Tech whizz who knew online video was more than a fad

 
Annabel Denham
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Blinkx founder Suranga Chandratillake talks to Annabel Palmer about his success in Silicon Valley


THE MAN behind video media company Blinkx, Suranga Chandratillake has strong views about why Britain lacks its own Facebook. Negative perceptions of tech engineers and software developers are holding people back. Whether this would mean all eight-year old schoolboys, when given their first computer, deciding (as Chandratillake did) to teach themselves BASIC programming within two weeks, is less certain.

Indeed, Chandratillake has always liked to build things. By 10, he’d realised he preferred writing his own games than playing someone else’s. By his early 20s, he had a degree in Computer Science from Cambridge and a new job at Cambridge-based software company Autonomy. The firm soon moved Chandratillake to the US as its chief technology officer, and it was there that he had the opportunity to take some smart technology, build it into a new product, and launch his own business.

Blinkx is an internet media platform powered by CORE – the world’s “most advanced video engine”. It connects online viewers with content distributors, and monetises those interactions through advertising. It is headquartered in San Francisco and London, with revenue for the year to March 2013 of $198m (£122m). Net profit before acquisition and exceptional costs, and other income was $25.3m. This year, it has acquired Grab Media, created new original video channels, and launched a new mobile site – blinkx.com.

TALKING TURKEY
It was while hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in 2004 that the idea first struck Chandratillake. At the time, video existed online, but was limited by slow internet connections and poor quality content. He had been tasked with carving the turkey, but had “no idea how to do it. So I searched for instructions on the web, finding only text results that were incredibly difficult to follow. I eventually stumbled across a video and, while it was grainy and small, it made me realise that, first, video is uniquely compelling as a media; secondly, it was only a matter of time before it would burst onto the internet; and thirdly, that when it did, it would be fragmented. So any kind of service or tool that would assist in finding the right video at the right time was going to have huge value to the consumer,” he says.


He was right. Internet connections rapidly improved, and with that came the explosion of professional and personal content being uploaded online. Nonetheless, Blinkx was one of the few companies of its type that is still standing today. Direct competitors, Chandratillake thinks, spent too much time focusing on revenues and business models, and too little on the technology itself. “But we built a unique tech product. For the first two years, our team was made up exclusively of engineers and software developers; there wasn’t a salesperson in sight.” And Blinkx “focused on one part of the problem, and we didn’t allow ourselves to get distracted from building it.”

RISKY BUSINESS
Chandratillake has in many ways been fortunate – Blinkx started as a project within Autonomy, with the company providing mentoring and financial support (Autonomy funded the project while it was still in-house, and made an original investment in the “millions of dollars”). When, in 2007, he realised the venture had legs, he spun it out.

But Chandratillake wanted to scale up, and quickly. So he took Blinkx public in a float that was three times oversubscribed, raised the initial $50m target, and saw the company valued at $250m. “I had shown the business model worked; I had the user statistics to prove it. But to take advantage of a fast-growing market, we needed to grow. So we took the decision to fund externally, even though that meant more loss-making in the short term.”

Nonetheless, Chandratillake has encountered many of the difficulties faced by all entrepreneurs – both macro, in the form of the global recession that struck in 2008 (“it was a tough time on the stock market, especially if you were a loss-making company still in its early stages”), and micro, like the repercussions of hiring the wrong person.

He tells me the first five years were the most challenging. “Creating an internet startup means building the technology, then acquiring the users, and only then getting the advertisers. So you have this horrible moment where you’re not necessarily sure that people will pay for what you’re selling.” And if they don’t, it’s game over.

BIG DECISIONS
This is part of the reason why Chandratillake decided to step down as chief executive in 2011, having worked in that role for close to nine years. He has previously written of “hitting a wall” when, on a business trip, he realised he hadn’t left his hotel room in 48 hours.

And while he still loved what Blinkx was doing, he also realised that, instead of dealing with technological and product challenges, he was being preoccupied with administrative tasks, like legal or human resources issues. He found the early days of building a company – looking at value flows and finding ways to innovate in a fast-moving industry – far more engaging.

Now, as chief strategy officer, he focuses almost exclusively on product strategy and technology – “like anyone in this space, we are constantly having to reinvent ourselves, and that’s what I enjoy.” He is still based in San Francisco, but insists he will move back to London at some point. He makes the journey back to Britain regularly to champion technologists becoming entrepreneurs, and to give startups advice on cracking Silicon Valley.

“Engineering and tech aren’t held in such high regard in the UK as in the US. But if you look at current real high-growth value companies, they are all in tech. And institutions like MIT and Stanford incorporate entrepreneurship into the syllabus as much as learning to code, or discreet mathematics. We don’t have anything like that in Britain.”

I ask Chandratillake what advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs. “Just do it. One of the fundamental aspects of entrepreneurship is that it’s pretty irrational. If you do the maths, it won’t make sense. If you weigh up your well-paid City IT job with starting your own business, the scales will be firmly in the former’s favour. You just have to do it,” he says.

CV SURANGA CHANDRATILLAKE
Company name: Blinkx

Founded: 2005 as a division of Autonomy; independent in 2007

Company turnover: $198m (£122m) for year ending 31 March 2013

Number of staff: 255

Job title: Founder and chief strategy officer

Age: 37

Born: Kandy, Sri Lanka

Lives: San Francisco, California

Studied: Computer Science at Cambridge University

Drinking: Bitter from the north of England, Pinot Noir from Oregon, tea from Ceylon

Eating: Sri Lankan curry

Currently reading: Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama

Favourite business book: I rarely read business books. Business is really about people, and fiction does a better job of explaining people

Motto: “Just do it”

First ambition: To write computer games

Heroes: Santiago (from The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway)

Awards: Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, Fellow and Silver Medallist of the Royal Academy of Engineering