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It's often the case that the more one learns about a topic, the more one realizes how little he actually knows compared with the available information. John Kogan, CEO of the ad-free online corporate finance community Proformative, characterized his experiences as a four-time CFO in this manner. "The deeper you get into it [and] the longer you've been around, the more you realize you can't know it all," he said. "Not only does nobody have all the answers as a CFO, nobody has close to all of the answers."
In addition to Kogan's four stints as CFO at a variety of technology companies, he has also held finance roles at Cisco and AlliedSignal (now Honeywell). At one point, he attended an event in Silicon Valley that planted the germ of the idea for Proformative.
"I walked into a room with about 40 CFOs and was struck by what a waste it was that we didn't exist for one another outside of this once-a-year gathering," he said. "At the time I was an avid motorcyclist, and I belonged to a number of online motorcycle communities and I thought, 'This really works for exchanging knowledge amongst my motorcycling friends.' I had this idea flash into my head about an online community for CFOs." He forged a connection with the CFOs at the event through their shared venture firm, and the site was founded several years later, in 2009.
Today, Kogan is in a unique position to observe the trending topics that finance executives are buzzing about and to reap knowledge from his peers around the world. With this month's debut of the Proformative Exchange -- a new part of the community that allows members to review and rate finance technology products -- Kogan hopes to make it easier for finance executives to select systems and services based on qualified opinions from peers, a process that frustrated him in the past.
Online reviews could facilitate finance technology buying decisions
In the age of Amazon and Yelp, it's not only easy to find what's on the market for a variety of products and services, but also read about the experiences of fellow consumers. However, Kogan said selecting and vetting enterprise software purchases in his CFO roles was much more difficult. To illustrate the point, he relayed a story about researching expense management software.
"If I wanted to find a TV, I could find every TV that mattered in the world," he said. "[But] here I was looking to drop five to six figures on an expense management system for my large, rapidly growing company, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the options were."
He realized that the problem wasn't his searching abilities after calling a few of his professional acquaintances. "I found out that nobody knows what's available. Everybody knows what they have, and when you ask them, 'What solutions did you look at when you were [deciding]?' they come up with maybe two [others]," he said.
Kogan eventually compiled a list of vendors through online searches, which he had little context for. When he signed on with one, he wasn't thrilled with the decision. "We spent a lot of money on it and it worked OK, but we did it blind despite our best efforts," he said. The process "really crystallized for me that this process wasn't optimal."
Having experienced this pain firsthand, Kogan explained that he is now trying to make the buying process simpler for his peers through the Proformative Exchange. The Exchange allows members to write reviews of finance products for a variety of functions, such as budgeting, planning and forecasting, cash management, business intelligence, and ERP. Each review is vetted by the Proformative team, Kogan said, to ensure that the poster is a corporate finance practitioner has no affiliation with vendors. However, to view or write reviews, site visitors have to complete a free Proformative member registration.
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Kogan said he expects the Exchange will be especially helpful in the proliferation of finance technology that he's observed over the past decade. At both AlliedSignal and Cisco, he used Oracle systems, he said, and while there were incremental upgrades over the years -- sometimes significant ones -- there weren't many options on the market. However, this has changed in the wake of cloud computing. "The variety and number of applications available to the office of the CFO have just exploded," he said. "And it hasn't only exploded in cloud -- the cloud has pushed the traditional on-premises folks to become more creative. It's an exciting time to be in finance."
Besides the products-focused Exchange, Kogan said he has reaped a considerable amount of insight from the process-focused community forums.
"I've picked up some great tips about how to manage accounts receivable -- how you can most effectively collect from customers in a timely fashion, and also how you [should] set up your contracts to ensure that you have timely collection," he said. "I've also seen tips from my peers about how to do venture fundraising. So having these great conversations with other CFOs, [saying], 'This worked when I pitched to our private equity investors' -- those are great tips, which you honestly can't buy."
CFO is now chief internal officer, primed for CEO role
Kogan named two characteristics that, in his opinion, are critical to being a successful CFO: The desire to learn and the ability to listen.
While many people view a CFO as a company's head accountant or someone engrossed in "debits and credits," Kogan said CFOs today can more accurately be described as "chief internal officers," helping business units such as IT, HR, manufacturing and operations optimize their processes. And this role requires strong listening skills. "One of the things I've picked up is the importance of listening -- going to your business partners and asking them what they think and really listening [is] part of understanding how you can do your job better," he said.
Kogan also said CFOs should have a desire to learn about various business functions and technologies in order to understand where their help could be useful. For instance, Kogan said he spent time on the weekend in manufacturing during his time at Cisco to gain perspective. "I wanted to see how these materials went from line items in [the] Oracle ERP system to a finished product," he said. "You just have to be hungry to learn, whether it's debits and credits or marketing [or] operations." He added that as an increasing number of CIOs report to CFOs -- the case in all four of his CFO positions -- a CFO should surpass merely keeping the lights on and instead work hand in hand with the CIO to use technology to make the organization more effective.
And as CFOs continue to deepen their knowledge of the internal organizations within a business, Kogan said he expects more of them will rise to assume the CEO position in coming years.
"I would not be surprised to see a lot more CEOs coming out of the CFO ranks," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years ago I would not have said the CFO would become the No. 2 behind the CEO -- it was totally up for grabs. But now the internal operations are so vast and you have to know so much [that] it's an incredibly critical role."