Google Go Lucky

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One of Google’s earliest features was a simple button beneath its search box that reads “I’m feeling lucky.” The intention is for info-hungry masses to enter search terms, click on the “lucky” button and, voila, land on precisely the web page that they always wanted but could never find. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google, this was their way of showing us just how good they could be — like two kids bouncing into their parent’s den to show off a new magic trick.

That the button doesn't say “Do you feel lucky?” (too Clint Eastwood) or “You wanna get lucky?” (too seedy) also says something about the duo who met and perfected their invention as Stanford grad students. They chose optimistic, feel-good language — vague and disarming at first blush, but when the trick works, it’s as if those two kids in the den have just pulled off Houdini’s escape from a water torture cell.

Now for their next trick: taking on Wall Street pros at their own game and, improbably, coming out on top. Although much media coverage of Google’s Initial Public Offering portrayed it as a debacle, it was anything but. Brin and Page defied conventional wisdom by launching an IPO that marginalized middlemen and flustered investment bankers. The end result of its Dutch-auction: the company raised $1.67 billion in cash and millions for its individual employees. But it wasn’t without some turbulence. Brin and Page ran afoul of the SEC, reduced the number of shares sold and slashed the offering’s price-range — to mention just a few of the final hour antics. At one point, given what seemed like sour demand, some speculated that Google might even call the whole thing off.

Many would-be investors also griped that they had too little information to make a buying decision. Brin and Page offered precious few details as to how the cash injection would be invested or how the company would fend off rivals like Yahoo! Instead, the founders simply asked prospective buyers to “trust us.” In a post-Enron world, could someone really make trust a central investment criterion?

The answer turned out to be a resounding YES. The stock, which many had written off as dog by Wednesday afternoon, soared about 18 percent above its $85 original price by the end of the first day of trading Thursday evening. Driven mostly by small investors, the share price seemed like a great deal to scores of traders who see no limits to Google’s growth.

And why not? Brin and Page appear to be a good bet. They’d somehow managed to grow an internet juggernaut in plain sight while the rest of the dotcommers were selling off their Aeron chairs on eBay. Most of us were astonished to learn just how big and profitable the company had become when it unveiled its numbers last fall. Who knew that those proliferating “sponsored links” could be a billion-dollar business, with fat margins to boot?

For now, brave investors need only to take a deep breath and assume that the future is still bright for Google. Brin and Page won't offer much in the way of assurances because they haven't a clue about what the future holds. That might not be what Wall Street wants to hear, but the founders don’t seem to care. They’d rather mint money by trusting their gut. So far, so good: they’ve made billions, retained control of their company, and kept the investment bankers at bay. If it seemed impossible, that’s because, well, it pretty much is (so you folks at home don’t be thinking about trying it). But for Brin and Page it’s all in a day’s work.

So here’s the question: Have they just been getting insanely lucky all this time or is it all by ingenious design? It’s probably some strange combination of both, but we’ll never know for sure. After all, a good magician would never give away the secret behind the illusion.