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blinkx Boss Back From the Abyss

Dicing with failure in the high-risk technology sector can end up bringing more rewards than a safe job in financial service or academia, Cambridge graduates were told at the Silicon Valley comes To Cambridge showcase this morning.

Suranga Chandratillake, CEO of Cambridge video search engine company blinkx, said shooting for the stars with a tech play beat pushing numbers around.

While ‘rich’ was a dirty word in the UK, people shouldn’t be frightened of earning a fortune.

He inspired delegates with his own story – from the rags of redundancy to the riches of a world-leading technology company. And he said that staring into the abyss of failure actually heightened the feelgood factor when things started going well.

He said failure came as a shock after he was laid off from a US job after everything had gone right in his life up to that point. But it didn’t put him off and, after various failed start ups, he ended up at web search software company Autonomy when it was still relatively small.

Working in R & D he was exposed to how senior people ran the company and this led to him founding blinkx seven and a half years ago.

“I can’t think of any job that would give you exposure to so many things, from choosing a coffee table that looks cool, to worrying that someone might be about to sue you, to the technology itself,” he told the SVC2C event.

While there were many negative aspects – such as when a launch doesn’t work or someone else launches something similar just after you’ve launched a product – it’s always been worth it, he said.

“When you’ve stared into the abyss, when something does work it makes it much more powerful.”

He warned the audience off being lured by the rewards of the financial services sector. “Often people get pushed into academia or financial services. But there’s no opportunity to be creative with financial services – it’s just shovelling things around.

“My segment is one of the few industries in which you can be creators, come up with ideas from nothing. It’s a cool thing to do.”  Another thing that people often don’t mention is that you can also get rich, he said. “It’s very British not to mention this, but it has given me the freedom to do what I want.”

Fighting back from failure – and not being frightened to fail – also occupied the thoughts of another keynote speaker, Joi Ito CEO of Creative Commons.

Ito said that while he had been a college dropout he didn’t recommend this to everyone. He worked in many areas after dropping out of college and had a variety of companies in 10 years – all of which failed – including one set up to sell software mail order in Japan without realising how expensive postage was in Japan.

It was these experiences that led him to where he was today. “It’s not the right model to learn everything before you try,” he said. “You can read all the books you can about skiing but you won’t be able to do it until you try.”

The daring to try ethos was helped by the fact that the cost of innovation had gone down. “In the days before the internet, building something like Google would have cost $100m and would have been done by a phone. Now you can try things out before you have any investors and have the freedom to innovate.”

He didn’t like to use the word failure. “I’d call it discovering boundaries.” Now as an investor he always asked entrepreneurs if have they failed properly. “They are more likely to have a robust view of the world if they have,” he explained.

The third keynote speaker, Megan Smith – VP of New Business Development at Google – told delegates they should go and start a company if they wanted to but if they didn’t feel ready they should look at companies whose ideas they believed in and that had extraordinary management teams.

Google, while obviously a large company, still had opportunities for entrepreneurs. “It’s all about choosing the right companies,” she said.

Smith said she had a mechanical engineering background and had learnt the other side of the business, such as contracts, from more senior people. Her early experience had come through great high school teachers, school fundraisers and summer internships, including with IBM in California, where she was exposed to the practice of building things.

The session at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory was introduced by Andy Hopper, head of the Lab – of which Suranga Chandratillake is an alumnus. Prof Hopper showed the audience his ‘Hall of Fame’ featuring the names of more than 200 companies that had been set up by alumni since 1969. The Hall of Fame was first published in Business Weekly in July.