While many who are taking up a new role for a one year period may set themselves one or two goals, new British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association chairman Simon Clark is being a bit greedy and has picked three.
Having cut his teeth in the media world with Reuters in the 1990s where he was part of the team which built the agency’s first website, he moved into the business world by way of the start-up community.
Clark describes the decision by Reuters to give him the internet beat as a nod to the fact that he was young, vaguely techie and, most importantly, sacrificial if it all went horribly wrong.
His time at Reuters also exposed Clark to the investment game, and he remembers one such experience as particularly enjoyable. ‘My favourite was our investment memorandum for when we bought 10 per cent of Yahoo! for practically nothing, which started with “while we don’t expect to make a financial return on this investment, we think we are going to learn a lot about the internet”,’ he recalls.
‘A year later Yahoo! went public and we made a fortune.’
Towards the end of the 1990s Clark was keeping an eye on all the little start-ups in the web world which were cropping up. Eventually he got in touch with one that particularly caught his interest, TheStreet.com, and soon his experience in finance (having trained with Pricewaterhouse) and technology, landed him the CTO job with the New York start-up.
Clark adds, ‘I did three years of that – it was a crazy rollercoaster. It went all the way from we can’t make payroll next week, to we can’t get a website to stand up for more than a couple of hours at a time, to Goldmans taking us public and we now have a billion dollar market cap.’
It was TheStreet.com’s venture capital backers that first suggested Clark may be interested in moving into the investment world. Having seen the New York start-up he had got involved with make it all the way to Wall Street through an IPO, he wanted a new challenge and, as luck would have it, shortly after received a call from Fidelity Growth Partners inviting him to join their operations in Boston.
After setting up shop there, Clark had a hard time finding investable companies during the dot.com era.
He says, ‘I would go up and down the US and meet these companies and they were all raising money at some complete fantasy valuation, there was more cash being thrown around than I could imagine.
‘But at the same time I kept on finding these companies in Europe which were really interesting with real technology and sensible people.
‘So I kept on bringing these British, German, Swedish companies back saying this is interesting and after a year of that my managing partner got sick of singing my expenses claims and said “ok, if you like Europe so much, why don’t you go there”.’
Since then, Clark has continued to lead Fidelity’s European efforts and enjoys the role he plays in helping to build exciting businesses.
His involvement with the BVCA began three years ago when the then chairman, Richard Anton, invited him to chair the venture capital committee. His role there was to help understand what the issues were and make the case for the entrepreneurs venture capitalists were backing.
With is responsibility as committee chair over, Clark then stepped up to vice chairman where he spent a year shadowing the next chairman, Robert Easton.
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Over his period with the industry organisation, Clark has seen a number of prevailing themes, a few of which are contributing to his hit list for the coming year.
One of those particular issues is the difficulty that some firms are having in raising fresh capital.
He explains, ‘Great firms with a great reputation never have any difficulty, just look at the recent Accel fundraising.
‘But new funds, different funds, or those which have had a bumpy time – there is just not as much money sloshing around.
‘In a way you can say this is a good thing, it should be Darwinian and it should be hard, but a lot of old traditional funders of venture firms and buy-out firms aren’t in the market anymore, and that is an issue.’
Clark sees his role as not so much brining back the traditional funders, but instead finding other sources of capital that want to invest in growth and innovation. And one source of frustration for the industry veteran is the ‘well meaning’ regulations which end up discouraging some of the traditional investors like insurance companies and pension funds from allocating capital.
Lining up alongside finding new sources of capital is a pledge to continuing, and increasing, engagement with Europe. This is something which he says the BVCA has done a ‘really good job at’.
‘It is not a great time to be running around Brussels proclaiming your Britishness if you want to get stuff done but it is clear, more and more, that the really important decisions that affect our industry are made on a European level – and we need to be engaged there,’ he proclaims.
Finally, and most interestingly, Clark wants to use the venture capital model, which was first put together by Sir Ronald Cohen, to lay over the top of some of the difficult social problems in the world.
‘[Cohen] has taken the tools and techniques that we developed when the private equity industry started out – like active investing, the ability to focus on clear outcomes, the insistence on measurement and taking small steps and building up, and applied those to some really gnarly and difficult social problems.
‘Whether that is how do you make sure ex-offenders don’t re-offend, or how do you look after some of the neediest people in society, t
hese are big issues.’
While Clark does not by any stretch think that the venture world can solve these problems its own, he does believe that it can use tried and tested techniques to go after some ‘tough knotty’ social issues.
Despite already being involved directly with a number of Fidelity portfolio companies, Clark is bullish about what he can achieve during his year as BVCA chairman. And best of all, he says, is the years of experience that he will be able to draw down upon.
‘We had a dinner last month where all of the previous chairman of the organisation attended. To have all of these icons together was great, these were the people who invented the industry.’