Blinkx

A Founder’s Guide To Replacing Yourself: A Few Weeks Ago I Made My Toughest HR Decision Yet — I Fired Myself

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Editor’s note: Suranga Chandratillake launched blinkx in 2005, ultimately taking it public on the London Stock Exchange in May 2007. Prior to founding blinkx, Suranga was U.S. CTO of Autonomy Corp., responsible for growing Autonomy’s research and development division. Follow him on Twitter.

Entrepreneurs have plenty to worry about: raising enough capital, keeping competitors at bay, recruiting talent, acquiring paying customers, rising above the noise, defining new industries and keeping their teams focused on innovating. Another is the worrying about whether your board of directors will shove you aside.

Many founders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Pincus, have gone to great lengths to protect their positions as the leaders of the companies they built. These efforts include carefully selecting co-founders and entrepreneur-friendly investors, as well as architecting stock structures and term sheets so that eternal control is all but guaranteed.

Given all of this, it can come as quite a surprise when you realize that, despite all the protective measures you put in place, you want to fire yourself. But a year ago, I came to that very conclusion. My board and I spent a number of months looking for the right replacement, and last month I stepped down as CEO of blinkx, the business I built.

I am an engineer. I like to build things. When I was seven, I taught myself how to code in BASIC and wrote my own video games. Unlike most hackers-in-the-making, I was equally excited about how to turn my games into a business. I designed elaborate credit sequences, made plans about where and how I would distribute my games and what I would name the new company that would sell them.

Decades later, in 2004, I co-founded blinkx and launched the video search engine in 2005 to great fanfare. Two years later we took the company public in London. The capital we raised from the stock offering allowed us to innovate new online video advertising technologies and build a global sales team. We introduced new search tools for consumers and video ad units for advertisers and became the leader in white label video search for AOL (parent company of TechCrunch), Ask.com and Real.

Growth at Blinkx was fast and furious. At one point I was flying to London twice a month to talk to investors, as well as to New York, Chicago or LA for meetings. I was invited to conferences from Monaco to Maui, delivering keynotes to audiences of thousands of people. And yet…

Ben Horowitz from A16Z wrote a blog post called “The Struggle” a few weeks before I made my announcement. In it, he talks about the dark moments entrepreneurs go through when they are building a startup and things don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. He describes the struggle as “the land of broken promises and crushed dreams.” LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman calls this “the valley of the shadow,” alluding to a biblical passage often used in funerals.

Fighting your way through the Valley can be harrowing. It is thick with doubters and detractors. The technology forest is dark and deep and you need to fight your way past competitive warriors and financial dragons. Many entrepreneurs begin their ventures believing they will never meet such formidable foes. For them, the Valley is not kind.

Like all startups, blinkx has been through tough times. This, however, is not one of them. Blinkx is publicly traded with a market cap of $300 million. We employ nearly 300 people and are profitable. Last year we grew more than 70 percent and brought in well over $100 million of revenue. So why did I step down?

I stepped down because I hit a wall. In April 2011 I was in London negotiating the acquisition of Burst Media. We ran into some delays with the deal and I spent many exhaustive hours on the phone with lawyers, financiers and dealmakers debating minutiae and fine print. At one point I looked up at the room-service trays strewn about me and realized I hadn’t left my hotel room in 48 hours.

While I was abroad, our CTO met with an early partner who had always pushed us to do more. They were brainstorming future products and new directions for the industry. It was the type of meeting I used to live for but I was too busy dealing with term sheets to be a part of it. Instead of thinking about the future of video online, I was worrying about legal, HR and investor issues. I felt like a part of myself was missing.

A few weeks later, after another trip to London for an earnings roadshow, I told my board what I was thinking. I am lucky to have on my board a group of people who have all been in my shoes as CEO. They told me they hoped I would stay on but would support whatever decision I made.

I am now the president and chief strategy officer of blinkx. The hardest part of this transition has been telling outsiders about my decision. People assume no one would voluntarily step back from running their own company. When they hear you are no longer CEO they assume you must have been shoved aside or, worse—gasp!—you do not have enough ambition.

S. Brian Mukherjee is our new CEO with full support from me and our board. Brian, who joined blinkx in 2011 when we acquired his company, Prime Visibility Media Group, is an inspiring leader and I believe the best person to take blinkx to the next level. 

There is nothing rational about starting a truly innovative company. Most who try will fail miserably. If you want to do it, you need a deeper passion that overrules common sense. If you don’t keep that flame alive, you run the risk of ruining what you have built. At times like that, replacing yourself is the next disruptive move. And it’s the move I had to make.

I love that I was able to turn my inspiration into reality. I love that I am still an active part of its future. For all I know, this could just be the beginning.

A longer version of this blog appears at http://surangac.com.