Craig's Wild adVentures
Craig Walker led Google Voice before becoming an in-house entrepreneur. He talked with Dave Michels about his experiences.
Until recently, Craig Walker was the product manager of Google Voice, the current consumer service that offers its users a single telephone number for all their phones. He landed that position by selling his company, Grand Central, to Google for an estimated $45 million in 2007. Prior to that, he started another telecom related start-up, DialPad; which he sold to Yahoo! in 2005 (now Yahoo! Voice).
In September, Craig took a new role at Google Ventures. This division of Google invests about $100 million each year in entrepreneurs and companies. Google Ventures attempts to leverage entrepreneurial experience with its vast resources to launch new ideas into successful ongoing operations. Craig's new title is Entrepreneur-in-Residence. In his new role, Craig will be looking to start up a new company. Of course, public information is sketchy, but it is reasonable to assume it will be a cloud-based, disruptive, service of some sort.
That happens to also describe his last startup, Grand Central (now known as Google Voice). Google Voice is a free service that in conjunction with several other Google services, provides consumers a unified communications solution with voice, email, IM/presence, video, office productivity tools, and collaboration capabilities. Google Voice is currently a consumer service, and the company has not stated how an enterprise version may differ. See The Google Voice Disruption (Aug/09) for additional information on Google Voice.
I've met Craig at shows and at his office in Mountain View, CA. Google product managers are notoriously quiet about their plans, but with the change in role, and a promise to avoid specific product questions, Craig agreed to a rare public discussion.
DM: Does your family home have an analog phone line?
CW: No, we use Google Voice that rings our home VoIP phone and cell phones. Our home cellular reception isn't great, and our WiFi is, so we use Google Voice pretty heavily, especially since it was integrated with Gmail.
DM: I know you to be very active with sports and even with coaching your kids’ teams; do your technical skills come into play?
CW: I've coached my son’s baseball team for the past four years as well as his All Stars team this past year. I also coached my daughter’s soccer team. And yes, I use Google Sites to post relevant information, maps, schedules, phone numbers, rain hot-lines, etc. For more urgent communications, I put the parents' mobile numbers into lists on Google Voice which supports up to five SMS addresses each. This way I could quickly blast out updates such as schedule changes to the entire team fairly easily and quickly.
DM: Tell me about Google Ventures.
CW: Google Ventures is 100% driven by financial results and makes investments in everything from small seed investments to multi-million dollar investments. We’ve done deals in a lot of different spaces so no one sector or industry dominates. One of the keys that we look for is a strong management team with a history of success. Ideas and markets change, but finding an entrepreneur that can adapt to those changes is a valuable asset that we like to back. Google Ventures is a venture fund that happens to have Google as its only investor. It is interested in investing in diversified fields, not necessarily related to Google or even the Internet.
DM: How did Google discover Grand Central?
CW: I had been talking to Google about a possible partnership and gave a group of them a demo at VON in 2006 in Boston. Wesley Chan was one of the attendees at that meeting and he had been looking for something similar to Grand Central and was really impressed with the product. Everything took off from there. [Note: Wesley Chan is also at Google Ventures].
DM: What telecom companies, established or startups, do you find particularly innovative right now?
CW: Tough question. I think there's a lot of innovation on the mobile side with regards to the network, devices and applications. As for telephony services and features themselves though, most of the innovation seems to continue to come from the non-traditional providers like Google, Digium, etc.
DM: Google Voice is known as a Virtual Number service (hosted voice without phone service). Many people find this notion confusing. Why do you think virtual numbers make sense?
CW: It might be a little confusing if you associate features (voicemail, call recording, transcription, etc.) with the underlying phone dial-tone service. Our idea was to separate the two layers so that consumers wouldn’t be dependent on their dial-tone providers (who do that really well and reliably) for innovative telephony features. The virtual number idea allowed us to create that separation.
DM: Have the rules for success in a voice startup changed over the past 15 years?
CW: Yes. It all used to be about saving money. Dialpad, Skype, and virtually every other successful voip startup (Jajah, Net2Phone, Vonage, etc.) offered solutions to save money. But more recently, say over the last five years or so, it has been more on differentiated services and new interesting features: Grand Central, Ribbit, RingCentral, Twilio, etc. Of course, there are still lots of opportunities to save money for people, such as with international roaming. But, in general, it seems the "save money" battle cry is less compelling these days.