Charlie Walker is Managing Director of VC Coverage and Business Development at SVB, the go-to bank for the technology industry. It has only been a few months since the collapse of SVB and its subsequent acquisition by First Citizens Bank, but Charlie, stepping into his new role at SVB last month, has been handling the change with the calm and fortitude of someone born for the job. For all the chaos that beset Silicon Valley tech circles with the SVB bank run, things at the bank today are humming. Perhaps a more sensationalist journalist would paint a picture otherwise, but Charlie has never been much for hyperbole. It’s not in his nature. He likes to joke that he is “very typically British.” In how that manifests, Charlie points to his dry humor and an overly apologetic disposition. He is playfully tongue-in-cheek in that assessment, another marker of what I only assume is his quintessential Britishness, but it’s his lighthearted nature, the sense that the Charlie you see is what you get, that lends to the effortless charm of Charlie Walker. He’s a relationships-first, pay-it-forward kind of person. Build a relationship with Charlie, and the man will be there--as a friend, as an advisor, as a compatriot--for life. It’s easy to see how Charlie, in a little over a decade, the span of his entire working career, rose so quickly to become the bank’s executive touchpoint for venture capital relationships. If you want a banker you can rely on, Charlie’s your guy.
Charlie grew up in the English countryside, next to the ancient wonder Stonehenge. His mother had a catering business, and Charlie would often work alongside her, bartending or serving food for guests at weddings and other celebrations. His first “real” job though was at a meat processing plant where he stood eight hours a day at the end of a conveyor belt, processing the dubious pink liquid of ground-up poultry into those delectable bites known as chicken nuggets. His parents thought the role would give him, still a teenager in those days, the discipline to work hard in life, but Charlie seems to only remember the experience as “horrendous” and “pretty grueling horrible stuff.” His interests instead lay in entrepreneurship and startup innovation. Charlie recalls that when he was 16 years old, he built a website advertising European villa rentals as part of a charity project. He woke up the next morning to find £500 in his Paypal account, and from that point on, he was hooked. Nowadays, Charlie is far from the “country bumpkin” that he likes to call himself in his self-deprecating style of humor. With a rolodex of connections that span the most well-known startups and venture capital firms from across the globe, Charlie is a cosmopolitan by any standard, even as he just may be too modest to ever say the fact aloud.
Sam: Could you share some insights into your early career and what led you to join SVB out of college?
Charlie: Growing up in the UK, I had an early fascination with internet businesses. When I was 16 years old, I built a website that advertised villas for rentals across Europe to raise money as part of a charity project. I was inspired by the Million Dollar Homepage, which was a website conceived by Alex Tew, who had sold every single pixel of his website for $1 each to raise money for his university education. Alex was a local student from where I was from, and, interestingly enough, he went on to found the meditation company Calm. Anyway, after setting up my website, I woke up the next day to see £500 in my PayPal account. As you can imagine, it was a pretty exciting experience to see that sort of outcome as a teenager, and it was one of the main drivers behind my lifelong interest in startup innovation.
Fast forward a few years, I was in college at Nottingham University, majoring in business. I had heard that SVB was setting up in the UK. I got connected to a man named Oscar Jazdowski, who is something of a legend within SVB, having helped build the bank in the US, UK, China and Germany (I guarantee some readers of this will know him!). I reached out to him via email, and he told me to come meet with him in London on Friday at 5pm. It was a last-minute request, but I still went down from Nottingham to meet him. A couple of years later, I found that that “meet me at 5pm on a Friday” a regular test he ran for people who reached out to him. I’m glad I passed the test. He suggested I apply for an internship because I still had six months to graduate and SVB was still going through its bank license application in the UK. I started as an intern and officially joined SVB the following year. It was an awesome experience because we started off as a team of 35 people in London, and the phones were ringing off the hook. In my mind, I thought the role would provide me with a great overview of the innovation ecosystem. I had planned to only stay a couple years before joining a startup or going into venture capital. Anyway, here we are, nearly 11 years later, and I’ve stayed at SVB every step of the way.
Sam: What was your trajectory at SVB leading to your position as Managing Director of Investor Coverage and Business Development?
Charlie: When I officially joined SVB post-internship in 2013, I started off on our Accelerator & Growth Team, doing all the debt-related stuff around venture-backed companies. We were a team of only five people then, and so I got to handle all sectors and all types of deals. One day we were doing a million-dollar debt loan to a SaaS startup that had recently raised a round of venture capital funding; another day we were looking at a $250M syndicated loan to Spotify. The variation of the role was exciting because I learned a lot and built a great network.
In 2016, I joined SVB’s “Startup Banking” team in the UK office. Our focus was on building relationships with startups early at the seed-stage, which meant getting out and meeting with entrepreneurs at the grassroots level, building relationships with accelerators and seed funds. We wanted to be the long-term banking partner to startups and understood that cultivating such relationships began at the early stages. I was also given the responsibility of looking out for high-potential venture deals that were coming down the pipeline. It was a fun experience, as I got to meet many new people and learn about new technologies and their potential impact on the world.
I ended up moving to Silicon Valley in my late 20s, working in SVB’s CVC practice. I’d always liked the idea of living abroad for a period, and that was my opportunity to live in the center of the global tech scene. More particularly, I had become very interested during my time in startup banking with the growing trend of corporate venture capital (CVC). While many people were quick to dismiss CVCs at the time, if you look carefully at the CVC landscape starting around 2016-2017, you can see the green shoots of emerging CVC funds with really, really strong track records. My role was focused on covering CVCs and building relationships with CVCs, especially as these funds began playing a larger part in the venture ecosystem.
Five years after moving to San Francisco, here I am at SVB as Managing Director of VC Investor Coverage and Business Development. While previously SVB had separate teams for covering VC and CVC respectively, we have since merged the teams into one group, which in-part reflects the maturation of CVCs within the broader venture ecosystem. In my role, I am responsible for building relationships with venture groups and maintaining coverage of the various activities and developments across the VC landscape.
Sam: I don’t think we can have a conversation without at least touching on your experience with SVB over the past few months. What was the experience of SVB’s collapse like for you, and how have things changed since the acquisition by First Citizens Bank?
Charlie: Ha – well, to say that it was tough barely begins to scratch the surface on the range of emotions! The whole thing has felt deeply personal in our household, given my wife and I met at SVB in London and count many of our colleagues (current and former!) around the world close friends.
Look, I’m really bad at dwelling on the negatives of a situation. It was a lot to process personally, but I’m a big believer in focusing on the positives, and when I look back at the past few months there’s plenty to be positive about:
First is that throughout my career with SVB we have always been a relationship-focused bank powered by a brilliant client-centric group of people – and so many of these relationships have been validated throughout all of this. The outpouring of supportive messages we received, both privately and publicly, in the immediate aftermath of the bank failure was just incredible. Some conversations were understandably challenging, but when I was choking up it was in response to the empathy and kindness of others.
Second is how quickly this sentiment turned into action within the ecosystem, both with clients bringing their business back to SVB and with investors and founders introducing us to new opportunities. We’ve a long road ahead of us, but we continue to gather moment – and it’s all down to the relationships of our people in-market.
In terms of what’s changed since First Citizens Bank (FSB) acquired SVB? Well, apologies for what will be a very bland response – but it’s true! From a stability standpoint, it’s been great. FSB has demonstrated a strong willingness for the SVB team to get back out in market and rebuild, and, with their strong and diversified balance sheet, it’s the perfect platform on which to do so. From a US client experience perspective, there has been very little change at all. We remain committed to serving the innovation economy in the US, with the vast majority of our banking services and loan products available just as they were before the March 9th. If people are skeptical, then I invite them to reach out and put us to the test!
Sam: I am deadly serious in saying that you are probably one of the best networkers I know. What’s your advice for building strong relationships?
Charlie: Over the ten years I’ve been with SVB, I have made one key observation, which is you can choose the type of business person you want to be. On one side of the coin, there are the transactional types who live in the moment of executing a specific deal, after which they move on to the next thing. On the other side of the coin, there are persons who take a very intentional approach to building a strong network and strong relationships over time. I’m someone who takes the latter approach. I don’t believe that a hard sale when you’re first connecting with new people is ever going to be as easy as bringing an opportunity to someone you’ve taken the time to get to know. The best relationships span multiple deals and even jobs, and you should take the long-term view when cultivating them.
The second thing I’d say is just to pay it forward--try to help others without any expectations. I think I’ve always had that as a sort of default setting in my personal life. I’ve always been that type of person who will lend a helping hand when someone asks me to help them move, for example. When it comes to the work, I try to do the same--whether that’s introducing a SaaS startup to its first major customer or even helping someone ideate on a new product idea. You never know how these small acts of kindness lead to new opportunities later down the road.
Sam: What is your favorite part of your role?
Charlie: My favorite part of the role is delivering value to those around me--whether it’s connections to investors or enabling a business development opportunity for a client. That’s indeed where I get the biggest kick.
Sam: What is the hard part of your role?
Charlie: It’s probably historically been managing volume. With working in a Business Development function, there’s an inherent need to be a self-starter – cooking up ideas, joining dots and creating worthwhile opportunities for the bank, our clients and network. As SVB grew over the past 11 years, that collective network grew considerably, and with it, the potential for opportunity grew exponentially (You know, network effects! VCs love network effects!). It’s a bit like how a person might be able to effectively network a room of 10 people in a single night, but when it’s 100 people this becomes impossible at opportunities might be missed. I hate that!
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to overcome this challenge of “Business Development at scale” over the past year or so. It’s ultimately a challenge of communication and knowledge-sharing, but I’m excited about what AI might help unlock in this regard.
Sam: Where do you see yourself two decades from now?
Charlie: I would like to say that two decades from now I will be working remotely in the English countryside, ideally for myself but probably still in banking. I’ve also had a lofty dream to start a boutique hotel from where I’m from. I’ve always thought I would have liked to have been in hospitality - I would love to see that become a reality.