Donna L. Mackenzie, CPA

CFO and EVP of IZEA, Orlando, Fla.

More than half of my career has been spent in the high-tech industry with companies that have been pioneers in Web technologies. Working as CFO for these companies has been anything but dull. I think one thing that has kept me going is advice that my mother (who is my hero) gave me: “When you are in a tough situation, just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. You will walk out of the darkness, and the problem will be behind you.” She also told me, “Surround yourself with people you like.” Both of these bits of counsel have helped me throughout my career.

After graduating from the University of Alaska with a degree in accounting in 1987, I headed for Florida. My first position was working for a regional public accounting firm, which allowed me to get involved with a wide range of clients and to do everything from compilations to staffing, from leading audit engagements to preparing taxes. It even gave me experience in business consulting.

I discovered I really liked helping companies solve their problems. After several years in public accounting, I next went to work in a management consulting firm, where a lot of my work involved finding technology solutions to improve business processes.

When being a road warrior took its toll, I soul-searched and realized two things: I loved working with creative engineers and programmers who built solutions that in turn helped build successful companies. And I loved working in the somewhat chaotic but always challenging environment of venture-capital-backed companies. Armed with those insights, I found my next “home” in a startup company that was developing e-commerce content-management systems. The startup company was a confluence of everything I liked to be around and everything I liked to do.

The lure of being part of something new drew me to my next position as CFO of Channel Intelligence, a pioneer in helping put people and products together on the Web. Today, e-shopping is easy, but only a few years ago, it was difficult to find products and make price comparisons. Channel Intelligence helped change that. When I became its CFO in the early 2000s, the economy was pretty rosy; even so, finding financing was not a piece of cake. Why? Because we had to convince backers that an unproven product could make them money. Fortunately, we were able to do that, and during the four years I was there, the company expanded its product offerings and grew from 25 employees to nearly 200.

IZEA, a social-media marketing company, was less than a year old when I joined it four years ago, and it was in an entirely new marketing realm. Virtually no one understood what social media was, let alone how this media could make them money. The founder of the company, Edward “Ted” Murphy, had come up with a brilliant way to harness social media using software and marketing strategies that put advertisers and Web publishers together—through sponsored blogging and tweeting. What IZEA was doing was so disruptive to traditional marketing that it sparked my imagination as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference. It was a terrific challenge, but I took it on, and we gained backing and began growing. But just when everything began to come together, we—like everyone else—got hit by the tremendous economic turndown of the recession. Companies slashed their advertising budgets, especially the experimental ad budgets that funded our work at that time.

To keep going, it helped me to remember my mother’s advice about “putting one foot in front of the other” to “walk out of the darkness.” That’s what we did: We kept on going and used the downturn to examine our own processes and become more efficient and innovative, to the point that we all wore a lot of hats. My biggest challenge, of course, was to keep us funded. I learned, in a tight capital market, it is as important to know your customers and your business, and be able to present a strong business case with alternatives to potential investors. They want to know your plan if you don’t meet your projections.

If someone were to ask me to encapsulate what I’ve learned throughout the years, I would have to say this: Discover what is really important to you in a work environment and seek it out, and when times get tough, follow my mother’s advice about “putting one foot in front of the other.” You’ll get through it!

—As told to Linda Segall, ,
a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Fla.

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