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Working in Accounting for a Tech Startup

Via Accounting Today : Between HBO’s Silicon Valley, news of tech startups going public at premium valuations, and the allure of all-inclusive corporate campuses, the tech industry has never been hotter. For accountants, opportunities in the sector promise a mix of enjoyable work environments, significant growth prospects, and a change into something more dynamic than traditional public accounting.

The appeal is very real—and justified—but may not be for everyone. Helping lead a business to new heights requires a unique skill set, demanding flexibility and a thirst for learning. To understand more about the ups and downs of accounting in the tech sector, The Accounting Path has been speaking with accountants in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, from companies like Netflix, Airbnb and others.

Here are some of the big things they learned.

The jobs don’t stay static—you have to be ready to explore

In a world where “hypergrowth” is a common term, it should be no surprise that things can change quickly. Companies like Zenefits are growing astronomically quickly, with revenues in 2014 jumping twentyfold and growing again this year at record pace. It’s a rate of change that is just not experienced in public accounting or many other corporate environments.

The side-effect is that, where a manager at a Big Four firm can see with relative certainty what their day will include, and can assuredly predict their three– to five-year career path, accountants in the tech and startup space have no such luxury. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in the tech industry, you need to bring a willingness to adapt and learn as new challenges are thrown out. Whether it’s learning how to conduct global consolidations on the fly or just seeing a need to create a new function and developing it yourself, the rapidly changing business will demand you have a flexible and proactive approach. You will be an explorer.

Get dirty

In most corporate roles, well-structured support systems have been ironed out over years of ongoing operations. Manager roles have established teams to support them, and accountants have a network of systems and resources at their disposal. While there’s always some level of reinvention and upheaval, most senior accountants will be managing people as much as anything.

For anyone considering a shift into a technology startup, be prepared for interview questions involving “rolling up your sleeves,” “getting dirty,” and “being in the weeds.” This is the reality of startup life. Even senior managers need to have the skills to go into SQL databases and solve a problem. It’s partly a question of resource constraints, and partly an attitude in the industry that everyone should be able to solve a problem thrown their way. It isn’t always glamorous, but it gets things done quickly.

Stability is an option, but it comes with tradeoffs

Silicon Valley and the broader tech sector are built on the ethos to fail fast (so you can ultimately be successful sooner). Depending on who you believe, somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of startups fail. As observers, we hear more about the successes at Facebook and Uber than the 10 to 20 startups that failed around them, with each failure taking their own share of accountants to the unemployment lines. For many, this is a virtuous cycle, filled with hope and optimism for eventually striking binary gold. For others, this threat of lost paychecks will have them looking the other way for a more stable option.

For the more risk-averse, joining a startup at a later stage (Series C or D funding and beyond) can greatly improve its stability, but will also sacrifice the potential upside on the equity that you could earn. It’s a simple matter of risk vs. reward and finding your place on that curve. The later stage the tech company (all the way to the fully formed Googles and Salesforces of the world), the more stability you’ll have, but the closer you will be to a “normal” job. While the culture embedded in these companies still fosters innovation and excellence, your opportunities to take the bull by the horns and build entirely new departments or functions will be limited. It will still be a great experience, although without the cut and thrust of a startup trying to solve the world’s problems from scratch, but perhaps that’s perfect for you.

Choose Your Own Adventure

At the end of the day, there is so much demand, opportunity and diversity in the startup world, it is an opportunity for everyone to write their own story. There are undoubtedly risks, cultural differences to public accounting, and a demand for flexibility, but each of these can be mitigated partly by the companies you pursue. All the accountants interviewed by The Accounting Path as background for this story stated they wouldn’t go back and change their story—that the tech world, with all its nuances—was right for them.

Jon Liebtag has experience across banking and Silicon Valley, spanning financial strategy, accounting, and business development. He currently works in one of the biggest startups in the Bay Area (Airbnb) and holds both a bachelor’s degree in business administration and an MBA.

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