Interview with an Entrepreneur | Chief Financial Officer of CloudFactory

By Shuer Luo - Duke University - NextGenVest College Fellow - Hangzhou, China

Cary Smith is the CFO of CloudFactory, a technology startup based in Nepal, which uses a combination of the latest technology and an amazing global workforce to bring production lines into the realm of digital work. Before bringing to CloudFactory 23 years of experience in finance and accounting, Cary has worked as CFO for JBoss and many other companies. He loves adventures, and if an adventure does not exist, he will create one.

I met and interviewed Cary in American Underground in Durham, NC, where one of the offices of CloudFactory is. He had a magic of making professional knowledge accessible and personal stories insightful.

What your job is about? What do you do for a day? 

I work for company CloudFactory, and my role is the Chief Financial Officer. What that means is basically financial responsibilities, entailing a lot of collaboration and teamwork. I participate in strategy making, representing the financial considerations in particular, including cost of sales and acquisition and developing a product.

And of course within the business, a lot of come-up for me during the day would be meeting with different functional heads, so I may be with the Sales, VP and engineers for an hour to understand what he’s spending, why he’s spending and how we forecast revenue, kind of getting the view of our future. It helps me to have a broad perspective.

Currently I’m spending time mentoring a guy we just hired. My background is accounting in the past 10 or 15 years, so I was actually doing a lot of the bookkeeping for our US Company, and I’ve got an account over our Nepal Company and our Hong Kong Company as well, which I’m mentoring the guy for.

What are the skills that your job especially requires?

Soft skills I would say interpersonal skills, the ability to not to be abrasive. The careers of a lot of the accountants get stifled, because they sometimes lack this kind of interpersonal skills. So for a more executive role, you have to collaborate with people, and you have to force policy and send difficult messages in a way that they can at least be received. Good communication skills – I mean I have to be able to communicate with our investors, our board and other members of the management team, who may not have financial expertise, so I have to communicate financial information to them in a way that is useful and meaningful.

There are certainly some technical skills in terms of understanding accounting – debits and credits, how to consolidate books and a lot of spreadsheet skills.

Why did you choose finance as your career?

I actually changed my majors at college four times. I started in physical education – I played a ton of sports in high school, and I loved sports so I thought I wanted to be a coach. About a semester in, I felt like I could coach and still pursue another vocation, so I changed to financial management, and that came super easy to me, and I always love math and am pretty proficient in math. I talked with my career advisor, who suggested that I might consider about public accounting, so I did switch to accounting and enjoyed the classes. And there was another component that these guys have come to campus and interviewed seniors, and I wanted to be part of that, so I made good grades and got hired.

Why did you decide to join CloudFactory when you’ve been very successful in other companies?

Yeah, so that requires looking at a little bit history. In college I had a minor in Computer Science and realized that I didn’t enjoy computer programming so much, but I love technology. So I want to work in software companies in Atlanta where I lived. Then I worked for a company called MindSpring, growing with them, and found another startup company called JBoss in Atlanta. I quickly found out that I don’t like big companies, like I joined MindSpring and we grew it to about 1.4 billion dollars of revenue, and I just didn’t enjoy my job anymore.

(So you really enjoyed working with a startup.) I do. I like being able to see a real impact on the organization – kind of to clearly see my contribution. After the success in JBoss, I got to work in a college for seven years. While I was in that college, I got to know CloudFactory, which is about Java, developers in the cloud and international companies, all the stuffs that I love. It even has a stated social mission of creating a million jobs for disadvantaged people, basically. I interviewed with the CEO and really loved it, so I decided that it was the time to get out of that college environment again – I didn’t like the academics so much, slow-moving. (You love challenges, don’t you?) Yes, and fast pace, so it just seemed like a great opportunity.

CloudFactory was built and based in Nepal, so what’s special and different about it compared to other US companies?

Well, there’s a lot different. There are not many technology companies being started in Nepal. The way it started was a Canadian going on vacation there and really connecting with some college students. His care for them and his desire to mentor them almost get back to the same concept – by being in Nepal, we can actually see the changes, because CloudFactory has a measurable impact on the country of Nepal. You can’t do that in the US much, so I think that’s really cool both economically and socially, which definitely makes our company quite unique.

Are you willing to share with us the biggest challenge or the biggest mistake you’ve met or made in your professional life?

Oh yeah, I don’t know if I can point a particular event necessarily, but I think early on in my career, I was somewhat idealistic from an accounting perspective. What I loved about MindSpring is the culture of transparency, the ability to come into a room and just kind of say what you thought, felt or believed without worrying about politics as long as there’s trust and respect. I think I did that to a fault without giving any considerations about politics, so over the years I kind of mellow to where I consider more about other people’s perspectives and found that a lot of times you lose effectiveness when you’re too abrasive, so sometimes you need more patience.

College students are always idealistic about things they want to do after graduation etc. without really considering about the realities. Thoughts? 

Yeah, but there’s also a lot good about that. I mean college grads start companies like Microsoft and Facebook against the headwinds that a lot of people say they can’t do it, and these traits helped them accomplish that. So there’s a place for it, and part of the learning is just to understand when is the right time to dig in and when is the right time to back off, and you just learn experiences by experiences.

Is there anything that you learned in college and think has a life-long impact or anything you wish you could’ve learned in college?

Just be totally candid, I would tell you that I think the college experience is necessary, because there’re a lot of disciplines you learn in terms of study. There’re technical skills I learned about accounting that is necessary to help me get a job, but there’re things that you can’t learn in the college when you go into business. There’s guy who come to the classroom and tell you what entrepreneur is about and what you should look out for, but until you experience it, it’s just a kind of head knowledge, and it’s really difficult to be in the place. You find yourself in this situation and kind of go “oh yes, this is what he was talking about”. So I think college is really helpful but it can’t displace experiences, and the combination is really necessary.

For students who also want to work in the financial industry in the future, what would you suggest on better preparing for their careers?

First you’re going to go to college, get good grades and work hard. I mean you develop these habits and characteristics in college. You won’t be successful if you’re lazy. And demonstrate ambition, all the normal things.

I would say the two things that people sometimes overlook are first network, especially in the junior year meeting people in the industry that you want to pursue because that’s what ultimately gives you opportunities into a job, and second I’d say internship, because I think getting real hands-on experience like in a summer at your junior or senior year is really important and helpful. First of all it helps you understand whether you really enjoy the job or not, because some people would find out that they hate it – it happens. I think the statistics is like 80% college students get into a job and then quit. And the cool thing is that at the same time you’re doing that, you are making connections. So that company you’re interning at may be your future employer, and if not, they know everyone else in that field, so they can help you connect if you’re successful in it.

What are some pieces of personal daily financing tips that are easy to adopt for people who probably don’t want to work in financial industry particularly?

Well, live within your means. Honestly a lot of people don’t know what that means, because I think American culture tends to encourage people not to live within their means. I don’t say that a perfect amount of debt is wrong, but I mean you don’t want to find yourself in financial stress because you borrow too much unnecessarily.

I’m not a proponent of not borrowing at all and just saving for years. I’m saying get a mortgage, be smart of what you buy, and for me it’s better to pay an amount of money to build equity than throwing money away for rent. It’s still about live within your means. There are things that are common to everybody, but not many people do them. I think college students need to understand that, because there are so many things they would spend for in the fifty years after graduation.