Do you know who Simon Calver is? The answer is probably not but you’ll certainly have heard of the businesses he’s been involved in.
The entrepreneur was pivotal to the success of Lovefilm, the movie rental business which was sold to Amazon for around £200million.
However, right now, he’s focussed on his current role with venture capital firm BGF Ventures and his mission to invest in early stage UK-based technology and internet start-ups.
More about that later but I started off by asking about his days at Lovefilm and a meeting he had with Netflix founder Reed Hastings.
The meteoric rise of Lovefilm is the classic example of how technology can help a great business idea fly.
The backdrop to the story was the UK had been relatively slow in entering the online DVD rental market until three rival start-ups – Video Island, Screen Select and Online Rentals (which rebranded as Lovefilm) – picked up the baton.
Screen Select merged with Video Island in 2004 and a year later Calver was brought in and grew the company to 1.5 million subscribers.
Explaining what happened Calver said: “I came into a company called Video Island not long after it had been set up. They had merged with a couple of companies and needed someone to come in.
“Being that guy, I went to the West Coast of America and met with a guy called Reed Hastings, who was the founder of a company called Netflix for advice. On the flight home I wrote a business plan to merge Video Island and Lovefilm and create it international.
“We got the two boards together and we ultimately did a merge of the two businesses.
“We had to continue to innovate, change business models, we had to try and disrupt an existing model first of all – we were disrupting the high street DVD rental stores, and then ultimately we were disrupting the likes of Sky, online videos.
“It was an amazing journey, I learned huge amounts. Every year we learnt new things as every year was a bit different in how we operated.
“And I actually wrote it all down in a book. It’s called Success the Lovefilm way. It’s about the fact that every year of our existence was represented by a film and at the end of every year I highlight how six or seven things I learnt.
Calver was determined Lovefilm wouldn’t go the way of Blockbuster and diversified the business into on-demand online streaming, which is how the eventual sale to Amazon came about.
He recalls: “We knew if we were going to compete in the streaming market we would have to acquire lots more content, which would have cost millions and millions of pounds so we had to look for a way to either access capital quickly, or find an organisation that could help us.
“Amazon were already on the board as we had acquired an Amazon business in DVD rental and had a great relationship with them. We were doing really well with technology and they were able to leverage and learn from us over time.
“Ultimately they said it would make more sense if they were part of our business.
“It took a long time to work out a deal with them but eventually they acquired the business.”
Following the acquisition Calver left Lovefilm and became the CEO of Mothercare, where one of his priorities was transforming its online offering.
“We needed to collect more and more customer data than we had ever done before,” he says.
“That was a massive opportunity for us. I had recently had a son at this point who was about six months old and I was in and out of Mothercare stores. I thought it was a great business but it really needed to accelerate its technology choices. So when I joined, I really got it going and we were able to collect a lot more data.
“The thing about data with kids is that if the child is one, you know it’s going to be two in a year, and so you can use that to target and market. So that drove a lot of efficiencies and a lot of growth that we had in the online business.
“A lot of the work was the change in technology, the continued growth and ultimately becoming an international business. We were always trying new things and new products.”
The entrepreneur left Mothercare after two years although the assessment of his time in charge was mixed.
One thing Calver has always been interested in throughout his career is angel investing – providing capital for a business start-up.
“Like most angel investors, some businesses that you invest in work, and some don’t,” he says.
“You just have to hope the ones that work do really well. I was then asked to become chairman of the UK Business Angels Association (UKBAA) which is the international body for angel investing in the UK.”
Calver’s latest project is one that ties in nicely after his angel investing days. BGF Ventures, short for Business Growth Fund, is a venture capital firm that invests in early stage UK-based technology and internet start-up companies, where Calver is now one of three founding partners.
“BGF growth teams have done a great job over the last five years investing in profitable businesses with great revenue, but what they haven’t done as a result is invest in early stage businesses, because that’s outside of their focus,” Calver explains.
“What we have been able to do is help find tech companies that create some really interesting opportunities. We have a portfolio with 10 companies in. We’ve invested £30m so far over the last year and we continue to look for the best companies we can help out there.”
And it’s not just a great product that Calver looks for in a tech start-up, spending time with founders is an essential part of the process.
“We like to get to know the management teams and the quality of the founders, so we invest time getting to know them. We probably see well over a thousand business plans a year and only invest in say 10, so that’s less than one per cent of the applications we see.
“If a company doesn’t get funding it doesn’t mean that it’s not a great company, but it’s just that it may not be one of the top companies we’re looking to invest in.
Calver has also held senior posts at Mothercare, Dell and Pepsi. “It’s all about the management team and the product. We’re not looking to invest in seed businesses; we’re actually looking a bit later than that, which means a company needs to have revenue, traction and a good product in order for us to get involved.
“I’m really excited about the quality of the people and the founders that we’re working with.”
Calver believes the tech industry is no longer a sector, and given his career, he should know a thing or two about it. “I’ve realised that technology is not a sector anymore.
“Every business out there is going to be impacted by technology in one way or another. Think about this – all the data that there has ever been in the world is going to double in the next nine months.
“It’s probably going to double over the next nine months after that, too.
“The pace of information data is going to accelerate beyond our control. Processing powers continue to get quicker and quicker for cheaper and cheaper. Everything is touched by technology on the planet at the moment. Nothing isn’t.
“Any investor, any manager, and leader of company or group need to understand now how technology is going to fundamentally change what they do.
“It’s almost a perfect storm of data, of processing power, of skill, that will change the way most people think about technology.”