Eyes Wide Open
He’s 34, going on 35, highly personable, and – axiomatic for a Cambridge-educated computer whiz with a clever idea - a multi-millionaire.
Suranga Chandratillake sits quietly in a restaurant in Grand Arcade, eating scrambled eggs and mushrooms on toast, and in between mouthfuls, talks about his life, money, and what might be the Next Big Thing hovering beyond the high-tech horizon.
A protégé of Mike Lynch of Autonomy fame, his own bright notion was the creation of a piece of software that enables people to search the internet for video, and the result, in 2004, was the Autonomy spin-out blinkx, which in the intervening years has grown to become the world’s biggest video search engine. From its website, viewers can jump off to 35 million hours of content, including movies. Three years after it was founded, the company staged a highly successful IPO, and its latest yearend results revealed a healthy rise in revenue, up 73 per cent from £42 million to £72 million.
From its beginnings in Cambridge with a handful of staff, its workforce now extends to 270 people, with a headquarters in San Francisco, a sales team in London, and other employees in Arizona, Boston, Seattle and Montreal. The Cambridge team, who are mainly R&D, numbers 8.
Suranga, the CEO, lives and works mostly in Silicon Valley, but he comes back to Cambridge, where he studied computer science, whenever he can.
“blinkx has grown dramatically since 2011,” he says. “It’s partly that demand for what we do has increased, and partly that we’ve made a number of deals and acquisitions. Two years ago, we were achieving about $30 million revenue, and now we’re getting close to $120 million – and we’re profitable.
“It means we have increased our workforce, up from 120 people to 270, and we are hiring more people, including in Cambridge.”
The deals have included hook-ups with AOL and Disney, and the acquisitions include Burst Media, the internet advertising network.
He says: “I challenge people to think of something we haven’t got a video on. These days we can cover pretty much any topic you can think of. Our software trawls over the internet looking for any video content, just like Google looks for a web page. Wherever we find video, we use technology developed in Cambridge to analyse it and make it searchable, so you can look for a particular scene. We’re not moving the video - it’s left where it is, so there’s no need for any legal agreement or relationship with whoever made it. That’s great, it works for free, but in order to make money we have to show ads, and we are now getting them.
“The economic situation hasn’t affected us at all. We have approximately doubled our sales revenue year on year for the past five years, and we haven’t had any issues selling ads.”
The strength of blinkx, Suranga freely admits, is the enthusiasm of the people who work for it. Recently, he drew them together for what he called “a technology summit” at a venue in Austin, Texas, for two days of activities, dominated by programming. “The idea was we’d start some programming in teams, about 12 noon, and finish at 7pm, but two of the teams got into it so much they carried on until 10pm, and one was still going at 3 in the morning. When you work with people like that, you can’t help but get excited about what you’re doing.”
Cambridge and San Francisco are very similar in breeding that kind of talent, he says.
“Both places are great examples of where everything worked online very early on. I remember when I was in Cambridge in 2001, there were very active social communities doing things like rating businesses, creating directories and so on, which didn’t exist in cities five or six times Cambridge’s size. It’s because in Cambridge you have a very high density of people who get it, and who are interested in it, and not just younger people. Older people do too. It’s a fallacy to say they don’t get technology. They just don’t find the technology itself very interesting, but rather what they can do with it. You may not know how microprocessors work, the way the people at ARM do, but you don’t have to understand that to contact your grandchild by email. There’s been a revolution in business in the past 10 years. Back then a lot of the focus was on technology itself, and now it’s on using technology to give people some new experience. It depends on technology, but it’s not about technology. A good example is Facebook. There’s great technology behind it, but it’s basically a very simple concept, and very human. You don’t need to know how it works, you just know it’s something useful, something you want to do.
“The huge flotation of Facebook shows how difficult it is going to be getting accurate valuations on those sort of companies. The market didn’t really know what Facebook was worth. But from the perspective of the company itself, they pretty much had to go public. The senior team there probably would have been happy to stay as a private company, but the reality was that the investors who had poured in so much money in the early days were ready to see a return, an exit. And once you’ve decided to do an IPO you might as well raise as much money as you can. The banks that helped Facebook do that are now hurting – but they knew what they were in for, they’re grown-ups.
“blinkx is a very different company, but we too are providing a very human thing. The great companies being built now are those, small and large, that look at how the world, and the way we approach the world, can change because of technology. It could be a really simple idea – like a service I‘ve come across called Get Around, a small start-up. If you own a car, it allows you to rent your car to anybody else who has signed up to it, via your mobile phone. It won’t be as big as Facebook, of course, but it’s a fun thing, and pretty much everyone will soon have a phone on them that’s connected to the internet – we need to think about what you can do with that kind of connectivity.”
So what will be the Next Big Thing?
“One idea that seems to be taking off is connected TVs - using services like ours through a TV set that’s connected to the internet. It’s still very small. Engineers have been talking about it for years, but actually it takes a while to get going, and for the average man on the street to start wanting to use it, which I think is now happening. This year, maybe next year, it will be big.”
The onset of his mid-30s has prompted him, with a certain amused detachment, to consider his lifestyle. He says: “I turn 35 this year – I’m an old man. I own a house in the States, I’m married, I have a baby. It’s all over. I used to enjoy travelling around a lot, but now I’m doing much less of it. When you’re in your 20s, and there’s no one relying on you, as a partner, a parent, everything is exciting.”
This was one of the key points Suranga made when he gave a lecture to students at Cambridge University’s computer laboratory, where he himself began his career, and he knows that like him, an enormous well of future genius is bubbling up there. “The talent is amazing in Cambridge. I would like to double the size of our office again here. That’s not just because of the rich vein of talent in the university, but also because the city itself attracts very smart people. It’s driven by the university, but it’s bigger than the university. The only place where brains and technology are respected and feted as much is Silicon Valley.”
He is watching with interest to see how the city’s fledgling enterprises bear up in the years ahead, aware of worries that too little money is being made available to enable new companies to take wing early on. It has been suggested that the new rich kids on the block – the Mark Zuckerbergs, and the Mike Lynches, who made £500 million on the sale of Autonomy to Hewlett Packard – may be the groundbreakers’ new godparents, especially Lynch, who is now back in town.
“blinkx was lucky. We essentially skipped the whole seed funding stage, thanks to the backing of Autonomy. But a lot of venture capital is run by finance people, money managers. It’s important not to generalise, but many of them find it hard to really understand the cutting edge, and as a result, they tend to be conservative rather than venturesome. Again, Facebook is a good example. When the initial investment was made, there was no talk of profits, but the rewards have come in to the tune of billions of dollars. One of the things that is working well in Silicon Valley, and which I hope is growing in Cambridge, is that in the very early stages of a business, people who have done it before themselves, who understand technology, and the random, messy nature of innovation, are coming forward to fund things. You have to take a portfolio approach and realise that of the 20 things you fund, a decent chunk of them will not succeed - and you have to be OK with that.
“The Autonomy sale created a number of millionaires, and ARM is doing that too. I would hope that those people, who have experienced the craziness of having an idea, with no understanding of how to make a business of it, will now turn round and say, now that I have all the money I need for life, I want to put a small percentage of it back into the community.”
He himself is a rich man. “I’m a millionaire, a few times over. The obvious things about having a lot of money are the toys you can buy - but what I’ve found is the biggest thing that money gets you is freedom. Once you have a certain amount, you can buy any house you want to, and you don’t necessarily have to work every day. It means you can do what you want to do, and enjoy it. Most people don’t stop working, because that would be boring, but you can choose what you do, and can stop working for a period if you want. That’s a great thing.
“I intend to keep working. I grew up in Manchester, and one of the things I learned about there was the Industrial Revolution. I’m a huge fan of Lowry, and I remember looking at his paintings, and thinking how exciting it must have been to be one of the engineers or the industrialists - maybe less so if you were a mill worker – at that time of change.
“The period I happen to live and work in now is going through a similar revolution, and there’s just as much excitement and opportunity in it. For me, whatever happens to blinkx, I just know there’ll be many other exciting things to do, and I intend to do them.”