How a Google side project evolved into a $4B company

How did Niantic happen? How did the company behind Pokemon GO and (soon) Harry Potter: Wizards Unite come to be?
When anyone talks about Niantic, they generally mention that it’s “a Google spinout” and move on. As if that’s something that just happens every day. That dozens of people within a massive company come together, build something… and then just leave and take their work with them to form a new, independent company that goes on to have a valuation of nearly 4 billion dollars.
So… how?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve interviewed dozens of people involved with Niantic’s story so far, including investors, executives, and employees past and present. I wanted to figure out the hows and whys of Niantic’s origins, what others might be able to learn from the company’s story so far, and where the company is going in the future.
The reading time for this article is 18 minutes (4,400 words)

The Keyhole into Google

“I started at Google with this idea that I’d be there for six months,” Niantic CEO John Hanke tells me.
We’re in a conference room at Niantic’s office, which takes up much of the second story of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. John’s wearing what I’ve come to realize is something of a daily signature for him: a T-shirt (often Niantic branded) beneath an unbuttoned blue dress shirt. His hair swoops forward and hangs just above his eyes. He’s laid back, but his words are very deliberate and still ring with the slightest hint of his Central Texas hometown.
“The whole time I was there,” he continues, “it felt like I’d be there for another six months. It just turned into 10 years.”
How a Google side project evolved into a $4B company
Keyhole’s John Hanke (left) and Chikai Ohazama (right) the day the Google acquisition closed in 2004. Photo by Brian McClendon
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