Today’s guest is Ananth Avva. Ananth, originally from India, started his career at KMPG. Since leaving public accounting he has worked in equity research, in Google’s finance department, and for multiple startups. Ananth is currently the President and COO for Pipefy, a workflow automation platform.
Going from accounting to finance to operations
Over-investing in yourself
Evaluating job opportunities
Really appreciate you being here Ananth! Can you share your background with us?
Sure, I was born and raised in India and came to the U.S. at the awkward time of high school. Fun fact - prior to coming here I’d never seen snow and the winter I came was one of Chicago’s worst winters in 20 years. My dad worked for Motorola, which was the darling of the technology space during that time. But the company really emulated midwestern hospitality and taking care of its employees. The day after we landed, my dad’s boss came by to make sure we had everything we needed. It made the transition extremely positive.
I studied accounting at the University of Illinois. I was considering getting into a PhD program but wanted some real world experience first. I got an opportunity to join KPMG on the west coast and escape the snow. That’s how I kicked off my career and ended up in California.
Can you tell us about your experience with KPMG?
I was very fortunate. During my internship with KPMG I had the opportunity to work on an IPO, a few public companies and one private company. This was right after Enron and the other accounting scandals, so SOX was just starting to be implemented. I was able to get some diverse experience during that short time. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to join full time. I started in the semiconductor space, which was very much old school hardware manufacturing. Over time I switched to some software companies. I was very fortunate to work under some really great mentors who gave me a lot of exposure to different areas of accounting but also general business exposure. That was unique about KPMG, we had a strategic lens based auditing process. We had to do risk analysis, cover the sector, and evaluate underlying trends before we went into the audit. They did a very good job profiling the business and bringing the associates through that process. It was really good experience where it’s not just technical accounting, but also learning about business dynamics.
You left KPMG to go into equity research, is that right?
Yes, that’s right. I really enjoyed my public accounting experience. While I found technical accounting and auditing to be very interesting, ultimately the focus of management was on the future. They would leverage accounting data and the financials to do storytelling and guide investors on the mission of the company. This exposure led me to exploring public equities, and ultimately I got an opportunity to participate as an equity research analyst.
We did sell side research and tried to predict underperformance of companies and their stocks. We were looking into active earnings management and what we called the accruals anomaly. Our analysis included balance sheet strength and looking into the divergence between cash flow and net income. We’d build a thesis around what was driving that from a business perspective and what the catalyst event would be for stock performance. So in terms of using financial data to do storytelling around what’s happening in the business, that role was a natural progression. It allowed me to get deeper into finance while leveraging my accounting skill set.
What led to joining Google?
I realized that I really wanted to work for one of these businesses that I was analyzing. I felt that I could be an agent of change and be a business leader. I got an opportunity to work at Google where I was in finance operations. This was a fairly nascent unit that Google was creating, where we had 400 plus outsource service professionals across the globe that needed to be managed.
What better company to learn from, in terms of processes and scaling, than Google? I learned a tremendous amount in terms of large enterprise companies. How do you build processes? How do you scale compliance challenges? How do you navigate through new product launches? How do you make sure everything's integrated from the front-end to the back? So it was an amazing journey to see what it looked like when everything was humming.
Since Google you’ve held multiple CFO and COO roles. How did you navigate that?
There was a University of Illinois alumni who was the SVP of Corporate Development and Finance at a company called LiveOps. They were a sizable business when I joined, 220 employees and north of $100 million in revenue. They were pivoting their business model from usage-based to SaaS and they needed someone to rebuild their finance organization. So I joined as their VP of Finance and eventually became their CFO.
That was my first foray into finance leadership and it dovetailed into a couple of other roles. I was the CFO at Wrike, which is in the work management collaboration space. Then I moved over to LastLine as their CFO. LastLine is in the cybersecurity space. As I got into those roles, I discovered that in early stage software companies there is a bit of a vacuum in terms of leadership when it comes to data-driven decisions. Especially in go-to-market pricing, product analytics and understanding where a business should lean in. Ultimately the job of a CFO is asset allocation. Especially in high growth environments, you should really look at early operational indicators to guide your decisions. For example, are you building pipeline fast enough in your sales organization? What does that portend in terms of revenue and rep achievement as you scale the business?
So as I got more and more into these roles, I organically got deeper into operations. That translates into my current role, which is the President and COO of Pipefy.
Tell us more about Pipefy.
Pipefy is a SaaS company in the workflow automation space. As a lot of people out there, I’m a knowledge worker. We’re constantly bombarded with different tools and different technology stacks. In the early days of Wrike, everyone thought we were a project management tool. We really tried to explain that we weren’t just a project management tool, that we were in a new category. A new way that people are going to work so they can be productive and organized. Lo and behold, today there’s a category called enterprise work management. There’s a plethora of companies in the space, five of them have gone or are set to go public at valuations well north of $1 billion. Examples include SmartSheet, Asana, Monday, et cetera.
When I think about Pipefy and workflow automation -- what I saw at Wrike and what I'm seeing here is very similar. There's a new category emerging. There's a very candid need for non-developers to build lightweight business applications. I'll use HR requisitions as a simple example.
You: Send the request to HR.
HR: Okay. Is this in the budget?
You: Yeah, it is in the budget. Go talk to finance. We've worked through the details.
Finance: Yes, it’s in the budget.
HR: Okay, What’s the level and compensation?
You: Level 3, $120,000
HR: Who will they report to?
On and on
There's all this traffic back and forth and there's this notion of decision fatigue. Both sides get flustered. Email as the communication channel forces each party to do input, output, input, output. We're seeing the desire to take that away and build real digital experiences for both parties.
With Pipefy, you can build a simple form and preconfigure a database that includes all of the pre-approved headcount increases. If the request isn’t approved, it automatically gets routed to the appropriate finance person. The request is then routed to HR and all the data is there because you’ve built your intake request form in a structured manner. You’ve now automated a process that used to go back and forth between multiple parties six or seven times.
These processes -- HR requisitions, purchase requisitions, supply chain management, customer operations, territory management, and sales operations -- we call these long tail processes. There aren’t necessarily pre-configured verticalized products that can handle these cases. I don't know what the category is going to be called, but there is going to be a new category that's going to come out of Business Process Management (BPM) platforms for citizen developers, specifically. I have experienced the pain as a user, specifically as a knowledge worker, and I feel really passionate about it and I do want to solve it.
My current role is the President and COO here at Pipefy. I oversee go-to-market and G&A initiatives. We’re bringing this vision of next generation low-code/no-code BPM application platforms for any knowledge worker, not just developers, and empowering them to create business applications to serve their needs and their user's needs. That’s why I'm here. That's what got me really excited about this opportunity.
Can you share a few finance or accounting workflows that your customers have built?
With 3,000 customers across the world, we’ve seen everything. The most common ones are purchase requisitions, expense reports, and the like. But we’ve also seen very complex applications where financial institutions have built their entire loan application process on top of our platform. To be clear, I mean the bank operations person can do that themselves without any knowledge of coding, programming languages, website security, et cetera. That person can spin up a simple website with an intake form. Pipefy takes that information, looks it up against the customer’s CRM to determine if they're an existing customer. If they are, the system checks their credit score and does other third party validations. Based on those inputs, the customer is automatically approved for a loan based on pre-configured rules. Alternatively, the customer could get routed to a credit analyst and go through some checks and balances prior to approval. Processes can be built in for SOX purposes or for internal risk management purposes.
The best way I would describe Pipefy is ultimately we're a platform that can solve any process where you have to have a structured intake, that then goes through certain algorithms and generates an output. We're integrated with about 500 different applications. The use cases are truly limitless.
How do you evaluate new job opportunities?
I think about joining a company as investing your scarcest resource, which is your time. That's 8-12 hours a day away from family and doing other things. So there's a pretty big opportunity cost. Venture capital investors say they’re not investing in businesses, they're investing in people. And that's very true for an executive joining a team. You're investing your time in that person, in that team and the company. So bringing the same diligence and the same sort of skepticism when you're evaluating investments will serve you well.
I look for positions where I feel that I can have an impact on the outcome. Most of the time, I'm partnering with a strong technical founder who shares a deep passion and vision for the space that they're in. I really look for folks who are very deep subject matter experts in their field. I’ve worked for companies that had successful exits. Of course a good outcome, like an acquisition, is great. But at least for me, the journey is just as important. Make sure that you’re going to enjoy the ride with people that you respect and that you feel good about.
There’s no single answer. If you’re looking to get into the startup world, exercise that diligence and make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Once you have that self-awareness, it’s just a matter of making sure that you’re the right culture fit and then enjoying the ride from there.
What advice would you give to anyone early in their career?
The common advice I heard was “do things you’re passionate about and good things will happen”. I had a professor who said that was terrible advice. If you look at successful people, it’s not like they woke up one day and knew what they wanted to do. My career has been a discovery, stage by stage. Instead of “do what you’re passionate about”, I would say to figure out what you’re good at. If you’re very good at something, you’ll probably end up becoming quite passionate about it over time. It will enable you to do all kinds of other things.
So for me, finance came naturally because I liked numbers and liked to analyze them. That led to data and data-driven decision making, which I’ve become quite passionate about. I like to build stories around numbers. But I’ve discovered that, in order to find what you’re really good at, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Don’t play it safe, especially early in your career. Really push yourself to the limits to see how good you are at that thing you think you’re good at. That’s how you can achieve mastery and that’s how you progress.
What are some learning resources or methods that you’d recommend?
A lot of reading helps. I was one of those geeks that read the Wall Street Journal front to back. I really enjoyed the classic HBS business cases and the amount of detail they provided. Many folks will say the best way is to learn by doing. So if you’re interested in startups, go be an entrepreneur. You may fail but the learnings will be amazing. I personally did not go down that path. But I’ve always invested in continuous learning. I started with the CPA, then did the CMA, then my CFA and my MBA. So I over-invested in technical skills. But when I talk to investors or our board and they challenge me on growth or burn, I can lean on those skills. Especially early in your career, I always recommend to over-invest in learning.
The second thing I would say is to pick good mentors and to listen to them. I made this mistake. I had the mentors but I wasn’t very good at taking their advice. But listening to others and managing the variety of interests from an EQ perspective becomes very important for long-term success. Eventually your role changes from being the smart person in the room to hiring those smart people. The transition from individual contributor to leader is an interesting journey. You need to make sure that you know how to manage people.
Who do you look to for business or career advice?
It’s not one person, it will be very situational depending on on the circumstances. It’s not shocking that I go to my wife. She knows how I think and my flaws, like every wife does. But she’s really good at keeping me honest on how I’m thinking about a decision. Oftentimes I also look for advice from folks who are reporting to me. You get some refreshingly interesting insights and ideas when you do this.
When people come to me for advice, I always say look for signals. I’m just one perspective and I don’t know what’s happening right now on the ground. I’m not in your shoes to know exactly what you’re going through. So I always solicit multiple opinions and leverage the wisdom of the crowd to make important decisions. I seek a collective of insights to help educate my decision.
What does the future hold for you?
I really enjoy working with technical founders and being a very effective business partner to them. I've always thought of myself as bringing great ideas to market and scaling them. I envision myself doing that for quite some time. I also enjoy mentoring, coaching and building leaders. It’s interesting how dynamics and demographics have changed and now more people are looking to be entrepreneurial. They have access to capital so it's an exciting time to be in this business and see all the amazing ideas that are coming out.
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