Trailer Episode

The Intersection of Digital Transformation and Customer Experiences with Zhi Li of Customer.io

As customer expectations continue to evolve, marketers must adapt by delivering more personalized, timely, and efficient communication. This is where the online marketing platform Customer.io truly shines.

Customer.io enables tech-savvy marketers to engage with their customers in a more meaningful way through emails, SMS, push notifications, and more. For the fast-growing SaaS companies that Customer.io serves, this capability could translate into stronger customer relations, higher conversion rates, and increased scalability.

In this episode of The Modern CFO, host Andrew Seski talks with Customer.io CFO Zhi Li about his nonlinear career path, the impact Customer.io can have within organizations, how marketers can use AI as a fractional assistant, and more.

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Please note that the transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. The content in the podcast is not intended as investment advice, and is meant for informational and entertainment purposes only.

[00:00:00] Andrew Seski: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of The Modern CFO Podcast. As always, I'm your host, Andrew Seski. Today, I'm joined by Zhi Li, CFO of Customer.io. Zhi, thank you so much for being here today.

[00:00:21] Zhi Li: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:23] Andrew Seski: So I'd love to talk about your career progression, the route to the CFO role, your first time as a CFO in earlier companies. But before we do so, I'd love to hear a little bit of background as to what you were interested even in undergrad and some of the first roles that you had, you know, right out of Penn.

[00:00:41] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. So maybe just a little bit of myself and then we can probably launch into different topics that would go in there. But so I was born in China and then grew up in the Bay Area and then went to Penn. You and I just chatted about like Philly, which is the city that I really love. But after Penn, I actually started my career in Canada. So I was in finance at a wireless division of a large telco called Bell Canada. And then after that, I moved back to the US. So I worked in investment banking in New York in the tech group of Credit Suisse. So if you follow banking, you know, Credit Suisse might be called UBS or First Boston later on or something like that. So that's the some of the new dynamic there. But I learned a lot during that time in banking. Worked a lot as well but, you know, on many tech M&A and IP financing deals there and also get to interact with a ton of smart, hard-working, talented people. And then after that, I actually moved to Seattle cold turkey. And the backstory to that was my wife and I were both actually in grad school in LA. When I took the job to move to New York, I made a deal with her and say, Hey, you know, we need to transfer your grad school. She's got two more years. You know, whenever you are ready to leave, I'll hold up by end of the bargain. So no questions asked. When you're ready to leave New York, then I'll go. So the time came. This is probably like seven years ago. She says she wants to move to Seattle closer to her family. And then, I picked up and go. I did not know anybody in Seattle going in. But Seattle, I — now, like it's home for me. So I love it. It reminds me of maybe the Bay Area when I was, you know, many, many years ago, you know, back in high school when I kind of grew up in the Bay Area. So but yeah. So now, I'm in Seattle. I focus on helping fast-growing SaaS companies, helping them scale. So, you know, the one of the company was Skytap, which is a Seattle-based enterprise SaaS company. And we did a number of transactions, including a Series E Round led by Goldman Sachs. And then after that, I was with MedBridge. So it was a growth P/E-backed company, and we sold the company from one growth P/E to another growth P/E. And now, I'm at Customer.io. So very happy at the momentum and everything that we have here at the company. So just really, I think, very fortunate to be part of this growing story with Customer.io. Yeah, so that's generally the work background.

[00:03:07] Outside of work, I also, you know, spend time doing the alumni interview for the Penn undergrad admission, which I always find super refreshing to see the fresh applicants every year. And I've always been amazed with the quality of the applicants. And then also, I'm on the board of an organization called LCYC — Legal Counsel for Youth and Children. So we're focused on advancing the rights of our youth and children so.

[00:03:35] Andrew Seski: That's a pretty incredible resume. I want to — we're gonna pick it all apart, but let's start right at your last and current role right now, Customer.io. And I'm curious to know first, what attracted you to the firm, the leadership, maybe some of the cultural ways that the firm's been building out over the last decade, and also maybe the value add of working together. I know there are a million SaaS solutions out on the marketplace today. The venture world has been in flux over the last few years. So I'd love to learn a little bit more about the firm, how you're delivering value to clients, and what got you most excited. And you've been there for about two years now, so, you know, maybe bring us back two-ish years.

[00:04:19] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. So just a little bit about Customer.io. So we're a leading multi-product, customer engagement platform. I think today, it's actually super exciting day 'cause we have our new launch of customer data pipeline that we launched today for early access. So, you know, throughout the last 10 years or so, our core product has been the Customer Engagement Platform, where we allow tech-savvy marketers to engage with their customers through emails, SMS, and push notifications, and also in-app messaging. And now, we also allow a new product called the Data Pipelines, so we can leverage first-party data to create more unified view for our customer records. So super exciting.

[00:05:00] And I think what really attracted me — with my background, I've looked at a ton of software SaaS companies and looking at like their value and their potential. I was really attracted to number one, it's founder-led. So Colin, our CEO, has been there from day one. He's got this really long-term vision, and I really kind of feel aligned with that vision. And also, we are very horizontal in terms of like our approach to our customers. So we want to partner with early tech companies. So if you're like a VC-backed early company, we want to be partnered with you early on and grow with you, and then just try to be, you know, as you kind of advance and mature as a company, we will be part of that. And so throughout that journey, we were able to provide a lot of value for you to engage with your customer. The company's also fully remote, which I find super refreshing as well. When I joined, it was just right around the COVID time, so people are like definitely warming up to that remote idea. But the company has been remote for a really long time. So the D&A really shows like in terms of the efficiency and how people interact async across the globe. So that's been a really great experience for me. And like I said, just very excited about the future where we continue to roll out a more rich experience for our customers through new products and new solutions.

[00:06:19] Andrew Seski: That's really exciting. I appreciate that. I'm sure the audience will appreciate it as well and be able to check out the solutions themselves.

[00:06:25] I want to go back to early career and discuss some of your original curiosity across all of the different types of deals that you were seeing. One of the things that's really apparent at this point after I've done so many of these interviews with CFOs tend to be just fearlessly curious, whether it is in learning something new, really being entirely detail-focused as they're reading financial statements, and looking for opportunities to improve constantly. And it tends to then iterate in, you know, Big Four audit, where you've got a ton of different companies to go through or consulting or sometimes even other types of leadership positions. So I'm curious where that initial curiosity came from and if that has augmented your career path, whether it is at Credit Suisse or elsewhere.

[00:07:18] Zhi Li: Yeah, and I think it's funny because I think back. Earlier on, I didn't really have a full vision of like, oh, I wanna be this way. So we — I try to figure it out. But consistently, it's always been around like the finance field. So, you know, at the beginning, you know, I was in a just corporate finance role in a wireless division, but which at the time we're talking about like early 2000s, you know, we were kind of like going through this phase from landline telecom to wireless, like cellphones that kind of face. So there's a lot of growth in that area, and I was working from the company side. But I don't know if you recall. Like there was a big LBO kind of trend there — leveraged buyout trend — back in the early 2000s. So the Bell Canada was part of a deal for one of the largest, you know, LBOs at the time, which eventually actually didn't go through. But at the time, it would've been the largest deal in Canada at the time. So I was able to get involved on that deal from the company side, which really kind of opens my eyes and curiosity on like, oh, you know, on the other side of the table, you know, these are the things that are happening. So super interesting. So I kind of used that to craft my way up back to US. Took my MBA, and then I went into banking, and that kind of helped me continue that path to look at — in the tech space, I was part of the, you know, tech and telecom group. So being able to work on a lot of fast-growing companies with cutting, you know, advanced technology with some new trends looking at there. So during that time, able to work on a number of M&A deals, IPOs, and debt financing deals. So that really helps me open my eyes and being able to kind of be comfortable interacting with C-level clients as well as, you know, collaborating with law firms, right, the the teams from the law firms and also accounting teams, to your point, like the big forest on different transactions. So being able to kind of like drive the process forward, giving me that skill set was super valuable. And then at that time, I was really, even up until that time, wasn't really thinking about a CFO path eventually. But, you know, when I moved to Seattle, that was kind of a moment of, okay, I need to figure out how do I reposition myself because there are some banking presence in Seattle, but it's not a, you know, it's not a banking presence in comparison to like New York or San Francisco. So I decided to leverage my background and skill set to, you know, go into a fast-growing like startup companies. Seattle happens to be a very kind of cloud-based software company hub for a lot of like interesting and exciting companies. So I was able to get connected with some of the local VCs that get me connected with Skytap, which is one of the companies that we're preparing to do a round of fundraising. And they had aspiration to go IPO in a relatively short timeframe at the time. Yeah. So that's kind of how I went from banking into startups. And then through there, you know, going into CFO and doing different transactions, whether it's fundraising with the VCs or M&A or other things that we've been doing with Customer.io as well.

[00:10:31] Andrew Seski: Yeah, it's really interesting to hear that you've been on both sides of the table. I think that it probably informs a lot of decisions, you know, whether you're communicating across boards or to investors, especially with, you know, expectation management and timelines.

[00:10:45] But one of the things I'm curious is to learn a little bit about and share with other CFOs is some of the playbooks that you saw that worked really well either at Credit Suisse or things that other CFOs can do or communicate with founders in today's environment that you saw that were successful in the past.

[00:11:05] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. I think when it comes to the interaction with the board, ultimately, it depends on the company and also the composition of the board. But yeah. I like to try to make sure that I'm always proactive in terms of the communication and be very transparent with them, laying out the potential, you know, upside or downside, and be pretty conservative about the recommendation and the assessment. And then, one thing that's always helpful is to have always be prepared with a the downside case or be prepared with like a plan B because that always comes up and trip up people. But if you actually had those things think through before the meeting or communication with the board or even, you know, with other investment communities or other partners that you work with, it helps your credibility and also kind of reinforces the confidence there. And I think that's part of that habit was built from my banking days when we would do these, you know, management case upside downside. So there's always the thinking of like how can I get things wrong? Like how wrong will I be and what is the impact if I get it really wrong? So that's always been kind of my mindset and my thinking.

[00:12:14] Andrew Seski: Interesting. That's great. I really appreciate when people share frameworks to operate in. I think that's really valuable for the mix of different types of finance leaders.

[00:12:23] I'd love to hear what you've learned recently in your new position. Just think about how CFOs of scaling businesses that's probably relevant to a lot of people who you typically have as clients, you know, scaling venture-backed firms. The CFO role typically is, you know, you've got the financial acumen but you also need a ton of EQ and leadership ability because you typically are wearing more than just one hat at any startup. So I'm curious as to how you think about leadership and the mix of IQ-EQ needed to be transparent, communicative, you know, sometimes it's an addition to the culture of the firm, especially as you hire a finance team. So I'm curious if you've learned anything recently or, again, seen successful playbooks as to how to contribute.

[00:13:09] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. No, that's a really good way to frame it actually. So the way I think about this is I think the mix between IQ and EQ probably shift depending on the individual and also the company stage. So like for example, if you're a earlier stage, when you're like five to 10 people company, everybody is just diving deep. Like they're contributing on their individual, you know, expertise, building things from the ground up. So at that stage, everybody is like a one-person army. So IQ probably takes a higher mix in that scenario so that you can, you know, act very quickly and come up with creative solutions to solve a problem and make trade-off on a timely basis, you know, with very limited resources. Now, as you kind of mature and then your team grows and then the company grows, then you become like, in addition to individual contributor, you are also trying to inspire your team and you're trying to motivate them. You need to be able to relate to them and understand how you can, you know, like paint a picture of success and help them along the way. And that's where the, you know, slowly then the EQ becomes more and more important. And it's not going to be like a one-way direction for you to move just like from here to there. So being a leader, being able to kind of like recognize, you know, having the both IQ and EQ, but the trick maybe one step further to that in my mind and I think I'm still working on that for sure is how do you find the time. Like how do you recognize the moment when you dial like up or down, right? Like in today's environment with, you know, the reason Silicon Valley Bank, you know, chaos there and also like obviously, our market condition is super volatile. You wanna be, when you communicate, you need to dial up the EQ because you want to share and be transparent with employees about what has been going on, what are we going through, how are we preparing for different downside scenarios. Make them understand and paint the provide a context for them so that they understand we are, you know, working for their interests; that we are, you know, leading or partnering with them, you know, in the front line, not just like behind the scenes. So I think EQ is very important in that scenario, especially during the uncertain times, which seems to be always beyond there. So yeah. So it's maybe a long way to explain it, but I feel like it's gonna be a constant dial and that the better you are, you can pick up the moments when you know when it's like when to move it around.

[00:15:38] Andrew Seski: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And I always kind of ask audiences and listeners to, you know, hit that 30-second back button and re-listen to a piece of the episode. I think that's really important that I think you might be the first person to say that it's not a static, you know, allocation of when you need to overcommunicate versus when you need to just strictly be heads-down and lead by example in terms of just staying focused, and I really appreciate that. There are different market environments. There are different things that could happen internally within the company where that sliding scale needs to be fluid and dynamic. I think that's a really great answer.

[00:16:11] It sounds like we're kind of tiptoeing around your personal definition of what makes a modern CFO, so I'd love to get your take on that.

[00:16:20] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. So I think of a modern CFO as it's like first and foremost a strategic partner to the CEO and the exec team. And oftentimes, maybe more increasingly, it's a CFO that is a leader leading in the frontline rather than maybe traditionally you might see CFO more like behind the scenes. They're equally effective, but, you know, it's just maybe a different style. And also, with the obligation of building relationships both internally and externally. So internally with like building your finance team, accounting team, and you're wearing multiple hats, but you're also dealing with stakeholders like other employees or even ex-employees if they have like stock option questions, for example. But externally, you're dealing with also, you know, board members, potential investors, you know, you keep a relationship with the capital market folks and vendors and all those people in the ecosystem that you keep in touch with. So being able to maintain the relationship, tell the story about company as well — that's super important. So it's no longer just someone that, you know, just provides the numbers or, you know, like be compliant on things. But someone that can actually be out there, you know, work alongside the rest of the leaders, with the CEO.

[00:17:33] Andrew Seski: That's a great definition.

[00:17:35] Zhi Li: Yeah. And then, maybe one thing I will say is having said that, I still wanna stress that, you know, that the baseline for you to be a functional, right, like highly functional CFO will still need to be some of the key competencies, like, you know, accounting, you know, making sure that the company's compliant, and the numbers gotta be right, for example. You gotta manage cash. Those are like not something that you'll forget, you know, just because you're trying to be in the front. You still need to make sure these core things are like welded in place. I call it the train's always gonna be on time, and then you can work on the other like things to improve you as a more modern CFO.

[00:18:11] Andrew Seski: Got it. So you're the public face of the finance team, but you are the finance team. Finance now is table stakes in terms of, you know, leadership and all of the other things you need to be a great modern CFO.

[00:18:21] Zhi Li: Yeah, exactly.

[00:18:22] Andrew Seski: Got it. So I'd love to talk about — we've covered a lot of really impressive ways of describing frameworks and playbooks in our conversation already. I'd love to talk about some of the new technologies that are becoming available and how you manage focus and distraction for yourself personally, for your team, and, you know, the trade-offs of investing heavily in the latest technologies versus, as you said, keeping the train on time.

[00:18:50] Zhi Li: Yeah, so there's a couple things. Like maybe we can frame it of like the, you know, the company's always trying to look for new tools and softwares to make our employees more productive. So that's always been a constant evaluation and trade-off based on the limited resources that we have. But one thing that's super exciting maybe as the second part to that is like all the new advanced development on AI, which, you know, I'm a finance guy, but like I'm super excited about the AI development that I'm seeing with the pace and innovation. So I feel like there's gonna be a huge potential for us. But obviously, a lot of unknowns still. So yeah. I'm happy to dive into some of those.

[00:19:31] But maybe like just to walking back real quick is for technology. So being a modern CFO, my mindset is that we have to be very open-minded and fully embrace technology so that we can try to standardize and, you know, like automate most of the processes so that we can scale. And, you know, I went through the whole learning process where, you know, back in the day, like hardcore Excel in banking. But now over time, I'm like, Hey, you know, Excel plus Google Sheets for collaboration. And now, it's like, hey, cloud-based financial planning tool so that, you know, everything is easier, accessible, and share, and we can like control access and we can build a lot more things in a more kind of quality-controlled way. So it has evolved, like especially for me as well. But that's just one example. But that's happening across like different functions within the company. So a lot of times, it's kind of looking at how many people does it impact, and how does that translate to the company level impact for it, and is it gonna be like a one-time transition thing or long-term impact for us? So, you know, adoption rate assumption type things is really important because I don't want to launch something and then people only use it for like three months and then nobody gets to use it.

[00:20:48] One thing that's maybe more timely these days with the volatile market condition is that when I look at vendors or new tools, I also do another layer of diligence just to see like, you know, are they well-funded, you know, or do they have a good track record? If we're gonna commit long-term relationship with them, like are they gonna run out of cash in the next eight months, which is a real concern for a lot of the companies out there. Like there are a lot of great companies that could, you know, get caught up in this environment today. And then, yeah.

[00:21:18] So and then going into the AI topic, which, you know, I'm actually very excited about. And I start kind of playing with some of these, you know, use cases out there. One thing I feel that it's like, you know, you can think of AI being a fractional assistant for someone on the engineering team or on the accounting team or finance team where you can you have all the models and things like that, for example, but just ask AI to drill down on, you know, headcount on this month because things were fluctuating. You kind of know the general direction, but, you know, just have the AI to pull that and kind of get you 90% of the way, and then you just kind of like validate it and put in commentary and share with the team and do all that stuff. So that's a very — I think that's a use case that's probably available today or can be perfected really soon, given, you know, I'm looking at some of these developments. You know, it used to be it takes like quarters or a year for like the next version to be available. Now, it's like, oh, two weeks, you're gonna have another thing. So yeah. Like at this pace, it's gonna be hard for me to even keep up with it, but I feel like some of these core, you know, applications is gonna come out and it will be a huge tool for us.

[00:22:33] Andrew Seski: Yeah, it's like compound interest. It's snowballing and the pace of innovation's incredible. So yeah. It'd be interesting to me to hear — I mean, sales and marketing are gonna be pretty disrupted. But do you picture — I think right now we all are starting to realize that we can have personal assistants help us individually streamline some of the repeatable and kinda onerous one-off things that we do every day. Do you think about this in terms of individual productivity or kind of market shifting — we don't do marketing or customer engagement in the same way we did in the past? It's a hard thing to predict, but kind of curious as to what you see in the future.

[00:23:13] Zhi Li: We look at it from maybe like both angles, like from a customer-facing perspective. And, again, this is probably still changing view. So like, you know, things are changing. But the way we kind of think about it is from a customer-facing view, it's probably gonna be a very commoditized feature to have some kind of AI assistance or interface to product. So we would be probably experimenting — I think some of our competitors are already kind of looking at those as well — where with our product, you know, instead of building these key like workflows or, you know, journeys, we can have AI create templates for you or so we can get you like 50% of the way or maybe 80% of the way eventually or higher, so that, you know, you know, oh, you sign up with Customer.io. You wanna run this campaign. These are the top three, you know, workflows that if you just give me the names of like the data inputs you wanna do it, AI can kind of plug it in for you, and then you can just modify it. I think that's a very feasible thing that, you know, a company can do. So we will be looking at that to make sure that we enrich customer experience and make their, you know, life easier over time with AI.

[00:24:26] And then when it comes to like internal, the leverage of each employee has massively increased in such a way that like if you are like, you know, a subject matter expert of something, you know the right questions to ask. So like you're prompting the AI to do certain things for you. AI become an extension of you that your productivity will increase, you know, drastically. So I think of that as maybe from there, the output of that would be we will be able to roll out like, you know, new features or upgrades of like our products and things like that in a much faster pace, similar to some of the stuff you're seeing out there where, oh, maybe like every month or every week, you see some new things because the pace has been just like constant in the background with AI.

[00:25:13] So that will — that's probably something that I'm excited to see how that works out. It's hard to predict, right? Like I think you might be able to get to 70% really quickly, but then each incremental percentage from there, it takes much longer. So when it gets from like 95 to 97, it's a much harder thing to do, even for AI so. But yeah. I'm watching. It's super exciting to see.

[00:25:38] Andrew Seski: Yeah. You're making me think about how the venture and the private markets in general are probably going to shift pretty aggressively. And we went through this cycle in '21 of just scale at all costs. And if you're reporting to a board and they wanna see where those investors dollars are going, it's typically hiring to generate more output. And now, we're seeing some of that, like you mentioned, some of that reversion and there have been some pretty significant layoffs across the market. So it'll be interesting to see the next, you know, whoever's at Y Combinator a couple of weeks ago how big their teams are gonna be in a few years or if they're not gonna be the giant teams of the past. So it's super interesting. I think the ecosystem's gonna change a lot.

[00:26:18] Zhi Li: Yeah. And like the extension of that point, too, right? On a VC level, like maybe you look at a Series A company in the past and maybe it's a 10-people company you're trying to get to a certain scale. With AI, fast-forward maybe many months from there, you probably only need two people. So you're maybe the funding round, the dollar amount has changed, but you can probably get to the same reach of the scale. So what do you do if you have a VC that's, you know, you raise a fund that's based on a certain kind of like deal flow because you're writing a check size at this level, but now it's only like, oh, instead of 10 people, you only need two people or like instead of 200 people, you only need like 50 people. You write a smaller check. You might have a higher return from there. But then, how do you allocate the rest of the dry powder? Yeah, I mean, it's the all new questions that I don't have the answer for, but I can totally see that, you know, the wheel's turning for everybody, looking at, you know, these developments.

[00:27:15] Andrew Seski: This might be a tricky one 'cause I'm not sure I thought it through. But I'm thinking about the changing mediums of communication. I don't know how often you hear the cold email is just dead. It's just a flooded medium. I get, you know, hundreds of emails a day or, you know, I don't want a phone call coming into my personal cell or — I'm curious as to how the mediums of communication may change or the routes that are, you know, if we could identify, like you mentioned, an AI puts together, you know, a certain format that is the most effective, I'm really curious to think through what the future of those mediums or cadences may be that we're gonna be able to unearth as all this data becomes available where we know not only the right time to reach out, but how to do so at what medium and at, you know, in what with what messaging. So it's an interesting thing. I'm curious. I think I can see the automations taking place to generate insights. I'm very curious to see if there are gonna be any new types of mediums that arise through some of this.

[00:28:18] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. And I think that's gonna follow. You're definitely right because that has evolved over time. When, you know, even when customer dial first started, it was a lot of like just primarily email. And then over time, we added to, you know, push notifications. We then also did like SMS, and then we launched in-app messages. So we were trying to also make sure that we reach, you know, the audience through the different ways that they engage with their, you know, customers or their users. So that's continuing to evolve. And then, the mix of that will change over time. And I wouldn't be surprised if like, you know, there will be another element that adds to the lineup. And then, we'll try to make sure that, you know, we'll be part of, you know, like a world-class engagement platform for that median as well.

[00:29:07] Andrew Seski: Very cool. Staying on Customer.io for just another moment, I want to bring us up a little bit higher to about 30,000 feet and think about what you're most excited about in the next 12 months, and then maybe expand even further out like three to five years, if you've got any idea as to what you're really excited. It doesn't have to be AI. It could be, you know, internal developments or even something personal.

[00:29:30] Zhi Li: So I think we are in the near term for this year, for example, there are a lot of, you know, exciting product that we are we've been kind of cooking in the background and we're excited to roll it out this year. The Data Pipeline that we just we talked about earlier is one of them. And so we're excited to continue to execute on our roadmap to make sure that we provide a rich experience for our customers. And then, as we continue that journey, we know the power of having that, you know, like source of truth as a customer record. And we see it because we, you know, we see our customers using our product and then, you know, integrating with the different data inputs, and then they can drive actions from there. We see that having this as a core customer data record will enable us to add on to other experiences for them. So in addition to campaigns or marketing, we just talked about kind of the data integration. There will be many, many more things that we can explore. So that's what we're very excited about I think in the next three to five years. Continue to add, you know, different add-on features or product experience to that and make it more of a platform experience for the company. So that's the longer-term, you know, journey that we're on.

[00:30:49] And then internally, I'm kind of still building out my team. So like I own finance, accounting, data analytics, legal, IT. I'm probably forgetting a couple. So with that team like, you know, I've been super excited about being able to, you know, providing a path for them to grow within the company, and then also kind of adding new talent to the team and seeing how with people now starting to work together and showing their potential and adding more productivity. So mentoring the team and growing that team has also been very, you know, rewarding for me as well.

[00:31:23] Andrew Seski: Yeah, very exciting. I want to go expand even further out — my favorite question on the podcast. And this can be about something we've already talked about or completely out of left field. It could be something you're reading or personal opinion. But, you know, what's one thing that you feel is underestimated in the world today?

[00:31:41] Zhi Li: Yeah. I think people neglect the value of the power of context. So what I mean by that is — and this is something I'm trying to improve as well. So I think when you provide the right context and, you know, connect the dots for people, it really empowers them to take ownership and really enrich their experience in that, you know, to getting to that success. So in a team environment, you know, instead of me, a lot of companies or other people might just, Hey, think of it as a science. These are the 10 steps in the workflow or the playbook. Like do it. Which has worked fine and, you know, that's totally good. But what I think about is providing the context for them so they understand what we're trying to achieve, and then they can craft their steps to do it. Along the way, we make mistakes, we learn better things, have some good surprises. But I think we all take more ownership that way. And then, the highly talented people I think really thrive when they have that freedom given the right context for any like goals or projects. And then, sometimes when I look at some people who are talented, but then they maybe they fail in a certain task and I kind of take ownership on that and maybe I did not provide the right context for them to really empower them to get to the right path. So that's something that, you know, like maybe people are more focused on in the past about driving the right behavior down to a science step-by-step. I'm kind of of the view that while that is important, let's make sure we, you know, provide the context, tell the story, connect the dots for them to make sure that they are also, you know, a principal, you know, stakeholder rather than just getting the step done.

[00:33:20] Andrew Seski: I think that's a really interesting point. I was just reading an article about some of the cultural differences between founders who call their teams a family versus a professional sports team. And you think about a professional sports team, if it's not performing, people are traded. Owners may not invest as much in the next year. They're just harsh realities. In the context of a family, that is going to cause strife. It's just a it's a mix of expectations as well. So I really think it's an interesting concept. And I also think it's really important in terms of basic communications. You could expand that out into almost any conversation that you have in a kind of very politically loaded environment no matter what. If you can provide good context as to where you're coming from and the hope to explain an outcome in the way that you'd like, I think it's a really powerful tool. It also, like you said, it provides accountability to both parties in not just the outcomes, but in the communication levels because you have to both articulate that you understand the same goal.

[00:34:26] Zhi Li: Yeah, and it's a very interesting like maybe a transition, too, because I think a lot of the companies when they are going from like a smaller company but they went through a very successful massive growth journey and then they realized that, oh, they're kind of like in between a family environment to a, you know, professional sports team. And there's probably not like a right or wrong either way. And a lot of people are probably trying to figure out in between. But the transition of it and maybe also like depending on the times of the market or like the life stage of the company, then you're trying to communicate the behavior change where — yeah, on certain things, like for us to scale, you know, it needs to be done a different way versus like back in the day, everything, it's, you know, honor system, you know, family-type feel. It's gonna be it's gonna go through some natural progression, and it probably doesn't need to be extreme like the just purely professional sports feel to it. And I think I value Customer.io where even though we've gone — so we're now about 230 people. When I joined, I think it was like a hundred, so like about 18 months ago or something. So we've gone through massive growth and, you know, we were able to keep all the good DNAs. I could be biased but, you know, I think we kept all the good DNAs, you know, as a, you know, fast company, but, you know, still keeping that, you know, closed, fully remote, you know, elements to it while adding new employees like new perspective, new experience into it, but still kind of jiving as a united, you know, force. So that's been, you know, very interesting to see. And we're definitely going through some of those transitions in terms of maybe, you know, policies and things like that for us to really tweak it. But we wanna make sure that we're not sacrificing I think some of the efficiencies or some of the prior experience that people take pride in with the company. We don't wanna water it down with just a bunch of processes and like workflows.

[00:36:28] Andrew Seski: Yeah, that's a really good point. And it's a challenge for, you know, to measure growth and cultural consistency so 'cause priorities change, stakeholders sometimes change, ownership sometimes changes. All can have major impacts on culture. And I think it's so important because, you know, you may have a great idea as to what to do, but culture defines how you go about doing it. So I think it's a really important concept.

[00:36:53] One of the last things I wanna cover today is some of your advice for aspiring CFOs. You had a nonlinear path, but I think, you know, you've also had a number of moves that you said you picked up and moved across the country a few times and you've lived in a few different places. How did you have some of the — where did the courage come from to make some of those transitions? And if people are thinking about a move for the CFO role for the first time, what would you recommend they start thinking about?

[00:37:25] Zhi Li: Yeah, and I always love kind of going through or like chatting with people about, you know, their career journey and like when they make certain choices, right? I think for folks that are, you know, trying to make the move, there's a couple recent learnings, right? One that's fresh in my mind actually it's the Silicon Valley bank situation. So this is a very, maybe a common thing, but like just make sure you don't put all your eggs in one basket. We were exclusively banking with SVB and they're a bunch of great, great guys. We still keep our relationship with them. But when that situation came up, we were just — we are stuck. We couldn't get our things out. So I think just the lesson of that is, you know, try to make sure that you have always diversified your risk, and then don't put all your eggs in one basket.

[00:38:15] And then also, this might be a hard thing for, you know, finance people because we like numbers and we like knowing things exactly. But a CFO, especially when you're operating in a fast-growing pace, you have to be comfortable with high degree of uncertainty. In a certain degree, maybe even embrace that. So that's probably a very counterintuitive thing where you go through finance, accounting, training, but like when you look at the numbers, like there's just a lot of variability to it. So I think of that as it's a skill to have — to be comfortable with uncertainty and to embrace that potentially the fear or the anxiety with that uncertainty because we're trying to achieve like some big goals. We're trying to, you know, make a lot of big impact for customers. It's supposed to be pretty nerve-racking. Like if you try to climb Mount Everest, it's supposed to be pretty, pretty tough. Like you shouldn't be like, you know, comfortable around it. So I think having that just accept the fact and just kind of take the challenge and make sure that you have upside downside case to kind of like frame your the ranges as you go through the navigate through the risk. Then, you can kind of really thrive on it. But maybe that's one thing. Like I think conceptually, it's a little bit contrary to people's, you know, by trade.

[00:39:34] Andrew Seski: That's a really, really unique perspective because if you have an idea that you're in a high-risk environment and you can account for that level of variability and then you can continue to kind of recapture some of that control that I know most finance people really appreciate.

[00:39:48] I want to give you the opportunity. Maybe you'll be back here in Philly talking to Penn students soon. But I wanna give you the opportunity to let people know how to learn more about Customer.io. Maybe if your career page we can link in the show notes if you're actively continuing to expand the team and your team specifically. Would love to know and direct people where to go if you don't mind.

[00:40:09] Zhi Li: Yeah, yeah. So we are definitely hiring. So I think the best place to go is Customer.io. That's the address that takes us to the company page. Yeah. So you can do Customer.io and then slash careers, and then you can find all the open spots there. And then, you know, follow us on Twitter, on Instagram, on LinkedIn. And yeah. And I would love to keep in touch with you. And I've been saying that I'm gonna go back and visit Philly for a long time. So now, you're adding another reason for me to go back. My wife and I, we met in freshman year college at Penn, so we were kind of joking that maybe on one of these like anniversary years that, you know, this is like many, many years now that we'll go back to Philly and celebrate.

[00:40:50] Andrew Seski: Well, can't wait for that day. There'll be cheesesteaks in the office for you waiting, and I can't wait for that day to come. Zhi, thank you so much for joining The Modern CFO Podcast, and I hope to stay in touch and I'll talk to you again soon.

[00:41:04] Zhi Li: Thanks, Andrew.

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