The Millennial Startup Controller

“Controller” is a weird word. If you are familiar with the finance and accounting industry, you know it generally refers to a high-level accounting position, often the head accounting person reporting directly to a company’s CFO. I always thought that somebody unfamiliar with the job title might find it odd. What exactly are you controlling? Everything? 

When I think of a Controller, I think of my first “adult” job at an international E&P oil and gas company. I was an entry level accountant, but worked in a department with a couple hundred financial accountants as well as the Controller of the company, Kathy. And Kathy was a machine. She had been with the company for over 20 years, and was considered a legend in the department. Kathy could answer any GAAP question you threw at her off the top of her head, along with the subtleties of successful efforts vs. full cost accounting under IFRS (S/O to O&G accountants everywhere). If there was ever a dispute over the accounting treatment of any transaction at all, Kathy was the final authority on the matter. Not only was she a great colleague and resource, but she was also responsible for “closing the books” at the end of each monthly, quarterly, and yearly reporting period. This meant fixing any mistakes and ensuring ALL accounts were reconciled for every business unit and cost center across the entire company. As a 22 year old staff accountant, I couldn’t even imagine dealing with that amount of detail and responsibility.

I later went on to work for a bigger oil and gas company which was ranked among Fortune’s “Top 100 Places to Work” in the US year after year. That company was structured differently from the first, so I never met to corresponded with the Controller at that company, but I can only imagine the workload was even more demanding.

At 24 years old, I found myself working as a Controller too.

It sounds like I skipped ahead, but I really didn’t. That’s the funny thing about it. All that changed about me was my environment. I parted ways with the Fortune 500 company, the skyscraper, the cushy benefits and the 5,000 coworkers. I found myself working for a local startup healthcare company with 6 employees with an office less than a mile from my house. It couldn’t have been more different than what I was used to, but within days I knew I never wanted to go back to working for a big company.

Startup is a sexy buzzword these days, with the recent years of phenomenal success of small, quirky companies in places like Silicon Valley seemingly turning what we thought we knew about business on its head. I read and hear about people all the time now calling themselves entrepreneurs and making plans to launch their mega-successful tech company and get rich like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg did. The freedom and independence of “being your own boss” or “calling the shots” can be an intoxicating idea. But make no mistake, startups are hard and the day-to-day is far from glamorous.

For instance, when I began working at the healthcare startup and needed to hang a whiteboard in my office, guess who had the job of buying and hanging it? When the computers or phone lines went down, guess who was suddenly in charge of IT? When the men’s room ran out of toilet paper or we ran out of envelopes, guess who was running to the store at lunch? As we all heard in Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. If you want the freedom and authority, you also get the responsibility and ownership. If you don’t want to be fully in control of the entire spectrum of business operation and management, it can be tough going at a startup or small business.

Which brings me back to the job title. At any small business, job titles are more a function of how many people are involved than the prestige of the title. For instance, if you started your own company and are the only one working on it, you are basically the CEO by default. In my case, as I was the only one looking handling all accounting functions, therefore I was the Controller by definition. Of course, with only a few years of experience and no master’s degree or CPA certification, I couldn’t have strolled into a place like Exxon Mobil and expected to be taken seriously as a candidate for their Controller job. I’m no match for somebody like Kathy, after all. But that didn’t change the fact that on my new smaller stage I had the same level of impact and responsibility for the success of my company as a Fortune 500 Controller would for theirs. That’s the thing I love the most about working for startups or small businesses – the immediate and significant impact you can have. That’s why I’ll never go back.

What do you think? Have you worked for companies of varying sizes and felt a difference in what kind of impact you could have?