"We made it fine, but I think it was within a year of not working," Holzle added. "Had we taken one more year, it might not have worked out."
Holzle also called Google's size and success both a blessing and curse.
"A curse because you can afford to be lazy and you have to manage that specifically," he said. "That's really a culture question. Fortunately, we've spent a lot of time hiring really good people and they're motivated by accomplishment and not by having an easy life. That's one safety net."
Of course, the company's market dominance also gives certain advantages.
"It's a blessing too because for the first two or three years at Google, we couldn't really do anything ambitious because it was really about surviving the next week," said Holzle. "That constrains your horizons so much you have to make one compromise after another just to solve the problem of the day. With a little bit more self-generated money, you can really change the world."
Working so hard to survive in the early years makes people hungrier — and they work harder.
Holzle also noted that Google has not picked up the pace of marketing for its cloud business because it wants to focus on the technology before opening the floodgates.
"We have definitely not turned up the marketing faucet as much because we want to convince people by the quality of the product and not the quality of the ad," he said. "We're actually growing very quickly and we're having trouble keeping up with the demand. You don't want to turn on the faucet and have people come to you and be disappointed."
Holzle also said the next five years will bring much greater advances to the cloud than the last five years have.
Google's infrastructure head also said that today's startups have it much easier than his team did — and that's the way it should be.
"I think there can never be enough startups," he said. "Today you can push a button and have another hundred virtual machines. That has lowered the barrier to entry and that's very, very good."
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