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Google to the rescue

Search giant offers start-ups funding, help from its deep bench of tech talent

CustomMade Ventures Corp. cofounder and CEO Mike Salguero, left, and cofounder and CFO Seth Rosen, right, pose with Michael Margolis. With Google Ventures, Margolis works on user-experience testing in the 'Pit' at CustomMade. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff) CustomMade Ventures Corp. cofounder and CEO Mike Salguero, left, and cofounder and CFO Seth Rosen, right, pose with Michael Margolis. With Google Ventures, Margolis works on user-experience testing in the "Pit" at CustomMade.
By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / February 6, 2012
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CustomMade Ventures Corp. is a Cambridge Internet start-up that had a problem: 97 percent of visitors to its website weren’t ordering anything.

Another Internet company - one that knows a thing or two about attracting users - found a solution. Google Inc., whose Cambridge office is nearby in Kendall Square, helped redesign CustomMade.com so that wherever someone clicks, they know exactly how to get handmade goods from the site, which is designed to connect customers with crafters.

A week after the makeover, CustomMade saw a 200 percent jump in the number of people logging in to start projects, cofounder Seth Rosen said.

CustomMade is one of 11 Boston-area start-ups and more than 90 nationwide that get special attention from the Internet search giant. In November, Google’s venture capital arm, Google Ventures, was the lead investor in a $2.1 million round of funding for the company, which has 24 employees.

While private venture capital firms and the investment wings of big corporations are staffed with serial entrepreneurs or former technology executives who promise tutelage and a willingness to share their Rolodexes, few have what Google has: a deep bench of A-list technology talent that it loans to companies in its portfolio.

And for start-ups, that can be as important as a cash infusion.

For CustomMade, Google Ventures sent in one of its research partners, Michael Margolis, a developer who helped design Google’s e-mail service, Gmail. Margolis spent three days working at CustomMade’s Cambridge office on its 97 percent problem. Before its new site was launched, Margolis conducted user tests to tweak the site, based on potential customer responses.

“A traditional VC firm doesn’t have a guy like Michael,’’ Rosen said. “His whole job is flying around the country helping companies create a better user experience.’’

And it’s not just Margolis.

Google Ventures has about 50 people nationwide, including seven investors, who advise portfolio companies, and it liberally borrows from Google, which has about 32,000 employees worldwide. It even sent a computational biologist to help a Hanover, N.H., start-up called Adimab, which uses specialized technology to perform research for big drug companies.

“No other VC firm can do that,’’ said Rich Miner, one of two Google Ventures investors in Cambridge. Miner, a former serial entrepreneur who helped develop Google’s mobile platform, Android, was instrumental in Google Inc.’s local expansion.

Some of its other local investments include SCVNGR Inc., the location-based gaming company; Recorded Future, a Web analytics firm; EnglishCentral Inc., which uses videos to teach English; and HubSpot, a digital marketing agency.

The reason Google got into the investment game, Miner said, is for “positive return on the investment and to drive innovation.’’

Some say much of what makes Google different in the tech venture capital community is an intense focus on its portfolio companies’ underlying technologies.

“VCs love to talk about the ‘value they add’ while trying to exercise control over companies from the top down,’’ said Brad Feld, a managing director of Foundry Group, a Colorado venture capital firm that has invested in some of the same start-ups that Google Ventures is funding. “Google Ventures - and Rich - go in bottom up as experienced operators and just work their butts off to help the CEOs win.’’

The growth of Google Ventures, which also has offices in Mountain View, Calif., Seattle, and New York, and an investment fund of $200 million, comes as corporate venture arms are increasingly competitive with private investment funds.

“The entire corporate venture world right now is very hot,’’ said Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association. “NVCA is seeing a marked increase in the number of corporations creating venture arms as well as an increase by traditional VC firms wanting to work with corporate venture capital entities.’’

In addition to Google, Dell Inc., Yahoo Inc., Intel Corp., and EMC Corp. have venture divisions. While it does not make direct investments in start-ups, Microsoft Corp.’s BizSpark program connects emerging companies with Microsoft tech expertise and helps them find investors.

Heesen said that many established tech corporations invest to stay “ahead of the technology pack’’ or to have a “direct impact on corporate growth.’’

So far, Google has not acquired any of the companies in which its venture arm has invested. But that is not to say it won’t eventually do so, especially as Google Ventures says it plans on making two new deals per week this year.

In many respects, Google is not much that’s different from many other investors, said Jeff Bussgang, general partner at Boston’s Flybridge Capital Partners. With a tech start-up community full of young companies looking for a financial boost, he said, Google is a welcome addition “at a time when the community is hungry for great early stage investors.’’

Even though it invests in companies that have little to do with its existing business, Bussgang said, with Google’s ubiquity across the Internet, any start-up that turns into a Web success can be seen as beneficial.

Google’s vast riches may also be influencing how it approaches investments, said Howard Anderson, senior lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and cofounder of Battery Ventures, a Waltham investment firm. “They aren’t that pushy for a company to grow like a typical VC might be,’’ he said.

Google reported $9.7 billion in net income in 2011, making it one of the world’s most profitable companies.

When Matthew Bellows, chief executive of Yesware Inc., a Cambridge start-up that customizes e-mail for sales people, met Miner after Google invested $400,000 in his company, Miner said the company should wait 30 days before launching its product.

Bellows was surprised. “Really, you can do that? Just take 30 days and think about things.’’

The company followed Miner’s advice. And in that month, it overhauled its product. “We threw away our product prototype and started again,’’ he said. “It was a big reset.’’

But for a young company, having Google Ventures as an investment partner can do more than just add talent and time. It lends Google’s brand.

“There is a little bit of cachet,’’ said Christopher Ahlberg, chief executive of the Harvard Square data company Recorded Future, which analyzes information on the Web to gain insight into future events. It, too, received funding from Google Ventures. “Having Google as an investor gives you a branding piece that you can’t ignore.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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