Thursday, December 19, 2019

Strategic CFOs look through the windshield, not rearview

    Credit: Flickr user Thomas Anderson

Following $140 million in Series C and D round funding, growth marketing platform Iterable, based out of San Francisco, has hired Will Johnson as its CFO, it announced Wednesday.
Johnson, in speaking to CFO Dive, offered an analogy. “We’re a freight train barreling down the tracks. The goal for a team like the one I manage is to lay the infrastructure, lay the tracks ahead of the train so the train never ends up in the dirt.”​
Within the past 12 months, Iterable, which supports customer engagement for brands including Zillow and SeatGeek, has expanded considerably. It has opened additional offices in Denver and London, hosted two conferences in San Francisco and London, and introduced a new metadata-driven individualization engine called Catalog.

Johnson, along with newly hired CISO Andrew Becherer, will play key roles in helping Iterable further its global expansion, enhance service offerings and better understand the growth marketing space, the company said.

Johnson brings more than 25 years of venture capital and emerging technology experience to the Iterable team, having held leadership positions at Workday, DemandTec, GuideSpark and more. The operational expertise Johnson brings from a career in startup ventures, as well as billion-dollar public companies, will provide additional strategic leadership to continue optimizing Iterable's business and growth objectives of the future.

Iterable is the third SaaS business for which Johnson has served as CFO. The two prior businesses, Inkling and GuideSpark, were similarly sized, but the growth trajectory at Iterable “is a bit steeper, and more substantial.” 

High growth trajectory

“Let me be clear,” Johnson said. “When I joined [Inkling and GuideSpark], both of them were at a similar stage, measured by customers, employees, revenue metrics, and so on: those fairly traditional measures of the business. But again, the real difference here has been the growth rate. [Iterable is] a very quickly growing platform, and that was part of the allure for me. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of the business growing as quickly as we are. But there are challenges there too.”

In this sense, Johnson and his finance team must build only “a mile or two ahead, not going 10 or 20 miles down the line,” in laying down the train tracks. “Things change, and you want to be flexible enough to change course, so you don’t have such rigid, inflexible processes that can’t adjust to changes in business over time,” he said.

One of the changes Johnson cited was his new company’s geographic footprint. “We’re based in the Bay Area, and most of our employees are here, but we’re not wedded to the Bay Area,” he explained. “We opened a Denver office not too long ago; that’s a testament to our being nimble in charting our course. That’s acknowledging that in Denver, it’s much easier [than in the Bay Area] to attract and retain employees.”

Overall, the high rate of growth Iterable is experiencing creates its own set of unique challenges for Johnson, which, while difficult, he says makes it “unique, fun and rewarding [to be] part of the journey.”
Professional evolution

Johnson was forthcoming about the evolution of the CFO role, and how he will fit into it, as this, he said, is “not [his] first rodeo.”

“Two points,” he said. “Tactically, I’m responsible for the core pieces of finance: accounting and financial planning & analysis. Another piece is the deal desk [on] the commercial side. We work very closely with our sales ops team, but a couple folks on my finance team are responsible for approving and vetting the commercial terms of our customer contracts, and the pricing model, and so forth.

“So that’s finance, and then again legal, both sides of the coin there, commercial and corporate,” he said.

“And the third piece is facilities and employee culture, which ... plays an important role in helping us scale, from an employee perspective.”

Johnson pointed to the extensive differences between a modern, or “strategic” CFO, and an old-fashioned, or “accounting” CFO.

“An old mentor of mine would say today that the accounting CFO is going the way of the dinosaur,” Johnson said. “The moniker he used was ‘strategic CFO,’ someone who goes far beyond the realm of accounting or traditional finance. They’re a true business partner to the CEO. [Iterable has] a CEO, COO and CFO, and the three of us view one another as business partners.”

Johnson says CFOs are best positioned to fall under the “strategic” category if they’ve “seen elements outside of core accounting and finance.” Johnson himself, “well before” becoming a CFO, was a venture investor for “like, ten years.”

“When I moved into my operating career, I managed business development: two channel teams for indirect sales. These teams had quotas!” he said. “Today, as a CFO, I have much more sympathy for the sales team because I’ve walked in their shoes. That’s not to say I’m a pushover; it’s a really strong product, but selling is still tough.”

The new perspective
As a strategic CFO, having that diverse set of experiences, allows Johnson to have a “more holistic perspective than someone who just grew up in accounting,” he said.

In his new role, Johnson, looking back, encourages CFOs to see themselves as business partners to the rest of the organization and the board.

“I think all of us, as CFOs, can [change] how the role is viewed, and hopefully we’re far enough along in our transition [that] all of us, in a tactical or local sense, can [help] get the investor community and our peers in the tech arena to see [us] as true business partners, as opposed to traditional accounting role.”

As for his future at Iterable, Johnson knows how he’ll try to spend his time. “An accounting CFO spends most of their time looking out the rearview mirror, and telling their board and peers on the management team what happened last month or last quarter,” he said.

“A strategic CFO should spend their time at least as much looking out the windshield, to the future, as the rearview. And then help inform and influence that roadmap, and know where the business is headed.”

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