Leaving school at 16, Becky Clark’s introduction to the fledgling world of IT came courtesy of her first job in a bank. With a love of solving problems, combined with a determination to succeed, she went on to work for a variety of different companies before founding her first business aged just 23. Today she is co-founder and CEO of Marlow-based NetDespatch, an award-winning multi-million turnover business with 45 employees. It is recognised as the fastest growing global player in the delivery of innovative web-based solutions for postal and parcel carriers, working with big names such as Royal Mail, Yodel, Amazon and e-commerce partners Magento and ChannelAdvisor.
Growing up on the south coast, Clark followed the wishes of her “typically Victorian” parents and joined Barclays Bank, gaining her first glimpse of the computer technology that would guide her future career. Moving to Elliott NCR, she discovered a talent for computer programming, going on to become a systems analyst and then a freelance IT consultant. By now married to husband Roy, Clark founded Fleetway Systems with him in 1985, offering innovative PC-based real time despatch systems for transport companies. Clark sold the business in 1998 and a year later co-founded NetDespatch with younger son Matthew. She and Roy, who is now retired, live in Maidenhead.
Tell us more about what attracted you to IT
Businesses were just beginning to look at computers; I could see what an exciting future they were offering, so I started looking for jobs in computing. At Elliott NCR they offered me a trainee position in what was the first publicly available computer workshop, where you could buy half an hour on a massive computer for £100.
I found I had a talent for computer programming, and also met my future husband Roy. At 19, I moved to Smiths Industries, where I worked on production control systems for fighter planes. From there I joined Save and Prosper, which was the first unit trust company to have entirely computer automated systems.
What gave you the confidence to become a freelance consultant?
By the time I was 23, I had become head of IT training and was working alongside the board of directors. Compared to most people I had a massive amount of experience, there were very few computer programmers and everyone wanted them, so that gave me the push I needed to freelance.
I landed a contract with Birds Eye/Walls as team leader for the integration of their national distribution systems. At the time, each company would have vehicles delivering frozen food to the same area. My project was to join up the orders into a single distribution system. It was my first introduction into logistics; I found it really interesting and it formed the grounding for what I do today.
How did you make the leap to founding Fleetway Systems?
The Birds Eye/Walls integration had been built on a network of mini computers. Courier companies could see the advantages of the system but they couldn’t afford to go the same route. The first microcomputers were beginning to come into the market, so we built a PC-based real-time despatch system for them. Fleetway Systems grew out of that and after 12 years we were market leaders with 1,000 customers. In 1998, we sold the business to an American company floating on the Nasdaq, Dispatch Management Services.
What did you do next?
We had enjoyed working with retailers to seamlessly integrate their systems with their carriers and realised we could build better solutions using the internet. However, no-one at that time had the right equipment to enable us to run transaction-based applications, so we had some servers custom built. That was when we founded NetDespatch, because we knew we could provide an innovative service that was going to be needed in the future to connect retailers’ websites with their carriers.
Who was your inspiration?
One of my biggest inspirations was my half-brother. When I was 16, he was a professor of linguistics and was using a Cray computer. Dame “Steve” Shirley, who founded the software company FI Group, was another; she made it possible for so many people (including me) to stay in IT when they became parents, by enabling them to work from home.
How did Matthew become involved?
Roy and I ran Fleetway Systems together and Matthew effectively grew up in a software house. After gaining a BSc Hons in Computing, he joined the BT FastTrack graduate scheme, where he gained invaluable experience building the core messaging gateway for the Phonenet application, later being head-hunted as R&D manager for DMS. We co-founded NetDespatch, and while he’s our chief technical officer, responsible for the design, development and architecture of the NetDespatch platform, I say I, with some other members of our Board, provide the “grey hair” in the business. During the early days, Matthew went on to gain an MBA from Liverpool University, which inspired me to at last complete my education, gaining a first class BSc Hons in International Studies from the Open University.
Tell us more about NetDespatch
We’re a leading Software as a Service (SaaS) business, and recently we were voted one of the top independent cloud computing providers in the UK. We provide an outsourced parcel data management system for postal and parcel carriers, integrating different systems to make the process as simple as possible – ensuring they deliver the right parcels at the right time to the right customers.
Carriers like Royal Mail, New Zealand Post, APC Overnight and Yodel are our customers; they use our software platform to enable their customers to ship and track online. Our platform takes care of printing labels, customs documentation, manifests etc for them, and seamlessly integrates systems to make the process quicker, cheaper and easier.
We also work with e-commerce partners; people like ChannelAdvisor, Volo Commerce and StoreFeeder, enabling more than 100,000 e-tailers, omni-channel catalogues, marketplace sellers and manufacturers world-wide to produce the right documentation for their chosen carriers.
The market is evolving all the time; currently there is increasing demand for Click and Collect, while locker boxes are also becoming more popular. A lot of people talk to us about new ideas because we understand the market, and we are often involved in early planning for new businesses like Collect+.
Were there moments when you thought you wouldn’t succeed?
There were certainly knockbacks in the early days but I never thought we wouldn’t succeed. No-one then saw software as a ‘service’, people didn’t trust what we were doing and we had to really prove that the idea could work. When the recession hit in 2008, that was valuable too, because it made us plan for the future more carefully. Matthew Robertson joined us as commercial director and drove forward the sales; we also focused on being a “pure play” SaaS business, with all our revenue now derived from the number of parcels processed through our platform.
Which important business lessons have you learned along the way
Take the benefit of external expertise; we use consultants and have a widely experienced board of directors who fulfil that role. Be willing to review what you do continuously, and make changes in order to improve.
What are the secrets of your success?
Research your market carefully and keep close to it. Minimise risk; the only way to use our platform is to maintain a credit balance, and because revenues are recurring and grow steadily, we can always budget in advance what they will be. Also, because the business is privately owned, we have always been in control of our own destiny.
How do you maintain the passion?
There is always a new problem to be solved, or a new idea, and that’s what makes each day exciting.
Describe the business
We’re very family orientated, most of the people who work here live within ten miles of the office, they’ve often worked in London or travelled a lot for big businesses, now they want to be more settled. We also understand that people need a flexible lifestyle and to have time to enjoy themselves. We have a busy six-a-side football team, and a squash ladder. We support the Rotary Club and have fundraised for the Thames Valley Air Ambulance and Longridge Activity Centre in Marlow. This is a great place to be based; it’s at the heart of the Thames Valley technology hub.
What does the future hold?
It’s about continuous investment in new technology to keep one step ahead. We spend a lot of time talking to carriers and retailers, finding out what their customers want, such as how to better manage deliveries over peak periods. We want to expand into Europe and increase our global network of partners. We expect turnover to grow by 30-40% in the next year and to increase employee numbers by around 15%.
In the market, consumers want greater flexibility – both in the time and place their parcels are delivered. They don’t just want to know their parcel will come at 11am, they want to be able to collect it from their local store. We need to take drones seriously too – imagine if a drone could find you and deliver your parcel wherever you are.
And finally, how do you spend your time off?
I’m a rather “absent” Rotarian. I was very active until recently, but less so now as I love spending time with my granddaughters.