A few weeks ago I made my toughest HR decision yet: I fired myself.
Entrepreneurs have plenty to worry about: raising enough capital to get the business to break even, keeping competitors at bay, recruiting talent, acquiring paying customers, rising above the noise, defining new industries and keeping their teams focused on innovating at the incredible rate of change the industry demands. Another is the worry that your board of directors will someday decide to unceremoniously shove you aside in favor of a more experienced, salt-and-pepper executive. Many founders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Pincus, have gone to great lengths to protect their positions as the primary 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.
About this time last year, I came to that very conclusion. A few weeks ago I stepped down from being CEO of the business I built from an idea into a publicly traded company with more than $100 million in annual revenue. I am now the president and chief strategy officer and S. Brian Mukherjee is our new CEO. Brian, who joined Blinkx in 2011 when we acquired his company, Prime Visibility Media Group, was previously our EVP and GM for Search and Mobile. He’s an inspiring leader and an excellent manager and I believe the best person to take Blinkx to the next level as a thriving global media company.
I never saw myself as a quitter. Ben Horowitz (today mainly known for his venture investing but also a bona fide successful entrepreneur) wrote a blog post a few weeks before I made my announcement called “The Struggle.” 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. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.” LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman calls this “the valley of the shadow,” alluding to a biblical passage often used in funerals. It is the sickening feeling you get when big deals fall through, linchpin employees bail or an industry leader launches a product that competes with yours. It is something that carries a certain stench, something entrepreneurs rarely discuss or admit, except perhaps in the therapist’s chair.
Fighting your way through the Valley can be harrowing. The gauntlet 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 times. For them, the Valley is not kind. Sometimes the tough times last for months. Often they are fatal.
Like all startups, Blinkx has been through tough times. This, however, is not one of them. Blinkx is doing well by all measures. The company 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% and brought in well over $100M of revenue. Of course the fact that we are doing so well makes it difficult to explain why I would want to step down.
I am an engineer. I like to build things. Sometimes I like to take things apart just so I can learn how to put them back together. When I was seven years old, my dad came home one day with a computer. He helped me set it up and then put forth a challenge. He told me if I could learn and master BASIC programming, he’d buy me a video game of my choice. I was fluent in BASIC in less than two weeks but it took me more than two years to call the bet: I found that writing my own games was much more fun than playing someone else’s.
As it turned out, creating a new game was just the beginning. Once I’d built the graphics engine and tweaked the intelligence algorithm, I’d get equally excited about how to turn it 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. For me, building isn’t just about technology—it’s about the product around the technology, the team that brings it to life and the organization that builds it, markets it and distributes it. Being seven made turning these fantasies into reality tough, but the naïve optimism of childhood meant I assumed it’d all happen one day soon enough.
Decades later, had the opportunity to take some smart technology, build it into a new product and launch a new company. We founded Blinkx in 2004 and launched the video search engine in 2005 to a great deal of fanfare. The press lavished us with attention. We were hailed as the next Google and I was the poster boy for online video, beaming from the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Two years later we took the company public in London. The capital we raised from the stock offering allowed us to continue to innovate new online video advertising technologies, build a global sales team and partner with major brand advertisers and their agencies. We introduced popular new search tools for consumers, highly effective video ad units for advertisers and became the leader in white label video search providing technology for AOL, 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 and spending another week each month in New York, Chicago or LA, selling to advertisers and content partners. I was invited to conferences from Monaco to Maui, delivering keynotes to audiences of thousands of people. On one memorable trip I flew to Hawaii for a day to meet a journalist, then Japan for two days of meetings, then London for a management offsite before heading back to San Francisco via New York: a full circumnavigation in less than a week. Time zones became an entirely irrelevant concept.
Then I hit a wall. It was April 2011 and I was in London negotiating the acquisition of Burst Media and sharing the news with our investors. We ran into some delays with the deal and before I knew it, my two-day trip had turned into a week. At one point I looked up at the room service trays and papers strewn about me, and I realized I hadn’t left my hotel room in more than 48 hours.
By the time I boarded a flight back to SFO, I was utterly spent. I usually look forward to air travel. The disconnection, the quiet, maybe even the altitude, lets me think and strategize without the noise that surrounds being a CEO. I expected to be elated: I had just acquired a company I was excited about, our investors were happy and I was on the way home to see my family. But I felt annoyingly negative. I tried to shake it off. I caught up on emails and watched a movie. But there it was again.
It took some tough introspection but by the time I landed in California I figured out why I was upset. Yes, I was overtired, and yes, I missed my son. But something else was troubling me. While I was abroad, our CTO met with Ask.com, an early partner who had always pushed us to do more. They were brainstorming future products, innovations in video search 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 and finances and reports to be a part of it. As founder I never wanted to be that out of touch with what we were building. I felt like a part of myself was missing.
A week later I was still feeling just as unhappy, only I was sleeping in my own bed.
I still really loved what we were doing. The flame of passion I once had for my job was not dead. It was still there. It just wasn’t being used. Instead of thinking about the future of video online I was worrying about legal, HR and investor issues. Calculating. Negotiating. Reacting. The bigger your company gets, the more it probably needs a Jack Welch-type CEO. You need structure, organization, automation. As a founder, if you are successful, you will one day need to ask yourself if that person is you or someone else. I believe one of the most important things a CEO does is inject energy, belief and optimism into the company and I knew that if I didn’t find a way to get closer to the creative part of this role again, it would kill my ability to do that and, in the long run, that could kill the company.
A few weeks later, after another trip to London for an earnings roadshow, I told my board what I was thinking. I am lucky enough to have on my board a group of people whom I respect and who have all been in my shoes before. If you are an entrepreneur and still building your board, you want to be careful to invite people who understand first-hand the challenges and opportunities that come with building a company. Armchair CEOs are great at running armchairs, but nothing more.
One of my directors—Mike Lynch, the founder and former CEO of Autonomy—is a personal mentor. He has been the visionary tech founder as well as the operational CEO. After all he had done to help me get to where we were as a company, I was afraid he would see this as a failing in me. Instead, here’s what he said: “You are not alone. Most founders go through this process at some point. First you need to figure out what you want.” Then, and here he fell back onto one of his catchphrases, “make it so.”
I flew to Hawaii for a week with my family and spent much of the time sitting on the beach thinking while I watched my son toddle around in the sand. Did I want to leave the company altogether?
I realized that I was still as passionate as ever about Blinkx’s mission but that the reality of the operational job was getting in the way of what I enjoyed most and what I believed still had to be done: thinking about where the puck was headed. Sure, I can run things well, but I am best at the moment of disruption: building a new thing in a void or changing the status quo, thinking about the technology required to do that and inspiring people to come along with the new way.
For Blinkx to continue to be successful, I needed to split my role into two. I had to find someone to run the company and in doing so, give myself the space to work on the next generation of our product, the next disruption.
When I came back I realized I had two difficult tasks still ahead of me: finding my replacement and telling my team. We talked to search firms and looked at people we knew in the industry. We needed someone who could execute and lead the company as it continued to grow, someone understood the complexities and vagaries of online video and advertising. Most importantly, the person had to understand and fit into the culture that had made the company successful. No one we met felt right.
In November we acquired a company called Prime Visibility Media Group, an online performance advertising network and digital marketing agency. PVMG’s ad network reaches more than 600 advertisers and 350 publishers. The idea behind the deal was that that Blinkx would integrate PVMG’s platform with its own. Our video search engine would then respond to some of PVMG’s 1.5 billion daily queries with relevant video results. Those videos could also be paired with rich media video ads that monetize at a higher rate.
It was not immediately clear to me but after a few months of working with Brian Mukherjee, PVMG’s CEO, I recognized the future leader of Blinkx. I asked Brian if he was interested in the position and he jumped at the opportunity. We announced the change in early August.
If I’m really honest the hardest part of this transition is when I tell outsiders about my decision. Some people understand and are supportive. Every now and then I see a sideways glance or I pick up on something behind the eyebrows—a subtle judgment behind a question. People assume no one would voluntarily step back from running their own company. One thing that makes Silicon Valley so good at what it does is the undying optimism that pervades every aspect of its culture. In that sort of reality, people deny that tough times exist. 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.
But, what they’re missing is that 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 and 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.
Logically and emotionally, I know I am doing the best thing for my company. Every now and then I step back to take a look at how far we have come in six years. It helps me visualize how much farther we still can take this. I love that we live in a market and a time and an industry that allows us to build something out of nothing. I love that I was able to turn my inspiration into reality and I love that I am still an active part of its future. For all we know, this could just be the beginning.