10 Questions for SugarSync CFO Peter Chantel
Name: Peter Chantel
Time with company: 2 years
Education: DePaul University, Bachelor's in accounting, graduated with honors
Company headquarters: San Mateo, California
Countries of operation: U.S., with distribution partnerships outside of the U.S.
Number of employees total: 64
Number of employees the CFO oversees: 4
CFO's areas of responsibility: finance and administration
About the company: SugarSync provides a free cloud-based service that lets users access, sync and share documents, photos, music and movies across all of their computers and mobile devices.
1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I started my first accounting and finance job at CARC in 1988. CARC provides home, educational and work facilities for mentally disabled citizens in the Chicago area. I worked for CARC full time while attending DePaul University full time. I started as an Accounts Payable clerk and eventually ended working for their internal audit department. I wish I could say that the reason I worked and went to school full time was simply that I was smart enough to handle both. In reality, the reason was because I needed to partially finance my own education. However, between my experiences at school and my job, I gauged very quickly that accounting and finance was the right field for me, and I was also able to get valuable real-life experience in those fields while going to school. As a result I graduated from DePaul in 1992 with three years of accounting and finance experience on my resume. That really helped me to jump-start my career.
As far as what lead me to the job today: I have always been interested in companies in the emerging technology markets. To me anything that makes life easier hopefully translates to making the world better. That was true when I was the VP of Finance for AT&T Local South, and we took on local telephone companies in order to spur competition and lower prices. It was true when I was CFO for Signatures Network and we begin online music fanclubs in order to help connect music fans to their idols and help them get their hands on the good concert tickets -- not the scalpers. And it is true now at SugarSync where we help people access their data anywhere, anytime and from any device. I always gravitated to companies where I could not only be financially and professionally successful, but where I felt that I "added value" to the world at large. Hence not surprisingly I ended up in Silicon Valley, the birth place of many innovative companies such as SugarSync and emerging technologies such as cloud.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
First of all, let me just say that I've been very lucky that in every position I have held, I have had a supervisor or a boss or some type of a mentor that the universe aligned me with so that I was able to learn something new and grow as a person and as a professional. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two people who were very influential in my life. The first one who will always continue to have a lasting effect on my career is Robert Kerris. Robert was the Vice President of AT&T Local at the time when he hired me. I was a senior financial analyst with AT&T when Robert and I met. He pulled me from the Chicago division where I literally was just a bean counting peon, and he gave me my first opportunity to work in a managerial/finance role as a controller for AT&T Local in New Jersey. Over two, years Robert mentored me and helped me develop management, reporting, presentation and leadership skills that still define me to this date.
The second person was Tom Frank. Tom was the CEO for Akimbo Systems when he hired me to be Akimbo's CFO. During the tenure at Akimbo, Tom helped me polish my "rough edges" as a leader. He really taught me how to make tough decisions, how to be very comfortable forming an opinion based on facts, and how to present both the facts and my opinions to various groups. To this day, Tom is one of my best friends and confidantes.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
The typical answer is the economy or the financial markets. These always posed either an opportunity or a challenge or both to CFOs. However I think there is even bigger emerging challenge that is beginning to affect CFOs and organizations today -- it's the ever-changing technological innovation. I cannot recall any other time in the past few decades where technology has been changing so fast. I think this has phenomenal effects on the companies we work for, not just internally -- such as having the best CRM or billing/accounting system -- but also externally, such as the expectations that customers have for the level of service organizations need to provide or the immediacy of expected results. I needed and I wanted "right here, right now."
What excites me at the same time is the fact that today a startup with just a few hundred thousand dollars can implement an accounting system or a reporting system that a few years ago only multibillion nationals could afford. The field for achieving efficient and effective results depends less on how much money you have, but on how nimble the organization is and if management is aware of the new and better service providers.
SaaS companies like SugarSync don't have big installation fees, or long term contracts, and if another company comes along that does things better, you can switch very quickly because it's all in the Cloud, it's all online. We are well aware of this at SugarSync. So we continually innovate and improve to make sure that we continue to lead the consumer cloud space.
Managing this fast technological innovation, making sure that the organization is using the best of class services while it itself continues to be best in class, is a real challenge for CFOs and other executives.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
I'll give you an example of my day today. I got to the gym at 7 o'clock in the morning and while I worked out, I created a list in my head (and my phone) of the things that I have to do today. I came to work around 9 a.m., and I begin working down the list. On a good day, I get down to the bottom of the list. If that happens I go home smiling. I usually have somewhere between 25 and 30 things on the list to begin with. Some of them could be really simple tasks. One could be as easy as sending a cap table to one of my VCs. Another could be as time consuming as re-forecasting the next 36 months. I do not remember having a shorter list than 25 though. Nor do I remember ever getting completely to the bottom of my list...
I used to use a notebook to write down my list. Lately I write my list on my iPad, which syncs via SugarSync to my Android phone as well as my work PC and my home Mac. That way I can always access and add/delete my list on the go even while I am at the gym.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I feel I'm very open and very enthusiastic. I'm also extremely passionate about what I do. I wouldn't be sitting here, I wouldn't be at this company, if I wasn't excited about it, if I couldn't evangelize about SugarSync. Every single minute of my day, if I have an interaction with at work or outside work, I show my passion about this company because it needs to trickle down to every person I touch and to every employee that works at SugarSync.
I also try to be very objective. I think that comes from my analytical background. But I don't use my objectivity the way a lot of CFOs do -- as negativity, as a way to squash ideas that cost money. Instead, I like to use my objectivity to convey my passion. CFOs are in a fantastic position because they know the numbers and have the ability to analyze those numbers then relate the information to the team. There is inherent trust in what CFOs say because we are so close to the money. It is just a fact. So we should use this power in helping people get energized about the organization. We get the privilege of translating the data into layman terms to help get employees understand how the company is doing and to help them get excited.
If something wasn't accomplished, if a company doesn't meet the revenue expectations or something like that, then the CFO needs to say that. But the CFO doesn't have to be the "no" guy who turns down new ideas based on cost without fully evaluating them within other terms, such as marketing potential, advertising potential, morale potential.
For example, we have an open policy here at SugarSync, where we share with all of the employees not only the board package but how we're doing month-to-month. A lot of employees [at other companies] don't have the full picture of how the company is doing and I don't think that is beneficial. I think employees appreciate having the full picture.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
Technical ability is a must. If you're hiring someone for, let's say, a senior financial analyst, you want to know that they have the technical ability or the experience to give them the opportunity to succeed in the job.
But I also look for other qualities. They have to show me that they are absolutely passionate about something they've done in their career. I really push them and I watch their body language as they answer to see for example if they were just a body on a large team or if they were a dedicated team player on a team. Resources are scarce so you want to have someone who can not only do the job but who is also very passionate and is willing to be part of a team.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
On the technical side, I will ask them technical financial questions. I ask them real-world questions, every day technical questions. If, for example, you purchased something and it was a capital lease, how do you determine if it's a capital lease or an operating lease? They don't have to know the answer to the question, but they have to know where to find the answer, they need to know there is a difference between an operating lease and a capital lease.
I also ask them what did you do to step out of the box of your previous job -- what did you do to set yourself apart from just what was required of you as part of your job description? If they can't answer that, then they are probably not a good fit for a small organization.
Lastly, I look for the passion. When they talk about their prior jobs, I want to see the sparkle in their eyes. I want to hear that there was something about their past jobs that really triggered their appetite, and that they were excited about a job, a project, a task. If I see it, it tells me that they can do the same while working at SugarSync.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?
This is a very good question. I have to tell you, I am really one lucky CFO. I can honestly say that I am at the right place and at the right time. I love this job, I love this job, I love this job. I'm working for an extremely cool company in an emerging and fascinating market -- the cloud. I work with a team that is absolutely superb, from the receptionist to the CEO. I am amazed at the quality of the team we have assembled here at SugarSync. And I work for a company that is changing the world for the better. I know that may sound like a cliche, but if you think about it, SugarSync is helping our customers to more actively and consciously consume their data. We are helping people collaborate more easily. We are liberating users from being tied to a single platform, and we are helping people access their data from any place, any time, and on any device. How cool is that?
I personally defined my vision for myself long time -- I wouldn't work at a company that just focused on profits. Profits are means not the end, means to do even better to innovate faster. There must be a deeper "value add" to what the company does in order for me to be passionate about working there, and I must continue to grow and be challenged. SugarSync meets all of the above and more.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
On a daily basis, good dinner and conversation will do, so when I get home I'll have a good dinner and conversation with my partner. On the weekends, I can sit in front of my piano for hours without end and play and compose. That absolutely unwinds me and connects me to everything else. I never went to school to learn music -- I've learned to play piano on my own. It is something that just came to me. It is as fantastic as it is perplexing when I think about it.
10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
I would be launching a new startup. I come up with at least one idea per month. I have so many ideas and so many projects and I can hardly count them. I usually run them by my friends, and I file the ideas for later. So if I was not at SugarSync I would be launching a startup, there's no question about it. I know there will be a time after SugarSync when I'll get the opportunity to turn one of my ideas into a new company and yet another adventure.