads business. A pioneer of online ads with deep ties to publishers and media buyers, Mohan has been lured away before. In 2011, Google offered Mohan $60 million in stock to fend off an offer from Twitter, according to sources. (Reports at the time suggested it was as much as $100 million in stock.)

A key reason for his exit now, sources say, is the ceiling he hit. Until last year, Mohan worked for — and was close to — Susan Wojcicki, who ran the entire ads business. In early 2014, she moved to YouTube. Sridhar Ramaswamy took her spot, leaving Mohan little room for upward mobility.

Mohan’s departure also highlights a telling divide in Google’s upper echelon — between the veterans close to the co-founders and everybody else. Compared to other behemoths, Google has actually kept most of its top ranks intact. It has a comfy bench. Often, experienced execs are offered positions in tantalizing departments (Nick Fox, who ascended the ads arms, now runs the new communications division) or as trusted placeholders (Jonathan Rosenberg, a 13-year vet, is keeping the robotics department chair warm) as a retention tool.

Google declined to comment on Mohan. Several sources speculated that Brad Bender, one of Mohan’s lieutenants who was named a VP in April, is his likely successor.

Apparently, the Google bench is not as rewarding for some as the thrill of a unicorn ride.

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