Careers talk: Suranga Chandratillake, founder and president, blinkx
Hi Suranga, can you tell us a little bit more about blinkx and your role there as chief strategy officer?
Before I started blinkx, I was the US chief technology officer for Autonomy having moved to San Francisco from Cambridge. I was bitten by the consumer technology bug that affects many who live in and around Silicon Valley, and launched blinkx seven years ago, building it up to what it is now: the world’s largest and most advanced video search engine and a company with annual sales of over $100m.
Strange as it may seem, I recently stepped down as CEO of the company in order to take the position of chief strategy officer so that I could really focus on what I’m most passionate about at blinkx – innovation, ideas and implementation in what I believe to be the future of video online.
What does an average day look like for you?
The cliché here is that there’s no such thing, and it’s true of me too. I spend most of time split between wildly different places and/or time zones – with customers (mainly New York and London), investors (primarily London) and working on our future product and technology (San Francisco and Cambridge). That said, I place a lot of value in spending time with people that matter, internal or external, in person. Some of the best professional relationships I’ve struck up have had their genesis over dinner and a long chat that didn’t have an agenda.
What are the biggest challenges to your job and how do you overcome them?
I’ve come to see most challenges as being problems of balance. For example, you want to build process and structure to run the business efficiently but, if you do that too much, you kill opportunity for creativity, which means you don’t innovate fast enough. You want to maximize today’s revenue and profits because that will deliver shareholder value in the short term, but if you focus only on that, you won’t invest enough in the future, and that will disappoint the same shareholders in the long term.
I also think that technology has created an information overload for all of us; it’s important to learn what to filter out so you can see the big picture.
What’s do you think is the key to building a successful startup?
It has more to do with a certain mentality. My mentor, Mike Lynch, has said that great entrepreneurs must have an obsessive personality disorder – and be focused on the details with a level of energy that’s more than a little irrational. As a CEO you need to bring a lot of positive energy to the table. I had a meeting with our core tech team seven years ago and discussed a possible valuation of our company at around $50m. Everyone round the table sniggered at the thought we could possibly ever be that big, yet we’ve now been worth more than 10 times that. Getting people to think big is as much about psychology as it is about actual skill or expertise.
What online resources can you not do your job without?
Anything and everything. While I do follow all the obvious magazines and publications, I also love randomly picking up on something new — Twitter has become a great resource for those slightly more random discoveries that take you out of your own echo-chamber.
What in search and video is exciting you the most at the moment?
Ubiquitous, mobile connectivity fascinates me. We really do have the ability to be connected at all times and in all places, and I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface on what that can achieve. Augmented reality means that you’ll soon have a contact lens that privately displays a reminder of previous meetings and conversations every time you meet someone and shake their hand, so none of us will ever make comments about not being good at faces. Multi-device, single-identity technology means that most electronic objects will be connected; even today, with the new blinkx.com for example, you can start watching a show on your phone on the bus, hit pause, walk through your front door, turn on the telly and see the same show frozen at precisely the same point in time.
Where do you see search in the next 5 years?
I think we’ll continue to see more intelligent search that is delivered automatically and contextually, rather than depending on a keyword prompt in the first place. Already, when I go to the Yelp app on my phone, it defaults to shops, cafes, restaurants and so on that are near me. In ten years time there may be no search – it will just be a seamless connection of information and services based on really smart context analysis; in five years we’ll hopefully be part of the way there!
What 3 top tips would you give to a media professional looking to get to where you are?
1. Embrace maths: Whether you see this as a good or bad thing, advertising and the media are becoming extremely quantitative – if you’ve shied away from maths so far, get your head out of the sand, read about it and understand it
2. Look to the kids: We’re all getting older, and faster. Use your networks (kids, younger siblings etc) to really pay attention to how people younger than you are using, consuming and controlling their media
3. Have a think week: Bill Gates famously took a week or two off every year and shut himself on a deserted island somewhere and read stuff properly and thought about the bigger picture. Book a day or two out of the office at some point so that you really can drop the day-to-day stuff and think about the bigger picture
Any last words?
When it comes to entrepreneurship, imagining new products, creating new markets and chasing that dream of becoming a David disrupting the Goliaths, I think it’s really important to realise that you won’t achieve anything if you don’t actually DO anything.
It’s easy to be negative, to explain why things won’t work and to get caught in analysis paralysis. In summary, I’ll borrow from one of the world’s finest brands: Just do it.