Bogomil Balkansky, former vice president at Google and venture capitalist: “Creativity loves constraints, and necessity is a powerful teacher and motivator!”

Interview by Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly 

Living in times of a pandemic puts a lot of stress on our personal lives and business. One of the most successful Bulgarian entrepreneurs in the US, Bogomil Balkansky, talks on the subject in the following interview.

He served as vice president at Google, after his company, Bebop, was acquired by the giant. He was also a key executive at VMware and holds a bachelor degree in Mathematics from Cornell University and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Bogomil Balkansky is a key mentor of the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center foundation and gives regular talks/workshops to aspiring startup teams, describing what it takes to attract funding from Silicon Valley investors.

Since you left Google you took some time off to travel around the world. What countries did you visit? What were the most interesting experiences?

In retrospect, I was lucky to have decided to take a sabbatical in 2018 and 2019. It was such a luxury to be able to indulge my passion for wildlife. If there was one theme to all my travels it was to see animals in their natural habitat. Few things at this point in my life give me as much pleasure as observing wildlife. I have been an avid diver for some time and many of my travels were underwater. I ended up going to Indonesia four times last year – which has some of the best-preserved coral reefs. However, one of the very special experiences that stands out was the chance to swim with whales – which I did in Sri Lanka and East Timor. There is hardly a better way to appreciate the natural world than to stand face to face with the largest creatures that ever lived on planet Earth.

How is your life now during COVID-19? How do you cope with the isolation? How do you protect yourself? What is your survival strategy?

I consider myself very lucky in this situation because none of my friends or family have gotten sick – at least so far – I have a job. I’m very humble about how lucky I am, and try to put things into perspective. When we have tens of thousands of people in the US dying, and the number of the unemployed is already in the tens of millions, what I personally have to cope with is just a trifle and an annoyance. 

Since your recent becoming a venture capitalist, how has the investment market for new startups changed

It is very interesting that we still haven’t seen serious changes in the funding environment. There is a well-founded expectation that valuations are going to come down but we haven’t seen that happen yet. Venture backed company valuations usually follow the public markets, and the drop in public company valuations that we’ve seen doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the economic situation. That may be the reason why we haven’t seen any decrease in private company valuations. In the first month since the stay at home orders in the US we saw a large number of startups rushing to try to raise money. That rush has subsided and there is a bit of a wait and see mentality – when will things start coming back to some semblance of normal and what that new normal is going to be.

Given what may become the “new normal”, what economic market arenas will attract VCs investment as we emerge from life under a pandemic?

People say that it takes about two months to form new habits and the period of social distancing is long enough for us to come out of it with new habits. The winners of the new normal are going to be companies that help us do things remotely in both our personal and consumer lives. On the business side tools for any type of remote communication – be it text or video – are going to be very interesting. More and more companies are going to be open to letting employees work from home or hiring people all over the country or even all over the world. The newly distributed workforce model will cause us to rethink what the corporate office looks like and even if it is necessary at all. There will be a lot of other problems to be solved with distributed workforce – for example, if you’re hiring employees in many countries how do you efficiently do things like payroll and benefits? It is also debatable if many of us will be gladly hopping on a plane to fly across the country for a business meeting when we’ve gotten used to Zoom.

In our consumer lives we have gotten used to ordering even more things over the Internet, which spells more trouble for retail. Also, next time we need to have our medical checkup dash do we really need to go to the doctor’s office in person or can we have a consultation over video?

Will making VC investments during a likely recession be a deterrent or an advantage for the venture capital investment community?

History shows that some of the best companies are started during downturns and recessions.

Have you and your partners had to change your behavior – in terms of services rendered – to your firm’s existing investment portfolio during this pandemic period, or is it “business as usual”?

Nothing is business as usual when we’re facing the first global pandemic of the modern globalized interconnected world. At the outset of the crisis in the US we published a memo COVID-19: the Black Swan event of 2020, which laid out our advice to our portfolio companies.

Do you think that being restricted to staying at home for so long, perhaps being laid off and one’s employers having to close their businesses, will motivate more people to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses and/or work for themselves?

Creativity loves constraints, and necessity is a powerful teacher and motivator! I think that’s the reason why so many great companies are started during downturns.

How is life going to be after COVID-19? Will people be afraid to socialize? Will most of the activities happen online?

I see this going in both directions: some people may have a longer term PTSD about socializing in larger groups while other people will overcompensate for the lack of socialization as soon as the restrictions start getting lifted. 

Do you plan any support/ donations for Coronavirus research? How far are we from developing a vaccine, from finding a cure? What are the trends in Silicon Valley? Is there any progress?

Some people have been active in the fastgrants.org initiative, which has become the fastest way to fund new medical research on COVID-19.

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