Jeff Shouger’s experience as a finance executive is extensive. He has served as Director of Finance at Proteolix, VP of Finance & Chief Accounting Officer at Zynga, and most recently, is leading all of Finance at Niantic, Inc.
So, it’s no surprise that when I had the opportunity to interview him recently, his answers were full of valuable and actionable insights.
During our conversation, Jeff discussed what it takes for a finance person to be successful at a startup, how to know if it’s the right time to change industries (he switched from biotech to gaming), and the best way to support visionary and entrepreneurial CEOs. This interview is filled with advice for both early and late-career employees.
Leslie Boudreaux: Congrats on the job at Niantic Labs!
Jeff Shouger: Thank you.
What was it like interviewing with Niantic, one of the hottest companies in the Bay Area?
It was very exciting! Pokémon GO changed the gaming landscape and the world in 2016.
I think after having the early experience from Zynga I was able to recognize how disruptive Niantic was going to be. So, when the opportunity presented itself to create and build the finance organization from the ground up I was very excited.
I bet. What’s a day in the life like over there within finance? I’m sure you’re wearing a lot of different hats.
Things are moving really fast. There are definitely multiple hats in terms of planning, accounting, tax, and business development. A typical day for me at Niantic is starting early, 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., and staying until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. No one at the company is missing anything important in their personal lives such as birthdays, anniversaries, but we are working hard and it is a lot of fun.
That sounds very manageable, though.
Yes, it is. From a cultural perspective, we recognize the importance of people’s personal lives and the need to give everyone meaningful work that is interesting, challenging and builds their careers. Our executive team is very seasoned and we are focused on building something scalable. This means we spend our time on the really important issues that will move the business forward.
I’m glad to hear that because it’s obviously not that way in a lot of startups. Ever since you left Ernst & Young, you’ve been drawn to entrepreneurial companies. How did you know that’s what you wanted to do? Why did you make that choice versus going to a larger and more established company?
I think for me it’s the opportunity to be impactful and to be closer to the executive team. People can leap years in their career based on the right opportunity. Silicon Valley provides a platform for exponential growth if people are up to the challenge and want to take advantage of it. It is a lot of hard work, though.
Your first venture out of EY was in biotech, right?
How did you think about moving from EY to Proteolix?
One aspect was thinking about where I wanted to go in my career and how strategically that company fit into my long term plan.
When I was looking at Proteolix I recognized the company did not have a large pharmaceutical company partner and their primary drug had a “fast track” designation with the FDA. For an early stage life science company with a product in Phase II development these two factors were big differentiators and gave Proteolix a lot of flexibility to grow.
In addition to the how the business was set up for growth, I was going to be a Corporate Controller, lead the organization, and work closely with the CEO, CFO and the Audit Committee. All of those factors lined up into making Proteolix a great opportunity for me and resulted in our ability to sell the company in late 2009.
How did you wind up moving from biotech to gaming?
I played a lot of games growing up; Tecmo Bowl, Madden Football, Zelda, Sonic. Playing games goes all the way back to the Atari for me. So, right out of the gate I could always relate to gaming, but the attractiveness of Zynga at the time was its tie to growth on the internet and social networking. On top of that, the team that I was going to work with was on a scale much larger than I had previously experienced with Proteolix. Zynga had the opportunity to be a billion dollar business and have operations all across the world. For me I was able to build a large part of the finance team and work with some really high caliber people.
When I consider people deciding whether to leave public accounting, one of the things I think they should be mindful of is where a finance person can be most impactful. Typically, in finance this is when the product is in the early stage of proving itself in the market and the company needs help to accelerate growth and scale.
Zynga provided the opportunity for me to learn what it takes to build a high performing finance organization during exponential growth – they hit several key milestones including adding 1 billion customers, $1 billion in revenue, and raising $1 billion during their initial public offering. Those experiences lead to major learnings I leveraged in my next role.
That’s great advice. What are some other things someone should be thinking about if they are considering going to a startup in finance?
You really have to think about whom you’re going to work for and with. I was fortunate to work for great mentors, including Mark Vranesh, the original CFO at Zynga. Mark was an Ernst & Young alumni as well and really appreciated the value added by the finance team. He was and continues to be very supportive of career development.
What do you think is the best way to support visionary and entrepreneurial CEOs?
Patience. [laughs] There is a trick to it. I was talking to somebody about this the other day.
I would say be careful about being too diplomatic and political. Entrepreneurs want to hear your opinion. They might shut you down on it, but they want to hear it. You need to have enough confidence to say what you believe, people are paying you for that.
That’s one of the exciting things about it! What does it take for a finance person to be successful at a startup outside of that critical CEO relationship?
You need to figure out a way to get great mentoring and support, which can be challenging in the fast pace of a startup. You also need to be able to dissect risk and get on a path to being more accurate over time. That said, you can’t come in on the first day and refuse to publish financials and reports. You have to publish something and set the stage to improve the reporting over time.
Right. Like the 80-20 rule?
Yes, that is one of the best things our team at Zynga had early on, a great calibration of the 80-20 rule, and then we went back and fixed things later for the audit. We did this with the understanding that we were on a path to greater accuracy in time for a public offering.
Switching gears, what do you feel like is the best decision you made in your career so far?
Zynga, without a doubt, was transformational. The opportunity to work on a massive IPO and experience that level of growth and scale was a key inflection point in my career. I also appreciate the fundamentals I learned from my experience at Ernst & Young, and the network it helped me build. Ernst & Young set the stage for me to take advantage of the opportunity at Zynga and build out the teams at Zynga and Niantic.
What are you the most proud of?
The Zynga IPO was a great milestone, but ultimately I’m most proud of building strong teams and helping the people I worked with gain great experiences and grow in their careers.
I take the most pride in that.
I think that’s one of the key characteristics of a leader: mentoring and developing future leaders and recognizing that that is a key responsibility.
Is there anything you learned somewhere along the way that you wish you had known earlier? Any struggles?
There have definitely been challenges. I wish I would have learned to be more empathetic early on in my career. When partnering with teams outside of finance, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s important to be able to look at the situation from a lense less focused on controlling costs and consider downstream effects.
How do you recommend getting the perspective of your business partner so that you can actually advise versus control?
When you have the opportunity to work with the business it is important to listen and internalize their experiences. I would recommend shadowing people and getting out in the field so you can experience their challenges first hand. That will help you relate to the business and be a better advisor.
That’s great. Is there any other advice that you’d give somebody who’s just starting out in their finance career?
I advise them to really consider whether they have passion for what they are doing. Ensure they are generally curious about what they are learning and excited about how finance and the numbers tell a story about the business. That will be what ultimately drives career aspirations and satisfaction over the long-term.
Passion is the key to longevity in any career. What are you most interested in learning and how are you interested in growing over the next five years?
I want to become a more effective communicator with the finance team, the executive team and the Board members. Improving communication skills will result in stronger partnerships with all functions. This is key for my continued growth.
My wife and I saw Vint Cerf speak at a presentation in San Francisco. People call him the father of the internet. He worked on a team that put together the initial internet back in the 1980s at Stanford University. As I was watching and listening to him, I was thinking, “Vint didn’t create and invent the internet himself, but he’s the one who’s out there giving that presentation.” People talk about him as the “father of the internet” and I’m thinking “Why is that?”
What makes Vint different from everyone else is he’s a great communicator. He was able to align and motivate the teams to do something incredible. He sits on the board of Google (among other companies) because of his ability to bring people together. He’s speaking on a big stage now about his experiences and where the world is going. To me, it demonstrated the importance of being a thoughtful and inspiring leader. I want to invest more time developing that skill set.
I also want to learn more about data science, artificial intelligence and augmented reality as their convergence will play a big role in the future of technology.
What do you see Niantic doing in the next five years?
We are positioned as a leader in the Social, Geo, and Augmented Reality gaming space. You’re going to see deeper and more immersive experiences in social networking platforms and in gaming. At one point people thought the world would jump straight into virtual reality, but augmented reality is proving to be a stepping stone to virtual reality.
What you are going to see from us are new games and a continued investment in Pokémon GO. You are going to see live events that synchronize and relate back to the gameplay. You will see live events both on a small scale and large scale like the Pokémon GO festival in Chicago with 20,000 people and the Pikachu Outbreak festival in Japan that had 2 million visitors. With these types of events, there will be a lot of different gameplay and features. It’s an exciting time for the company itself. This “Summer of Go” has been very successful.
That’s awesome. So, virtual meets reality.
Exciting times – for you and the company. Thank you so much!
Definitely. Thank you.