David Johnston

CFO of dbj Consulting

David Johnston, CFO, brings over thirty years of senior financial leadership experience. Currently, David Johnston, CFO, is principal of dbj Consulting LLC, providing financial and strategic advice to emerging life science companies. He was recently Chief Financial Officer for ImmunoGen, Inc., oncology-focused biotech based in Waltham, MA. During his tenure at ImmunoGen, he led several public offerings and a creative, non-dilutive royalty financing. Before ImmunoGen, David Johnston served as CFO for Aveo Oncology and Genzyme Biosurgery. He led both their initial public offerings and led several strategic initiatives, both on the buy-side and the sell-side. Mr. Johnston earned a B.S. at Washington and Lee University and an MBA at the University of Michigan. David Johnston sat on the board of directors of RAW Art Works, a nonprofit youth arts organization, and Tissue Banks International, one of the most significant eyes and tissue bank nonprofits in the United States.

Where did the idea for dbj Consulting come from?

After roughly thirty years in financial leadership positions including twenty in life sciences, I felt it was time to share my experience and contacts with smaller, emerging life science companies who really couldn’t or shouldn’t have a full-time CFO with my level of experience.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Probably the only positive thing that came out of the experience with the pandemic was the meteoric rise in video meetings. Prior to the pandemic, I shared an office in downtown Boston with the idea that it would be near at least some clients in Cambridge and the Boston area. We gave up that office in 2020 and now I work most days out of my office on the third floor of the house. The commute is gone!

That said, most days are spent either meeting with client teams or working on specific projects. Productivity comes from making sure I leave enough time between zoom calls and meetings to make progress on the projects themselves.

How do you bring ideas to life?

One of the advantages of hiring what is effectively a part-time CFO like me is that we have seen and done a lot. There’s not much that we haven’t seen at least some version of. So, with experience comes the ability to put action plans in place and knowing how as well as who else to reach out to for help.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Many of my clients have less than ten full-time employees. The work gets done virtually. This keeps fixed expenses down and allows for flexibility in developing execution.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

This sounds corny, but even though I often work alone in my home office, I get up early, get ready and dressed and go into “work” mode every day by 7:30. I read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway would force himself to get up and write in the morning every day. No exceptions. It’s a good plan!

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take more risks. Don’t be concerned about what others think of you.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Well, I’m not a fan of Twitter. I don’t get it. I tell my kids not to think anybody really gives a hoot what you think. There’s almost no upside and can certainly get you in trouble down the road.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I try to bring a level of professionalism mixed with a bit of humor as appropriate. Business is all about people and personal relationships and humor can be a good way to build relationships.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

So far, it’s been primarily word of mouth. The good part is that new clients come to me having heard something good. The bad is that the flow of new business can be choppy.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

After thirty years in the corporate world, transitioning to advisory work is rewarding and challenging. The biggest failure I’ve had is balancing out client demand. It’s either overwhelming or has some holes. Not sure I’ve overcome it yet!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Carwashes. It’s a cash business, everybody needs their car washed at some point and it’s actually a good way to accumulate real estate!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently purchased a backpack specifically designed for transporting work-related items. It holds my laptop, a portable second screen, chargers, headsets, etc. all in an organized fashion. No more digging around the “black hole” of my old backpack.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Nothing unique here. I think Zoom has single-handedly changed the way the world works, including me. While some clients prefer Teams, I’d say 90% of my video communication is on Zoom.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Oregon Trail: A NewAmerican Journey by Rinker Buck

This is a great book about a couple of brothers who decide to travel the old Oregon Trail in a mule-driven wagon. Besides being fascinating and learning more than you ever thought you needed to know about how mules think, the way the brothers deal with uncertainty and adversity while keeping their eye on the overall goal of completing the trail translates well to everyday life.

What is your favorite quote?

You can do anything you want, you just can’t do everything you want.

Key Learnings:

  • It is not only possible but exciting to totally change your professional model.
  • A disciplined, professional approach, mixed with interpersonal warmth and humor works well
  • The virtual staffing model is becoming more and more visible within the life sciences. This applies to all disciplines, including financial leadership
  • The biggest challenge when running a consulting practice is balancing the client load
  • Look for learnings and inspiration outside of traditional business books or articles.