Accounting in Tech – Revenue Operations at Airbnb

CPA entrepeneur

The Accounting Path is doing a several part series taking a closer look at different areas of accounting in the tech startup world. We will be talking to several members of Airbnb’s accounting team to learn more about their roles, the paths they took, and what working at one of Silicon Valley’s hot startups is like.

Carlton is a Senior Manager of Revenue Operations at Airbnb. He started his career working across a variety of clients at the mid sized firm Frazier & Deeter. The broad experience he gained there provided him the skill set necessary to jump into the dynamic atmosphere at Airbnb. There, he has helped build out the Finance function and grown into his current role, which encompasses Revenue Operations, AR, and Cash.  

The Accounting Path: How did you end up in accounting?

Carlton: I didn’t know anything about accounting. It was the last thing on my mind. I got into finance and accounting in college almost 3 years in. My first three years were pre-med chemical engineering major. I had an epiphany that I wasn’t excited enough about medicine to spent 10-12 years finishing that out.

The Accounting Path: Nice that you were able to pivot that far into your course

Carlton: It is never too late. I spent the summer sitting in on classes to figure out what else was interesting. When I sat in on entry level finance and accounting, it just clicked. It made sense, and I liked the organization of it. The professor who taught that class became a mentor and showed me how the discipline of accounting could be applied a variety of ways.

Carlton: At a young age, no one is going to be really specialized. It’s crucial to build a broad base and understand theory across the entirety of the financials before you can dive deep.

There are a lot of nuances you need to explore before picking your direction. At that stage, the best way to get into accounting is to move into public accounting, build out your skill set, and learn about different industries and how GAAP applies to them. If you go from school to industry, you tend to have a very narrow exposure to what that business works on.

The Accounting Path: For someone who knows early on what they want, what is the best way to learn more?

Carlton: I’d say that if you have a decent understanding of business, you should find an internship. It’s never too early and smaller firms would be a great place to get exposure. You will start to understand how transactions roll up into financials and how users of those financials make business decisions. Another great way to learn is, if you are interested in a company like Apple or Nike, download their 10Ks and see how they operate. Starting there gives you a perspective on the energy, time, and resources that go into that document. It’s never too early to start learning about the business environment, so read the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and other business publications.

The Accounting Path: Walk me through life after school

Carlton: One of the major differences in my path is that I decided to go to a small firm, not one of the Big 4. I was on that route and had gotten an offer from every one of the Big 4. In fact, I had planned to go to Ernst & Young because of the clients I would have had the opportunity to work on. The clients you work on and your engagement team have a significant impact on your experience. However, I knew that I didn’t want to be a Senior working on a team for 120 or 130 hours a week. I happened to be at a social at a Partner’s house, and the lady in charge of recruiting just looked beaten down and tired. It was a signal that the work life balance was off. I had a conversation with a mentor of mine, Jim Frazier, who was an adjunct professor with his own public accounting firm. His firm seemed to have a more entrepreneurial spirit and different approach to management.

The Accounting Path: Did that path offer the same exposure and experience you would want at the Big 4?

Carlton: Yes. They addressed a lot of my concerns about being at a smaller firm: name recognition, client exposure, and compensation. There were a lot of firms that couldn’t make up for those, but I thought Frazier & Deeter could. It was small compared to the Big, 4 but it still wasn’t a tiny firm. It gave me the opportunity to get the Big 4 experience without have to do the same slog. One of the coolest things is that at smaller firms you get more exposure quicker. Instead of working on 1 client, I had around 15 different clients. I was exposed to international companies and a really wide variety of other areas like tech, financial services, energy, and manufacturing. By the time I was a Senior I was doing things no one in a Big 4 would be doing.

The Accounting Path: How was the work different from Big 4?

Carlton: It was accelerated. You had less people doing the work and there were higher expectations of your client engagement ability. Being at a medium size firm was a fantastic way to learn really quickly. We mirrored a lot of what the Big 4 did and the way they approached the work. Having such a broad portfolio of clients also helped me understand the types of businesses I was interested in working in. At that time I was also heads down on a straight partner track, but I became more disenchanted with that lifestyle. I didn’t really like the approach you need to take towards clients. There was a sharkish attitude around building business and the portfolio. The other big item was that you don’t feel a ton of ownership due to the consultative nature of the relationship.

The Accounting Path: How did you make the decision about where to go when you left public accounting?

Carlton: I specifically chose Airbnb as a company. When I was thinking about the type of company I wanted to work for, I was hyper focused on being at a place where I used the product and believed in the brand. I didn’t want to chase prestige. Airbnb was really small at the time and I was just really impressed with the founders. It was really inspiring to hear their story and what the company could mean, so Airbnb was the only place I applied.

The Accounting Path: How has your role changed since those early days?

Carlton: One of the major sellers was having conversations with the Controller and realizing that there wasn’t a lot of foundation. This meant there was a big opportunity to build things. From an operational standpoint, I got to learn about what an accounting function looked like and how you developed it. Since then, my role has changed significantly. The team is a lot less scrappy. It was fun to do lots of different things, but now I have focused on Revenue which also includes Cash, and AR. I have really enjoyed identifying a need and then building out a function around that need. Thinking back over the course of the years, the most exciting part has been working outside of the function to build things across the organization.

The Accounting Path: What opportunities do you think are unique to smaller company like Airbnb?

Carlton: I got the chance to develop processes and work across the organization. If you look at the talent we have been able to attract, it’s a lot of people coming from big companies because they start to get bored. If you are the type of person who gets complacent when you don’t have the opportunity to learn and things aren’t dynamic, you look for a change. It’s why people are leaving a lot of the larger tech companies.

The Accounting Path: What do you look for when trying to identify someone who will succeed?

Carlton: The first thing is flexibility, particularly in this environment. For very traditional accountant types that can be harder than it seems. At startups, and especially hyper growth companies, things change all the time. You have to be really nimble to keep up. A large part of that is teaching; communicating what can be a very complicated topic to people who don’t necessarily have a finance background. You have to think of creative solutions because you want to make sure you don’t slow the company down. The only time people associate accountants with creativity is when they think about doing something wrong. They think of big accounting scandals and people are trying to tuck profits away, but there is a ton of creativity in the field.

The Accounting Path: Would you do it all again?

Carlton: Yes. I’m really glad with where I ended up. If I could do it all again, I would have gotten a more diverse and varied business background. Because I got in later, I didn’t have the opportunity to explore more and build a broad business skill set. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s never too late to go back, because you can really do it at any time and I’m super appreciative of the skills that I’ve learned over the course of my career.