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Accel has a head of talent – but he keeps well away from searches

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Steve Bowbrick

Peter Clarke says the big VCs had that idea a decade ago "and it was a pretty bad one."

The last ten years has seen the VC space change a lot. Simply, the venture firms have expanded their remit, creating new departments to more fully support portfolio companies.

It’s easy to see why.

Tech start-ups used to tackle tech problems. But now, they are taking on ‘traditional’ industries like transport, healthcare, catering and hospitality – and they need more than just money to do it.

If your start-up is tackling food delivery, for example, you’re going to do more than engineer a nice app. You’re going to need help with logistics, human resources, legal, supply chain, branding, recruitment.

The latter skill has grown to become one of the most critical of all in a Silicon Valley talent market famed for its scarcity.

Peter Clarke joined Accel as talent partner in 2013. He’s one of a small band of men and women running VC teams dedicated to ‘human capital’ – a trend arguably started when Greylock hired Mike Ahern in 2002.

So, what does a head of Silicon Valley talent do?

According to Clarke, it’s certainly not executive searches – even though he has direct experience of headhunting, having worked at search firm True and others before making the leap into venture capital.

No, for actual search, he along with the other heads of talent will turn to the experts. In this, he thinks the VCs have learned from their mistakes.

Learning from history

“That idea was tried that in 2000s and it was pretty bad one. It’s just not manageable.

“If you look at the top five of venture firms, they all have a similar outlook. At Accel, I’m an army of one. I can’t run searches – it wouldn’t be my intent or a realistic job.

“But even at the other end of the spectrum where there are 25 people on talent teams, they don’t directly execute on searches. They’re still reliant on search firms. I think we all see search as another resource I want to connect our portfolio companies to.”

Instead, says Clarke, the head of Silicon Valley talent will ensure the firm is well-connected across the whole ecosystem – from candidates to headhunters to advisors.

“The main driver is to be someone who can own the network for the firm. It used to be you could find the company to invest in and manage it, and also be on top of the sectors you were invested in.

“If you were in semi conductors, for example, you could stay on top of the space and make the right connections in it.

“But what’s happened in the last five years is the sheer growth of portfolio and partners have a more diverse set of companies they’re working with. The time to manage that ecosystem of great operators, it just falls off.

“My role is to make sure we’re top of line for great people that we’d like to get involved with the firm in some way.”

And Clarke stresses, this doesn’t necessarily mean a career.

“We try to be non-transactional as possible. We want to be able to reach out to people with great expertise, maybe in an informal advisory capacity. We’re looking for smart people who can help our entrepreneurs.”

Scarcity city

Of course, staying on top of the Silicon Valley talent pool is especially important in a market with more demand than supply.

Clarke says: “Is there a talent scarcity? Yes absolutely. People joke here that hiring engineers is more of a concept than a reality.

It is a constant struggle to find great Silicon Valley talent. If I’m introduced to a great engineer I know I can get into them to pretty much every company in the portfolio.

“I think there are maybe people around with experience, but then it becomes a but competition is intense. They need to be the right fit.”

Actually, the element of ‘fit’ probably matters more than anything else in a market where most people know each other.

No sale

It’s why Clarke says it’s just not possible, and certainly not advisable, to ‘sell’ someone into a job.

“It’s still a very small valley. There’s no great operator out there that no one has heard of.

“So if someone is excited to go to work, has a great team and loves the product, that conversation is not happening.

“I know that if I am the deciding factor in someone switching jobs, and I’ve done something to sell them in to the position, it’s not going to end well.”