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Winning the Race to Create In-Demand Content

Hilary Sutton Finance, Issue 15 - Jan/Feb 2015 Leave a Comment

Demand Media CFO Mel Tang is at the company’s financial wheel, helping draw more than 70 million unique viewers worldwide

Since 2012, Mel Tang has served as Demand Media’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), witnessing firsthand the start-up grow from little more than a financially backed idea to a publicly owned media company with 400-plus employees.

Although one may not immediately recognize the name Demand Media, chances are that most of us have visited one of its websites. Demand Media sites have more than 70 million unique worldwide users—more than the populations of California and New York combined.

Demand Media is the umbrella organization that encompasses content-rich sites like eHow.com and LIVESTRONG.com, as well as digital artist marketplaces such as Society6.com and SaatchiArt.com, among many others. Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, it has offices in both North America and South America.

Tang_Mel_image1From the Engineering Lab to the Board Room

Tang’s journey to becoming CFO of one of the nation’s leading digital media entities is far from textbook. Prior to joining Demand Media, he spent eight years working in investment banking and venture capital. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, he studied Business and Engineering in order to pursue his first love: Formula One racing.

“I went to school to be a race car engineer. I wanted to build race cars,” he said. “My Business degree was a supplement.”

Tang, who remains a passionate racing fan, sees parallels between the racing world and his role overseeing the finances of a media company. He likens a successful business to that of a successful Formula One racing team. No matter how talented a driver is, without a world-class team and car, the driver cannot win. As CFO, Tang is not interested in receiving the credit when his team does well.

“My best days are when I get feedback that someone on our team or the team as a whole has helped provide real insight to inform a business decision,” Tang said. “The less I get mentioned in that, the better it is.”

Tang’s career goals transitioned from the engineering lab to the board room after an internship in investment banking during his junior year of college. Tang became energized sitting at the table with Chief Executive Officers and CFOs.

He remembered: “I enjoyed interacting with the highest levels of corporate America, learning how they think and make decisions.”

Tang remained in investment banking for the next several years, until he began to feel the itch to go corporate.

Finding the Fit

After putting out feelers for new opportunities, Tang connected with Richard Rosenblatt, Demand Media’s Co-Founder. Tang did not know much about the start-up, but was aware that Rosenblatt had raised $120 million.

“He convinced me to come over without knowing exactly what role I would have or what the ultimate business model was going to be,” Tang said. “I knew that there was a talented management team in place and there were smart investors backing the venture. Quite frankly, I was just happy to get on the bus.”

At that juncture in his career, Tang was ready to move from being the “transactional guy” to contributing to the day-to-day operations of a business. After being exposed to many aspects of the company, he honed in where he was most valuable: on the finance and corporate channel.

Tang was initially named Senior Vice President (SVP) of Business Intelligence, but quickly moved to SVP of Finance and Treasurer. Six years later, Tang was named CFO of the organization. According to Tang, the CFO role has changed over time.

“The CFO used to be the accounting and numbers guy, but now it’s much more strategic. How do you take an enormous amount of financial and non-financial data and distill that to what’s really important? How to best translate that for people who are not as quantitative, and help provide real insights to make more informed business decisions? It’s about seeing the bigger picture and helping to connect the dots on strategy, operations and financials.”

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Tang_Mel_sidebarBuilding the Corporate Communication Channel

Tang considers the Finance Department to be the “foundation and glue that keeps the business talking to each other.” This is an outgrowth of Tang’s unique brand of leadership. He has worked to engrain a “can-do” attitude in his team.

“Any time someone needs something quantitative, we try to be that first call. We’re constantly called on to help with business decisions. We’re on the front lines of business trends,” Tang said. “This has helped us to establish deep relationships so we’re trusted as partners as opposed to the finance guys in an ivory tower. Our goal is to know more about the business than the business itself.”

He keeps his team motivated and engaged by encouraging them to diversify their skills. “People doing the same job day after day will get bored and burnt out. It’s important from a career development perspective that the people under you have a way to elevate themselves,” Tang said.

He also points out that cross-training alleviates pressure when someone is out. Tang hires people who are passionate and customer service focused.

“I tend to look for and hire people with the raw talent and who have a passion for overachieving—not necessarily in what they do specifically, but in being helpful in anything,” he noted. “To me, experience and specific skill sets are helpful, but not the primary driver of a hiring decision. This approach requires more upfront training and managerial oversight, but once up to speed, the amount of what you can do with a team like this is truly unlimited.”

“I joke that my objective is to train myself out of a job,” Tang said. “Ultimately, that’s how I think about running our team. You find the right people. You work with them early on, and then let them run on their own. I am there to provide guidance and support, but I try to stay out of the way unless I’m needed. That’s how I like to lead.”

Hilary Sutton is a freelance writer and Principal of HSL Creative based in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Mel's Key Partners:
Latham & Watkins LLP (Outside Legal Counsel)

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