Growing up on a council estate in Sunderland, NE England put me on a collision course with bad diet, misinformation and poor health. With the benefit of hindsight, the cards were stacked against me. It turns out I have a slow metabolism, and this was compounded by a diet of greasy food, biscuits and sweets. However, there’s a time in one’s life when events cause you to ask questions and decide to make changes – and mine came at the tender age of 12.
At the time, there was a TV programme called Kojak. My nickname was Stavros – Kojak’s fat, curly-haired brother. The irony doesn’t escape me that I now look more like Telly Savalas! Children can be extremely cruel, and being mercilessly teased 8 hours a day was the first “knife through the heart” experience for this shy little kid.
Mark Clarke, CEO talking to Envestors
The second event was more subtle but significantly more profound – I was at the age where I started to notice girls. Unfortunately, they didn’t notice me.
My mind was made up. I decided to go on a diet and lose weight. It wasn’t scientific, educated or well-researched – I just stopped eating so much crap. I also got into sport in a big way, playing loose head prop for the 1 st XV rugby team. Within 2 years, I lost weight, got fitter, quicker and moved out to Centre. I found I could run! Sport quickly became my life and as captain of the 1 st XV, I enjoyed the added benefit of not being laughed at when I asked a girl for a dance at the school disco.
Sport was to become a huge part of my life, bringing me years of enjoyment and fantastic memories. However, academia was to be my ticket out of poverty and off the council estate.
My school was the largest comprehensive in the NE and not exactly the shining beacon of “education for all” the government had hoped for. Most of the 2,500 pupils had a pathological hatred of anyone who attended class and did well in exams. This unfortunately brought me into direct contact with the Neanderthals who viewed school as a source of things to either break or steal, depending how they felt that day. Playing rugby and working out every day had side benefits – it stopped me being pummelled into dust by the school thugs. The odds weren’t great to progress on to higher education. In my school year only 2 people got the grades to go to university – and I was one of them. Naturally, I chose the university furthest away from home and went to Cardiff to study Economics and play Welsh rugby. I never went back.
After graduating, I was lucky enough to win a trainee position at an investment bank and went on to forge a successful career as a Foreign Exchange trader in the City. During this time, I also found a new passion with my interest in technology, internet and all things geek.
In 2002, I made a life-changing decision and quit banking to gain entrepreneurial experience and founded Trainsmart. In the early days, we focussed on metabolic testing and helping people lose weight, strip off fat and improve their performance. I qualified as a personal trainer, nutritionist and spinning instructor and threw myself into re-training and learning as much about the industry as possible.
It quickly became obvious that testing had limited potential and could never scale up into a viable business. During a chat with professional coach Joe Beer, a stray comment sparked off a runaway sequence of events – “wouldn’t it be good if there was a system which could allow coaches to input their training methods and sessions to enable people to be remotely trained at the same high quality as 1-to-1 clients.” I said I’d go away and build one but little did I know that this project would grow to consume the next 8 years of my life.
The seed germinated in my mind as I began to explore how to build such a system. In those days, there was not much available and technology was still in its infancy. Everything had to be built from scratch and jobs which took months of hard graft and manual coding can now be done in a matter of hours with just a few clicks. After years of blue sky research and many dead-ends, a chunk of money (mine and investors), a US patent and many, many sleepless nights, Trainsmart Interactive was born.
I don’t know what the future holds in store, but I have to say it’s pretty exciting! My focus is now shifting from designing and building the system to deployment and engaging customers. During all this time, my core vision has never changed. If I can help in the smallest way to positively influence someone’s life and not let them be the fat little kid who’s bullied in the playground – I’ll be a happy man.