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The Google Kid

How a Web site, a friend's couch and a lot of moxie helped Aaron Stanton get in with Google

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In simpler times, the language of business was spoken face to face, and brokered deals were cemented with a firm shake of the hands. But in an age of instantaneous global communication and business conducted on scales that measure in the billions, it takes some fancy footwork and often a huge personal risk to get noticed by Goliath. Just ask Boise's own "David," 25-year-old Aaron Stanton, a journalist in the video gaming industry who has an idea he believes is so well-suited for Google that, in early February, he started knocking on the Internet search engine giant's front door--literally.

Before showing up in Google's lobby, Stanton says he not only tried calling and e-mailing the company, but he'd also sent the company a link through its online proposal form to a Web site he created specifically for his pitch. According to statistics tracking the site's visitors, no one from Google ever saw the site. Disappointed about not being heard, enthusiastic about his idea and inspired by his father, Stanton decided that the best course of action was to buy a plane ticket and tell Google his idea in person.

On February 11, Stanton flew to California, set up shop on the couch of a friend's brother and began posting a blog at CanGoogleHearMe.com with video footage of his quest. The day after he arrived, Stanton made his first trip to the Google campus in Mountain View, California. He barely made it through the front door before being turned away and asked to submit his idea via a brief form on Google's Web site. So Stanton played by Google's rules, submitting another version of his proposal as instructed. But instead of sitting around waiting for someone at Google to sort through his or her e-mail inbox and notice him, Stanton began paving an alternate path into the Googleplex using cyberspace rather than the front door.

Within hours of his first visit to Google, Stanton's blog started getting noticed by other bloggers and then, according to a video posting on CanGoogleHearMe.com, there was a single visitor from within the Google complex. On February 13, the day after Google first denied Stanton a meeting, CanGoogleHearMe.com was visited by about 600 people from somewhere inside Google. Stanton immediately reached out to his new Google visitors, writing in his blog: "Hello friends from Google. I hope you realize that I come in peace." In the wee hours of February 14, Google spoke back, requesting a meeting with Stanton in an e-mail titled: "We can hear you."

Later that day, Stanton walked back through the front doors of the Googleplex and into a meeting with a Google employee who listened to his pitch and promised to deliver a shortened version into the hands of the right people. After that, there was nothing for Stanton to do but wait. In the meantime, CanGoogleHearMe.com continued to grow in popularity.

When Boise Weekly first spoke with Stanton in February, his blog at CanGoogleHearMe.com had already garnered a cult following. The site was listed as the fifth fastest-growing Web site on the Internet by Alexa.com, a rating service, thanks to a 19,000-percent increase in the site's traffic, and it made it onto the front page of Digg.com, a popular user-posted content site. At one point, Stanton says, he was receiving an average of 10 e-mails per minute from well-wishers both inside Google and out. Even the vice chairman of America Online, Inc., Ted Leonsis, mentioned Stanton in his daily blog, comparing his audacious approach to that of AOL co-founder Steve Case, who set up camp in Apple Computer's lobby in hopes of striking a deal. In a post dated February 15, Stanton credits the employees of Google with his cyber success, citing the fact that 1,500 employees inside the Googleplex saw his site early and "now, of course," writes Stanton, "30,000 people have seen this site in the last hour, and there's a lot more people watching."

Stanton not only became an overnight celebrity on the Internet, but people began to recognize him on the streets of San Francisco. His story has also kicked up quite a dust storm in the media, with attention coming from TV, radio, magazines and newspapers worldwide. (Stanton's story made Australia's Sydney Morning Herald and Stanton gave a live radio interview on the BBC).

It's easy to see why thousands of people are cheering him on. Stanton doesn't come across as some socially awkward, reclusive computer fanatic. Instead, he's endearing, and tirelessly optimistic about his daunting task. He even displays a sense of humor, jumping up and down in a parking lot, yelling at Google in an effort to be heard.

Of course, the mystery of the idea keeps the entire act in the air and the audience on the edge of its seat. Stanton is under a gag order from Google until they're ready to say anything. From the Google camp, mum's the word. A Google spokesperson confirms that Stanton has visited Google and had a meeting with a representative from the company, but would not comment further on the subject of the meeting or on CanGoogleHearMe.com.

Within the forums set up for Stanton followers at CanGoogleHearMe.com, speculation abounds as to what exactly Stanton wants Google to hear. Savvy Internet sleuths have sorted through DNS records, dug into the Internet archive and turned up an old Web site from a company Stanton established in 2003 called Novel Projects. Stanton says that while his Google idea is related to his work with Novel Projects Inc., it's a distant cousin and has little bearing on the idea that has him trying to bend Google's ear.

As for what happens next, not even Stanton knows.

"Even though I'm in California, and I'm standing at Google's front door, my information is fairly limited," Stanton told BW back in late February. It's a phase of the process that Stanton compares to being without radio communication while orbiting behind the moon. For the thousands of people who log on to his site daily, it's one long pregnant pause, leading up to the denouement of a story that has everyone hoping for a happy ending.

Stanton remains humble.

"It's been a phenomenal response, but in a week and a half, it may go the other way," he said.

But to Shikhar Sarin, associate Dean for Boise State's College of Business, Google's reticence is no surprise. Sarin, who heard about Stanton's efforts from a colleague, says that when someone from outside the company wants to pitch an idea, businesses have many issues to consider, the least of which is legal liability.

"If someone pitches you an idea and in five or 10 years, you create a product that resembles it even closely, they can sue you," explains Sarin. "Smart companies are already constantly scanning for new ideas, and intellectual property protection is a big issue for companies. They don't want to put themselves in a position where they are open to legal backlash."

Regardless of how Google responds to his proposal, Stanton says he considers what has transpired thus far a success.

Recently, when his father survived what should have been a fatal embolism, Stanton says he realized his father wouldn't be around forever and that if he wanted to make his father proud, Google was his chance to do it. And in that respect, Stanton has certainly succeeded.

Stewart Stanton calls his son's spontaneous adventure to Google the 21st-century American dream.

"It's what I call leadership, and I am proud of him because it's refreshing to see someone with genuine intention, goodwill, hard work and intellect do something brave and have it be seen by people who also have genuine goodwill and to have it be successful," he said.

Stanton's father also praises Google, the Goliath.

"It turns out that Google is the people inside it, and that doesn't show very often," he said. "I'm awfully proud of the people inside Google." His comments express what may be one of the most palpable undercurrents in Stanton's story: the fact that some guy breached the corporate rigmarole and met with open ears of actual people.

In e-mails to Stanton and on CanGoogleHearMe.com's forums, dozens of Stanton fans say they have ideas they'd like to share with larger companies, but find it difficult to communicate--much less be taken seriously--by big business. In his blog, Stanton asks, "What can be changed to make it easier for the average person with a good idea to really be listened to by these large companies?"

While he understands that legally it's complicated for large companies to interact with the little guys, Stanton insists it's necessary. His idea is to create a third-party agency to act as a liaison between someone like himself and a company like Google, for example.

Hurdles for independents who have whiz-bang ideas for big companies aren't likely to go away, said Sarin. He says it's likely the only reason Stanton is getting Google's attention is because the company is responding to the attention Stanton has gained for himself. He also points out that those people with an idea who are hoping to catch the attention of a large company should be equally cautious of intellectual property protection, carefully documenting their work before approaching an outside party.

Stanton not only feels confident that he has effectively documented that the idea is his, but adds, "I have faith in Google. I think they are interested in innovation and in ideas, as well as [in] the people who put them together."

On the CanGoogleHearMe.com forums, some consensus is emerging that agrees with Sarin in at least one aspect: Aping Stanton's moxie won't gain the next "little guy" much attention.

"For every one that makes it big, there are 1,500 who don't get the time of day," says Sarin. "A creative way might work the first time, but those approaches are few and far between. A second or third person doing the same thing isn't likely to get that attention. It's like saying that selling potatoes is a good idea simply because [J.R.] Simplot made so much money."

As for what's next for Stanton, though he has a lot hinging on Google's decision, he says he couldn't just wait in California until one is made.

Since returning to Boise last week, Stanton continues to post updates at CanGoogleHearMe.com. He's also busy printing out each one of the thousands of e-mails he received during his Google adventure--he plans to have them bound together in a book and is currently responding to each one of them individually. He's also in search of a Boise-based computer programmer to assist him in Act Two. Stanton says he expected all the attention to wane after he returned to Idaho. However, since neither the media nor his fans seem to be giving up on him just yet, he's set this week as a deadline to deliver some kind of answer to a waiting public.

As BW went to press, a definitive answer had yet to materialize. Stanton says he may have an answer he can talk about as early as this week.

Stanton says that if nothing else, this experience has helped him realize there are people willing to stand behind someone following his or her dreams, without the possibility of personal gain.

"And if all else fails," says the aspiring novelist, "I finished my novel about two weeks before leaving for California. Now I just have to get attention from a different industry."

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