Google’s Country Director for the Baltics, Vytautas Kubilius, on the Company’s Aims in Lithuania, its Unique Startup Ecosystem, and Future Tendencies: Technology is Changing the World
Although Google has long outgrew its legendary garage office, and later – the much vaunted startups status, the Vilnius team of this American IT giant is consulting and facilitating the growth of Baltic startups: helping them discover new markets and effective business models, employ the most advanced marketing solutions, and expand across the world.
“Working at startups today is simply wonderful,” said Vytautas Kubilius, who’s been working at Google’s Lithuanian office for over 10 years, to kick off our conversation about the company’s aims in the Baltics, the pros and cons of Lithuanian startups, and his own career path and future vision of helping Lithuania to become the world’s top breeding ground for unicorns.
– It’s been over 8 years since Google, one of the world’s major technology companies, announced the opening of a Lithuanian office. Helps us understand what Google Lithuania is, today. What are your main areas of responsibility?
– Google’s office in Lithuania is responsible for its operations in all three of the Baltic states. The main functions of our team is coordinating with Google’s other divisions and the head office, implementing strategies, and ensuring the quality of products and services for customers and clients. For instance, just recently we had the opportunity to localise Google’s AI tool, Bard, for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. We’re also responsible for helping Google understand the Baltic context – what’s happening, what’s necessary, and what kinds of initiatives are lacking. In Lithuania, we have colleagues working on Google Cloud solutions, the digital literacy programme Grow with Google, marketing campaigns, public policy, cybersecurity, presentations of the latest technological developments, etc. Many of our Lithuanian colleagues are also helping Google’s major Baltic clients – startups and both current and prospective unicorns – attract new customers.
– Is Google’s Lithuanian office still the only one in the Baltics? Why did the company choose Lithuania in particular?
– When I started working for Google in 2012, they had offices in 40 countries. A recurring question we had was – should we continue opening offices in each country with a relevant market, or should we look for effective alternative ways of serving our clients and customers? Google wanted to try opening an office in Lithuania, as well as Slovenia, Bulgaria, and other similar countries, already back then.
Our team came up with, and implemented, a winning strategy – since, at the time, new technologies were already driving changes in marketing, enabling one to see in real time how users are reacting to products, assess the price of attracting their attention, etc., we started to work intensely with marketing agencies. They were already engaged by major local brands, and wanted to better understand the latest technological possibilities. We dove into these partnerships head first – exchanging knowledge, organising crazy numbers of events, helping agencies find contacts, and sharing info about business models in different countries. A few years later, we saw that Lithuania showed the most promise. Upon assessing its potential, we opened an office here, and then expanded its mandate to the Baltics as a whole.
– What does your experience in consulting Baltic startups and helping them grow tell you about the uniqueness of our startup ecosystem? How do Baltic countries stand out in Google’s eyes?
– I can assure you that Google’s leadership is well aware of the Baltics, which they see as a region of active startups – a place full of advanced, intriguing businesses, and young, driven leaders who are both fun and interesting to talk to. It’s been easy for us to draw attention and foreign talent to the Vilnius and Dublin offices, because the work done here is generating palpable value. I admire the compactness and collaborative spirit of Lithuania’s startup ecosystem. It’s great to see young companies with only a single functional product list half the local startups as their clients. It’s awesome that startups are supporting and helping each other!
Turning to key differences now, a greater proportion of Lithuanian businesses are founded on a sustainable basis from the get-go. This implies reliance on organic, stable, and profitable growth. Here, we don’t see the rapid growth characteristic of American, British, or Israeli startups that raise a lot of capital at the earliest stages, when tangible results are still absent, yet a charismatic leader, nonetheless, carries the day by narrating some world-changing vision. On the one hand, I’d like to see Lithuanian startups gain more global ambition. On the other hand, the current model helps them weather crises and maintain control of the situation more easily.
Furthermore, although we’re developing great products, and have an excellent technological base, we fall short of global management and marketing know-how. There are many nuances that you’ll never understand without getting your hands dirty. To gain that valuable experience, you must first build a startup of your own, then help it succeed in foreign markets, and finally – sell it. Realistically, in the Baltics we’ve had a single company that managed to do that – Skype. This propelled Estonia to a whole new level. And now, we have the second crop of global brands – from Vinted and Nord Security to Bolt and Wise. We have lots of great startups, but none of them have yet reached a successful conclusion. Favourable exits are a necessary condition for getting the ecosystem going – they enable talents to plough their accumulated capital and experience into building new, or growing existing, businesses.
– Speaking of talents growing others’ businesses – what was your path to Google like? You studied International Business and went into marketing, where you did very well. How did you end up at Google?
– It may be that I was partial to startups well before they even got that name. At the age of 16, my friend and I founded one of Lithuania’s very first web design studios. Since I had no talent in design, and my partner wasn’t too keen on sales, a natural division of labour arose, which eventually had an impact on my career down the line. I tried studying law, but two years later realised that it wasn’t for me. Now I can only joke that what remains of my studies is a knack for reading contracts – and for that I’m grateful. When thinking about what to do next, I heard somewhere about International Business studies, conducted in English by foreign lecturers with real-world experience. At the time, it was almost unheard of in Lithuania. So, I enrolled and became totally mesmerised by lectures on marketing.
In the end, my path was determined by my love for marketing and curiosity about technology. I had many different jobs and experiences. Some terrible – although it was only later that I realised how much they had taught me – and some terrific, such working in an amazing team at Bitė. My career was finally clinched when I got the opportunity to help with starting a Baltic division of the international marketing agency Havas. The internet was already quite lively, but few yet saw it as a major sales and marketing channel. This allowed us to make some real noise – we did things radically differently than was usual for ad and media agencies back then.
Speaking of Google, I’ve been a fan of their products for a long time. I remember once buying an invite to Gmail on eBay. The idea that users there had 2GB of free storage seemed unbelievable, considering that One.lt used to charge 10 litas for an extra 2MB allocated to your inbox. Gmail felt like an April Fool’s prank (and it was, actually, unveiled on April 1st). Later, I started reading on, and admiring, Google’s internal culture, management, and drive for innovation. The next step was Google Ads, which opened the door to brand new global marketing possibilities. It was such a massive shock that we immediately started experimenting with it at our agency, which is probably what put me on Google’s radar.
– Tell us more about Google’s hiring processes. After all, Google, still broadly considered to be a dream workplace, is able to attract the best of the best.
– Google’s hiring process is, arguably, among the ones least changed during recent years. The few simple talent selection principles include: application via a unified global system, initial chat with hiring specialists, and then several interviews. The first stage is focused on the candidate’s professional knowledge – ideally, moderated by someone already employed in an analogous position at the company. The second stage is concerned with assessing general cognitive skills – how quickly the candidates are able to orient themselves in unfamiliar situations, what reasoning processes they employ, and how capable they are of identifying new possibilities. This is followed by a leadership skills assessment to see if the candidate is apt to solve problems independently. For instance, I look for people with a particularly strong sense of responsibility. If the person feels responsible for the end result, he or she will always find a way to resolve a situation – figure out what to read, who to meet or correspond with, etc. This ability often overshadows even the most elite education and work or other experience, because such people are driven to forge ahead no matter what. The final interview stage is all about values – are the candidate’s worldview and life experience potentially enriching for Google? Here’s a piece of advice in this connection. When asked about what you like to do in life, don’t say “travel” and “read” – it’s not unique. We also pay the utmost attention to ensure our teams’ diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, culture, points of view, etc. And we make no compromises – every candidate must raise Google up a notch.
– Navigating the hiring process is one thing; working at Google for 10+ years is another. What has it meant to you personally?
– First of all, I certainly didn’t anticipate working at Google for so long, but it proved to be very interesting and dynamic. Problems and possibilities never repeat, and there’s always something big that you want to contribute to. Numerous special moments have made the hours upon hours of extremely hard work feel meaningful. One such moment was when, at the start of the pandemic, we localised the Google Classroom products for remote education, and enlisted our partners to help us train 10,000 teachers in using them within a single week. I see how much is being invested in products that have no commercial basis, e.g., Google Arts & Culture, or disaster risk notifications on Google Maps. We feel responsible for the millions of people who use our products every day, and see it as a possibility to fundamentally improve their lives. No other company has ever made me believe in it as strongly, feel as good, or make as much of a change than Google.
What’s more, despite its growth over the years, Google has retained its startup DNA in terms of speed, innovation, smart decision-making, and major investment in people and leadership training. Although I worked as a manager even before Google, I now feel like calling my former colleagues and apologising to them. I’m a totally different leader now. Instead of deciding, I coordinate and help people hear and understand each other. My colleagues come to me to discuss things, not to get precise answers.
I’m also highly motivated by the fact that Google employs huge numbers of very smart, interesting people with widely diverging experiences. During my first internal meeting, I quickly realised that most of them are way smarter than me, which is humbling. In time, instead of dictating, I learned to listen and work with people despite their cultural backgrounds and viewpoints. The mutual respect here is incredible – people are included in processes, and not just listened to, but actually heard. Perhaps multiculturalism and inclusivity doesn’t sound very radical, but neither is it easy. In any case, the result is very pleasant – a team capable of generating better strategies and massive numbers of creative scenarios and forecasts. When everyone in your team is similar, you often lose the ability to even see a large part of the world.
– Could you specify any more of the principles that guide your work? Do you have any advice to startup founders or those seeking a career in technology?
– You must learn to calmly accept the fact that you’re likely not the smartest person in the room, and realise that opinions are quite subjective and not necessarily useful. As we often say at Google, “Data over opinion”. Although hunches and experience may help, I like to challenge myself and my colleagues to update our convictions by checking for new data and good practices, reassessing the situation, and looking for new solutions. It’s vital to get used to looking at changes and new developments with an open mind, to fall in love with dynamic situations, and to look for opportunities. For instance, I dedicate some time each week to AI. Since I’m a marketer and a manager, it takes some effort for me to understand the technical details. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that working with AI will soon become part of basic digital literacy training. I’ve no doubt that the AI breakthrough is already happening, and that it’ll be important. I like to listen to and read what Lex Fridman, Hard Fork, Scott Galloway, and Kara Swisher have to say about these things. At Google, we also do lots of different AI trainings.
– How do you spend your free time? How do you rest from, or recharge for, work?
– This year, probably for the first time, I feel like I’ve struck a good work-life balance. I generally spend 3 days in the city – these are all about meetings, strategy, dinners, and teamwork – and for the remaining 4 I go to the countryside, working remotely. On weekends, you’ll usually find me barefoot and with hands covered in soil. I’m also a highly enthusiastic, though entirely mediocre, golf player. When I took my first lesson about 5 years ago, I remember not looking at my phone for several hours – a rare tech break back in those days. It’s an incredibly frustrating sport, as there’s always something to improve, yet also hugely satisfying when you execute a good swing. I also like to play military-, strategy, and economy-themed table games, and to read instructions for them. Playing with people who know what they’re doing is quite fascinating. I’m not obsessed with winning, but I do like a smart move or strategy.
– In global terms, 2023 has not been easy for startups. What would you recommend current or future startup founders to take heed of? What should they be anticipating?
– I strongly discourage people from founding startups just for money. Money will come if you create value for others. Startup founders should care about solving real problems and finding a mission for their business – this lays the ground for going global.
It’s also important to understand global changes. For instance, Google is now getting more and more inquiries about brand sustainability and durability indicators, recycling opportunities, etc. It is to be hoped that the world is collectively becoming more conscious. As this continues, people will be asking further questions: “Do I really need this product or service?”. I think that Lithuanian startups like Vinted and Ovoko are in a great position. There’s also a good deal of talk about MedTech, FinTech, CleanTeach – things are happening, wherever you look.
– Considering all this, what do you think is required for the number of unicorns in Lithuania to grow? For Lithuania to become the world’s #1 unicorn breeder?
– We do have the basics – an active startup community, innovation-conducive policy and business environment, as well as plenty of support and strong desire for the high value added sector to grow. There are, however, several aspects I’d like to highlight.
Firstly, I’ve long been agitating against service centres – they used to be necessary for extracting employees from Lithuanian companies and introducing them to Western management practices. What that gave us deserves a 10/10, but now we must repatriate talent back to creative industries, empower them to build their own businesses or grow the most promising startups, rather than have them continue dealing with inquiries about faulty printers. In Lithuania, startups are now the standard-bearers of good managerial practices. Secondly, we must be proactive in making Lithuania attractive to foreign talent. The situation has improved, but it’s still hard for people to enrol their kids into public kindergartens, get service in English in outpatient clinics, or sign up for a Smart-ID. Startups must take charge in hiring global talent and building teams that are multicultural from the start, thereby boosting their own competencies.
Technology is changing the world – the infrastructure, marketing, payment, and means of communication with clients that are necessary for business have never been as cheap and accessible. In addition, the availability of information and financing allows effective and global operation from day one. It’s the perfect time for internally driven people to turn their ideas into value-generating global products.
This interview was prepared by Vilnius TechFusion partner Unicorns.lt. Find the full story in Lithuanian here: „Google“ vadovas Baltijos šalyse V. Kubilius – apie „Google“ tikslus Lietuvoje, unikalią startuolių ekosistemą ir ateities tendencijas: technologijos keičia pasaulį | Unicorns
Keep in mind – Vilnius is already preparing for one of the most important events of the year – the traditional Vilnius TechFusion Startup Awards. At the event organized for the fifth year in a row, awards await both growing high-tech companies and heroes of businesses, talents and ecosystems that have already gained recognition in Lithuania and the world.
Vilnius TechFusion startup awards will be held on January 11, 2024, this year they are organized by Vilnius city tourism and business development agency “Go Vilnius”, Lithuanian startup association “Unicorns Lithuania” and “Sunrise Tech Park”.