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'The Soul of Google’: What the Return of Omid Kordestani Says About the Mountain View Monolith

Google's business boss has the company's DNA in his veins -- and the absolute trust of Larry Page.

Asa Mathat for Re/code

Omid Kordestani was named the executive chairman of Twitter’s board in October 2015. The following profile from July 2015 chronicled Kordestani’s return to Google as its chief business officer and how as the most liked executive in Silicon Valley he was helping the search giant regain its footing.

It is no exaggeration to say that Omid Kordestani may be the most likable person in Silicon Valley.

A simple reporting task: Find people who worked with Google’s chief business officer ready to lavish him with praise. “He’s a special person in the Valley” (Jeff Levick, ex-Google). “Very positive, very can-do” (Mike McCue, ex-Netscape, Kordestani’s prior company). “It’s really hard to question or doubt him” (Dave Girouard, ex-Google). “He’s a great leader” (Dennis Woodside, ex-Google). “He must have been born that way” (Roberta Katz, ex-Netscape).

Partners, too, have only kind words. Greg Coleman, president of BuzzFeed and his foil during the early Yahoo-Google deals: “He’s the even-keeled, trusted person that you’ve heard everybody talk about.” Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital: “He’s dependable. And he’s a really good guy.”

Fishing for off-the-record dirt doesn’t help. “I don’t know if there is anything mean to say,” Nelson added.

Last week, Kordestani and Ruth Porat, Google’s new CFO, unfurled Google’s impressive second-quarter results: Riveting sales and trimmed expenses. Porat received much of the credit. But several people close to the company said the operational oomph requisite to implement these changes over the past year at Google, now the world’s second-most valuable company, came from Kordestani.

A year ago last week, CEO Larry Page brought him back to the position he birthed at Google, installing him permanently in October. Kordestani had come back to a very different Google. Revenue growth, once soaring, had started to flatten, and Google had suffered some embarrassing product setbacks. Wall Street was drumming louder about wasted funds on so-called moonshot projects such as Project Loon — its Internet-giving balloons — and Glass. More critically, Google faced rising criticism that its bloated size and insular leadership was stifling its ability to innovate. It risked becoming Microsoft.

The criticism was only magnified when Page tapped Kordestani, who many saw as the ultimate insider, for business chief. An affable salesman, Kordestani, who now takes operational control over many of the company’s businesses, originally came on when Google was just ten engineers in a garage banging out an algorithm.

It is now a global financial behemoth, run as a conglomerate centered around Page and a close circle of chieftains. Kordestani’s domain carries market-moving weight: On Friday, his comments on the traffic of Google’s deep linking, single-handedly moved Etsy’s stock 38 percent; then Google signaled its move into online home services, a shift that could flatten several other companies in a single blow.

Yet Kordestani in many ways represents a completely different sign of Google’s future. Good-humored and approachable, Kordestani harbors none of the ruthless streak Nikesh Arora — the brash executive who held the top sales job in Kordestani’s absence — was known for. Kordestani is oil to Arora’s water. And that may be what Google needs.

A Different Google

Consider how much Google evolved in his absence.

In April of 2009, when he left, Google reported $4.1 billion in quarterly revenue and $1.5 billion in expenses, and employed 20,164 people. Revenue since has more than tripled; its headcount nearly so. Expenses have quadrupled and then some. Android ran on less than 2 percent of smartphones then; it now powers four out of every five worldwide, but still does not make a profit dent. Chrome and the Play Store didn’t exist. There were no commerce ads or Google delivery trucks. No big antitrust investigations. Google had not yet ventured into the broadband business, wireless services, wearables, connected devices, robotics, pharmaceuticals or green energy. It had not yet sent drones and balloons into the sky.

In the years Kordestani was gone, Glass and the Google+ social network came and (essentially) went.

And today, it has no shortage of enemies: Facebook, Amazon and a wave of apps competing for its ads business; established industries nervous about Google’s entrance on their turf; and the European Union, an entire body politic gunning for its downfall.

“If anything,” one veteran tech operator said, “Google could use a soft corner.”

Conversations with more than a dozen people who know Kordestani reveal that there are two primary reasons why he is back in the leadership seat. One, he has the full, unadulterated (and rare) trust of Page. Two, he is — or at least was — embedded with Google DNA. He’s fondly known as “the business founder,” the savvy leader who was able to instill Google’s early, unmistakable ethos into its sales side.

In the years after going public, Google’s sales and marketing staff exploded. The company hired extensively from the consulting world, giving it a corporate feel that repulsed early Googlers, according to multiple former employees. Kordestani’s return brought a wave of hope that touches of the old culture would come with him.

“Omid is very much a dyed-in-the wool Google person,” said Dave Girouard, the CEO of Upstart, who worked for Kordestani for eight years at Google. “You felt like you were speaking to the soul of Google when you talked to Omid.”

Jeff Levick, another eight-year Google veteran, now at Spotify, echoed the descriptor: “He is the soul of Google coming back.”

Moving on Up

“The Jeffersons” brought him here.

Kordestani was born in 1963 in Tehran. His father was an engineer; his mother a nurse. At age 14 — the year demonstrations against Iran’s Shah ignited — his family decamped to England. But they quickly settled farther west.

The first thing many acquaintances note about Kordestani is his smile. It is wide, toothy and ever present. He wore it amid a candid graduation speech, in 2007, at his alma mater, San Jose State University, when he detailed how the 1970s sitcom drew him to his adopted country. The U.S. seemed like “a happy place,” he thought, and convinced his mother to emigrate. A family friend was studying engineering at SJSU, and Kordestani would follow the same path.

After a five-year stint at HP, a restless spell led him to Stanford’s business school — the only one he applied to — and then to the first Internet boom. He spent two years at GO Corporation, an early mobile computing company, before it collapsed.

In 1995, Kordestani joined the sales team at another startup with an unproven business model, Netscape. He worked for Ram Shriram, running OEM and partners sales, and developed a reputation for indefatigable charm. “He was able to project confidence without any arrogance,” said Katz, Netscape’s former general counsel.

After AOL scooped up the company in 1998, Kordestani itched for a way out. His arrival at Google is now the stuff of company lore. Early investors had convinced the founders to make a business hire. Shriram, one of Google’s first backers, recommended Kordestani, who met the young cohort of engineers across a ping pong table, where he was grilled for hours. He was hired and given 2 percent phantom stock — sealing his future billionaire status. He took Google’s earliest revenue products, like AdSense and AdWords, out to the wider world; he cut a deal with his old colleagues at AOL — cementing Google’s rocket-like business growth.

Jokes surfaced that Kordestani was “sand-bagging” the rosy results. So, at the company’s Friday all-hands meetings, he stood on a sandbag to read them off.

Several ex-Googlers said Kordestani excelled because he embraced the then idiosyncratic company culture, infusing it across the sales team. He pushed them to chase small, below-the-radar partners. It was Kordestani who invited a young sales representative from a relatively unknown Chinese e-commerce company, Alibaba.

He also had an eye for executives. He recruited several underlings who would lead massive Valley business operations, such as Arora, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and AOL’s Tim Armstrong. “Omid is really a talent-based operator,” said Armstrong. “He’s a real people person. When you have a meeting with him, you end up talking about family and friends for the first half of the meeting.”

In an email, Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, which Kordestani advised while he was away from Google, described him as “the next generation Bill Campbell” — the behind-the-scenes guru who counseled Apple and Google.

Kordestani also became incredibly close to the founders. It’s unclear if he took a particular step to earn such confidence, beyond managing phenomenal growth and rarely hedging their impulses. One theory is that Kordestani (along with chairman and ex-CEO Eric Schmidt) joined them in becoming instant billionaires at the IPO. With the sudden wealth and fame, the founders, particularly Page, pulled trusted confidantes in even closer.

Trust is immeasurable for Kordestani. “The earliest employees were the ones I trusted,” he said in a 2009 speech about Google. “The ones I walked on coals with at Netscape.”

Plex Homecoming

At the most recent Code Conference, Kordestani explained that he left Google to spend more time with his family. Personal loss may have contributed. Two months before he exited, Mike Homer, his one-time boss at Netscape, passed away. An admired mentor, Homer had coached him when he was first considering taking the Google job. (Steven Levy has reported Kordestani was simultaneously being courted by Steve Jobs.)

Kordestani prefers to avoid the press, particularly on personal matters, people who know him said. He declined to comment for this story.

During his sabbatical, he laid relatively low, although he kept a foot in the Valley. He met regularly with Page. And, starting as early as 2011, he advised startups, among them GenapSys, a DNA sequence company run by a fellow Iranian, and social influence clocker Klout. Kordestani would spend stretches in Europe, but, whenever he was in the Bay, he would arrive in his Ferrari at Klout’s office to talk shop. Joe Fernandez, the former CEO, said he asked him to join the board, but Kordestani politely declined.

He did join the board of Spotify, the subject of (false) Google acquisition rumors and now, more or less, Google’s competitor. It was a short stint. He attended just one board meeting before Page brought him back to Google, forcing him to resign.

During Kordestani’s first tenure at Google, it would be a strain to imagine that the company would ever need to compete with a Spotify. Google was the digital disruptor tearing media apart. The closest threat to its business was Yahoo, a distant one.

No longer. On the earnings call last week, Kordestani touted new statistics on the expansion of YouTube’s audience, especially on mobile devices. (Albeit without sharing revenues.) Unspoken was the rising threat of Facebook, which is building both a competing video offering and holistic suite for advertisers, especially on mobile.

“When he’s out there trying to sell, it’s not like the old days when they were the only choice,” said Ben Schachter from Macquarie Securities.

In some ways, this cutthroat competition might require the sharpness of Arora. The executive, now at SoftBank, was often seen as difficult to work with. “He didn’t suffer fools. He really operated like royalty,” said a sales veteran of rival companies. (Arora did not return requests for comment.)

But he could execute, overseeing the tremendous expansion of Google’s operations and entrance into a number of new vehicles. In partner deals, he earned a reputation for never conceding Google’s interests. “Nikesh had a sort of smiling assassin quality about him,” quipped Rob Norman, chief digital officer for media agency GroupM.

Kordestani has a better rapport with Google’s current partners. But he will need to replicate that with a bevy of new relationships in industries Google is moving into — retail, automotive, telecom, medical and whatever else — without the built-in leverage of a monopoly.

And he must deal with the tumult at Google’s existing business. As Google grew, Kordestani and then Arora left more of the ads business to deputies. Most advertisers say they interact more regularly with Neal Mohan, the ads VP and reigning chief of Google’s display business. Mohan, as Re/code has reported, has itched to leave. Commerce, where Google is making a more concerted push, is also suffering brain drain: Two top executives there both departed in the past year.

“Because I Have a Relationship With Him”

For SJSU’s 150th anniversary, the school invited their famed alum at Google to give the commencement. The night before, the university organized a celebratory dinner. There, Kordestani approached Belle Wei, the engineering department’s chair.

“‘Belle,’” she recalled him whispering, “‘I’d like to give an endowment.’” Minutes later, he announced his gift of $3 million. “He told me first,” Wei said, “as opposed to telling my president, because I have a relationship with him.”

In many ways, Google’s ad business was born from the opposite dynamic. Google’s pitch centered on data: Pay for ads because they are relevant, seen and clicked, not because of a handshake deal with a media seller. And yet the defining characteristic of the man behind this model, the business founder, is an affinity for deep, personal relationships. It could be the trait that keeps Google relevant in its next chapter.

In May, Kordestani hosted several publishing sales executives at his home. Media platforms were the central topic. Google, represented by Kordestani and two lieutenants, made it clear that they knew the reality of publishing, according to one person there — social sharing had surpassed SEO as the dominant publishing vehicle.

However, Google did not present a plan to confront this problem. Instead, for much of the meeting, Kordestani simply listened.

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