Moving from investment banking to a fast-growing SaaS business means encountering a host of changes, both in your work environment and the tasks themselves. For Patti Kangwankij, Head of Payments Finance and Strategy at Stripe, this move meant quickly adapting to a new operational cadence, among other adjustments.
Patti had to quickly get up to speed on new technology, new processes, and new priorities. On our latest episode on the FinOps Today podcast, Patti shares how she overcame a steep learning curve and learned how to balance making strategic long-term bets with quick execution at a high-velocity SaaS business.
We’ve shared some of Patti's insights below. But to get a full picture of Patti’s story at Stripe, be sure to check out episode 7, available on all major podcast streaming platforms. The full transcript is available here.
Tell us a little bit about what you do at Stripe.
I lead the payments, finance, and strategy team at Stripe. I've been here for three and a half years now, and I've had three different roles in that time. Prior to the payments team, I led the corporate finance teams. That included investor relations and fundraising, financials, board materials, as well as the global finance teams. Before that, I ran corporate development and strategy. I did go-to-market, pricing, and some other areas all within the finance world.
Prior to that, I was with JPMorgan for 14 years, 10 of which were in the investment banking area, working across different technology companies. I eventually moved over to the mergers and acquisitions team, getting to do everything from buying an oil well in Texas to selling a bank in Canada.
What brought you out of investment banking?
After 10 years of investment banking, I decided I wanted to actually operate, and so I started doing a lot of coffee chats and job board searching at JPMorgan’s careers page, and eventually became the CFO of the partner credit card business at JPMorgan. After two years of that, I moved into the payments group, and then had a discussion with Will Gaybrick (who was the former CFO of Stripe, and now the chief product officer), and the rest is history.
It's been a journey. I joined Stripe when it had 1300 employees three and a half years ago. And now we're over 7,000.
What was it like transitioning from investment banking into your first operating role at JPMorgan?
Well, it was terrifying. I literally Googled “What does a credit card P&L look like” when I was interviewing for that job at JPMorgan. Part of the reason they took me on into that role was because of my M&A experience. That experience turned out to be very helpful in renegotiating our contracts with some of our largest customers (Amazon, United, Southwest). Plus my investment banking experience was key in knowing how to manage the P&L, understanding business cases, and telling the overall financial story.
I learned a lot from the people around me. I was fortunate to have very strong mentors who would support me, as well as a strong team.
How was the transition from a behemoth like JPMorgan to a hyper growth company like Stripe?
It was a really rude awakening. I needed to learn how to use a Mac for the first time. I used Zoom for the first time in an interview with Stripe. Slack and Google Docs were completely new for me, and I had been a PC/excel person my entire life. I remember Patrick Collison getting on my computer when I was a little slow on Google Sheets, inputting headcount numbers.
When you are working for a 100 year old company versus a 10 year old company, there are a lot of processes and systems that you take for granted. Jamie Dimon had a business review every six weeks for his business lines, and you had the calendar fully planned through the whole year. You had the rhythms of public earnings.
At Stripe in those early days, many of these systems and processes had yet to be crystallized. From the simplest things like managing expense approvals and T&E, to figuring out what’s the right operating cadence of the business – is quarterly right?
As you're growing so quickly, even the attendee list of who should be on certain meetings took a lot of time and thought. But the secret sauce of Stripe at its core is really its technology, its product and engineering functions, and you don't want to overburden that with a lot of process.
It's a fine line to put any process on top of innovation, figuring out what process actually drives a better result versus just slowing people down.
Tell us more about the early days of Stripe.
In the early days, I was leading everything but accounting, treasury, and tax. The first pricing person started the same day I did, the corporate development team was one person. And we had only a couple people focused on product finance. 1300 employees with a very, very small percentage of it being finance and strategic finance.
At that point, I was reporting into the CFO, and those days were really scrappy. It wasn't a traditional finance team either, many team members had backgrounds in consulting or investment banking. They had high horsepower, but didn't know certain finance functions.
I remember one conversation in particular with an early finance team member, where I asked for cleaned up cost centers for expense reviews. They responded with, "Oh, well, that's not my job." I said, "Well, of course it is." And they responded, "Well, I do more strategy." And I responded, "Well finance numbers are really dumb without strategy. And strategy is really dumb without finance. So you have to be a full stack CFO."
And in those early days, planning what you should prioritize, how to justify it, headcount management – all of that was really raw. Even creating monthly finance reviews to go through the budget, I would be asked, "What is a budget? What number is mine?" A lot of that was still being ironed out early on.
What do you look for in new hires as you’ve helped build out the finance team at Stripe?
At the end of the day, as much as you may be hiring experts in certain areas, we're still testing for people who can make any strategy and any business smarter because they're in the seat. Even down to the expense person, if you're just making sure the books tie together, that's not enough for us.
It's also always about a diversity of different people. For example, I have a gentleman who was an investor for the last 15 years, another team member who has mature FP&A experience, and someone who was at one of the payment networks and actually had a big stint in product development. Having a diversity of bench is really important.
The one other thing I would say is, hiring leaders early is important. I probably was a little late to that, but you're always looking for the person who's comfortable in three years with much more complexity, much more scale. And for each one of your functions and areas, you have to think about which ones are the most important and where should you be hiring ahead?
Obviously I love the person who knows how to build it from the ground up, and the person who knows what it should look like in three years. For me, it’s more important that I hire the person who knows what the function should be in a few years, and has the right north star. If you hire people who just do a lot of work, you may lose track of that three year outlook. But it's a balance, figuring out who has expertise and who can grow into the role.
What percent of the time do you spend on operational finance versus strategic finance?
A goal of mine is to spend 50% on both. I actually ask myself “Are you focused on the right execution today to provide the biggest long term levers? Are you positioning Stripe to be the biggest payments winner in five years and 10 years?” I try to make sure that we are spending just as much time on operational finances as we are strategic or longer term.
Last year, we actually had an offsite where we focused on questions like, “What does Stripe look like in 2030, and what are the trends there?” It was a hard exercise because who knows what's going to happen in 2030, but it was very helpful for us to understand the bigger business drivers. Payment methods are getting more complex, cross-border is becoming more apparent, globalization, making sure that we're producing ahead of the trends is no easy task.
How are you finding operating leverage? Are there structures you're putting in place for finding operating leverage?
Headcount, capital allocation, and ROI are major components. Another is systems – ensuring that everything that we make and touch scales. You have to look at every process and ensure that if it grows by 5x in usage, you are still happy with it.
We also need to ensure that we’re focused on the right metrics. You could cut payments data by a million different fields, so focusing the business on the right metrics and the right reporting is vital. Getting alignment on those top metrics is very important.
What are you most looking forward to?
For the team, we've grown significantly and I am most excited about serving the business. That sounds super cliche, but our product and engineering team have so many decisions ahead of them. I’m excited to continue bringing the finance lens to those conversations to help make these key decisions, and I’m better able to do that with the team that we have grown this year. Continuing to do that and making sure we're positioned well four years out, 10 years out, are ongoing focuses for me.
About Patti Kangwankij
Patti Kangwankij is the Head of Payments Finance and Strategy for Stripe. She has been in a number of other roles at Stripe including managing Corporate Finance, Pricing, Corporate Development and Strategy, and other Finance and Strategy areas. Prior to Stripe, she held multiple roles at JPMorgan Chase over 14 years, including 10 as an investment banker in Mergers, Acquisitions and Technology, Media and Telecommunications groups, and more recently as Chief Financial Officer for their co-branded credit card business, and Chief Finance Officer of their payments business (Chase Merchant Services, formerly known as PaymenTech). Patti graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and received an M.B.A from Columbia Business School.