In the first meetings he arranged with potential partners for Google’s Next Billion Users (NBU) team, Jon Sugihara is looking for two things: Are we aligned on a project that could positively impact the next billion users of the Internet? And how fast can you move to test our hypothesis?
Working with partners at Google was a new experience. After years of trying to hard sell companies to invest in his own startup, Perx, or working hard to bring in new clients, companies were now hard selling to Jon for the first time. He quickly found that if he sat back and listened, partners would start pitching why they were the best partner for Google.
Jon had founded, developed and eventually advised his own company, but now he found himself on the other side of the table, working with established companies and startups alike to stretch beyond the successes they’d already achieved, and helping reshape a Google that will push emerging economies forward.
The Next Generation Of Internet Users
Jon’s day-to-day task is to observe today’s internet and its users from a sky-high vantage point, figure out what they need, and find the partners who can help fill those needs. Understanding the next billion users will be crucial as they will use the internet in completely new ways than the first billion. As Head of Strategic Partnerships for Google’s Next Billion Users team, Jon develops pilot projects that will improve experiences and solve key problems for the company’s biggest growth markets. The job is speculative and perhaps idealistic, but Jon revels in the chance to forge connections with company executives and swiftly turn ideas into prototypes.
Before Google can introduce its sophisticated suite of services in growth markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Next Billion Users team seeks to identify problems in these markets that need solutions. Given these goals, Jon is working to develop partnerships in financial inclusion and Internet access—and that means meeting with companies, founders, regulators, and individuals who can advance those aims.
Turning Meetings Into Real Projects
As with any leader of collaborative projects, Jon’s day is meeting and travel-intensive. After all, Google’s Next Billion Users seeks to do more than simply onboard new web users; the project also aims to find the right ideas, technology, management and personalities that can mesh with the company and support meaningful pilot projects. That means get into markets and figure out what opportunities are there.
Jon couldn’t disclose details of any current projects, but he said that partners come from Southeast Asia and other growth hotspots—and their projects have the potential to apply globally.
“I’m trying to assess the most promising from the many opportunities in these markets, and identify the ideas for which Google could create great products,” he said.
For the most part, his own connections—along with Google’s strong network—create access to intriguing companies and most executives are keen to learn more. Jon felt the sale was difficult at first; his pitch to potential partners is markedly different than that of typical Google product pitches. “Most Google Products and capabilities are mature, you can tell a partner exactly what can be done together. My projects are undefined, so we are learning and defining the concept together. I have to convince partners/clients that Google is an amazing partner to work with, but I don’t have products to show,” he said.
Still, Google’s reputation opens doors, and Jon generally doesn’t have a problem finding eager partners. The hard part comes next, however. After a few meetings, Jon has to figure out if a partnership and project can truly work.
“If the partner can solve a problem they have locally, and we think it resonates globally, we’ll start looking at potential opportunities,” he said.
Once a pilot is selected, Jon’s goal is to keep the project moving as fast as functionally possible. Speed and efficiency are key for Google’s Next Billion Users pilots. Google itself runs very efficiently for a large firm, but Jon recognizes the downsides of large companies. “I look for companies that align with our vision, but are more nimble and can test faster than we might be able to at Google,” he said.
Of course, Jon also recognizes that slow-moving systems and government obstacles are often inevitable in emerging markets. He draws an analogy between his approach and that of a chess game. “I know that every chess piece will move at different paces and run into their own obstacles, so I make sure to move whichever piece I can forward in the hopes that we’ll get one of them over the finish line. If I don’t move all the pieces at the same time, I may miss the winner.”
Reminiscing About Startup Life
Though he still works to spur partners along at a faster pace—just as he did in his role as a Perx founder—Jon is happy to take a lap outside the breakneck startup world. Google creates a great work-life balance, and Jon now finds more time to spend time with his daughters and his wife, who he is helping to start a health-related business.
Today, he satisfies his entrepreneurial itch by advising and mentoring other startup founders. For example, as an operating advisor at Monk’s Hill, he passes along his knowledge and experience by keeping regular office hours for the companies in their portfolio.
Overall, Jon finds his roles at Google and Monk’s Hill deeply satisfying, as he gets to spend his time developing businesses, helping them grow, and watching them thrive.
“The primary reason I joined Google is because I want to fundamentally change the world and change a significant number of lives,” he said. “When you’re starting a company, the scope and breadth of change are usually limited. Then I think about [the potential at] Google: If I’m willing to take the long view, it may not be as fast-paced as a startup, but I think the chance of being successful [in changing lives] is greater.”