Kent Elmer is a CPA with over 25 years of broad-based experience ranging from “Big 4” public accounting to CFO level positions at a variety of public and private companies. As the managing partner of TechCXO, Kent is currently providing CFO and related services to early- and growth-stage technology companies. Kent began his career at Arthur Andersen & Co. After gaining a strong foundation, he made the transition to the private sector. His public company experience includes various positions including controller and CFO of a NASDAQ-listed software company, IQ Software Corporation. He has also been the CFO of a number of early- and growth-stage technology companies in both software and hardware, including Carecentric Solutions, Inc., Digital Furnace, Inc., and R.F. Solutions, Inc. In addition, Kent spent time on the West Coast with Broadcom Corporation assisting in the acquisition and integration of over ten early stage companies in a twelve-month period. In 2003, Kent founded TechCXO, an executive level professional services firm focused on providing fractional “C-level” services to high-growth companies in the technology industry. Through TechCXO, Kent has assisted dozens of companies in various stages of their life cycle. Kent’s clients have raised over $250 million in equity and debt financing.
Tell me about your early career.
I started in public accounting at Arthur Andersen & Co in their small business group. I didn’t care for public accounting but gained a great, broad-based foundation for business there. I went from there to be controller, then ultimately CFO of a small publicly-traded software company in Atlanta – IQ Software Corp. After we sold that company, I was CFO at four startup companies, all of which were sold within a year of my joining.
How did the concept for TechCXO come about?
I moved back to Atlanta from the West Coast the early 2000s after the tech bubble burst. I was here with two houses, three kids in private school, and no job. There were no technology CFO positions available in early/growth stage companies because all the VCs were triaging their current investments, focusing on keeping only the core tech and sales folks. I approached several of the investor/board members of my previous startups and floated the idea of an outsourced accounting/finance solution. I had no intention of making this my career, but rather was looking for something to do to keep me sharp and bringing in some money until the tech economy turned around. Because I was a known entity, I got a number of “takers” right away.
How was the first year in business?
The first year was tough and fun. I got early traction and really enjoyed
what I was doing. My pitch was “my firm can handle all your accounting/finance needs,” but “my firm” was just me. I would do CFO-type work during the day and then after the kids were in bed, I would go back to work and do all the accounting/controller work. My clients would be billed separate rates for accounting/controller/CFO resources – it was all me! After nine months of my wife asking me when I was going to get a real job, I told her that I thought that this was my real job.
What was your marketing strategy?
Initially, I simply walked the halls of the tech incubator at Georgia Tech, knocking on doors and talking to entrepreneurs about their needs. I also reached out to every investor that had been a part of the companies that I had worked for in the past. It was pretty clear that this was a referral business. I didn’t have a website for probably two years.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I think that I did about $75,000 in billings the first nine months. It doubled the second year. At that point, I was out of hours in the day so I looked at adding partners. I added two partners in early 2005 and immediately the business tripled. It has been growing at a healthy pace since then. We have been on the Inc. 500 or 5000 every year since then.
How do you define success?
I define success in this business as providing great service for our clients, enjoying the people with whom I work with, learning from really smart entrepreneurs, and being in control of my own destiny. Oh yeah, need to make a decent living while you are at it.
What is the key to success?
Do something that you really like to do and are very good at doing. Doing the hard work that you have to do in the first few years in order to reap the benefits of a healthy business in the long-term is critical.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Reputation is everything. Never do anything to tarnish that.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Work is work and that is why they call it work.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I was on vacation and I woke up to an email from a customer who told me that they were firing us. It was the first time that had ever happened. I had turned over the account to a lower-level resource and did not follow up on it properly. My stomach hurt for the rest of the trip. As soon as I got home, I set up a meeting with the CEO to apologize. He was gracious, but still fired us.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I am extremely competitive. I cannot stand to lose.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Find something that you are both passionate about and become an expert at it. Most successful businesses are very simple applications that someone is simply better at than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself and take a risk. No one will care more about your business than you do.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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