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In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

How James Clarke founded Clearlink

The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.

Similar to many kids growing up among the potato fields of southeast Idaho, I’ve been working for as long as I can remember. Despite my family not being farmers, everyone I knew seemed to have a job working to support the agricultural community in which I was raised. It was through these work opportunities and my now decades in business that I harvested the lessons that allowed me to found Clearlink—then sell it—and now return to it once again as CEO.

I learned my work ethic and my core values from my family. We had a Clarke family crest reading “Labor and Honor.” We also had the example from my grandparents and parents that labor done with honor is the only acceptable way to go about one’s work, whether the task at hand is big or small. I learned from my aunt Sybil—a legendary business leader and philanthropist—that success in business only becomes meaningful when the fruits are shared generously with others.

In college, I learned that I wanted to be my own boss while working for an extremely difficult manager. This was the kind of boss about which they make movies! Let your imagination run wild, and it might come close to what I experienced. While personally challenging, the experience was a great nudge into entrepreneurship. I am now forever grateful to my former manager because I don’t know if I would have been inclined to get out on my own and start my own business without that type of hardship. After that, I vowed that I’d never work for somebody else again. Consequently, I started a first-of-a-kind door-knocking satellite dish sales company with a roommate and a couple of other friends. After a few years there, I found myself in a place where I yearned for more. 

"I learned early on that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful."

It was early 2000, and everyone was still talking about the internet’s many possibilities. I learned that I could write my own destiny—and that it was not easy—as I worked alongside talented colleagues who became lifelong friends. I managed teams selling satellite dishes and shared office space with fellow founders and entrepreneurs like Todd Pedersen, CEO and founder of Vivint; Ryan Smith, founder of Qualtrics and owner of the Utah Jazz; as well as Sean Clark, VP of MX. It was a world-class group and a great place to learn what entrepreneurship was about and feel the excitement and drive of those with whom I found myself working. It was one of the greatest gifts one could imagine in the opening years of a career. 

Founding Clearlink…and turning a profit 

 I had been sending sales teams throughout the country, but as I made the move in late 2001 to start Clearlink, I found myself in extremely choppy waters. The dot-com bubble had burst, capital markets were completely dry, and people didn’t believe in the internet anymore—which I know is hard to believe, but it’s true. I needed to provide for my new and now expectant bride, so I didn’t have a way out. I didn’t have a ripcord that I could pull and return to work for another company. I had to make it work because I had metaphorically “burned the ships.” My new bride was the sole breadwinner as I left my previous startup and dove into entrepreneurship, and founded Clearlink on November 1st, 2001. I had promised her that if she would believe in me enough to start a family—as we were married late by Utah standards—that the business would be cash flow positive by the time our first child was born. By May 29, 2003, a year and a half (and much sweat and tears) later, the business was profitable enough to replace her salary.   

 I learned early on that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful. We had been selling door-to-door, but I looked around and saw a company that was selling satellites for Dish Network and DirecTV online. They had what I thought was a terrible website, but they were doing great business online. At the time, they were doing something like $20 million in revenue, which I believed was all the money in the world. I thought, “How much better could we do if we fully leveraged the talents in our region and our geography? How much more could we accomplish if we built a top-notch site?”   

In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.
In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.
In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.
In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

To pull it off, I initially paid deposits and engaged two firms to build websites and infrastructure for Clearlink. We engaged and paid a deposit to the first business, which went out of business and kept our deposit. With the second firm, the same thing happened. Web developers were dropping like flies. I’d hand over the deposit, describe what we’re building, and they go out of business. By the end, I was about out of money and found myself saying, “I’ve just got to find a different way.”

It turns out that my necessity and lack of capital actually led to our first success, and I quickly learned the benefit of aligned incentives. I pitched alignment to Odyssey Web and simply said to them, “I’m not going to pay upfront, but I’ll pay you for every sale you generate through the website you build.” It turned out to be a great relationship to align incentives in such a way that both businesses won. Soon we became their biggest client and acquired their business two years later, bringing along their managers to help lead Clearlink as it grew. 

As the business continued to evolve, I learned what I’m good at. My talents lie in examining opportunities where I’m not inventing or even reinventing something. Instead, I excel at improving upon what I see others doing that can be optimized or improved upon. As it turns out, we were successful by building a better widget, a better website, having more helpful sales representatives, and a better funnel. As Clearlink grew, we had created a better path for people to transact with us than with others. In hindsight, it was an extremely simple but powerful approach that has shaped a direct path in all of the businesses we operate today.

I learned that business is easier when you surround yourself with talented people. I credit my early stakeholders and those who helped me grow Clearlink—very talented people who came from Odyssey Web and other places. Finding great people and building teams has been the driving success behind Clearlink, as well as Clarke Capital Partners. Clarke Capital Partners manages businesses with thirty-six thousand employees globally. Over the last 25 years, we have found success in building teams and rallying around a shared vision, then effectively executing that vision. But that ability to execute is always about the people, and I think that’s still ingrained within the culture at Clearlink. It’s where we say, “Our strategy is the people.” 

Selling Clearlink and investing in venture

 Initially, we thought we’d sell Clearlink in 2008. I hired one of my senior people within Clearlink to be the CEO and thought we would transact later that year. Promoting a CEO meant that I might escape the golden handcuffs that generally come with building and selling a business. But, as you know, the world fell apart in 2008. The financial crisis hit and changed our plans.  

Ultimately, we delayed and sold Clearlink three years later in 2011. I had been investing in other companies, I knew I wanted to continue serial entrepreneurship, and it was the right time. The good news is that during that economic downturn, Clearlink grew about threefold, and when we sold, it was a much better exit for us.

In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

While in the midst of building Clearlink, we were investing in venture, and I learned that I loved to facilitate the growth/equity pattern. First, we allocated to biotech startup Montigen Pharmaceuticals Inc., which exited in about 24 months and was sold to publicly traded SuperGen. During that same time, we were the first investors and helped build the tech stack for a company called HireVue, which was later sold to Carlyle. Some great entrepreneurs came out of that group, including Ryan Money and Mark Newman. Mark went on to found a meteoric healthcare disruptor, Nomi Health.  

In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

While in the midst of building Clearlink, we were investing in venture, and I learned that I loved to facilitate the growth/equity pattern. First, we allocated to biotech startup Montigen Pharmaceuticals Inc., which exited in about 24 months and was sold to publicly traded SuperGen. During that same time, we were the first investors and helped build the tech stack for a company called HireVue, which was later sold to Carlyle. Some great entrepreneurs came out of that group, including Ryan Money and Mark Newman. Mark went on to found a meteoric healthcare disruptor, Nomi Health.  

Consequently, when Clearlink was acquired, we were prepared to allocate earned expertise. I spent every other week at my Wall Street office learning the ropes of “growth equity” from 2008-2010. When the dust settled on the Clearlink sale, we immediately invested in Contour, a category creator in action cameras. Contour ended up being one of the largest intellectual property transactions in the last 10 years. While perhaps the most challenging and led by a Harvard classmate who would later become my partner at Clarke, Contour was a great exit for us. 

Our second allocation was helping to build PetIQ, which we took from doing $1 million for revenue to about a billion in revenue this year. It was our first public offering, and I served as chairman for its first six years and on the board until the end of 2020. Partnering with great entrepreneurs and business leaders is the best part of what we do. 

Returning to Clearlink

In 2020 we acquired Brandless.com from SoftBank. This, along with the return to Clearlink, is as wonderful an opportunity as one might ever encounter in a career. Best of all are the teams coming together. We’re thrilled by these opportunities and the special nature of each as opportunities to highlight the best of what we’ve learned and leveraged over the years, but those stories are yet to be written and finalized.  

I started Clearlink at the end of 2001 and now have returned to Clearlink 20 years after its founding, in partnership with Sitel Group®, which was the third investor to acquire the company. Clarke Capital Partners is always looking at opportunities and places to allocate, but we kept our eyes on Clearlink.  

"Partnering with great entrepreneurs and business leaders is the best part of what we do."

In 2021, when Sitel Group® bought SYKES, we thought there might be an opportunity to have a conversation with Sitel to explore offloading a non-core asset as Clearlink was. In the form of a joint venture, we quickly crafted an arrangement where we would take a minority interest and return as managers of Clearlink with the opportunity to become a majority stakeholder within a year. We are very grateful to Sitel for the opportunity, and they have been excellent partners whom we greatly admire. 

They have an incredible growth story and will likely finish the year as the largest BPO on the planet with over two hundred and fifty thousand employees. It’s also a great global story. Their team originates from Paris, France, but they are based out of Miami, Florida, just around the corner of the Clarke office in Miami. This office is run by my partner James Harrison, who was absolutely key to consummating the deal. Sitel is made up of wonderful people to work with, and they bought into our vision and understanding of the company. That’s why we returned—we had unfinished business with Clearlink. 

I learned that Clearlink changed while I was away and during the pandemic. I think the hardest part for me has been returning to a business during the Covid era, where we aren’t together in a physical space. Clearlink declared itself a virtual company, and we miss out on that tactile, real element that the best of business requires. Getting to know the current employees and trying to pivot and scale the business has been challenging in this virtual environment. It can be done, but it’s been slower than I expected. 

In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

I learned that Clearlink changed while I was away and during the pandemic. I think the hardest part for me has been returning to a business during the Covid era, where we aren’t together in a physical space. Clearlink declared itself a virtual company, and we miss out on that tactile, real element that the best of business requires. Getting to know the current employees and trying to pivot and scale the business has been challenging in this virtual environment. It can be done, but it’s been slower than I expected. 

In the July issue of the Founder Series, James Clarke shares how he founded Clearlink, then sold it, and bought it back.

I think people working exclusively in a virtual environment are truly missing out on the mentoring, the personal growth, and the real relationships that come by and through having meaningful in-person interaction. In my opinion, virtual meetings aren’t a true substitute for being together in person at important times. While providing flexibility to our incredible employees is a great benefit that will be here to stay, I believe that a combination of some virtual but primarily an in-person environment is what we really allow for the best of business—and the best of people—to operate. It’s just more fun and more rewarding this way. 

The best days are ahead

I’ve learned…that I’m still learning. How Clearlink looked when I sold it and how it looks now are quite different. One might think that if you build a company, he or she would return to a hero’s welcome, but the reality is quite different. Even though I’m the founder, I’m suddenly known as the outsider—or even some outside “Wall Street” guy who’s perhaps out of touch with operations. I am a nobody who has to re-earn the respect of the people who make Clearlink the great company it is and even better as we move forward together.

I was asked what “Wall Street approach” I’m going to bring to Clearlink, which shows just how much I have to prove to our people regarding my vision for a company—a company that bears the combination of my last name and my wife’s maiden name, no less! I thought I would be returning home, but what I’m learning is that I’ve got to lean back in and pay my dues like anybody else coming into an organization. I’m not taking anything for granted. 

I don’t feel entitled to anything, and I’ve got to make my way through and prove my worth in this organization as CEO. I show up like everybody else. No special parking spot, no executive lunch room, no Clearlink corner office. I’m just the first to arrive and last to leave—all over again. I thought that there would be a 30-day stabilization period as I returned, getting to know people and them getting to know me, but it will take longer for our people to feel our commitment to them and to the company’s success.

I’ve learned that leadership without authenticity doesn’t work. Returning to Clearlink, we’re trying to get people excited about growth opportunities. My message to our people is, “The best days are ahead of us here at Clearlink. We value you, we want you here, and we are really excited about the future of this business.” In my career, I’ve found that there’s only one way to build culture: it must be authentically yours. You have got to make the culture something that is true to you and true to that business. You cannot copy or imitate what others have put together or what’s worked for someone else. Your own culture has to come from the heart because what a leader is trying to do is add a soul to a business. Clearlink is still part of my soul, and we’re not done with each other yet.

In 2001, James founded and led Utah-based online retailer, Clearlink, until it was acquired in 2011 by Pamlico Capital (formerly Wachovia). James founded and has served as CEO of Clarke Capital Partners LLC since 2011. James has served as chair or director on the boards of various private and public companies in the U.S. and abroad, including PetIQ (NSDQ:PETQ), where he previously served as Chair of the Board and today serves as Vice Chair to Jupiter Acquisition Corporation (NSDQ:JAQCU).    He has served as a trustee and board member to universities, as well as regional and global non-profit organizations. Currently, James is the Governor appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees at Utah Valley University—Utah’s largest institution of higher learning, with roughly 42,000 full-time students.    Clarke Capital portfolio companies operate on 5 continents and have been named as some of the nation’s fastest growing organizations on the INC. 500 list—as well as others. In 2013, the Utah State Bar named Clarke as the "Technology Pioneer of the Year" and in 2015 BusinessQ Magazine named him as one of their “10 Coolest Entrepreneurs,” an honor he vigorously disputes.   James and his wife, Andrea, are parents to three children. The Clarkes contribute to causes which support the arts, education, & poverty alleviation through their private charitable foundation, the Labor & Honor Foundation.

Comments (6)

  • Mark Leck

    Loved reading about your journey!

  • Zach Wilson

    Gee whiz, this is a real Steve Jobs story!

  • Abbey Gile

    Idk about Steve Jobs story, It really resonates with me as more of a Gordon Gekko type story!

  • Frank Young

    Honestly, after reading this, Clearlink feels like a company I would not want to work for. Why is he airing dirty laundry out about his employees in a public forum like this? Doesn’t seem like a leader Id be comfortable working for. Seems conceited and narrow minded.

  • Stephen Johnson

    This guy doesn’t recognize just how antiquated beliefs regarding work from home. Comes off entirely like he is still harboring resentment for not being recognized by folks who were in elementary school when he started it two decades ago. No wonder I keep seeing people jump ship on LinkedIn when he took the helm.

  • Brandon Sanders

    Hmmm. I should say more, because there is so much more to say. But I won’t.

    But I really should.

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