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Google's John Hanke Speaks About New Mobile Incubator

Last week I wrote briefly about Google’s John Hanke’s move into a new role, based on a Forbes interview with him. Yesterday I got to speak directly with Hanke about his “new gig,” as they say.

Credit: O'Reilly

The former CEO of Keyhole came to lead the “geo team” (Maps, Earth) at Google after Keyhole was acquired in 2004. Hanke spoke with me about the genesis and objectives of the his new entrepreneurial lab. What he told me was interesting on a number of levels.

After six years at the helm of Google Maps Hanke said he was “restless” and was a bit tired of running a large organization. “Everybody else was having all the fun,” he said referring the startup world outside Google. “I thought about doing something outside of Google,” he admitted.

Google Gets the Save

At this point Google could have easily lost Hanke, an extremely valuable employee with enormous expertise in local and geo (an incredibly hot area). Indeed, Google has lost a number of high-profile employees to new startups and Facebook in several cases.

Instead of leaving Hanke pitched the idea of a kind of “incubator” within Google that would focus on mobile products and applications. Larry Page and Marissa Mayer were receptive and the new effort was born. It was smart because Google keeps Hanke and gets a new business unit that may turn out some very innovative products.

There has been talk about Google allowing acquired startups to operate as “autonomous business units” within the larger organization. But Hanke’s initiative seems to me like something new at Google.

New Lab Based in San Francisco

Hanke said that the new “lab” is based in San Francisco rather than Mountain View, although he says he’ll remain very plugged in to the geo team at Google. That was a point he made to distinguish it from Yahoo’s ill-fated “Brickhouse” incubator, which was started by Flickr’s co-founders who also had startup-envy and were frustrated with getting bogged down in process at Yahoo.

Hanke has assembled a team of “less than 20 people,” many of whom worked with him at Keyhole and a number of others from Google. “My plan is to run it like a startup.”

“Our goal will be to pump out prototypes quickly and see what sticks,” Hanke explained. The focus will be entirely on mobile (and local and social), though some products could have a PC aspect. The “conceit” here is to operate as though the PC didn’t exist, to imagine the world not just as “mobile first” but mobile only.

Like a Startup — But Not Exactly

Unlike a conventional startup, Hanke and his team will have the benefit of Google’s resources and massive geo and mapping infrastructure. “We’re going to be able to take full advantage of everything we’ve built [at Google].”

Hanke’s team will be free to develop and release mobile apps without the process and constraints that surrounded adding new features to high-profile products like Google Maps. The apps Hanke’s team develops may or may not ever make it into mainstream Google products, though some probably will. And the creative freedom the lab permits will likely generate some ideas that might not have come out of Google’s existing culture and environment.

What started out as an effort to retain Hanke, at least in part, could well emerge as strategic initiative for Google as it seeks to develop the next generation of mobile products and applications.

“We built this tremendous infrastructure,” said Hanke about Google Maps and Earth. “I’m really interested what else we can do with the huge investment we made.”

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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