Start-up whiz takes on new challenge

Start-up whiz takes on new challenge

Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite and JotSpot, guides Google’s efforts in social networking. 

By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

December 30, 2007

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. — Six months ago, new father Joe Kraus returned
to Google Inc. from a three-week paternity leave to take charge of
another fledgling.

His
assignment: Help run a team that would figure out how to match the
runaway popularity of Facebook Inc., which has been stealing Google’s
spotlight.

The company tapped the bespectacled veteran of two
start-ups because it figured he could harness the experience and energy
needed for a showdown that could determine the course of the Internet’s
social networking revolution.

Along
with fellow project leaders Graham Spencer and David Glazer, Kraus
assembled several dozen engineers, many of them former entrepreneurs,
and housed them within shouting distance of one another to simulate the
hothouse environment of a high-tech start-up.

The engineers came
up with OpenSocial, an alliance of social networks and software
developers designed to help people connect no matter where they go on
the Web, whether to Craigslist.org to see what friends are buying and
selling or to Ticketmaster.com to see what concerts they’re attending.

"If
the Web is more social, and therefore more engaging, that means
everyone will spend more time there and have more things to do, which
benefits Google," Kraus says. "Google makes money when people spend
time on the Web."

Members of OpenSocial — which include
MySpace, Bebo and LinkedIn — pledged when they signed up last month to
make it easier for developers to create software features across an
array of social networks. The alliance is more concept than reality
right now, but already it’s given a boost to the vision of an open
social web, where users can take their friends with them rather than
having to build and maintain contact lists on different sites, says
Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect of social networking site Plaxo,
one of Google’s partners in OpenSocial.

"Google showed that open is possible, desirable, tangible and good for business," Smarr says.

The
company has plenty of self-interest at stake. Tens of billions of
dollars in online advertising are expected to shift to social networks
in coming years. Although the effectiveness of reaching consumers on
these networks is not proven, marketers are intrigued by the prospect
of feasting on the wealth of personal information that users volunteer.

Despite
the success of its search engine and advertising business, Google has
stumbled in social networking. Its own social network, Orkut, is
popular in Brazil but hasn’t developed a following in the United
States. And Google recently lost out to Microsoft Corp. in bidding for
a small investment in Facebook.

OpenSocial is its first aggressive move to challenge Facebook.

The
alliance pulls strength from numbers. The combined population of social
networks in the alliance is about 200 million, nearly four times the
size of Facebook. Now Google must surmount the technological challenges
to follow through on its strategy to make the Web, and itself, more
social.

Kraus has a long track record as a Silicon Valley
entrepreneur who comes up with smart strategies that benefit consumers
and companies, says Megan Smith, Google’s vice president of new
business development, who helped recruit Kraus. With each new venture,
"Joe just continues to innovate."

Now 36, Kraus graduated from
Stanford University in 1993 with a degree in political science. He had
to drop his longtime aspiration to major in computer science when he
got a D in a math class. But nothing could induce him to accept what he
calls a "soul-sucking job" after college.

So he teamed with
Spencer and four other dorm-mates he met freshman year. The summer
after graduation, they bunkered in a drafty garage, subsisting on beans
and rice while they built the technology that would power fabled
Internet portal Excite, one of the dot-com boom’s highfliers.

Excite
went public in 1996 and was acquired by AtHome in 1999 for $6.7
billion. Kraus left the company in 2000. It crashed into bankruptcy in
2001.

Kraus took a high-tech hiatus. He traveled the world,
started a consumer advocacy group to promote liberal digital copyright
laws, married Melissa Walia, a former Excite public relations
executive, and started a family. Then in 2004, he and Spencer dived
back into the deep end.

They built JotSpot Inc. on the idea of
teams using the Web to collaborate. They bet $100,000 of their own
money, raised millions in venture funding and attracted thousands of
customers to JotSpot’s wikis, Web pages that anyone can write and edit,
the most famous of which is Wikipedia, the free Web encyclopedia. The
fun, fast-moving start-up in Palo Alto attracted something else:
Google’s attention.

About a year ago, when Kraus and Spencer
decided to sell JotSpot to Google, they handed out gag Evel Knievel
helmets, money and plane tickets to all 26 employees for a last hurrah
in Las Vegas. These days, Kraus still takes the JotSpot team to Vegas,
where he enjoys playing poker 24 hours straight, his concentration
effortless, just as when he’s working on a project. He draws
inspiration from Spencer, a talented technologist who Kraus says has
become like half of his brain.

Only Google could tempt him to
leave the start-up world, Kraus says, because the company has incubated
a culture of freewheeling creativity similar to the one in which
founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin first began experimenting with
search technology.

Kraus met the Google founders at Stanford,
where Page and Brin themselves met as students. In fact, long ago,
Excite entered into talks with the Google duo about acquiring their
nascent technology. Excite ultimately decided against making the buy.

Says Kraus: "It was probably the best thing never to happen to Google."

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