Best Buddies 2017

Venkat Prasad and Sameer Pitalwalla

How The Culture Machine founders hit it off over their common passion for creating video channels

For an Indian millennial with an internet connection, Culture Machine’s work is hard to miss. From ‘Being Indian’ to ‘Put Chutney’, its channels are creating content for a generation that has replaced the quintessential Idiot Box with YouTube. Founded in 2013, by Sameer Pitalwalla and Venkat Prasad, Culture Machine’s website claims to have around 22 million subscribers with an average of half-a-billion views per month. The story began when Pitalwalla and Prasad met at VidCon, an annual event held in the US for those who love online video streaming. Few conversations and 72 hours later, the duo chalked out a plan to start Culture Machine. What sets the company apart is its strong investment in technology, resulting in multiple revenue streams. Its analysis software, Intelligence Machine, sifts through video data and trends to acquire a treasure trove of data for brands and creators telling them how well their content works. Their other product, the Video Machine, creates high impact videos at scale from audio and text. Pitalwalla and Prasad are similar to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit perfectly. While Pitalwalla is from a business and media background (thanks to his stints at Disney, UTV and Times Internet), Prasad is a pure techie who has worked at Yahoo and Google. Pitalwalla is aggressive and hot-headed by his own admission, while Prasad is soft-spoken and thus, the calmer influence. They play the perfect foil for each other. Their partnership has solidified with time and the work Culture Machine does reflects on the same.

You both met at Vidcon, introduced by a mutual friend. What was your first impression about each other? 

Pitalwalla: At the first meeting at VidCon, Venkat was doing more of the listening; I was talking for most of the time. That milieu made me enthusiastic and we were just chatting about the idea. Venkat was completely honest right from the start. He was very clear about where he had gone wrong earlier. I felt he understands technology along with business, and can devise a potentially strong business strategy.

Prasad: It was my first time at VidCon. I started talking about how the market for online video content has started growing in the West and how there is an opportunity in India, where it was still in infancy. He said that he was thinking about something similar too. He was a great storyteller. I really liked his energy and enthusiasm. He was able to articulate on hard and tough subjects in a story, which is a very important skill when you’re building a business. While I am inclined more towards the technological side and also understand business, I never had a sales background. His skill-set was complementary to what I had.

How would you describe each other? 

Prasad: In terms of passion, Sameer is a lot like me when I was in my early twenties. Sameer is someone who has achieved a lot at a young age; he is ambitious and goal-oriented. I resonate with that passion. 

Pitalwalla: Venkat is incredibly realistic while, in contrast, I tend to be optimistic about everything. He looks at the current scenario while I have a bubbly view of the world. This makes our ideas more solid. Moreover, Venkat is a deeply competent person; he is also well-read.

What is the most interesting project you have worked on? 

Prasad: I really had fun with the Video Machine...

Pitalwalla: …it was also because of the way in which it was created. It was true innovation. 

Prasad: The idea that a machine could author content without human intervention is hard for people to fathom. We realised we bring in different types of videos. For that, the system had to learn to create stories. We could create 5,000-10,000 videos a day for a fraction of the cost it generally takes. We are still in the early phase, but the ideation and the product is memorable.  

Pitalwalla: Once, I was at this bar. There was a DJ playing EDM. When a rock band performs, there is energy on stage. The frontman is very important because he is the one who brings that energy on stage. But with EDM, there is no visual interaction. As the industry increasingly moved towards dance music, I realised that there is going to be a lot of music without videos. Since music is also popular on YouTube, there is an opportunity to tap. The first few videos created by Video Machine were a lot similar to Winamp visualisations — there were just strokes of light. I wasn’t very enthused, but Venkat and the team kept telling me that it was just the first version. I feel the Video Machine is like a baby that is now like (Richard) Feynman, but will eventually grow up to become Einstein. The best is still to come. 

What is he like to work with? 

Prasad: I think he is the most competent colleague and is also hard-working. In fact, he believes in the saying, ‘No one dies over sweat.’ He is keen and willing to learn. There are constraints to everything one can do. It can either be cheap, or done fast or be the best. If you want something fast, then it will be expensive. If you want to create something good, it will take time. He has come a long way in appreciating this.  

Pitalwalla: Venkat is easy to work with if you have a rational thought process. He wants to understand the rationale behind everything, so that he can see how it will affect the business. Venkat always puts the company first; that’s the easiest mantle to work with. 

Do you spend a lot of time together outside the office? 

Prasad: Yes, we spend a lot of time together, especially when we travel. And we travel all the time. So there is always this overlap when we spend time together while travelling. 

Pitalwalla: We go on offsite trips with the team to strengthen the bond. In 2015, we went to Mussourie where we laid the foundation for our digital channel ‘Blush.’

What has been your favourite hangout place? 

Pitalwalla: I like America (laughs). Both of us are reading enthusiasts and we like bookshops. I have also enjoyed our drives from the Valley to Los Angeles. 

Prasad: That was the first time he got to drive at 80 miles an hour, consistently for hours. Also, the deal is if he starts to check emails when I drive, I start playing Ilayaraja music.

Pitalwalla: Oh that is frustrating! Since he is driving, he feels like I am finishing off my work earlier. 

Prasad: I tell him ‘Let’s just talk! Am I just chauffeuring you around?’ To add to it, I love Ilayaraja, SPB and AR Rahman’s music. I want to listen to it, but I don’t get the time. I love listening to it especially when I go on such long drives. He doesn’t like it.

Pitalwalla: Obviously! I don’t understand Tamil music from the ’60s.   

What do you keep pulling his leg about? 

Prasad: Sameer reads whenever he travels. I tend to borrow his books; he doesn’t like that. But whenever he comes over to my house, he borrows books from my collection. 

Pitalwalla: I think Venkat, in his head, is this actor who never made it. 

Prasad: Don’t say, ‘Never made it.’ I still have time. 

Pitalwalla: So the first time I went with him to the Valley, it is obviously cold. You know how Venkat wears his sweater? He ties it around his neck with the sweater hanging behind — straight out of a movie poster. He has this habit even when he poses. 

What is the one thing you know he won’t stop talking about? 

Pitalwalla: Venkat has deep knowledge about Indian history. I have learnt a lot about it from him. I also learnt a lot about Tirukkural from Venkat. He will be able to quote a Tirukkural that is relevant to the situation. These quotes are just pure wisdom. 

Prasad: For Sameer, it has to be Sci-Fi. From Isaac Asimov to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, he loves science fiction. 

Where do you concur with each other and where are you poles apart?

Prasad: My ethos, in managing people, is to step back and empower them, but Sameer believes more in leadership. His style is to ‘show people the way.’ I sometimes feel that is micromanaging people. There is no right or wrong approach. At the end of the day, we realise that we need a mix of both. 

Pitalwalla: I concur with that. I think this is where we differ — my work style thrives on conflict. I feel you don’t get to a place that is truly great without conflict. But, Venkat doesn’t like working in such an environment; he likes working where there prevails harmony. I will be the guy who gets into a fight, not because I want to, but I will be completely okay with it. It takes longer for Venkat to come out of such situations. But for me, that comes naturally as a person.

What was the worst conflict that you had?   

Pitalwalla: There have been many instances. As the company grew, roles began to move back and forth; that always created conflict. We have had many yelling matches; I typically yell and Venkat gets frustrated. He then responds in a passive aggressive manner. But I think we have evolved from that now. 

How do you generally resolve conflicts? 

Prasad: That depends on each conflict. Sometimes I feel I might have been too emotional about certain things and I tell him that after the issue dies down. Now that we have worked so much together, I have no issues telling him when there is a problem or accepting that I’m wrong. 

Pitalwalla: At the end of the day conflicts arise because there are different perspectives. The only way to get rid of conflicts is communication. The emotion needs to stabilise and then you can communicate. 

How has he influenced you?

Prasad: I have become more articulate and a lot more assertive. Sometimes, I get into this analysis-paralysis mode — focusing too much on research and not making a start. I learnt from him that it is vital to make a start, even if it is incomplete or broken as one can always iterate on that. 

Pitalwalla: It has to be planning. The way he thinks and plans and his orientation to detail in general. My thoughts tend to be at 30,000 feet, but Venkat won’t stop there. The other thing is patience; I have learnt to give things time. 

How do you balance your personal and professional relationships? 

Prasad: He is my best friend. There were some very strong personal events that happened a year ago. He was the only person who knew it; our board didn’t know. Even my mom didn’t know. That’s the kind of relationship we have built. It is the same with him. 

Who has better intuition? 

Pitalwalla: Venkat. Sometimes, he reads between the lines and is also apolitical. So, he doesn’t get into interpersonal politics. 

What would you like to steal from him and why?

Pitalwalla: His core skill set — Venkat’s understanding of codes and engineering is immense. There is a difference between understanding a concept and knowing it. I know, at least in the near future, I won’t be able to replicate that. 

Prasad: Sameer has this ability to talk and engage people with his storytelling. He would tailor his message according to the audience, so that they understand it. His pitch to an investor is different from his brief to the development team. I admire that agility. 

What is the one thing you would want to change about each other? 

Prasad: His thought process and execution cycle is very fast and he expects everyone to be on the same level. To be practical, he needs to slow down a little bit and bring everyone to a middle ground. He is hard-working and can put in 20 hours a day at work, seven days a week, but not everyone in the team can do that. 

Pitalwalla: When you know the context, you don’t want the person to change as you know that it is a product of the current circumstances. 

What is the secret to your relationship?

Prasad: Respecting each other’s space, competence and core values. If I have to add, I can say passion — passion to make a positive contribution with the resources we have.