YayPay's CFO Podcast 3/28/17 - Interview with Mike LeSanto, Controller at ViralGains

Eugene Vyborov

Technology has transformed business in fundamental ways. For the field of accounting, it has introduced new variables in a world previously viewed in black-and-white terms.

This week, Manoj Jonna, of YayPay, interviews ViralGains' Mike LeSanto who discusses the evolution of the corporate CFO from a traditional cost center position to one that requires creativity, flexibility and digital savvy.

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Highlights From the Interview

That’s the controller job profile very few students learn about in school, LeSanto says. The academic profile of the CFO is important, but only scratches the surface of a position that requires more than just budget analysis and P&L statements to drive business forward.

“Understanding and adopting technologies is a key skill that all finance leaders should have at this point,” LeSanto explains.

Technology has long been the epicenter of corporation transformation, but fewer people have reflected on its impact on traditional leadership positions. Advances in automation, predictive analytics and other software tools have enabled CFOs to perform their jobs better. Things like P&L, balance sheet and cash flow aren’t going to change, but the outputs that come from technology certainly will. It’s these outputs that spur business growth. As LeSanto says, “it all starts with accounting.”

Technology has not only changed the function of finance professionals, but the skills needed to excel in these roles. In LeSanto’s view, technology has created bigger demand for cross-functional collaboration between finance and other departments, and has prioritized skills that go beyond the technical. Things like patience, flexibility and persistence are increasingly vital in a role that is interacting with more variables than ever before.

Patience is needed when dealing with people within your organization who don’t see the company from the same perspective as a controller does.

Flexibility is required to work creatively with marketing, engineering and sales teams.

Persistence is where you stay true to your company’s vision regardless of the obstacles.

Technology feeds into this cycle by making work more productive, allowing departments to focus their human capital on solving complex business challenges.

Listen to the transcript or read the transcript (below) to learn about LeSanto’s transition to a high growth small company and the role of technology in shaping his career as a successful corporate CFO.

Thanks for tuning in!

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Transcript - CFO Interview Podcast

This Week’s Financial Leader: Mike LeSanto, Controller at ViralGains
Interviewer: Manoj Jonna, Vice President & Chief of Staff at YayPay

Manoj: Hello, this is Manoj Jonna, and welcome to this week's CFO Interview Podcast. Hi Mike, thank you for taking the time to doing this podcast with us. I'm sure the audience will very much appreciate your insight as a controller who's working for a fast growing company. It'd be great if you can maybe spend a minute or two giving a brief introduction about yourself, your background and how you ended up in your current role.

Mike: Yes, of course. Happy to be here. Happy to discuss the evolving role of the modern day controller. I think it's important to any organization, especially a high growth small company. So a little about me, I started out of school, went directly into public accounting. I worked for a large regional firm out of Boston that was eventually acquired by an internationally recognized firm. The majority of my clients during my time there were in biotech and in pharma. I did have a few in manufacturing and banking, as well.

Post corporate accounting, I went into internal audit for a large international manufacturing company and got the chance to do some pretty incredible travel during my time there. Learned a lot about how business is conducted in other countries, really eye opening experience that I wouldn't change for anything. After that, I got into media and advertising. I was on the agency side working at a boutique agency. I ran their North American finance and HR operations. They shipped me out to San Francisco for a few years, so as an East Coast native, it was nice to be in the California weather for a couple years.

From there, now I'm on the other side of the media landscape. And I'm working for a company called ViralGains. We're a consumer-centric online video advertising platform and we drive consumer engagement with brands from awareness all the way through purchase.

Manoj: Fantastic. Thanks for the background. It's amazing that you've focused and spent your career so far in accounting and finance. And the interesting aspect of it is you learn about what a controller's role should be. You learn about it in school, it's a little bit academic. And then when you start your career out, you learn from your superiors and your peers, so you learn from controllers that you perhaps reported to at some point. With that in mind, what back then did you think was a role of a traditional controller? What was your thought process when you were working up to your current role? What did you think was a controller's traditional role?

Mike: Oh, you hit it right there, in terms of what you're taught in school. You know, the traditional controller role, I think is very checklist-oriented. You're sticking to schedules and deliverables. It's not always viewed as the sexiest position within an organization. Many times it's seen strictly as a cost center and some departmental leaders view it as a formality. And sometimes, it’s just only monthly dealings where you're doing your budget's actual analysis. And a lot of times people can see controllers and just the accounting function in general as rigid and unapproachable.

The old mindset is that accounting is very black and white or right or wrong. Not much flexibility is needed by accountants. And not that there's any issue with that. I mean, there are those types of positions and they're very important at certain levels and very important at certain organizations. And they help organizations run well and achieve their goals. However, within small, nimble and high growth startups, specifically, I don't think that's the norm anymore nor do I think it's a very effective way to lead a finance and accounting function.

Manoj: I think you've captured a lot of key points. There's a little bit of a divide between the academic approach of it and perhaps how things were done in the past when there were not technology tools when there wasn't very much crossover between finance departments and other functions in the company. And perhaps even between accounting and finance, things have changed quite a bit. How do you think the role has changed over time and what do you think were the catalyst for those changes when it comes to the role of the controller?

Mike: I think that the main answer there is technology. You know, it's a basic and easy answer to fall back on but I do think where we are as a society is technology. Technology is the root of that change, in my opinion. As finance professionals, the tools we have now we're much more efficient as a skill set. And this efficiency lends itself to an opportunity within the organization. You know, as you mentioned, controllers or the accounting folks, in general, are seen at a cost center formality. With their systems adding the efficiency, it gives the controller an ability to get involved in areas and projects they may not have had time for originally.

In addition to the added time that the controller gains, the better technology is producing better financial outputs for all over the organization. I mean, a P&L, balance sheet, cash flow -- they're not going to change. They're always going to be what they are. But the other outputs that are aided by this boom in technology that produces better information on the pulse of the business to understand what's working and what's not, it helps the business drive itself forward in their respective markets. And it all starts with accounting.

Manoj: That makes a lot of sense and it's interesting that you raise technology as being a driver for why the role of a controller has changed. Technology offers so many benefits to functions of just accounting and finance but also requires folks that are adopting the technology to have a fundamental understanding of how it works and to openly embrace it. Do you think that's a key skill for a modern day controller to have, which is being open to technology and understanding how to navigate it? In addition, what other key skills do you think are required for a controller of this day and age?

Mike: Certainly understanding and adopting technologies is a key skill that all finance leaders should have at this point. I mean, there's no more pen and paper ledgers, thank God. It's part of the business world in general and specifically to accounting and finance, it's definitely a skill. On top of that, with the way technology has changed the core function, there are three things that I see as key skills -- patience, flexibility, and persistence.

You must be patient when you're dealing with people within your organization. Not everybody tends to look at an organization the way a controller does, especially if you're in an organization like myself which is made up mostly of creative individuals. You need to have that patience in order to explain your point of view and show them where you're coming from. And going hand in hand with that is flexibility. Given a controller's viewpoint on how an organization should be run you need to be flexible on your stance at times in order to work with sales, marketing, engineering, etc, in order to continue forging ahead with the company goals.

But counter to flexibility is also persistence. There are times when being flexible isn't an option and the controller needs to stand strong and be a gatekeeper, so to speak, and stay persistent on what they're trying to accomplish.

Manoj: All very, very good core skills to have. And I think it has applicability, not just within the organization but also in this real life and more broadly speaking, personal life also. You had mentioned that you work for a company that's fast growing, that has been through significant progress. But I'm sure that that growth was not easy to attain. I'm sure and certain that there were a lot of land mines you folks had to cross and mountains that you had to climb. What particular challenges do you face as a finance leader in a high growth company?

Mike: I think the largest challenge that I'm faced with occurs almost on a daily basis, to ensure that I'm not a bottleneck for progress. Things move fast around here, as they do in many high growth startups. And while proper oversight is needed, as finance leaders you need to ensure you're not hindering progress for the organization. And this is where, again, that flexibility comes in. If you face a problem that needs to be solved in a creative way, in most cases it needs, as a finance professional being flexible to understand and having the ability to pivot when necessary. And being able to do that and having that rapport with the business team leaders will help achieve both departmental and organization-wide goals.

Manoj: Fantastic. Thank you for the insight. Switching gears a little bit, one question that I wanted to ask you, in particular, was about company culture. It seems particularly relevant today with everything that's going on in the world, with high growth companies. Not too long ago, you've heard some of the challenges that Uber had faced with company culture. What are your views on company culture? How do you bring your accounting and finance team together?

Mike: I mean, you're right. Culture is hugely important. I think anyone at any level at any size of organization is going to tell you that. I think specifically to an organization like the one that I'm currently in, we're small. Again, high growth, I think it's extra important for those types of organizations. If people are working hard and fighting for success and making sure that they're doing it in an environment that's not only encouraging but rewarding at the same time and care about achieving that success. And add in sometimes the additional stress factor of fundraising rounds. And culture can be a catalyst of making or breaking an organization.

And the biggest part about bringing finance and accounting team into culture is as simple as being a team player. You know, again, not being viewed as an island. Engaging with employees in and outside of the office, both in a social and professional manner, really help to immerse yourself in your department in the culture and make sure that you're not seen as that bottleneck, you're not seen as that cost center, you're not seen as someone who's just there to say no and make sure that they're not going over on their budget. Just really trying to be viewed as a key player and somebody that is important to the success of the organization.

Manoj: It's well said. It really is well said and it's not something that happens overnight and requires, from what I'm hearing you say, constant awareness and a desire to put culture in the forefront. So thank you for that context. You've clearly seen a lot of things and learned a lot of nuanced lessons over the time that you've spent as a controller at not just your current company but at places you've worked in the past. What would you say would be the most important thing that you've learned about being a finance leader at a growth company?

Mike: I think the most important thing that I've learned is that no day is ever the same. And if you approach it as such, I don't think things will go well. You know, we had this old saying of corporate accounting, it was SALY. And it stood for same as last year. And if you approach financial leadership in that way, I don't think you'll be successful, especially within small high growth organizations or startups. You need to think differently than your traditional accountant. You need to be progressive with your ways of accomplishing goals and the finance role in accomplishing those goals. And taking a step back and viewing it differently from that P&L, that balance sheet, that cash flow and understanding the overall workings of an organization and being able to be flexible and to pivot and to not just go in there and punch in your numbers, do your data entry, and go on home at the end of the day. It's not like that anymore, especially within small high growth companies.

Manoj: Very true, very true. This has been some incredibly helpful pieces of information and tidbits of knowledge. What I'd also like to do with these interviews is allow our audience and our listeners to get to know you a little more personally. So let's do a lightning round. I'll ask you a few quick personal questions, fun questions, if I might say that. What book do you recommend or would you give as a gift to your friends?

Mike: A book called "Eleven Seconds". It's a book by Travis Roy who famously was a college hockey player for Boston University. And his first collegiate hockey shift, he broke his C4 and C5 vertebrae and has been paralyzed since then. And it was 11 seconds into his first shift. You know, I've been playing hockey for as long as I can remember and it's still a big part of my life today. The book itself is just an incredible story that conveyed the importance about setting goals and working hard to accomplish those goals but at the same time staying humble throughout the entire process. And not to mention, just having the courage to overcome the monument of obstacles that he had and staying grounded true to yourself regardless of whatever, you know, hand life deals you.

Manoj: That sounds like quite an inspirational read. I will certainly put it on my next to-do reading list. On that note, if you could swap lives with any person for a week, who would that be?

Mike: Gotta be Bill Murray. The man, the myth, the legend. I mean, he is...there is nothing he does that is not funny, just in every way. And he's an actually genuinely good hearted individual as well, from what I've read and what I've seen, yeah. It would certainly be Bill Murray.

Manoj: Phenomenal talent, for sure. What is your motivational pump up song these days?

Mike: Thunderstruck by AC/DC. It's our old entry song for my high school hockey team and it still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Manoj: That's great. It's a good one. I will leave you with this one last question for...and I think this is something that most aspiring finance leaders and younger accountants who are looking to make their way up to being a controller, what is the single daily habit that has been most key to your success?

Mike: You know, it's actually...I think it's two things. It's both planning and reflection. I think they go hand in hand. You know, lucky for me, I have an hour long train ride every morning to work. And I use that hour every morning on my way to the office to set my tasks for the day and it gives me a great sense of confidence when I walk through the door. You know, however...no day ever goes as planned which is why I think the reflection piece is so important. I use that same hour ride home to go through my day and understand where things went off track so to speak and to take a step back and see it from a different perspective and try to understand how or if I could have done something differently throughout the course of my day to being more successful.

Manoj: That is a wonderful daily habit to have and also, I think is very good advice. There are many ways folks can spend their time on a train or the car, listening to music, sleeping...well, not if you're in a car. But this seems to be a great habit to prep you for the day ahead but also psych you up a little bit, for the lack of a better word. Anybody you'd like to give a shout-out for in your network or in your organization?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. Bob Ray. He ran the North American operation up for the media agency that I was previously working at. He brought me out to the West Coast and was a great mentor during my time there. And also Dan Lemon. He's the founder and president of ViralGains. We've been working hand in hand together now for five months. And I can honestly say there has not been a single day where I haven't learned something. So I'm excited for what's to come here.

Manoj: Phenomenal. Thank you. Thank you for your time, Mike. This, I am certain, will be very insightful and enjoyable for folks who will be listening to it very soon. So very much appreciate your time and I wish you the very best of luck at making a lot of progress at ViralGains.

Mike: Excellent. Thank you very much. Appreciate you having me.

Manoj: Perfect, thank you.

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