First-time CFO Risks Leaving a Big Fish

Jeff McCombs, a top executive at Yahoo!, can't resist the lure of helping a start-up try to radically transform a narrow market niche.
David McCannApril 14, 2009

Tiger Woods likes to talk about his passion for “being there on Sunday afternoon,” when a golf tournament’s outcome is decided — that is, for putting himself “in position to win.” The more often he does that, he figures, the more he will win.

A similar mindset led Jeff McCombs to give up a high-profile executive position at high-flier Yahoo! to become, last month, the first CFO at Tumri Inc., a developer of an online advertising platform that’s been on the market for a year. While Tumri so far has collected a small but impressive client list, its future, like that of most venture-capital-backed firms, is uncertain.

But McCombs believes that he’s putting himself in a good position to win, if you define that as being a key player at a company that will, if it achieves its vision, do something revolutionary. To be sure, the revolution in mind is narrow in focus: while Yahoo! has irons in seemingly every e-commerce fire, Tumri’s sights are set just on reinventing online display advertising.

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Put simply, the Tumri platform, which the company says enables what it calls “dynamic intelligent advertising,” breaks down a display advertisement into its core components, such as the headline message, product image, call-to-action button (“buy now” or “click here”), and promotional offer.

Whereas banner ads generally are single-image files, says Tumri CEO Calvin Lui, Tumri’s technology lets advertisers vary an ad’s individual elements so as to more precisely target groups of potential customers, without having to deploy an expensive design team to completely recreate the ad for each audience segment. That allows more relevant messaging to be delivered more cheaply and provides a better understanding of what aspects of the message are resonating with the various target groups, according to Tumri’s pitch.

This approach, the company hopes, will stem the exodus of online marketing dollars away from display ads in favor of purchasing premium positions in search results on sites like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. Yahoo! saw the potential opportunity in making display ads easier to create and more flexible, McCombs says, but his comments suggest an opinion that the company was spread too thinly to mount a full-fledged effort in that area.

“We knew that the level of innovation in display advertising wasn’t what it could have been, that if you could ‘crack the code’ and make it easier to do, additional dollars could flow in — but it was an incredibly painful process,” he says. “Yahoo! is focused on a lot of different things and doing well at a lot of them. Tumri is focused on making display advertising more personalized and relevant, has a great technology to do it, and is getting traction in the marketplace. All of that made it incredibly compelling.”

Leveraging an E-Pedigree

McCombs, 37 years old, is well-known in the Internet business community, particularly for his four years at Yahoo! Before that, he spent two years as an investment banking principal at East Peak Advisors, where he advised emerging Internet companies on capital-raising and strategic initiatives. He came to Yahoo! as director of corporate finance, working for then-CFO Susan Decker, and when Decker moved on to become a divisional president and then company president, McCombs came along as her chief of staff.

Dedker maintained a financial orientation after becoming an operations executive, McCombs says. Everything — potential acquisitions, partnerships, company restructurings —was evaluated from a strategic finance point of view. (Earlier this year, Decker left the company after being passed over for CEO.)


Jeff McCombs, Tumri Inc.

“She was a phenomenal mentor who gave me a tremendous opportunity to grow and learn how to evaluate business decisions, with all the demands she placed on me and all her direct reports,” McCombs says.

Last year McCombs was promoted to one of the company’s top operational roles, senior vice president of business operations, which was steeped in areas as diverse as customer care, marketing, product management, business planning, strategy, and organizational structure.

Tumri, meanwhile, which had started development activities in late 2004, went to market with its product in March 2008, since then picking up clients like Hewlett-Packard, Sears, Intel, WellPoint, Capital One, British Airways, InterContinental Hotels, and Marvel Comics. “The revenues and the strategic opportunities in front of us were so strong that we decided to bring in a full-time CFO,” says Lui.

The last type of CFO Lui wanted was someone who would spend all his time “crunching spreadsheets and doing accounting.” McCombs’ diverse experience in finance, investment banking, and operations in the Internet field was what an emerging company like Tumri needed; virtually no weight was given to finding someone already sitting in a CFO chair. “We placed our emphasis on finding someone who could help guide the strategic avenues we will pursue and marry that with very sound financial planning,” Lui says.

At Tumri McCombs is responsible not only for finance and financial planning, but business development, human resources, and even legal. At a small firm, he notes, everyone has to fill a lot of roles. At the same time, figuring out how to prioritize across such disparate functions and identifying when milestones are passed that warrant bringing in additional expertise in those capacities will be important aspects of his job, he adds.

Scoping Out Success

Just where does Tumri stand? Lui says the venture-capital funding raised so far — “north of $10 million” was as specific as he would get — will be enough to see it through to profitability, which he claims will come “soon.” He also demurs from giving an exact count of employees, putting the number at “50-plus.” While not saying how many of them are dedicated to finance or accounting, he notes that the company tends to hire from the top down, and McCombs is charged with building that team.

And what will success look like? “The overall mission is to revolutionize the way advertising is thought of online to bring greater relevancy to consumers, and fundamentally alter the dynamics of the way advertisers, publishers, and consumers interact with one another,” Lui says. “But whether success means doing an IPO, or being sold to one of the largest companies in the world, or remaining as an independent private company — we don’t have that answer yet.”

For McCombs, the road to success will begin with the first overriding priority, which is to gain an iron grasp of Tumri’s position in the overall marketplace so he can better evaluate revenue opportunities, business models, and cost-structure decisions.

“The technology industry, and the start-up world in particular, is focused on the value you add as a member of the team,” he says. “I have the opportunity to add value in this role — though certainly with additional gray hairs every month.” When it is then suggested that he could use hair color as a barometer of his progress, he readily concurs. “Exactly,” he says. “And I must be progressing rapidly already.”