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January 29, 2023

Are You Startup CFO Material?

I like this CFO article on finance chiefs who prefer startups. Had I not bailed on my accounting and finance career for the glamorous world of writing on the internet, I think I would've pursued this route.

The reasons for preferring smaller companies offered by the CFOs in the article are what you would expect: more autonomy, immediate feedback, "influence on the success and, potentially, the failure" of projects and working with a "certain personality type" described by Andrew Webb, CFO of Candescent Health:

“For a startup you want to find people who are really motivated to be in an environment in which there’s always an element of uncertainty,” explains Webb.

That uncertainty may range from where the next round of financing may be coming from to the nature of the work itself. Webb wants to hire people who are flexible enough to adjust when he says, “I know we told you your job was this, but today it’s going to be this, too.”

The idea that a person is motivated by uncertainty is sorta strange, but I think it's something acquired over time. Most of us had "job security" drilled into us by family, teachers and others to the point that joining a company with an uncertain future would seem reckless or even stupid. Not to mention that most people get antsy when they're told "your job was this, but now it's going to be this, too." Basically, the trick to a startup is that you have to be comfortable with the constant discomfort.

That kind of experience just isn't going to happen in larger companies where roles are more well-defined and career paths more static. Plus, people like those jobs because they offer good money, outrageous benefits and bonuses that are all but guaranteed.

After a while though, some people get bored and find that they thrive on the change/chaos, whether that's a fluid job description or career wanderlust. Like this Andersen alum:

In 1991, after eight years in public accounting at now-defunct Arthur Andersen, Bill Price had an opportunity to join one of his clients, MediQual.

Bain Capital had just invested in the medical software firm, which had a newly installed chief executive and was looking for a CFO. The leadership of the then-$2 million company “reached out to me, and the timing was right,” recalls Price.

Thus began his current 24-year run as a finance chief of nascent software firms. Following MediQual, where he led and managed the company’s IPO and helped sell it to Cardinal Health in 1997 for $35 million, Price moved on to stints at NextPoint Networks, MarketSoft, and Zoominfo. Since 2013, he’s headed up finance at MineralTree, a venture capital-backed software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm that sells accounts-payable software.

At that clip, you're moving jobs every five years. I don't know many people willing to sustain that pace. Although job-hopping is more or less the norm now, it's still stressful and the day-to-day uncertainty is probably what prevents most people from going the startup route for long stretches.

Does anyone out there see themselves bounding around from startup to startup as a CFO or any role for that matter? Anyone doing it now that can share more? Discuss below.


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