ATTENTION: THE APRIL 18TH TAX DEADLINE IS APPROACHING FAST - DON'T FORGET TO CLAIM YOUR R&D TAX CREDIT!BOOK A CALL TODAY
Log onto LinkedIn or head to the business section of any bookstore and you’ll find an endless well of stories about the path to CEO. But the road taken to CFO is much less discussed. I’ve always been fascinated by the way finance leaders within companies progress through their careers and how that trail delivers insights into the way finance can be a strategic tool for a business.
For the first in our CF0to1 series, I spoke with Daniel Kang, VP of Finance at Mercury, the company more than 100,000 startups trust for banking. His career has taken him from banking to private equity to tech giant to fintech startups and has overlapped with some of the most fascinating companies and business minds in the space.
“During high school, my dream was to go work for the U.N. but then I read this book by Thomas Friedman called The World Is Flat and talked to a bunch of people who said, ‘Hey, actually, if you work for a business, look at all the positive impacts you can make,’ and my path changed,” Mercury VP of Finance Daniel Kang says. “I knew nothing about business or what I wanted to do within it. Business is such an abstract term, right?”
But Kang followed the vagaries of life in business to NYU, where he was deluged with young people convinced that a life in banking was the dream. Even by his early 20s, Kang was pretty sure he’d be on another path — while classmates wrestled for summer internships on Wall Street, he took a position with Pencils of Promise, the nonprofit that builds schools in Africa. Still, the realities of the world dragged him into banking; his degree wasn’t cheap. “I was like, ‘Crap, I have to get a proper job. I have all these student loans to pay back,’” Kang says. “So, I kind of got suckered into doing banking; the thing I’d told myself I wouldn't do.”
Two years at Bank of America led Kang to a job at Vista Equity Partners, where associates were thrown right into the deep end. “In management presentations, you’re grilling CEOs, talking to people who would have been your boss's boss when you were on the banking side, and talking with them about raising finances,” Kang says. “I was being thrown into situations where, as a 24-year-old, it's really easy to feel uncomfortable.”
Kang thrived in the discomfort — he learned he could hold his own during high-level discussions with executives at the portfolio company. Most of all, he realized he had a passion and a unique talent for problem-solving. As a student, he’d been drawn to philosophy before landing on the business path. “The largest impact of philosophy is the ability to dig deep into a problem, think about it from multiple angles, and try to come to a good opinion about a path forward,” he says. That skillset served him in PE dealmaking, but also in charting his own path.
Kang left Vista when he found himself, being in San Francisco, wanting to work with more innovative tech companies that were changing the world around him versus ones that made good buyout candidates. So, he decided to jump ship, and he picked the perfect time to do it. It was 2014. Uber, Airbnb, and Square were all still private, in their Series B, C, or D stages. “There was a lot of excitement about this new wave of tech,” he says. “I started looking around and Square really spoke to me.”
What drew Kang to Square was a personal connection: his parents had run dry cleaners when he was growing up and he was inspired by Square’s mission to make the lives of small business owners like his parents easier and better. He joined the finance and strategy team a couple years before the IPO — the company was small enough that he was allowed to wear a lot of hats, which was perfect for Kang. “This was the first time that I worked with people from very different disciplines from me where everyone thought about problems through extremely different lenses,” he says. “I partnered closely with our payments team, our Square Capital team, and then also everything that our CFO was supporting. So, like risk, but also random stuff like helping our facilities team with lunch budgets.”
After three years, Kang being Kang went to then-CFO Sarah Friar and asked if he could switch to the accounting side. “It was less about, ‘Hey, I want to be a CFO in the future,’” he says. “It was actually much more so, ‘Hey, I'm working on the finance team. I know one aspect of it decently well. But there's this whole other side, on the accounting side, that I was curious about.’” People scratched their heads when they heard Kang was moving from the more glamorous strategic finance side to a junior role in accounting. But he’d heard the same questions when he left Vista for Square, so he trusted his gut. Luckily, he had a boss in Friar who was fully supportive — so, he spent a year as a revenue accountant. “I'm so happy I did,” he says. “For me, it's never been about role, title, and compensation. For me, it just comes down to the fact that I just want to learn stuff and want to be a master of the field I'm operating in.”
After the IPO, Square grew and changed — for people on the finance side, the move from private to public alters the tenor of the work completely. Kang had learned a lot at Square, especially “that customer-oriented is the most important way to think about a problem, rather than purely from a finance lens.” But he decided he was ready to move again. This time, to somewhere much smaller. “I was really itching for that experience of building something from 0 to 1 or 1 to 2,” he says.
Ethan Bloch, the founder and CEO of Digit, approached Kang and asked him to come on. Kang was again drawn to the idea by his personal history. To create a product that made financial wellness effortless and non-judgmental spoke to him. “I come from an immigrant family. Managing personal finances and our household finance was a very important thing that was top of mind for us all the time,” he says.
But in his first month, he started to worry he’d left Square too soon. “It was not a calculated move. Digit was super early. They were doing probably like 2 million ARR at the time. 30 people,” he says. “It was a gamble but ended up being the best decision I could've made in the experiences gained and relationships built.”
By the time they sold the company in December 2021, Digit had grown exponentially: “We had scaled up revenue by like 50 million ARR, we had done a Series C raise from General Catalyst, and the team had grown a lot. We moved beyond just being a savings product to launch an investment product, and we launched a checking account product. I’m just really proud of what we had built over time.”
After the deal closed, Kang knew he wasn’t ready to go back to working on the finance team at a public company. So, he started looking around again and had a conversation with Immad Akhund, the co-founder and CEO at Mercury, about coming on as VP of Finance. “Square and Digit spoke to me in very personal ways: the way I grew up, my family, and so on,” Kang says. “As for Mercury, it spoke more to my career experiences: At Digit, I ran a very lean finance team, so I was running payroll and all these things that were very much on the operational side. So, I know there's so much opportunity to build tools and products that can make lives easier for startup founders or startup finance teams.”
Kang joined Mercury in July and has loved having the opportunity to run accounting, finance, capital markets, and so on. “I get a lot of latitude with the rest of the executive team to kind of poke my head in a lot of product areas where your finance person probably typically wouldn't be poking their head in,” he says.
His experience in banking, in PE, in accounting and strategic finance at Square, and being a jack of all trades at Digit all inform his work at Mercury. And one unexpected feeling has kept bubbling up: “It's kind of weird but there's a point where you feel like, ‘Man, all my life experiences have led me to this point.’”
So, why did a natural-born problem-solver who dreamed of working for the U.N., had a flirtation with philosophy, and didn’t even know what business meant find his way to a life on the finance side? Because Kang has been exhilarated by the fact the finance role is something like a mapmaker for a company.
“I know this is a bit geeky, but the way I think about it is that there is the whole universe out there. There are a bunch of different forces at work within the universe and there's a standard equation that tries to formulate how the universe works into like very specific different factors and whatnot,” he says. “In a lot of ways, finance is similar. There's a lot of stuff going on within a business, all within the context of the macro environment. But how do you actually make sense of all that? If you want to navigate that universe, finance can be a map, charting a path forward and giving the best recommendations with the best available information.”
For someone drawn to fixing problems by understanding every side of the issue, the macro-elements of finance — the ability to make the intangible tangible — has natural appeal. “The thing that finance teams are uniquely positioned to do is actually stitch together what's happening across the company into a unified view,” he says. So, perhaps the young Kang wouldn’t have been so resistant to the vague idea of “business” if someone had explained it to him that way in the first place.
“This isn’t an original thought but: the best finance leaders are great storytellers as well, in terms of how they understand and interpret the business and can actually tell a story about where it's going in the future as well,” Kang says.
His own career is a fascinating story. Where it’s going in the future? Only time will tell…