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Google spares three Area 120 R&D projects, including team working on a ‘Gen Z consumer product’

Google spares three Area 120 R&D projects, including team working on a ‘Gen Z consumer product’

Google spares three Area 120 R&D projects

by Sarah Perez

Google’s internal incubator, Area 120, is designed to let employees build their own products, in the hope that a few of them will eventually turn into real businesses within the company. Initially, all new Area 120 projects had an expiration date of 18 months, after which they’d be shut down if they hadn’t managed to grow.

But in recent months, Google has started to give some of these products and teams more time to grow, TechCrunch has learned. This has included at least three teams that have been working on consumer-facing products, one of which is said to be targeting “Gen Z” — kids between 13 and 19 years old.

The move to give these projects more time comes as Google has been doubling down on its investment in hardware, with a particular focus on its smart speaker and smart home. The company also recently revamped its retail efforts with the launch of several new “Made by Google” hardware products, and more is expected in 2020. It’s also continued to invest in new, experimental businesses, such as those in healthcare.

An expiration date extension

While the Area 120 program has been around for a few years, it was only last year when Google began to be more public about the incubator’s existence, launching a website that Confidential Mode in Gmail and Stack was the first Area 120 project to graduate from the incubator.

At the time, Google said its goal with Area 120 was to create a space where its employees could “focus on new ideas that might be a success a few years down the road.”

“Our approach is to encourage experimentation while maintaining a strong focus on the opportunity and problem an idea is solving,” Google’s then-VP of Product Management, Mario Queiroz, said in a blog post. “This helps us move quickly and keep the focus on building something our users will love.”

The program operates like a startup accelerator, in that it provides seed funding, mentorship and resources, but with the added benefit that if a project is successful, it can more easily get Google’s resources behind it to help with marketing, engineering, distribution and more.

All new Area 120 projects did have an expiration date, however, of 18 months. If, at that point, the product or team hadn’t managed to grow or find product-market fit, it would be shuttered.

That expiration date was partly due to the fact that Area 120 is designed as a side hustle for Googlers. They’re not meant to work full-time on their Area 120 projects, as they have their “day job” to focus on, as well. But also, Google needed a way to cull the weakest projects so it could focus its resources on a smaller group of more promising ideas.

In other words: it’s not that Google didn’t want these projects to succeed, it’s that it wanted a way to know which were more likely to, so it could better invest its own resources in their growth.

Toward a more collaborative model

In practice, though, shutting down a product people have been working on for 18 months — even if they only worked on it part-time — didn’t always sit well with employees, we hear. In some cases, it was also disruptive to the company, as those people would often move on to new jobs, taking their institutional knowledge with them.

So while the expiration date was meant as a way to signal to employees that their side hustle might not turn into a real job, in practice, it was also a way for Google to applied pressure to get product teams to focus and move more quickly. But now, it seems Google is backing off that hard line a bit.

Instead of an expiration date, Google is now taking a more collaborative approach, where it meets with the project leads regularly to get their product update, growth metrics and business plans, according to our sources.

On a case-by-case basis, Google is then deciding whether a project should be shuttered, or if it will give the team more time. Sometimes, this involves adding more people to the team; other times it means opening up the project to more users, so it can test demand. In a few cases, like with the Gen Z product, it means both.

The new, more flexible expiration date also appears to be a way for Google to retain some of its top talent. If an employee has an idea for a product, they may have felt it was better to bring it to market themselves, rather than try to sell it to Google and then risk having it shut down a year-and-a-half later.

Now, though, they may be more willing to give Google a shot, as the company appears to be taking a more measured approach to its product incubation experiments.

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