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.
In fact, [at Softlock] I had just raised $15 million, so in some respects, the fact that they ran out of money shows that I was right. There was plenty of money left in the bank when I left.
How do you explain your employment history when you’re interviewing for a new job?
I’ve interviewed with CEOs who think that if you haven’t been at a company for at least 10 years there’s something wrong with you. Well, they’re obviously not going to hire me, and I’m not going to waste time worrying about the fact they’re not going to hire me. They’re simply looking for something different.
I try to convey the type of CFO that I am. I’m not an accounting CFO; I’m not somebody who just closes the books and does numbers. I do have a CPA background, but accounting is not my strongest point. So I work to have a very strong controller who sets up the control environment in the office, behind me. I’m an external CFO. I like to spend much of my time outside the office giving talks, going to meet investors, and meeting customers.
I try to get that across to the CEO early on, because if I don’t and he’s expecting something different from a CFO, then we’re not going to have the right relationship. I need him to understand where I can add the most value. If he’s looking for just a really strong accountant, he should go hire a really strong accountant. I’m the outside guy.
How do you communicate your skills as the outside guy, given that you’re talking about more intangible things than the hard numbers that most CFOs talk about?
I do talk about the businesses I’ve been with—the growth in revenues they’ve had, and the amount of money I’ve raised. But I think it’s more important to be able to build relationships, which takes time. If a CEO is looking to do a 45-minute interview and make a decision, we’re probably not a right fit for each other. We need to talk for a longer period of time and really get a good feel for whether we could work well together.
During your time at Thinq, the company’s IT department has gone from reporting to the CIO to reporting to the CFO. Do you consider this an asset or a liability?
Actually, IT has reported to me at nearly every company I’ve worked for. One of the reasons I like keeping it is that IT is really about understanding what technology a company needs in order to be efficient—and recognizing that sometimes putting in a new technology doesn’t help. So I think having someone who’s not a technologist to oversee IT is a benefit.
Keeping up with the changes in IT is probably the most difficult thing to do. I need to read about the industry and about the business, and I just don’t have the time to do detailed analyses of the thousands of technologies out there. So I try really hard to have a good director of IT or VP of technology and let that person teach me.
Given your past experience at landing jobs, what advice can you offer CFOs who may be looking for a job now?
Networking is by far the best way to find a job. Nearly all of my positions have come from networking. I just call a list of people I know and I get each of them to refer me to at least 3 people. I then call those people and get 3 more names from each of them. You might talk with 300 or 400 people, but in the end it pays off.