Welcome to the next in our series of ‘5 Questions With…,” an article series that profiles CFO RoundTable members as they share their thoughts on their careers and professional development.
In this article, we chat with Michael Cohen, CFO of Birchbox, the discovery retail company changing the way women and men shop. Birchbox redefines the retail process by offering consumers a personalized way to discover, learn about and purchase the best beauty, grooming and lifestyle products.
Prior to Birchbox, Michael served as the CFO of Associated Content, one of the first crowd-sourced media companies, and helped lead the company from its early stages through its sale to Yahoo!. Before getting involved in the world of NYC startups, Michael worked as the Director of Finance for ESPN, where he helped grow the company’s brand extensions, including their New Media, Consumer Products and Publishing businesses.
Prior to ESPN, he was an Associate and Analyst in the Mergers & Acquisitions group of Deutsche Bank Securities. Michael is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he received a BBA from the Ross School of Business. Michael is also a founding member of The CFO RoundTable NYC Steering Committee, where he helps to develop and produce timely and compelling programs for NYC CFOs. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and baby daughter.
Describe your career path for us.
First, let me say that my career has not been marked by actively ‘managing’ the path, rather, being receptive to new ideas and opportunities.
Not having a clue about what I wanted to do coming out of school I focused my efforts on investment banking, and joined Deutsche Bank right after graduating. I spent a few years as an analyst and an associate, and while I enjoyed the time there, I knew it wasn’t a career for me. Most of my peers were joining private equity firms or going off to hedge funds, but that really seemed like an extension of what I was already doing. So I bided my time until I found something inspirational.
I had a ritual every day at lunch where I would spend 10 minutes on ESPN.com. It was just my moment to not think about work. (Editor’s note: We all do it. Don’t lie.)
One day I saw a link on the site that read “Join our Team,” and I saw a NYC listing for a financial analyst. I read the description and kept thinking this is me. I applied immediately, and started hunting for any connection I had that might be able to get my resume in front of the decision makers.
Shortly afterwards, I joined ESPN as an analyst. It was a great experience for me, and turned out to be a hybrid role of pure financial planning and analysis, coupled with playing partner to the general managers for strategic planning, organizational development, general strategy and day-to-day operations.
It was at that point in my career that I realized that I loved what I did. I liked bringing a little common sense to the table, and helping people get to good answers
A few years into my ESPN experience, an old colleague had joined the start-up Associated Content as its first non-founder CEO. Shortly after he started he called me and offered me the opportunity to come in and chat about a position. I was on the fence about it – after all, at the time, Associated Content was still an unknown startup, and there’s inherent risk with that. I was in a good place at ESPN, having been promoted several times and gaining exposure to new business models, so I wasn’t sure that I was ready for a risk like that.
…Everyone, at one point
I was even on the fence when I got the offer itself. It wasn’t until I received a memorable email from the founder who advised me that everyone, at one point or another, should work for a startup. There’s nothing like it. That advice left a mark on me, and I immediately took the job. I still have that email by the way.
I joined as the Director of Finance, and was thrown into every chaotic aspect of the business. I saw the passion and drive that everyone had, and felt all of my technical and ‘soft’ skills clicking together as I partnered with the ideas people. The work itself was so interesting to me, and while I enjoyed my time at ESPN and Deutsche Bank, I found startup culture so refreshing. There were no politics. Everyone was focused on finding the solution as quickly as possible, and no one was afraid to fail. It was fantastic to see the immediate impact of your work, big or small.
I was exposed to a host of different things, and was privileged to work with an amazing board of directors and team of mentors. It was about a year and a half into my time at Associated Content that I was promoted to CFO by the board, and it was a really wonderful moment to get that recognition from a group of that caliber.
That is pretty incredible. I find it interesting that you embraced the chaotic nature of startup culture, especially after working with more conservative, risk-averse organizations.
Absolutely. Working with startups will push anyone out of their comfort zone. I’ve found that it’s a delicate balance between always being grounded in data, but also relying on your gut and instinct. After a while, you have no problem setting audacious goals and feeling confident that people will get there.
In fact, over the next two and a half years, we transformed the company, and sold it to Yahoo!. After helping guide the team through the sale process, I transitioned out of the financial scope to help focus on the transition of Associated Content into Yahoo!.
I had spent a year at Yahoo! and worked with some really great people. Gaining another year of pure operational experience was so valuable. But at the same time I missed the energy of the startup life and I was ready to get back at it. And, after spending seven years in media, I was really intrigued by some of the e-commerce companies popping up in NYC.
I would say that this is the first and only part of my career that I actively managed. I researched lots of different companies in NYC, narrowed it down to a shortlist and worked through my network to help make introductions. That’s how I met the co-founders of Birchbox. I was so impressed by the two of them – their idea and the team that they were building, as well as the clarity of their vision and passion behind it.
I joined them over two years ago as the CFO, and haven’t looked back.
Media and ecommerce are two entirely different industries. Where have you seen the biggest differences?
This company has
First, the growth at Birchbox has been a rocketship, both before and since I’ve joined the company. Associated Content’s growth was also phenomenal, but it was a more metered pace. This company has an amazing community, lots of engagement at all levels, and fantastic growth, and it’s been awesome, energizing and humbling to help manage that growth.
Secondly, not so much related to industry, but both media companies I worked with had an ‘all boys club’ feel. At Birchbox, our staff is over 75% women, dealing heavily with beauty products. It has been wonderful and refreshing to get to work in that environment.
What’s exciting for you as a CFO?
Being among startups and in environments that are completely chaotic seem to be the environments in which I thrive. I don’t have lofty aspirations. I don’t want to run a 300 person financial organization. What makes this world exciting for me is that the environments are small with passionate, energetic people who have a clearly articulated vision. I get to work across all teams and see the relationships between them, and how they impact each other. It’s certainly a unique perspective that I’ve come to appreciate over time.
It’s also exciting to be a part of the process of the whole company, not just the financial aspect of it. For example, I’m able to have a voice in some of the creative decisions of the company, such as what marketing resonates with me, and what doesn’t, or how our brand is positioned. I think that’s too rare, and I appreciate being able to get involved in that side to help shape the voice of the company.
It’s the frenetic pace, the collaboration, the crazy ideas and the freedom from fear of failure. It’s the ability to help those crazy ideas come to life and watch them work (or not work). And it’s the willingness to learn, to try new things, and to innovate, that really drive my passion for my work.
Of course I have to ask – what’s the one thing that you could do without as a CFO?
I find tax codes to be the most archaic and baffling things that I have to deal with. They just get more complex every year, and it truly stifles innovation. It’s as if they don’t want people to grow businesses like this, or have any notion of how difficult it is for young, new companies to thrive and gain their foothold. Federal, state, local – it’s idiotic.
I think every CFO everywhere can agree with that one. As you work in multiple capacities in your company, tax codes included, how do you stay on top of everything?
I’m the first to admit that I’m never the smartest person in the room. I keep great people around me who know more about those things than I do. I know my limitations, and I’ve hired great people along the way to help fill those gaps. I rely heavily on them to help keep me informed.
We also have a great stable of advisors, our audit and tax partners, and our investors who help keep us in shape. Externally, I look to groups like The CFO RoundTable NYC or other small networks of e-commerce startups in NYC who bounce ideas off of each other, offer solutions, and so on.
Of course I also subscribe to lots of stuff, like retail, accounting and technical trades, but, in the end, there’s no way I’d be able to keep up with any of it.
Any final words that you’d like to share with our CFOs?
Always surround yourself with good people. Be open to new challenges, and make sure that you’re always learning. Always seek counsel when you need it. Strive for balance in your work and home life, and never lose your perspective. I oftentimes find myself saying “no one is going to die” in meetings if we’re getting too caught up over something. After all, our company brings surprise and delight to people, and we should enjoy it too.
But most importantly, have fun. Most of us have to work, so you should spend your time with amazing companies who offer great opportunities and challenges. All you need to carry with you is a little common sense.
Many thanks to Mike for sharing his time and thoughts with us! For more “5 Questions With…” articles, please click here.
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