From DocVerse to Cloud Connect: Shan Sinha reflects on year one at Google
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Google, a titan of a tech company with the leading search engine and smartphone OS among its successes, is looking to become the leader in business applications based in the cloud.
The Mountain View, Calif., firm is banking that its Cloud Connect software, which allows users to sync Microsoft Office documents with its own Google Docs suite, will be a major part of its moves to own the enterprise space.
However, just a little over a year ago, Cloud Connect was called DocVerse and it wasn’t in Google’s stable of Web-based apps.
When Google bought DocVerse in March 2010 for a reported price of about $25 million, it was a start-up just 2 1/2 years old that had raised about $1.3 million in capital, looking to push Microsoft Office users into the cloud.
Started by two former Microsoft employees, Shan Sinha and Alex DeNeui, DocVerse’s software was a plug-in for Microsoft Office that allowed users to collaborate with one another by saving a version of whatever document they were working on to cloud-based servers.
Sinha and DeNeui, and DocVerse’s team of about a dozen employees, built the plug-in to enable themselves and others to escape having to constantly email attachments of Office files to one another when they were working on documents together.
‘We thought of our product as a sort of set of training wheels for the cloud,’ Sinha said in a recent interview with the Technology blog. ‘What we did, the way I like to describe it was, we made Microsoft Office work more like Google Docs. We were building into Office the functionality that Google Docs offered -- using the cloud to let multiple people work with multiple documents at the same time.’
DocVerse employees had a few friends at Google who, from time to time, would lend advice to the San Francisco start-up. And Google, Sinha said, liked what it saw.
‘Google’s goal was to enable collaboration between all these different users -- those who are using Microsoft Office and those who are using Google Docs -- and we shared that vision,’ he said. ‘It made a lot of sense for us to move to doing what we were doing as a part of Google, rather than outside of Google.’
After being gobbled up by the tech giant, the DocVerse team was integrated into Google and added to a group of about 20 engineers tasked with creating Cloud Connect, which works with the Office applications Excel, Word and PowerPoint. The transition was easy for the DocVerse team because of the level of resources Google offered, which the start-up wouldn’t have been able to match on its own, Sinha said.
About eight months after being bought, the team released Cloud Connect exclusively to customers of Google’s Apps for Business program, which offers beefed-up versions of Google’s Calendar and Gmail applications for enterprise needs.
After further refinement and testing, Cloud Connect was opened up to anyone who wanted to use it, as a free product, in a period totaling about 11 months.
‘We did move quickly,’ Sinha said. ‘We had a joint vision that we were executing on and the organization said, ‘Hey, go make it happen.’ Here’s a bunch of support and a platform to get it out there. Here’s marketing support; here’s PR support; here’s legal support and pretty much anything we needed to get the job done.’
Despite all the resouces, independence was still key, Sinha said.
‘Google demonstrated that they cared about what we were doing by adding people to our team that really knew how to get things done,’ Sinha said. ‘We were allowed to operate with autonomy, but we had people on our team who could show us the way Google’s system worked and who knew how to launch products inside of Google. I don’t think we would have launched anywhere near as quickly had Google not done that and just left us to ourselves after buying DocVerse.’
Sinha, who has a master’s degree in engineering from MIT, said he realized the speed and scale that Google is capable of about two weeks before Cloud Connect was made publicly available in February.
‘We had this question of how many users can we expect to download Cloud Connect and use the product and how many servers will we need,’ he said. ‘We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we had about 4,000 companies using it since January. So it took some time, but we said, ‘OK, we need 1,600 servers deployed to handle what we think traffic is going to be.’ And we got the servers nearly instantly once we made the decision that that’s how many we needed.
‘If you were a start-up company, there was no way you’d be able to get that many servers or generate the number of users to demand that number of servers that fast at that scale. These types of things do take more time in a start-up. It’s a major, major difference.’
Sinha declined to say just how many users Cloud Connect has had so far, but did say he’s been pleased with the uptake.
Google now has the former entrepreneur assigned as a Google Apps project manager, building other cloud-based projects that Sinha said he couldn’t get too specific about just yet.
‘In the same way that Cloud Connect is focused on bringing people who’re using software that is from a decade or even two decades ago into the cloud, we’re focused on doing that same thing in other veins as well,’ he said.
With just little over a year under his belt as a Google employee, Sinha looked back at DocVerse’s start-up days with a bit of nostalgia, but he had no doubt that selling the company was the right move -- particularly selling to Google.
‘We weren’t planning or hoping for this in any kind of way,’ he said. ‘Google gave us an offer that was very difficult to refuse, but our product was just taking off, we were seeing a lot of early success and we were getting deployed at lots and lots of big-name customers. Business was really good and we were excited about our growth prospects.
‘At the same time, we realized that we were playing in a category where, at some level, we were playing right in the crossfire between Microsoft and Google. Fortunately for us, we were able to really capitalize on a shift in this market. And there’s only really about two companies in the world you can do this in, at this level.’
‘I feel like we’re on the right side of the market.’
[Correction April, 24 10:22 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Cloud Connect team was just under 50 Google engineers. The DocVerse team was made up of about 20 Google engineers.]
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles