Why the exit's no longer marked "Google"The Wall Street Journal's Pepper ... & Salt has never been particularly cutting-edge. But a recent cartoon reads like a time capsule: An entrepreneur at startup WotsHot.com says, "Here's our timetable: launch, grow rapidly, be bought by Google." How quaint! During the lean years earlier in the decade, when Google was the only show in town, startups may have dreamt of getting bought by Google. But more recently, getting bought by Google has proven a nightmare, albeit a lucrative one. The oldtimers at YouTube are resting and vesting, watching the clocks tick. JotSpot's wiki product languished for a year before getting relaunched in barely functional form. Measure Map, a Web-traffic analysis startup, was similarly buried.And who can blame them? Google coddles engineers, but it also suffocates them. With the free food, massages, and laundry come a quirky set of in-house technologies and an increasingly bureaucratic, insider-driven culture. A favored clique of Google-IPO lottery winners rule over what's supposed to be a meritocracy. Marissa Mayer, Larry Page's ex-girlfriend, rules with an iron fist over what features see the light of day in Google's all-important search engine. Google used to pitch startups on the notion of selling to them rather than give a stake to VCs; Chris Sacca, a former Googler expert in peddling empty promises, led this effort. Not surprising that it didn't work out. Google is now getting into the VC business itself — a tacit acknowledgement that it is no longer an attractive destination for startup founders. As an investor, Google gets a look at new technologies and talents. Entrepreneurs get to keep their freedom. Funny, freedom is exactly what Google used to promise the companies it acquired — and what it no longer has to offer. (Cartoon by Pepper & Salt/WSJ)