Ricardo Creighton of Humu: Transparency in Business, IPOs, & Google
Ricardo Creighton has spent nearly a decade leading finance for some of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley, including Google, Pinterest, and now Humu, a company that uses machine learning & behavioral change technology to nudge people towards better work habits—unlocking the potential of individuals, teams, and organizations. Humu has grown rapidly since launching in 2017, and counts dozens of industry leading brands and members of the Fortune 500 as customers.
I met up with Ricardo on a sunny day in San Francisco to hear more about his fascinating career journey, and how each experience has shaped his approach to finance leadership.
Let’s start off with a little about you— where are you from, what were your early influences that led you to finance?
I was born in Jamaica but grew up on the East Coast splitting my high school years between northern New Jersey and the suburbs just north of New York City. Looking back, I think there are two things that always influenced me from a young age.
First, I always had an affinity for numbers—this showed up in both my love for math and my mundane superpower to randomly guess numbers such as what time it is or what temperature it is outside.
Second, I have always been unusually curious and inquisitive. This was only amplified throughout my youth where I grew up watching suspense filled movies and TV shows and reading detective novels such as the Hardy Boys.
Your finance career began with an internship at Google. Tell us about that experience.
My finance career actually began the summer before working at a large bulge bracket Wall Street firm. However, the internship at Google cemented my desire to seek a career in finance and more specifically in finance for tech companies.
At Google, I fell in love with my team's approach to problem solving and the freedom they gave me to get my job done. Google was a massive company even in 2009 but they still had this entrepreneurial spirit that was infectious and made me want to move out West and pursue a career in finance.
My journey to Humu actually started that very same summer at Google. In the internship program, every Friday they would bring in senior leaders to speak. One of those leaders was Laszlo Bock, then Google’s SVP of People Operations, and today Humu’s CEO and co-founder.
During the Q&A section of his talk, I remember asking Laszlo
“Why is Google’s culture the way it is?”
Paraphrasing—he said, “We feel like we’re at the cutting edge of attracting, retaining and developing the best people (talent) in the world. I believe what we are doing today at Google will become common place at companies competing for the best talent”
He was not wrong. In my decade in Silicon Valley I have observed companies new and old attempting to emulate many of those practices (to different degrees of success) sometimes without fully understanding the strategy behind it. For example, the reasoning behind free lunches is not just the convenience but also to promote open conversations and ideation amongst colleagues. That idea of lunch is then supported by having long tables in the cafe so people from different teams can connect and weigh in on each other’s ideas — Gmail is one of the products famously born over a Google lunch.
When an opportunity came along 10 years later to work with Laszlo and to help make work better for people everywhere, I jumped on it.
What stands out about the culture & leadership at Google?
I have not been at Google for nearly 5 years but when I was there a number of things stuck out.
Transparency :The company’s weekly TGIF (weekly all-hands) were home to some of the most candid exchanges between executives, senior leaders and employees that may ever exist. From product demos, board meeting readouts by Eric Schmidt to hard hitting questions from engineers, TGIF had everything.
Ambitious Goals : Google is known to set ambitious goals (moonshots) and that mentality around 10X thinking is one that is immediately noticeable and pervasive in the culture.
Scale : few companies work at the scale Google does. From the billions of users of their various properties to how much free food is consumed everyday by their 100K+ workforce. Google operates at an enormous scale.
Since our co-founders and more than half our leadership team spent time at Google, these three qualities along with many other best practices show up in our culture at Humu as well.
After 5+ years at Google, you moved to Pinterest — was it still in the “startup” phase?
Absolutely. When I joined Pinterest in 2015 there were about 600 people at the company. (Much smaller than the roughly 60,000 colleagues I left at Google). Pinterest had built this iconic global brand with 100M users and growing rapidly but monetization was new and still in its infancy.
There was so much to do and so much still to figure out, I really enjoyed that phase of growth. My team and I were able to quickly add value and take many projects from zero to one and beyond.
Looking back now, it was an amazing ride. It's incredible to realize you played a small role in a company's journey from a private company and $100M in revenue to an IPO on the path to $1B in revenue.
What was most interesting about working on an IPO?
There are so many things that go into an IPO. One of most fascinating to me was the process of figuring out how to position the company to Wall Street especially since much of the hidden genius behind great companies is usually only obvious in hindsight.
How do you craft a story that resonates with investors so that they want to buy and hold your company’s stock for the long tem? The case for Pinterest is particularly interesting as its user skews towards women and the potential investor base skewed towards men. Many of the investors had not used the product and many did not truly understand how or why people use it. How could they understand the value?
How I typically explain it, is rather simple. Pinterest has ~350M users and, most of them, ~65% are international users, yet Pinterest makes less than 10% of their revenue from international users. If you look at mature businesses that are similar to Pinterest, those businesses typically get about 50% of their revenue from international users. For the next 3 to 5 years the story can be boiled down to the monetization of international users, driving international revenue closer to that 50% of revenue benchmark.
Google’s business and revenue model is heavily focused on ads, did that experience set you up well for your role at Pinterest?
Definitely. Google and Pinterest are both predominantly ad-based businesses. During my time at Google I was fortunate enough to work across their entire ad stack so I was provided a masterclass on digital advertising.
I was able to fully grasp Pinterest’s business model on day one but I still had to understand the nuisances of Pinterest’s go to market strategy and how my deep industry knowledge applied to the specific context of Pinterest.
Let’s talk more about finance leadership and being a value-creator. What are some examples of what that looks like?
Being a value-creator and driving business outcomes is something that I learned to be important throughout my career. Looking back, I believe one of the ways I was able to stand out and land my role at Humu was my ability to demonstrate a track record of leading projects and completing deliverables that had an impact on the business.
For example, in 2016, Pinterest was still in early monetization, I was the strategic finance lead partnering with the head of their US Mid Market business. One of his leads and I recognized an opportunity to accelerate growth outside of our managed accounts.
We built a plan, found external partners and proposed an outsource sales model to accelerate the revenue growth in the advertiser base. We pitched it to both our Head of Finance and our Head of Sales got approval and found an inexpensive way to test the model. It worked, we scaled it globally and it is now a multimillion dollar business.
How do you hire? Do you like to try and find people you've worked with before or tap your network for referrals?
I like to hire by casting the widest net possible to create a diverse talent pool to compete for the job — drawing from people I have worked with before and folks inside and outside my network. For me it’s all about getting the best person possible to fill a role and it’s difficult to do that well without that formula.
Do you feel that having so many tech giants in the Bay Area makes it hard to compete for the best talent, being a startup like Humu?
In my opinion, the battle for the best talent is hard for everyone, tech giants and startups alike. Ultimately what I have seen is that most people want to work on interesting problems with amazing people next to them.
Tell me a little bit about the culture at Humu and the culture on the finance team itself.
Humu’s culture is one that is defined by openness, empathy, collaboration and execution. It’s the type of place where we amplify each other’s work and we are empowered to take action and solve problems. It all starts with our co-founders and our leadership team. We have leaders who actively listen to the input of the team, are unafraid to admit when they make a mistake and enable each employee (Humun) to bring themselves to work.
This shows up in a number of ways. One of my favorites was our el Día de Muertos celebration last fall where we learned about and participated in this Mexican tradition of remembering family and friends no longer with us. I was familiar with el Día de Muertos but in our celebration we were able to gain a deeper understanding by participating in some of the rituals and combining that with the personal stories of our colleagues.
Events such as that celebration not only allow employees to bring themselves to work but also promote empathy and understanding amongst the team.
Transparency is such a huge topic right now, with more and more companies trying to up the ante on transparency, in terms of salaries and budgets, etc. Can you give an example of transparency at Humu?
Transparency is a huge topic especially as millennials and Gen Zers gradually make up a greater percentage of the workforce. They're used to transparency and are often motivated to perform better when they understand how their work impacts the organization.
There are many ways transparency shows up at Humu. For example, I provide a financial health update to the company about once a month and every quarter after our quarterly board meetings the leadership team at Humu walks the entire company through the materials presented to the board.
This allows the company to get a definitive update on how we are tracking against our goals but also understand what is top of mind for the board, how we are positioning our successes and how we are thinking through our opportunities. This provides great transparency and enables the team to internalize and develop a collective voice around our most important business issues.
We also use our own platform Humu, or in our internal case Humu Humu, to confidentially and anonymously understand and take action against the largest challenges our teams face. These findings are shared at the company, team and manager level. We develop and share specific actions to address these challenges and leverage our nudge engine technology to drive that change across all our teams.
We rinse and repeat this process periodically to track and measure our progress and continually drive improvement.
You’ve worked at some pretty cutting-edge companies — what do you think are the biggest trends shaping the future of finance?
That's a great question. There are a few items that come to mind.
One is how do you transform finance to a value-add function? In other words, what are we proactively doing to add value to the organization — how are we driving business results?
The second is how do you leverage financial data to make decisions in real time. Traditionally financial data is available 5 days after the month end (public companies) to as many as 14 days after the month end (early stage companies) but decisions need to be made everyday. How do we enable real time decision making?
The third, as you scale, how do you build efficient teams? Particularly if you think about a startup, Finance is one of the last functions to get incremental resources so you want to make sure once someone comes aboard, they are adding the most value to the organization.
Technology and automation with tools such as Spendesk is something that is underpinning all three of these trends in finance. Interestingly, we see somewhat similar trends in other G&A functions like HR where leaders are turning to platforms such as Humu to increase the productivity of their workforce.
What are your favorite resources for finance leaders? Are there best practices you would recommend for navigating new challenges in the unknown?
I would say my number one resource is my network. I have been extremely fortunate to work with and learn from amazing colleagues and peers. I do my best to stay in touch and leverage the wisdom of the crowd to both navigate new challenges and stay abreast of the latest happenings in our space.
Additionally, I try to dedicate time every day to reading and staying informed about the latest trends and developments both in my industry but also my function.
Do you have a favorite outlet for news or a podcast that you are dedicated to?
David Skok’s blog, For entrepreneurs and Dave Kellogg’s blog, Kellblog are two one of my favorites. Both explore general business topics but skew more to general SAAS business topics, sales, marketing and some finance.
For SaaS, I also enjoy SaaStr and anything Bessemer puts out. For finance, I have been reading CFO Connect quite a bit lately and CFO Dive is in my inbox every morning. I also read the top articles from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Economist and The Harvard Business Review. I spend the most time on HBR.
As far as podcasts, I have to mention a few sports ones I listen to like Pardon the Interruption, The Tony Kornheiser Show, The Bill Simmons Podcast and Jalen & Jacoby. I listen to Marketplace and Make Me Smart for general news. More recently, I have been getting into Bessemer’s Cloud Giants and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.
And besides that - what do you do in your free time to stay balanced and healthy?
When I am not working, I spend a lot of time with my wife, Ivonne and our dog Peanut. (You can follow him and his adventures @thepupeanut on Instagram.)
Ivonne and I can be found trying new restaurants or doubling down on some of our favorites. We also love hosting friends for dinners, game nights and the like. Our annual superbowl party is always highly anticipated and well attended.
I am also an avid sports fan. Basketball, football, soccer and MMA are my favorites but I also follow baseball, tennis and cricket.
I used to play quite a bit of basketball until a recent knee injury and subsequent surgery sidelined me. Needing to find something with less impact I have gotten into boxing as a way to stay in shape. I have a boxing set up in our garage called FightCamp. It is effectively Peloton for boxing. You get a bag, wraps and gloves. There are classes that you take and there are trackers in your gloves to keep track of your punch count and how hard you hit the bag. It is a great way to get focused and start the day or a great way to de-stress at the end of the day.
That’s fantastic. Well, thanks so much for sharing these valuable insights & experiences with us, Ricardo — and for being part of the CFO Connect community!
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