Doug Johnson knows a little something about landing a job. Over the past decade, Johnson has worked at seven—count ‘em, seven—companies. For the past two years, Johnson has headed up the finance department at Thinq Learning Solutions, a private E-learning company based in Billerica, Massachusetts.
The route to that job has not exactly been a straight line, however. Before joining Thinq in the fall of 2000, Johnson held the CFO post at Softlock.com, a digital-rights management software company best known for distributing Stephen King’s first electronic book, Riding the Bullet. Fortunately for him, Johnson was able to see the writing on the wall before the company began heading south. In mid-2000, he decided it was time to jump ship. His intuition proved to be right. In 2001, amid the dot-com carnage, Softlock.com ran out of funding and was swiftly delisted from Nasdaq.
Prior to joining Softlock.com, Johnson was CFO at IT consulting firm Aztec Technology Partners. By the time he decided it was time to leave, management at the struggling company was exploring sale options. Aztec filed for bankruptcy last October.
While Johnson has worked at a whole lot of companies over the years, he did spend considerable time at Marriott. During his nine-year stay there, he worked his way up to vice president of finance at one of the hotel chain’s divisions, a $250 million business. Johnson says his early experiences at Marriott were critical to his professional development. “I’ve found that the large company background has made investors realize that I understand the types of controls and systems that are necessary for managing a growing company,” he says. Over the course of his career, Johnson has managed both public and private financings totaling some $300 million. Last April, he put together a $20 million private financing for Thinq.
Johnson recently spoke with CFO magazine’s Alix Nyberg about the art of knowing when to leave a company, the value of networking, and the importance of keeping up with technological developments.
Many of your previous companies, including Discreet Logic, Aztec Technology Partners, and most recently Softlock (now Digital Goods) were struggling financially when you left and later went out of business or were acquired. How do you know when it’s time to go?
It’s usually connected to relationships, particularly with the CEO. At least three times, I’ve had a new CEO come in [after the one who hired me], and you just know they are looking for different things in a CFO.
I’ve also worked at companies that were very low on cash. When I was at Softlock, for example, we were down to two or three weeks of payroll in the bank at one time while we were raising money. I didn’t leave the company then. Instead, I worked with the CEO to raise the money. We eventually got out of that hole.
In instances when I did decide to leave a company, it was usually because I felt that I wasn’t adding any value. The new Softlock CEO [Scott Griffith, who joined in 2000] wasn’t interested in my advice. He thought he had all the answers. So I left because I wasn’t adding value to the company, not because the company was going down. If I’m not adding value, particularly when I think there aren’t ways to keep the company from going down, it just doesn’t make sense for me to stay there and go down with it.