Non-Evilness as a Business Strategy

This James Whittaker piece on “Why I Left Google” is interesting on a number of levels. One of them is that it indirectly sheds light on the possible rationales for a “Don’t Be Evil” business model. I’ve normally been inclined to think of that primarily as a kind of marketing device. It’s useful to one’s brand to have a reputation for non-evilness and you can extract more long-term value from customers by deliberately avoiding certain short-term moneymaking strategies.

Whittaker’s piece, however, makes it clear that in the war for talent these kind of reputational strategies matter for recruitment and retention. Even if you have a lot of money to spend on salaries, there’s always the risk that people with valuable skills are going to choose autonomy over income-maximization and go start their own business or work at some small firm that’s deliberately not pursuing a profit-maximizing strategy. Thus as a firm in order to maximize profits you may have to organize yourself in such a way as to persuade some large fraction of your own employees that this isn’t actually what you’re doing. “Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one,” Whittaker writes, arguing that “under Eric Schmidt ads were always in the background.” More recently faced with more direct pressure from Facebook, Google’s internal corporate culture has changed and this is alienating Whittaker. If that proves to be a trend and talented people either tend to leave or tend become more expensive to retain, then developing a more focused and results oriented corporate culture could be counterproductive.