Doug Ireland is the VP of Finance at Prezi, the zooming presentation software as a service with over 60 million users. He built and leads a finance and accounting team of seven outstanding professionals in San Francisco and Budapest. Doug has ownership of financial planning and the accounting and financial reporting processes.
We sat down with him ahead of his presentation at the CFO Rising West summit, which takes place in San Francisco this October 16-17.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in finance and what first sparked your interest?
I was a sales engineer at AT&T before business school. I found that I was solving the same problems all the time, and I had no visibility of or influence on the larger business. As I looked at the roles in the company that worked on interesting problems, had greater visibility and influence, it became clear that Finance was in a great position. In business school I focused on finance and came out into an investment bank, which gave me an intensive apprenticeship and allowed me to work with CFOs across the industry. After four years I returned to technology in my first in-house finance role.
How has the role of the finance function changed over the last decade? What do you see as having been the main drivers behind this?
We now expect all candidates to have the ability to write their own SQL queries and perform statistical analysis in addition to financial analysis. The growth of data sources, and the ease of access for analysts has made it much easier and more important to go straight to the data warehouse. We have also automated much of the reporting, so more time is available to dig into the 'why' of variances.
What do you see as being the most important thing to consider when forecasting during a period of sustained growth? What else can finance leaders do to drive growth?
We are often asking how things could be done faster. Is it structural, or is it resource constraints that we could alleviate with the right business case. On the flip side, it is important to maintain a vigilant stance when everything is moving 'up and to the right', because it becomes easy for managers to get over their skis on commitments. We use historical results of similar initiatives to temper the optimism built into projections coming from business units, and build in stage gates to ensure that projects get funded as they reach milestones, and re-examined if they miss. This allows us to fund riskier growth-oriented projects with the confidence that they are not going to become money pits.
What do you see as the finance function’s role in innovation of new products?
We get involved at a couple of stages. First, we make sure there are resources for forward-looking product experimentation and development that is not tied to the short term goals of the business. We use a 70:20:10 framework so 10% of our engineering resources are allocated to projects with timelines more than two years in the future, 20% to projects more than a year away, and 70% for this year’s priorities. Next, we work with the product team to define stage gates for further funding of promising projects. Once a project becomes a product we spend a lot of time working with the marketing and product organizations to define the market position relative to existing products and the appropriate pricing for new products. Finally, we work on the launch plans and metrics required to gauge market reaction, and after launch measure the ROI of go-to-market programs.
Do you see new technology as having made your life easier, or has it also introduced new complexities? Which technologies do you think will have a major impact on your role and company this year?
Technology has been terrific for the finance and accounting functions. We have automated and integrated systems to reduce both clerical effort and the potential for errors. Having an audit trail on every transaction, every approval, and every payment improves accountability. We recently acquired a data visualization company called Infogram.com, and have moved dashboards and reports to that platform to reduce time spent creating charts and graphs in our Prezi presentations. Reducing lower value work increases the time available for analysis and working with internal partners to improve the business. There is a strong potential that AI and machine learning approaches will be applied to the first level of analytical work soon, identifying cause of variance and flagging issues for follow up, creating even greater leverage for finance teams.
What do you foresee being the major risks you face at your company in the near future? What do you think presents the greatest challenges for finance leaders over the next year? Do you have strategies in place to overcome these?
The biggest risk to a fast growing software business is typically the new entrant you never heard of, doing something exciting that distracts buyers or worse, challenges your relevance. Prezi has a number of excellent moats that protect us – presentations that enable cross-platform visual rendering at infinite zoom levels is a hard problem; we have a huge library of reusable public presentations that inspire people and provide network effects; and we offer the basic product for free so can’t be undercut on price. Our challenge is to open the platform to allow more integrations so our users can insert any existing work product into Prezi.
What will you be discussing in your presentation? Is there anyone else you are particularly looking to hear from?
I’ll be talking about our experience at Prezi moving from one product to a successful product portfolio. Fast growing software businesses generally start with a single product that solves an important problem for a specific buyer. The move from a one product company to a multi-product brand is an important step in the development of a long-term sustainable growth business. I'll show how Prezi planned and executed the expansion into adjacent markets with a build-buy-partner framework.
I’m looking forward to watching the panel on Strategic FP&A moderated by Brian Kalish.I’ve known Brian for quite a while and he is a real expert on FP&A, so I am looking forward to the perspectives he’ll bring out on the panel.
You can hear from other industry leaders like Doug at the CFO Rising West summit. View the full agenda here.