The Untold Story About the Founding of Google Maps
How four partners took an idea from a whiteboard to the browser
Google Maps began life as a thought bubble expressed as a series of random scribbles on a whiteboard.
The annotations — shown below — were scrawled in 2004 by Australian software engineer Noel Gordon, one of the four men who founded the Sydney-based digital mapping start-up Where 2 Technologies.
The whiteboard hung in Where 2's headquarters, which, outside office hours, doubled as the spare bedroom in Gordon’s rented apartment in Hunters Hill, a riverside suburb in Sydney, Australia.
The notes were written during a frenetic three-week period during which Where 2's owners were negotiating with Google’s co-founder Larry Page to sell the idea of their prototype mapping technology.
The jottings show the names of potential competitors, alternative buyers, and a list of venture capital firms, should the Google deal fall through. And scattered over the rest of the whiteboard are both technical and strategic notes which Where 2's founders were grappling with as they funded a business and eked out a living on maxed out credit cards.
‘We like the web’
Where 2's mapping technology began life as an application called Expedition. It was designed to be downloaded and installed, much like most of the software at the time.
But Larry Page and Google were not interested in application software. “We like the web,” he is said to have told Lars Rasmussen, one of the Gordon’s fellow co-founders. And he set the team a deadline to get their idea working in a web browser.
The team delivered and in August, 2004 a deal for an undisclosed sum was inked, making Where 2 Google’s second-ever acquisition.
Where 2's four co-founders — Gordon, fellow Australian Stephen Ma and the Danish-born Rasmussen brothers Lars and Jens — suddenly found themselves as Google employees and working out of the company’s newly established Australia headquarters.
And the quartet’s timing couldn’t have been better. All four had been laid off in the aftermath of the crash that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble at the end of the 20th century.
Before joining Where 2, Ma was working at a petrol station and Gordon was working as a fabric cutter in his father-in-law’s clothing factory in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown. Jens Rasmussen had been sleeping on his mother’s couch back home in Denmark.
Now they found themselves not only employees of one of the hottest technology firms, but almost certainly the recipients of buy out that was a mixture of cash and stock.
The same month they become Nooglers (the nickname for new recruits at Google), the company launched its IPO. With its shares listed at $US85, Google was valued at $US23 billion. Today, those same shares are valued at $US580 and the market cap is just south of $US400 billion.
The son of a dairy farmer turned policeman from Bellingen in northern NSW, 52-year-old Gordon is one of the odd men out at Google’s Sydney headquarters, a boomer among a phalanx of 20- and 30-somethings.
Today, Gordon is the only one of the four still working at Google. Ma retired a few years ago and both Rasmussens left the company — Lars defecting to Facebook in spectacular style — after the demise of the Google Wave project in 2010.
“In 2003, it was the World Wide Wait,” says Gordon. “It was prehistoric. You clicked on a map, made a cup of coffee and then came back.”
In the pre-Google Maps era, online mapping was dominated by MapQuest, the clunky scion of an analogue cartographic business, later purchased by AOL.
Google Maps was based on a group of web technologies that is today widely known as Ajax. The Google Maps founders didn’t invent the name, but they were among the first to apply the technologies that became the cornerstone of the Web 2.0 renaissance in late 2004, a reboot of the old web which had collapsed under the weight of inflated expectations in 2000.
Brothers Jens and Lars had been toying with the idea of building a better mapping experience when Lars flew across the Pacific to Australia in 2003 so that he could live with his Cuban-born then girlfriend who was not able to reside in the United States.
Lars sought out Gordon who roped in one of his former colleagues, Stephen. With a small cash injection courtesy of Noel, Where 2 was born.
Even a decade ago this was not a typical start-up. Not only were the founders more middle-aged, but thanks to Gordon’s then girlfriend, now wife, they worked civilised hours. A condition of using the spare bedroom was that everyone had to down tools by 6pm and take the weekends off.
“We were the only start-up in the world that worked 9-to-5,” Gordon says.
It was decided early on that Lars would be the public face of Where 2, a state of play that continued even after Google Maps launched in February, 2005. It was a decision that pushed Gordon and Ma out of the limelight.
Asked how the partnership worked, Gordon chooses his words precisely.
“We all made equal contributions, but I wouldn’t say we were equal partners.”
Gordon says he was happy for Lars to take the lead role, and there was also no dispute from Ma or Jens, both of whom are more introverted types and uncomfortable with the glare of publicity.
“I don’t think that’s been an issue for us, now looking in hindsight,” says Gordon. “I don’t think any of us can complain how things have gone.”
Stephen Hutcheon is an editor at The Sydney Morning Herald