Some people have a clear thread that ties their career together. They spend decades — in different positions, in different companies — dedicated to one cause, trying to fix a single, complex problem.
Keri Gohman is one of those people. Her calling is to empower small businesses — a sector that employs over 56 million Americans — by simplifying their financial life.
Gohman started her career at GE Financial Assurance, and then spent four years at Intuit, the accounting software provider, becoming its Director of Sales & Support for their small business customers. She then spent eight years at Capital One, holding various leadership roles and heading up their small business business banking division. This past December, she joined Xero, a cloud accounting provider, as its President of the Americas.
Xero is a launch sponsor of our new publication, Get Shift Done, which provides tips and management advice for the modern workforce. But I spoke with Gohman because I’m genuinely fascinated by the company’s audacious mission to “rewire the global economy.” That’s a big goal, considering the times we’re living in — with globalization increasingly under threat, automation transforming how we work (accountants included), and more businesses tackling big, complex social problems.
Xero also shares many of NewCo’s values: it’s a platformed business, open and connected by default; it’s mission-driven, focused on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs; and it uses technology to rethink business models and take on established firms. The next few months will be an important test for Gohman: While Xero is a leader in its home markets, there’s still room for significant growth in North America. The company’s leadership is betting that her experience and dedication can help make that happen.
What’s Xero’s mission? Why is it compelling to you?
Xero’s mission is to rewire the global economy, connecting millions of businesses to their banks, advisors and each other. In a nutshell, Xero wants to connect a small business’s financial world, on their terms, to empower and fuel entrepreneurialism around the country and the globe.
Small business is something that is close to my heart, and being a part of a company that shares my personal mission is both compelling and inspiring to me every day.
Your career has been spent with helping small businesses succeed within large, established firms like Intuit and Capital One. Why did you decide to take on the challenge of running Xero’s American operations?
Throughout my career I’ve gravitated toward industries that are inherently complicated and critical — I want to be part of companies that are doing things differently. After eight years at Capital One, working to make small business banking better, I realized there was more I could do from outside the bank. The switch to a technology company like Xero felt natural because I’m continuing to support entrepreneurs and business owners — from a different perspective.
Over my time serving the small business sector, I became passionate about helping entrepreneurs pursue their dream and obsessed with solving the problem of the complexity of financial management. I came to believe that by bringing the world of a small business owner together — connecting the pieces of business management using technology — we could make managing a business drop dead simple and intuitive. Doing it from the inside of a bank meant that I was only going to solve this problem for our customers and from the lens of money. At Xero, I can do it for everyone and solve a bigger set of problems. Inside a bank, you can never create a truly open platform.
At Xero, we believe that the open platform is the key to unlocking real value. In my role, I can help guide the organization as to how best we can dynamically integrate and connect small business owners with the right advisors, accountants, bankers and the right technology for running their business with an ecosystem that connects them to providers like Vend, Shopify and TSheets. Having a clear financial plan, the right advisor and a stack of the latest technologies deeply integrated into one ecosystem ensures that everyone is smarter and increases the odds that startup rates lift, business lifespans elongate and success rates soar.
You’ve just started at Xero in December, and you’ve got a big challenge ahead to gain ground in the US. What have been some of your first steps since getting into this role? How did you prioritize your efforts during the first few months on the job?
We’ve got a great opportunity here in the U.S. to tackle the problems facing small business owners. Since beginning my role in December, I’ve worked closely with my new leadership team to institute a 90 day plan. My first 30 days were spent on-the-ground learning about the key elements of Xero as a global organization, visiting our offices in New Zealand and Australia to see the wins we’ve had in our markets worldwide.
Since returning Stateside, I’ve focused on really getting to know the team, working on longer-term strategies and setting goals for various aspects of the business. As you can imagine, I’ve also spent time in the market, getting to know our customers and partners and understanding the unique challenges they are struggling with and how Xero can help. The key with any new role is to determine where we need to act swiftly — empowering teams to make progress — and to thoughtfully evaluate our biggest opportunities to gain traction with and better support our customers.
Intuit, your former employer, is Xero’s biggest competitor in the US. In terms of the mission and values of both organizations, what’s been most surprising about your time at a NewCo like Xero, compared to a BigCo like Intuit?
What I’ve found with a lot of big organizations is that they tend to exhaust a lot of effort looking behind their shoulder at what the competition are doing. They also possess a natural tendency to spend time navigating the complex systems and structures that are developed over time to avoid risk — but that slows everything down.
During my short time at Xero, I’ve found that this mindset simply doesn’t exist, and this is what allows our focus to remain on the customer and building for what they need, rather than becoming preoccupied with what competitors are doing. I can also spend time trying and doing new things — putting new ideas out to market. I’ve found this approach to be thoroughly refreshing. Developing a nimble team that’s always shipping is a huge part of the Xero philosophy, and this speed of innovation is a welcome change of pace.
Xero is in countries all over the world, but what do you think makes the US market unique?
Something about the US that is at the same time unique and challenging is the often slow-moving pace of technology adoption and innovation in financial services. Technology, particularly fintech, is driving a tremendous amount of change in the financial services sector, and finding ways to help small businesses, banks and accountants adapt, leverage and get in front of that change is crucial if organizations in these sectors want to deliver the best products and experiences to their customers. The slow pace of change creates a unique opportunity for Xero to help shape and drive this change — for the betterment of small business growth in the US market.
At Xero, we partner with more than 100 financial institutions worldwide to build a financial web that saves small businesses time and captures the true picture of their financial standing. So, we’ve had the opportunity to explore new and exciting ways to use technology — and want to bring that to the US and the rest of the Americas. We’re also taking that innovation to the next step — spending time and investment evaluating how to leverage new tools like machine learning to take that further — all aimed at supporting small business. We’re focusing significantly on building these banking relationships and partnering with them to better service the highly fragmented small business market.
If moving accounting to the cloud was Xero’s first innovation, the next chapter seems to be focused on harnessing the power of machine learning and automation. Rod Drury, Xero’s Founder & CEO, said it will be “transformational” for the industry. In an increasingly automated world, how will accountants and bookkeepers evolve and continue to stay relevant?
Xero places accountants and bookkeepers at the heart of their clients’ work. We know that when an accountant is a part of the small business’s advisory team — their odds of success improve dramatically. Our platform already automates many basic functions for accounting professionals, freeing up their time for the things that matter and making their work easier and faster, which in turn enables them to grow and potentially market themselves to a different industry.
This reality will be realized tenfold as we continue to unlock the power of machine learning and automation, and in this reality, the accountants and bookkeepers that will stay relevant are those that pivot their service offerings and scale to focus on other aspects of their work, like business advisory. We’re seeing more accountants using these skills to create themselves a trusted advisor position in their clients’ businesses. Many accountants are also becoming not just financial advisors, but technology advisors — helping their small businesses clients harness the power of Xero and the overall ecosystem of small business technologies that have deep integrations with Xero. This vital human element of accounting is something that robots will never be able to replicate or replace.
We’re seeing a shift towards an economy and workforce that’s increasingly dependent on platforms. Xero, Slack, and others aren’t just products — they’ve become platforms in their own right. What’s next for Xero in its role as a platform for small business owners?
It’s great that we’ve got all this technology and that it’s pointed at small businesses, but it’s just a proliferation of “stuff,” and many entrepreneurs just don’t know how to weed through all the noise. Most small business owners become entrepreneurs because they’re passionate. However, they quickly face a challenge because they aren’t sure which solutions are the best ones, the solutions don’t integrate with one another, and they don’t have the time to explore them.
The financial web — and our platform — gives us a clear way to solve that problem. We have the ability to stitch together the financial lives of a small business owner. The beauty of cloud technology is that all those things can work together seamlessly, creating a set of connections that are unique to a small business owner.
With more than 28 million small businesses in the US, there’s an incredible amount of diversity in the market. Currently, financial institutions aren’t in a position to put together all the connections required to rewire the small business economy. That’s where Xero will be able to help.
Xero’s Founder & CEO, Rod Drury, wrote, “software is quickly becoming the one thing that connects the world. It largely operates without borders, connecting cultures, countries and people on one platform.” In a world that seems to be increasingly looking inward, do you think Xero has a role to play as a connector, one that can foster a sense of community for entrepreneurs and small business owners around the world?
For us at Xero, we have cultivated a workplace culture that respects, accepts and supports all people, beliefs, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Brexit and the U.S election are examples of events this past year that have taught us that globalization hasn’t evenly distributed jobs or enhanced inclusion.
It makes it clearer to us that businesses must take the lead to create employment opportunities, be champions of diversity, inclusion, and social progress. Global businesses, particularly those in technology, provide a unique opportunity for people all over the world to collaborate and better connect and understand each other.
Growing the small business economy is the best way to materially address major social issues like youth unemployment, economic disparity and discriminatory practices, making the world a better and more prosperous place. But we can’t do it on our own; we need to work with like-minded companies to establish a global ecosystem.
What inspires you most about your new role, and your work? How would you define your management style?
What continues to inspire me every day, is the opportunity to help people pursue their dreams. Small business owners demonstrate commitment, zeal, determination and risk-taking in pursuit of their dreams, and that is inspiring. Half of Americans own or work for a small business, and by helping them be more successful — I support my neighbors, friends, family and community. I want to help those entrepreneurs scale, and Xero’s mission to rewire the global economy is a tangible way for our teams to change the landscape worldwide.
I’d define my leadership style as leading with passion, purpose and empowerment. Like many NewCos, I want teams comprised of people who are believers, focused on the customer every day and are willing to dream big, try, fail, pivot and try again. My job is to find the best people I can who have shared purpose and to help them stay energized, focused on our opportunity and empower them to grow and do the best work of their lives.