Over the course of the next few weeks, The Accounting Path will be 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.
To start, we sat down with Melissa Montgomery, Airbnb’s technical accounting manager. She has vast experience, from Big 4 accounting to Airbnb. During the interview she talked about how she got into accounting and why it’s important to get Big 4 experience. We also dive into how to make the transition into a private company, and what accounting skill sets tech startups are looking for.
Accounting Path: Can you tell us a bit about your career path in accounting??
Melissa: I’ve never been one of those of those people who knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. I went to Cal Poly, where you have to declare your major as a 17-year-old before you start school. I chose business because I knew it was general enough that I could do a lot with it. Once I got in, I took different classes to try out different emphases: I did an HR class, a business strategy class, and a few others. I liked finance the best, and it was easy to do accounting on top of that.
Accounting Path: It seems many people start in business and finance; how did you move into accounting?
Melissa: When I was looking for an internship, I didn’t like the idea of banking and that’s what I thought of as finance. Investment banking sounded like such a grind, doing things for clients over and over again. The Big 4 accounting firms came in, and it seemed very exciting at the time. I didn’t think accounting was what I wanted to do forever, but in audit, you had the ability to go to different clients, to understand their business, and that appealed to me from a career perspective. You also get an idea of how their business works.
Accounting Path: Was accounting what you expected it to be?
Melissa: When I interned, it was hard because in your earlier years, you are just looking at bank statements, exactly what you’d expect of a typical auditor. However, after your first year or two, you start to get a holistic understanding of what’s happening. You understand accounting and financials, and that was what I wanted. I originally thought that if I make it a year, it’s good experience and I’ll go do something else, but it got better every year and I enjoyed it more.
Accounting Path: Why did you move from Big 4 audit to Airbnb?
Melissa: At a Big 4, you get very influenced by the types of companies you work with. Early on, I got to work with lots of different venture capital firms, but I wasn’t ready to work for them full time. I had also been working for a bigger public company, and I didn’t want to do that either.
Working with startups that had fewer employees, I found that you could touch more than just accounting. You could work with both financial planning & analysis and operations, especially if the business was at an early stage. I never wanted to be an accountant forever and I wanted to branch into other areas, so this was appealing. Once I was a manager at PWC, I got to a point where I had to make a decision. Did I want to be a partner or not? I had been there for seven years so I needed to move in one direction, and I chose Airbnb.
Accounting Path: Did other people from your PWC class move to other careers?
Melissa: My start class was 60 people, and by the time I was promoted to Manager after six years, only seven were left. Those who had left were all over the map, from VCs to big companies and startups.
Accounting Path: How has your job changed since moving to Airbnb?
Melissa: I was in technical accounting, where it is fairly hard to move. Most accounting industry jobs want you to have both public and industry experience before coming somewhere like Airbnb. It is much less likely that a company will take a chance on someone who hasn’t done a monthly close or something operational. The more common route is to go into a technical-type role since you have the complex accounting expertise, but not the day-to-day accounting skills.
At Airbnb I’ve had the opportunity to work with other teams to help them understand how to account and budget; it’s a more dynamic position. The role has changed as the company has grown – it hasn’t narrowed but there are things I don’t do that I did before. I think entering a company at an early stage helps. If I was at a more mature company, I would get pushed into a particular area.
Accounting Path: If you were going to fill your role, what type of skills you are looking for?
Melissa: I would want someone out of public accounting since they tend to have more exposure. You have to remember when you work at one company, you only get to work on the accounting issues of that company. However, in my public auditing days I got exposure to all sorts of different topics. Since we don’t have those issues at Airbnb, I would have never been exposed to them, but at Big 4 firms you get a wider variety. I think getting experience at a Big 4 first is a huge way to enhance your knowledge because your learning curve is much steeper than if you just go to a company out of college.
Accounting Path: Stepping out of your role, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about accounting?
Melissa: I think the biggest misconception is that people think that you don’t know about business operations and how the business is run. While many accountants are analytical and strategic, it isn’t often associated with the role. I don’t actually number-crunch very often; more often I have to think through strategic issues in my day to day.
Accounting Path: If you had to do it all over again, would you do it the same way?
Melissa: Yes, I wouldn’t have gone into banking or anything. I have thought about potentially going to business school, but as an accountant, business school is kind of irrelevant, and it’s more about your CPA. I think I could have gone to business school to transition into a more strategic finance role, but I definitely would still do business and finance as my path.
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