Today’s guest is Blake Koriath. Blake is the CFO of High Alpha, a premier venture studio in Indianapolis. Blake does not have a public accounting background, but has great perspective on the industry and hires CPAs!
Grim: Thanks for being here! Tell us about your background.
Blake: I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a double major in business and economics. I chose two majors because I thought it would make me more marketable in the job market. The business program at UNC was a highly rated undergraduate program. They don't have concentrations, the goal is to give a well-rounded business background and education. And I felt like I got that. The funny part is that probably the most valuable class that I took in the business school was Excel. I look back on my time since then, and what I've spent so many hours of my life doing and Excel has been the thing.
Did you ever consider studying accounting?
I never thought seriously about studying accounting because I had this vision of my career being in finance. And while I knew that accounting is important, I never found myself with a really deep interest there. We had a management accounting class in the business program at UNC that I did not enjoy. My perspective is more developed now that I've been able to see more of what a well-rounded accountant can bring to a company. I place a high value on people with public accounting experience. They understand the financial nuts and bolts of business and it's a great foundation for a future career outside of public accounting in a finance role. I think if you can understand the history of the financials, it allows you to do a much better job in projecting out the future financials and understanding what drives the business from a financial perspective.
What did you do after you graduated?
I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. When I got out of school, I thought I wanted to do investment banking or management consulting or something like that. I graduated around the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, so I took the first job that I had an offer for. That was at an insurance company doing claims adjusting, so nothing to do with business or economics. But I learned a ton about how to interact with people and how to defuse difficult conversations. I didn't realize I was learning but looking back, I see a lot of value in what I did. I bounced around a little bit. I thought maybe banking was for me. So I tried that for a little bit as a credit analyst. I worked in finance/accounting operations at a small company in the pharmaceutical space. Then I ended up at a company doing a job where it was really a mix of finance and operations. And I thought that was fun, but the company itself wasn't for me. The real lightbulb moment in my career, and what put me on a different trajectory, was when I ended up at ExactTarget in 2008. I joined the finance team there and the culture resonated with me. It was fast-moving with a lot of energy and passion. Everybody was pulling really hard in the same direction. And everybody had the company's best interests in mind. That's when the importance of culture in business really clicked for me.
Can you tell us more about ExactTarget and your role there?
ExactTarget provided email marketing software. I started there in November of 2008, right at the start of the financial crisis. The company was on file to go public at that time. And with the financial crisis, they ended up pulling the S-1 and waited to go public. They raised a couple rounds of private capital instead. And the company was able to grow through that period. I learned a lot about creating separation in a challenging time. While other companies and competitors were retrenching and playing defense, ExactTarget was positioning itself as the market leader. We were growing, gaining market share and scooping up talent from other businesses that weren't able to play offense. I was on the finance team from 2008 to 2012. ExactTarget ended up going public in March of 2012 and acquired a couple companies in October of 2012. I had a brief stint on the corporate development team after we bought these two companies. I was helping with the integration of everything non-product. It was a chance for me to step out of the hardcore finance world and get into more of an operational role. I think it helped me be a better finance person in the long run. And then Salesforce came along in 2013 and acquired ExactTarget for $2.5 billion. That created a great outcome for the business and for the city of Indianapolis. I stayed on board with Salesforce for about a year in an operational role. I was working in a fast-growing division for b2b marketing automation. I worked with some amazing people there. I was able to learn about how Salesforce integrated the ExactTarget business units right after I was helping integrate the companies ExactTarget had just bought. So I was able to see both sides of an integration within a one year period, which was fascinating. But the time was right for me to go back and do something earlier-stage. So in 2014, I left Salesforce to go work as director of finance and accounting at a startup in Indianapolis that had about 100 people at the time.
Was that right before you joined High Alpha?
Yeah, it was. I was there for about nine months. And it was a great learning experience. It was much more accounting heavy compared to anything I had done before. So that was a really good time for me to learn. Then I reconnected with some of the people that I worked with at ExactTarget who were starting High Alpha and it was a pretty easy decision to team up with them. And it's been a great five years since then.
What is High Alpha?
High Alpha is a venture studio. We're one part company builder and one part venture capital fund. We have about 35-40 people who are focused on different functional areas that can help software businesses grow. We have resources in marketing, finance, HR, design, data science, engineering -- all the ingredients to help an entrepreneur build a software business from scratch. Some of the ideas for companies that we start are internally generated. We'll come up with an idea and then we'll find someone who's passionate to help us build that company. Or sometimes we'll have entrepreneurs who come to us with an idea and they want to partner with us to build a company because of all of the resources that we bring to the table. And then we have a venture fund that invests in the companies we're starting, and also invests in external b2b software companies around the US and Canada. And the magic of the venture studio model is matching up the expertise and talent of the studio team with the capital that allows companies to just go much faster. Founders and entrepreneurs will tell you that they spend a ton of time fundraising. A venture studio allows those entrepreneurs to focus on building the business instead of trying to keep the business financed.
How many companies have you guys launched?
In the five years since we started, we have launched more than 20 new companies. One of the companies that we're excited about is Lessonly, which is learning software for teams. A lot of sales and services organizations use Lessonly to keep their teams up to date on the latest processes and tools that they use to do their jobs effectively. The company is run by a terrific guy named Max Yoder, who is one of the most charismatic, dynamic and caring people that I've met. They recently raised a round of financing and have been growing really well over the last five years. They were one of the first companies started from the studio. They have built a great team here in Indianapolis, have had a lot of success, and the future's bright for the Lessonly team.
Can you discuss your role at High Alpha and what you look for when you’re hiring?
Sure, I’m the CFO and my responsibilities are split across a couple of areas within the organization. One responsibility is for all of the accounting and finance that comes with running a venture studio like High Alpha. The other responsibility is running the day to day operations of our venture fund. As far as what I look for in team members, there are some cultural things for High Alpha that you just have to have. You have to be adaptable, our priorities can change in a moment's notice. We're small, we're nimble, and we're reacting and changing all the time. So you have to be able to roll with the punches. Sometimes that can be harder for numbers people who are oriented towards wanting to be able to control and predict everything. Another thing I look for is people who understand the finances of an organization. I’ve found that people with public accounting experience have learned those building blocks through working with different types of businesses and going through the process of becoming a CPA. And so that is a pretty attractive profile for us. We've had CPAs on the team over the years, they've been awesome contributors. That's always a big positive when we're looking at people for the team.
What career risks have you taken? Are you glad you took them?
I'd say the biggest career risk I took was going to ExactTarget. It was at a time where I was progressing in my previous job. My responsibilities were growing, the comp was growing. But I'd been there long enough to know that I didn't want to be there long term. I took a step back responsibility-wise in going to ExactTarget and that was a risk. It was also at a pretty precarious time for the economy. I remember talking with my parents and my dad saying, “Are you sure you want to go work for this software company? You've got a really nice job right now. And they seem to like you and things are going well.” But I went ahead and I'm so glad I did. I didn't have the insight or knowledge to see what ExactTarget would become and what that would do for my career. It just looked like a fun, interesting, exciting job. Throughout the interview process, I thought the people were very impressive and people I could learn from.
You’ve touched on this a little, but can you talk about differences between finance and accounting?
I'll give you my simplified view. I think of accounting as the scoreboard of what's happened. It's looking back and saying here's what the score is. Then I think about corporate finance and FP&A as looking ahead and trying to project what the score will be in the future. And then you go through this iterative process where you make projections, and then you count up the score and you see how close you were. Then you tweak and refine the model or forecast, and then you do it all over again. Hopefully over time, you get those two things closer and closer together. So I think about it as score-keeping versus score-projecting. They're both so complementary to one another and both are super important.
Any advice to those who are looking to transition out of accounting and into a finance role?
I think it's an easier transition than a lot of people realize. For people in public accounting, the foundation is there. Understanding how the numbers flow through the financial statements gives you such a great head start on understanding how corporate finance works. I find that CPAs that are making the transition into a private company are adaptable, and they provide excellent customer service because they've had to work with clients. They're hard-working, they're working long hours and willing to put in the time. There are so many desirable traits of CPAs. My philosophy on hiring and building a team is that subject matter expertise is less important. You can teach people who are willing and eager to learn. And those that have that accounting background are typically well positioned to jump in and learn really quickly on the job.
My first two employers were very large. I feel like the first time I started to learn about business was when I joined a small company. Any thoughts on that?
As companies get bigger, people specialize. Their areas of focus get narrower and narrower and it gets harder to see outside your own swim lane. I'm biased because we work with tiny little companies and we're helping them with many different things - not just from a finance perspective. Our purview includes sales comp plans, forecasts, payroll, HR items, customer service, software subscription renewals. We see it all. While you may not get deep specialization in any one area, if you can't figure out how one part of the business impacts another, that's going to create challenges. But there's such great visibility across the entire organization. Every department has to work together, especially at that early stage when the company is still small. You just get a really great overview of what makes the machinery of business work.
What advice would you give to current students or those early in their careers?
Early in my career I worked for several different companies. None of them for longer than two years. I was there long enough to learn some things and learn that I didn't love what I was doing. When I got to the point where I'd given it enough of a chance to fall in love with the work - I moved on if I hadn’t fallen in love with it. Life's too short to be doing things that you don't enjoy. And early in your career is a fine time to figure those things out. Don't let yourself get stuck in a position that you don't love. Just move on and find something new. I didn't have some grand design for my career and this progression and the steps that I was going to go through. I had no idea that being on the finance team at a tech company would be fulfilling or exciting or enjoyable. I worked hard. I tried some different things in different jobs. I moved on to something new if I wasn't excited about what I was doing. And eventually I got lucky and found myself in a really great situation. There are always lessons to be learned, even while you're doing things that are not exciting or fulfilling, so don't take those for granted. But also don't get stuck in them.
What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about business and/or careers?
I learned over time that if you do a few things in your professional life, then everything kind of works out in the long run. Those things are pretty simple and two of the three you can control. One is work hard. Show up, put in good work, do what you say you're gonna do. Two is be helpful to people. Be nice to people and be good to people. And then three is get lucky. And if you do the first two, then the third is much more likely to happen. Opportunities will present themselves that you didn't even know existed. Some of those opportunities are going to be the best opportunities you'll have in your career. The last couple jobs I’ve had came about where a month before I took the job, I didn't even know it existed. People try to be so intentional and plan, and sometimes you just have to let that go a little bit and trust that things will work out if you control the things you can control.
What’s after High Alpha?
I plan to be at High Alpha for a long time. I’m convinced that the work that we're doing is important. I think we're pioneering this venture studio model, and it is an emerging way for companies to be built. It's a new form of entrepreneurship. We're making a big impact on Indianapolis. We have started companies that have created over 500 jobs here in Indianapolis and I want that number to grow from there. I think we can create a lot more companies, a lot more jobs, and have a really positive impact on the local community.
In the future I want to share all the knowledge and experience that I'm gaining. I'm doing some of that today - we have great finance leaders in our portfolio companies. We get together and talk, share best practices and learn from one another. I want to grow that network within the High Alpha family and even extend it outside the High Alpha family. I just think entrepreneurship and startups are so important for a community. So I want to share what I’ve learned with people who are starting new companies. I think we can create a lot of positive outcomes in Indianapolis and in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
How can readers connect with you?
I’m on Twitter @bkoriath.
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