The Xoogler Infiltration

Cedric Howe is unsentimental about the free meals offered by his former employer, Google. “For all the talk of the

Cedric Howe is unsentimental about the free meals offered by his former employer, Google. “For all the talk of the wonderful food that they have, which is really wonderful, it almost becomes this dependent thing,” Mr. Howe, now a senior engineer for Kickstarter, told The Observer. “The idea of fending for yourself and remembering how to feed yourself is just this bizarre concept.”

Mr. Howe is one of many Xooglers–as erstwhile Google staffers are known–who have left the company’s 300,000-square-foot, 2,000-employee Chelsea mothership since the 2006 move downtown. And members of the Xoogler horde are returning to their start-up roots. Google-tested and investor-friendly, they are one of the benefits for any city hosting a Google hub. In December, the company finalized plans to purchase the Chelsea building–its second-largest engineering center in the country, after the headquarters at Mountain View, Calif.–for $1.8 billion, ensuring that the New York tech scene can anticipate a steady stream of Xooglers infiltrating its ranks.

“The fact that Google is in New York has brought a lot of attention to the city,” said Jason Liebman, CEO and founder of the start-up Howcast. A Xoogler himself, he said the presumed expansion can only be seen as a boon to the talent pool. “The offices just expanded across a range of completely different jobs; a lot of those people are more aware that there are other interesting opportunities out here.”

Jon Steinberg, president of Buzzfeed, left Google’s New York office in 2009. Before landing at Buzzfeed, he helped set up the New York branch of Dogpatch Labs, a division of Boston’s Polaris Venture Partners that assists in start-up launches. Much of the “positive exhaust” from Google New York, he said, remains to be seen. But when he decided to leave Google to join a start-up, his firsthand exposure to tech in New York made him confident that staying would be just as good a bet as decamping for, say, Boston or Silicon Valley.

“There was definitely a feeling of excitement that I could do it here and be part of something here without having to compromise,” Mr. Steinberg said.

Google is often described as an intense graduate program for the technology industry. Other New York companies studded with prominent Xooglers include SecondMarket, Gilt and Etsy. (Granted, the last’s loftiest Xoogler, COO Adam Freed, came not from Chelsea but from Mountain View.) At Foursquare, nearly a third of the employees have a Google background. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong founded the original New York Google office in 2000. Whether these employees worked on the ad-sales side, like Mr. Armstrong, or on the engineering side–currently a 50-50 split for the New York offices–they bring with them undeniable Web-business bona fides.

They also bring robust alumni connections. The Xoogler nexus was a deciding factor when Elan Dekel, former product manager for Google’s Adwords service, decided to headquarter his health care start-up in New York rather than Silicon Valley.

“When I look around the market, and just from my own network of people from the past six and half years of being at Google, there’s so many of them that are all over the leading start-ups in New York City. Now I can point to people and say, ‘Oh, I know the director of marketing at Foursquare, I know the director of engineering at Sulia,’ and just on and on,” Mr. Dekel said. “It’s a phenomenal network.”

“You know, what’s funny is because Google got so big so fast, I’m meeting people on the outside who I didn’t meet on the inside, and it’s like we did meet there,” said David Hirsch, one of the New York office’s first employees, who left in 2008. “We all try to help each other with hiring and all that.” Mr. Hirsch eventually joined the venture capital firm Metamorphic. He now funds companies on both coasts and even offers office space to help guide his investments.


Xooglers are notorious for their tendency to form start-ups. West Coast examples include Ooyala, PrepMe, Chai Labs and FriendFeed (both now owned by Facebook), and Twitter. This springs in part from the creative flexibility Google offers its workers–Mr. Howe, praising the ethos, described some people within the company “building practically competing products”–but with the notable exceptions of Foursquare and Mr. Liebman’s Howcast, the actual founding of companies is an area where New York Xooglers can’t match their California counterparts.

“Yeah, it’s slim,” said Chelsea Xoogler Nhon Ma at the Union Square offices of his local restaurant-deal site, Tenka, which launched this past October. The offices only just qualify for a plural designation–they’re two rooms rented from a group workspace that features a waterfall at the entrance, which can be heard from Mr. Ma’s personal office. “For us, it was that the venture capital money in New York was growing.”

Mr. Ma said his “Google pedigree” certainly helped him secure funding, and for others willing to take the plunge, the money is there. Beyond the fact that Google’s presence in the city signals seriousness to those considering investment here, a penchant for entrepreneurship seems ingrained in most Google alumni.

“A few years ago, I put together a group of New York Googlers and ex-Googlers as an angel group where the founding thesis was a lot of people were going to leave and start companies, and we wanted to be there to hand them a check when they did,” said Jonathan Betz, who left the Chelsea offices to become head of technology for the ad tech company Yext. He added that the group, Hudson River Angels, has yet to find any such Xoogler investment opportunities. “There’s much more of us, right now, in that class of having joined young, promising-looking start-ups and sort of adding fuel to that fire.” 

To be sure, not everyone is enthusiastic about Google’s invasion of the city. Many start-up developers and venture capitalists used to believe that Xoogler start-ups received funding a little too easily, leading to talk of a new bubble and fear that the company’s presence here has led to tougher competition for talent, one of the issues hindering New York’s start-up growth. Super-angel Chris Dixon wrote on his blog last year, “Whenever I see a brilliant kid decide to join Goldman Sachs, McKinsey or Google, I think to myself: a start-up just died, and as a result our world is a little less wealthy, innovative, and interesting.” (He’s since tempered his position slightly–he’ll be speaking at the Chelsea offices next week.)

Evan Korth, an N.Y.U. computer science teacher who started the hackNY fellowship program in part to build the city’s talent pool, is a contrarian on the issue of Google’s New York presence. “I think it’s a wholly positive thing,” said Mr. Korth. “You don’t want the decision to be either Wall Street or starting their own company. I have students that are perfectly prepared right out of school to start hacking on their own and start their own company. I also have students that are perfectly prepared to go to Wall Street and work on Wall Street in that kind of environment, and that’s not the full picture of all the students.”

Even Mr. Howe, who pays for his own lunch these days, says that he views the company’s presence in New York to be a net positive for the city.

“Don’t get me wrong; I hope they buy Kickstarter or some other start-up that I’m at, at some point,” Mr. Howe said. “I’d be happy to go back and maybe be in some other situation and be perfectly happy to stay at a larger company, when I’m a little older.”


Update, 2/9, 8:40 p.m.:  An earlier version of this article misspelled Elan Dekel’s name The Xoogler Infiltration