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Meet Google Capital, the Investing Arm With the Keys to the Googleplex Kingdom

For startups, taking cash from Google Capital means access to Google's smarts.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Alphabet, Google’s newfangled conglomeration, arrived in August, but we will not see its first financial figures until January, when the company reports two sets of earnings — Google and the “other bets.” Each subsidiary will not break out its own performance, but the earnings reports will offer some view into their costs and output. Before then, Re/code is unpacking one Alphabet company a week*, presenting the facts, figures and, just maybe, the financials behind the silos of the world’s most ambitious company. More than halfway there: We’ve done Nest, Access and Energy, Google Ventures and Verily. No. 5: Google Capital.

Gusto, a startup that automates payroll and benefits for companies, needed a hand. It planned to review its entire payments system, a daunting and critical part of its business — some $20 billion a year passes through it. For guidance, the company turned to its latest investor, Google Capital.

And Google Capital turned to the Google mothership.

The investment firm’s partners recruited the engineer who built the software architecture for all payments across Google, and sat him down in front of Gusto’s execs.

“They really have carte blanche within Google to find that one person and have that one person solve our problems,” said Edward Kim, CTO of Gusto (formerly ZenPayroll). “They actually bring a lot more to the table other than money.”

Investment target: $300 million annually

Partners: David Lawee, Laela Sturdy, Gretchen Howard, Gene Fratz

That privileged access to the search giant is the primary reason young companies cite for taking cash from Google Capital, the two-year-old growth equity fund, rather than another late-stage investor. Like Google Ventures, its sister Alphabet company, Capital claims it invests solely for the returns, not for strategic leverage for Google proper.

But its chief means for guaranteeing those returns is assisting startups by lending the expertise (free of charge) of the behemoth Google organization. Portfolio companies have held consultations with an array of Googlers, from marketing and PR veterans to wonky security engineers who hack away at their system looking for holes. When Gusto needed to hire its first data scientist, a Google data scientist ran the interviews.

It may give these startups a leg up on competitors who raise funds from equity investors with big checks, but without the well of personnel of the Internet giant.

“Typically, the later stage the investor, the more hands off they are. But in Google Capital’s case, it’s actually the opposite,” said Jonathan Swanson, president of Thumbtack. “They are still excited to dig in deep, get their hands dirty and really help us build our company.”

Capital led the $100 million Series D for Thumbtack, an online marketplace for home services, in August 2014. It’s one of 19 companies the firm has backed. Capital doesn’t share financing details for each deal, but said it has an annual investing target of roughly $300 million.

And like Google Ventures, Capital could deliver some profitable returns to Alphabet. It has invested in companies with sizable valuations (CloudFlare, SurveyMonkey, FanDuel) and sizable user traction (Practo, Duolingo). Yet, going forward, Capital could be pitted against its sister company, Google Ventures, which announced two weeks ago that it is pulling back on seed stage funding in favor of later-stage bets.

Also, Capital runs the more delicate risk of backing startups that compete with its sole funding source. Google is developing a home services market, a la Thumbtack. And Google has shown hints that it may expand search into financial services — a rival to Credit Karma, a Capital company that sells ads against its online credit score service.

“In some ways, we’re competitive against Google,” admitted Kenneth Lin, Credit Karma’s CEO. But any downside, he added, is outweighed by the benefits of Capital’s investment, including the cachet of its “brand credibility” with users. Plus, there’s the opportunity to tap the wealth of the Mountain View machine.

That access only goes so far, however. When Credit Karma asked if it could get some insight into Google’s cloaked search algorithm, the Capital team had a canned response: You can post the question on one of Google’s public blogs. Someone might help.

Who to Know

As with many Alphabet companies, Capital can be interpreted as a vehicle for keeping a talented exec inside the Googleplex. In this case, it’s David Lawee, a 10-year Google vet who has run Capital since its inception and, from accounts of people who know him, takes it very seriously. He’s in demand in the Valley; Facebook has tried to poach him before, according to sources.

Gretchen Howard, partner, Google Capital
Gretchen Howard, partner, Google Capital

Lawee’s primary investing partners are Laela Sturdy, another longtime Googler who spent six years within sales operations, and Gene Frantz, who came over after 13 years as a partner at rival TPG Capital. Portfolio companies sing their praises.

They also speak highly of the fourth partner, Gretchen Howard, largely because Howard, a Googler since 2006, is in charge of Capital’s growth team — the unit that sits down with portfolio companies, sorts out where their pressing issues are, then hunts for the people inside Google to lend a hand.

With Sturdy and Howard, Capital also achieves a rarity for a venture fund in Silicon Valley: Half its partners are women.

* So far, Alphabet has confirmed the existence of nine subsidiaries, including Google. It’s very likely that an additional one or two — or many — may get the official stamp before the earnings report in January. Rest assured, we will tell you about it if it happens.

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