By his own definition, Guy Buckley-Sharp, CFO of financial wellbeing business, ClearScore, didn’t have the most traditional career path from financial controller to CFO. He diverted from this track to first experience the business world from a lender's point of view. In an exclusive Career Conversation with ICAEW Sharp reveals how this early career move was instrumental in grasping a solid understanding on how to secure investment when he was sitting on the other side of the desk as a CFO.
Sharp was ACA trained by 2003 at Arthur Anderson in the corporate restructuring team before he then moved to a company called ETV Capital; a start-up in its own right where he was a Lender to venture capital backed businesses.
“That gave me my first taste of the venture capital world, and the key experience I got out of my time there was seeing businesses from the perspective of an investor and putting capital at risk”, said Sharp. “I think that has informed my approach to business and has been very valuable as a CFO. You’re usually the equivalent to a ‘grey-haired doomsday guy’ who is always considering the downside. A background in debt certainly trained me for that.”
He added: “Crucially, it also really built my network in the private equity and venture capital world. Through any of the companies I was dealing with, I would be dealing with their investors and you had to build relationships there.”
From Lender to CFO
Sharp then left in 2009 to do his first CFO role in a company called Borro, a collateral loaning company, which at the time had 12 people in Oxford. He actually came across this business through ETV as they were trying to do a deal with the business. Sharp didn’t get to do a deal, but he did get to know the CFO and got to know the business pretty well.
“I spent four years there where we grew the team from 12 to over 60 people. Then I went from Summertown in Oxford to London as we grew the team and then we launched in the U.S. We nearly issued $100m of loans to individuals which equated to about 17,000 loans; lots of lending to people with high value assets.”
He continued: “Importantly for me, and leveraging my background with ETV Capital, a lot of my role was raising finance for the business, and anyone going into an early-stage business looking at a CFO or finance role – liquidity and fund-raising capital, managing capital raising for these businesses is a massive part of the role.”
Second CFO role
At Borro the Sharp’s team raised a large amount of finance and had left the business in a good position, so he jumped out at that point and was brought into another business which was his second CFO role, a business called Gazoob which moved him from fintech into the educational technology space. In his own words, ‘this was a turnaround, this was literally four or five people with some money invested by an investor’. The day he joined is the day the CEO and Founder left; he was brought in to try and salvage something from this business.
“I spent a couple years there and the turnaround wasn’t successful, we had raised some more money and tried to pivot the business. But interestingly in those two years I think I learnt as much from a turnaround salvaging business as I did in Borro”, he said.
Becoming the first CFO at ClearScore
Sharp had already met the team at ClearScore just as they had launched in July 2015 and in March 2016, he then joined the business when there were just 20 people there at the time and became their first CFO. Interestingly, some of the investors he had brought into Borro two moves back, were lead investors in ClearScore. This really consolidated the value of those relationships to Sharp and maintained those relationships wherever industry can take a person as it’s such a small place. ClearScore is an online marketplace for financial products, for example, Skyscanner for flights, ClearScore is the equivalent for credit cards.
He added: “ClearScore Started in the UK, we now also have operations in South Africa and Australia. We also have 13 million people using us around the world. It has gone on quite a journey.”
“We’re all at CFO school until we retire”
Throughout Sharp’s success in his career, he remains grounded by the fact that he doesn’t have all the answers and that he is constantly learning. He stresses the importance of building lasting professional relationships to help each other keep moving forward in business. This constant learning makes him feel like he never left school.
Sharp explained: “I have a mentor who was actually arranged through ICAEW and he is an extremely successful CFO and when we were doing our sessions, I once said to him that ‘I still feel like I’m at CFO school every time I turn up’. And he said, bearing in mind this is someone who has taken businesses public, ‘so do I, it's completely normal, we’re all at CFO school until we retire. Because the nature of the job is growing a business, sorting a problem out, fighting a fire and you never know what’s going to turn up’.”
This doesn’t just apply to CFO’s; it’s said openly at ClearScore that they’re all finding their own way. If it was easy to do then every business would be a ClearScore.
“You get some really bright and motivated people together and you try and solve the problems that are thrown at you every day. I didn’t have a finance network behind me at the time of using Borro, but there was scaffolding around me in terms of people working around me in the CEO, Founder and others. You’ve got to support each other and that’s the only way”, concluded Sharp.
For more insight on:
- what to expect when working in a finance role at a start-up;
- what Sharp wishes he’d known before joining the exciting world of start-up;
- how the finance guys ‘the grey-haired doomsdayer’ build a good relationship with Founders and marketing team; and
- maintaining a work-life balance as well as your own sanity,
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