20 VC 090 Balderton Capital's General Partner, Suranga Chandratillake on What It Takes To Be A Great CEO

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings welcomes Suranga Chandratillake, a general partner at Balderton Capital, to discuss his journey from engineer to entrepreneur to venture capitalist. Suranga shares insights from founding Blinks, a video and audio content search engine, and how it pivoted to a successful advertising business before going public. He reflects on the challenges of being a CEO, emphasizing the importance of product understanding and judgment in leadership roles. Suranga also touches on the societal impacts of technology, such as the gig economy, and how it shapes investment strategies. Additionally, he explains Balderton's unique equal partnership structure, which mitigates internal politics, fostering a collaborative environment, albeit with a slower hiring process. The discussion also covers emerging technologies like virtual reality and drones, the consumerization of enterprise software, and the future of code development in the cloud, illustrated by his investment in Cloud9.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the 20 Minute VC Podcast Episode

  • Host Harry Stebbings announces a partnership with Mattermark.
  • Mattermark's data and analysis will be utilized in interviews with VCs.
  • Nick Frost from Mattermark is acknowledged for his contribution.
  • The episode features Suranga Chandratillake from Balderton Capital.
  • Suranga is a former entrepreneur and engineer, founder of Blinks.
  • Blinks went public with a peak market cap over $1 billion.
  • Suranga's background includes being an early employee at Autonomy Corporation.
  • He served as the US CTO for Autonomy Corporation in San Francisco.
  • Suranga was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012.
  • He was also chosen as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009.
  • Loyalty Bay is introduced as a new sponsor for the podcast.

"Firstly, it is with extreme pride that I announced the partnership of the 20 minutes VC and Mattermark, for which we will be using all of their incredible data and analysis in our interviews with the world's greatest vcs."

The quote highlights the new partnership between the podcast and Mattermark, enhancing the show's content with data and analysis.

Suranga Chandratillake's Background

  • Suranga studied computer science and was passionate about technology from an early age.
  • He worked for technology companies in both Britain and the US.
  • Suranga became the US CTO for Autonomy Corporation in San Francisco.
  • The startup culture in the Bay Area influenced him to become an entrepreneur.
  • Suranga and colleagues from Autonomy founded Blinks, initially focused on video content analysis.
  • Blinks pivoted several times before becoming an advertising business.
  • Blinks achieved $200 million in revenue, profitability, and went public.
  • Suranga built a team of 300 people before stepping down as CEO.
  • After leaving Blinks, he worked with startups and advised in the Bay Area.
  • Suranga returned to Europe and joined Balderton Capital as a partner.

"And when I got there, I sort of started to fall in love with the whole startup culture and this idea that anyone could start a company as long as they had a good idea and a great team."

Suranga was inspired by the startup culture in the Bay Area, leading to his entrepreneurial journey with Blinks.

The Role of Technical Founders as CEOs

  • Suranga discusses the historical belief that technical innovators should not be CEOs.
  • In the US, this belief has changed, with examples like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.
  • Europe still holds on to the idea of bringing in a professional CEO.
  • Suranga experienced this mindset when starting Blinks ten years ago.

"I think that there's a sort of belief in technology. There's been a historical belief that the technical person who comes up with the innovation or the product probably shouldn't be the CEO."

This quote reflects on the past and changing attitudes towards technical founders assuming the CEO role in tech companies.

Work-Life Balance for CEOs

  • CEOs often struggle with maintaining a work-life balance, typically prioritizing work over other aspects of life.
  • Jack Dorsey, as CEO of two companies, may have to sacrifice personal life aspects to manage his responsibilities.
  • The non-conflicting nature of the two companies Dorsey leads could help prevent dilemmas and allow creative switching as a source of energy.

"I think the only way you can do it is by not really having another life outside work." This quote highlights the extreme dedication required to manage two major companies simultaneously, suggesting the necessity of deprioritizing personal life.

"The good news is the companies are not conflicting in any way." This quote points out the advantage of leading two companies that do not have conflicting interests, which could alleviate potential ethical or business-related conflicts.

"Sometimes a change is as good as the rest." The speaker implies that switching between different types of work can be refreshing and energizing, which may benefit Jack Dorsey in his dual CEO roles.

Traits of a Great CEO

  • Understanding the product and marketplace is crucial for a CEO, especially in the technology sector.
  • CEOs need to have good judgment to know when to take charge and when to step back and empower others.
  • Great CEOs possess a balance of understanding their products viscerally and exercising judgment in leadership.

"One thing that's key is someone who viscerally understands the product that they're building and the marketplace that product lives in." This quote emphasizes the importance of a CEO's deep, intuitive understanding of their product and market, which cannot be replaced by data analysis alone.

"Knowing when you have to lean in and take charge and do things, and when you have to actually step away and get out of the way." The speaker describes the delicate balance a CEO must maintain between assertive leadership and allowing their team the autonomy to excel.

Hiring the Right Team

  • A CEO's effectiveness is greatly influenced by the quality of their team.
  • Delegating to competent team members in their areas of expertise allows a CEO to focus on more complex, cross-departmental issues.
  • The strength of a CEO's team can determine when they need to intervene and when they can trust their team's judgment.

"If you hire the right team around you that you're working with, then many, many decisions are decisions for their team." This quote suggests that a CEO's ability to delegate effectively depends on the strength and competence of their team members.

Admiration for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg

  • Bill Gates is admired for his attention to detail and strategic thinking.
  • Mark Zuckerberg is recognized for maintaining control as CEO and making bold, successful bets on acquisitions like Instagram.
  • The speaker respects CEOs who have unique abilities to lead and innovate within their companies.

"He has an energy and attention to detail that's absolutely phenomenal." The speaker admires Bill Gates for his meticulous approach to product development and his strategic foresight.

"Zuckerberg clearly doesn't... He's very happy to use people like that, to listen to them and take their insight, but he doesn't sort of do what they tell him to do what they tell him to do." This quote illustrates Mark Zuckerberg's confidence in his leadership role, showing his ability to listen to advisors but ultimately make his own decisions.

"Instagram he acquired for a billion dollars. At the time, it seemed crazy." The speaker is impressed by Zuckerberg's decision to acquire Instagram, which was initially met with skepticism but proved to be a strategic success.

Mark Zuckerberg's Strategic Acquisitions

  • Mark Zuckerberg recognized the potential and trajectory of emerging technologies and made strategic acquisitions.
  • Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus Rift were significant acquisitions that seemed unusual at the time but are now better understood.
  • Zuckerberg's actions reflect a combination of youthful energy and the financial ability to effect change.

"Think about how big Instagram feels now and how big it actually is. If you look at the actual, you know, he has the guts to do that kind of thing. And I'm looking forward to seeing WhatsApp, which is a huge acquisition, and of course, Oculus Rift, also huge acquisitions that seemed weird at the time that we're beginning to understand now."

This quote emphasizes Zuckerberg's foresight and boldness in acquiring companies like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus Rift, which have grown significantly under Facebook's umbrella.

Emerging Technologies and Societal Impact

  • Speaker B is intrigued by new technologies that will change infrastructure, such as virtual reality, drones, and autonomous vehicles.
  • These technologies are enabled by advancements like miniaturization of computing and affordable cameras.
  • Speaker B is also interested in the societal impact of technology, drawing parallels to the Industrial Revolution.
  • The gig economy and changing work patterns are examples of technology's influence on society.

"There's these fundamental changes that kind of change the basic toolkit we have. And it's always fun to see what gets built on top."

The quote highlights the speaker's interest in foundational technological changes that enable new possibilities and the anticipation of what innovations will follow.

"I'm really fascinated by the impact that technology is having on some of the key things in psyche, which is basically how we all spend our time each day."

This quote reflects the speaker's curiosity about how technology affects daily life and societal structures, such as work and leisure.

Investment Strategy in Technology

  • Speaker B's firm balances risk by investing in diverse sectors, including futuristic technologies.
  • Their investments include companies like Curious AI, which is developing new approaches to artificial intelligence.
  • The firm also focuses on tools needed by society due to changes in work patterns, like Nutmeg for pension management.

"We are going to make some really interesting, very futuristic investments, and we have made some already, and we'll do some more."

The quote indicates the firm's commitment to investing in innovative and forward-thinking technologies that may shape the future.

Balderton's Equal Partnership VC Structure

  • Balderton operates as an equal partnership venture capital firm, which is uncommon in the industry.
  • All partners have equal votes, deal opportunities, and compensation.
  • This structure aims to eliminate internal politics and focus on supporting great companies.

"What equal partnership means is that there are six partners at Holderston today. And although those six partners are entirely equal, they all have exactly the same number of votes in every single deal that we make."

The quote explains Balderton's equal partnership model, where all partners have the same influence and compensation, promoting a collaborative environment.

Equal Partnership Structure at Bullton

  • Bullton employs an equal partnership structure to mitigate internal politics.
  • The structure ensures all partners' views are taken into account, making decisions more inclusive but less efficient.
  • Hiring is particularly challenging due to the implications of bringing someone on as a complete equal.

"So we get to get rid of all of those things at bullton by having this equal partnership structure."

This quote emphasizes the advantage of Bullton's equal partnership model in eliminating internal politics that can affect investment decisions and company innocence.

Criteria for New Partners

  • Bullton looks for individuals with significant achievements in their careers.
  • Experience in challenging situations is valued as it provides insight and support to entrepreneurs.
  • The recent appointment of Lars is an example, with his background at Uber, Dropbox, and as an early advisor of WhatsApp.
  • Personality fit and team dynamics are crucial due to the close working relationships within the firm.

"So Lars really has. If you look at his background, he was a very early employee at both Uber and Dropbox."

The quote highlights Lars' relevant experience and the value it brings to the firm, illustrating the type of criteria Bullton looks for in new partners.

Career Progression and Glass Ceiling

  • Bullton is transparent about the lack of a clear progression track from analyst to principal to partnership.
  • The venture industry is seen as unsuitable for a linear career progression due to its unpredictable nature.
  • The firm acknowledges that some may become partners elsewhere or entrepreneurs, and there is always the possibility of returning.

"The venture is really supposed to be a career that you sort of join at 21 and sort of slowly progress yourself through."

This quote explains the firm's perspective on career progression in venture capital, suggesting that traditional paths are not always applicable in this field.

Quick Fire Round: Personal Insights

  • Favorite book: "The Old Man and the Sea" for its enduring lessons on struggle.
  • Best advice: Knowing when to stick to your core offering and when to pivot to meet market needs.
  • Career highlight: Taking a company public.
  • Thought leader: Mark Zuckerberg for his focus and leadership capabilities.
  • Future of enterprise software: There is significant potential for further consumerization.

"Know when to stick and know when to twist."

This quote conveys the crucial decision-making advice given to startups, highlighting the balance between maintaining focus and adapting to the market.

Latest Investment: Cloud Nine

  • The most recent public investment made by Bullton was in Cloud Nine over a year ago.
  • The decision was based on the trend of development organizations moving code writing to the cloud.
  • Cloud Nine is perceived as the leading option for cloud-based programming environments.

"In the future, all programmers will write code in the cloud and cloud nine is the premier option for that today."

This quote explains the rationale behind Bullton's investment in Cloud Nine, emphasizing the shift towards cloud-based development and the company's leading position in the market.

Conclusion and Additional Information

  • Appreciation is expressed for Saranga's participation in the show.
  • Listeners are directed to the podcast's website and Twitter for updates.
  • Loyalty Bay's SaaS conversion optimizer tool and its 30-day free trial are promoted.
  • Thanks are given to the audience for their support of the podcast.

"Thank you so much for the support that you've given me along the process of the podcast."

This concluding quote expresses gratitude to the listeners for their ongoing support, fostering a sense of community around the podcast.

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