To grow faster, follow their footsteps and learn from their mistakes.
For this article, I found a quote from Steven Dunn that says that “You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” Quite fitting regarding how we can learn strategic finance lessons from second-time CEOs and avoid some of the mistakes they made in their startups the first time around. At Burkland Associates, we give strategic finance cover to many CEOs that have been there before, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from them:
A few years ago, RedRocketVC came up with a checklist for startup success. One of the items on their list is “Flexibility to fine-tune model and navigate challenges.” We see it and hear it from our CEOs time and again: modeling is one of the very few “must haves” for any startup. For a startup, business modeling and finance modeling is exactly the same thing. It may seem like a theoretically painful process, especially early on, but it is definitely one that will yield many benefits. A sound financial model that you can iterate over time, provides clarity on the current business and also illuminates the strategic choices available. Furthermore, this model will focus product, sales, business development and management on the same strategic plan and the levers available to make it viable.
Another reason to invest time in modeling is that a sound financial model will help you see the holes in your go-to-market approach that an experienced investor will detect at first sight, enabling you to bulletproof your investor pitches. Also, strong financial modeling will help a founder show investors the tangible steps to transform their idea first into a successful revenue model (generates revenue but burns cash) and eventually into a successful business (generates both revenue AND cash!).
Although good accounting is a basic skill every startup needs, its role needs to be understood. It is natural for a good accountant to become a “right-hand” guy for a CEO early on. After all, the accounting person usually knows more about the overall business than other management team members. Thus the CEO will often use them as a sounding board for discussing future plans for the business.
This is where things can go wrong. Good accountants are trained to look in the rearview mirror to make sure you do not leave out anything from the financial scorecard that provides an honest assessment of historical company performance. What they are not trained to do, however, is look out the front windshield and see what’s coming and/or which strategic turn the company should take.
That is the role of a strategic finance professional, who can use both the rearview mirror as well as look out the front windshield to help a company navigate around the obstacles and find the opportunities in the road ahead. Accounting and strategic financial professional are very complimentary and should be brought in as early as possible in a startup’s life — and remember, they are more affordable than ever since you can rent both in the new sharing economy!
The third lesson in finance we can learn from second-time CEOs concerns financial discipline. Financial discipline implies running your business based on both your financial model (which is forward-looking) and your accounting (which is backward-looking). Take these two extremes. First, most first-time CEOs have a good innate sense of their monthly burn (they usually are signing the checks!) and yet they are often surprised when the money runs out.
Why? Often founders do not want to really think about what is happening to their dwindling cash and without a true cash flow statement it is easier to not think about what is coming. Real financial statements with a solid cash flow statement provides founders with an unambiguous picture of what is happening to their cash including how important payment terms and collections are to making your payroll in the coming months before that next fund-raising round. This becomes especially important with the big-name clients that often will only accept 60-day payment terms when most of your own expenses need to be paid in less than 30 days.
Strategic finance as an early partner to grow with confidence
Like second-time CEOs, most successful first-time entrepreneurs eventually come to realize the finance function is more than just parental supervision required by their institutional investors. The only question is how much time (and opportunity cost) passes before they recognize that strategic finance is a vital ongoing partner in company success…just like development, sales, marketing, and customer success.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
Timing is everything when it comes to finance talent.
Nowadays, when startups raise money from VCs, especially in the early stages, line items in their financial projections do matter. For instance, in an era when all marketing tools give you freemiums or super low entry price points, and social media rules over mass media, your marketing budget can’t be what it was for startups a few years ago. Some VCs will go as far as saying you don’t need money to do good marketing until you grow the business on a dime. The same is true for finance. Why would you need a CFO when you can rent one? After financing is complete, what would a CFO do all day anyway?
Last week I was invited to do a talk at the inaugural Veterans Conference in San Francisco. When thinking how to make my talk useful and memorable to veteran founders and CEOs of early stage companies, I came up with the 2×2 matrix below (I’m an HBS graduate – we’re required to do a 2×2 matrix at least once a week for life!). Anyways, the chart provides a framework to help CEOs and founders distinguish between various finance and accounting roles, and to understand when and how to engage the right resource along their journey.
Framework for Finance Talent
The first thing to note are the axes. The progression to a full time CFO is natural as the level of help you need depends on the age of your startup. In an era when you can rent and not buy everything, finance talent is no exception. You need to strike a balance between looking at the past to ensure everything is in order (bookkeeping) and looking at the future to ensure you grow in the right direction (strategic finance).
The good news is that you can have your cake and eat it too!
Timing is everything
Here’s how it can play out. At the beginning, pre-seed and pre-revenue, you only need a bookkeeper. I recommend you to hire yourself as this guy – it will help you get a good handle on the levers that drive your business, and it will not take more than a couple of hours of your time every week. Then you start growing, the dogs eat the dog food so you raise a seed. At this point, your attention needs to focus on revenue and you need a professional bookkeeper. It is at this point that you also need to rent a CFO who can help you, giving you just a few hours per week, to lay the foundations of your business model so you can think about the future from a finance perspective (remember, bookkeepers are trained to look at the past).
Then comes the point when you will need more CFO cover. From Series A through D you will need to cover all bases. You need your bookkeeper. You also need more time from your on-demand CFO, who can help you with historical and pro forma financial statements, unit economics, raising capital and business modeling. Eventually you need to complete this team with a controller to build and improve processes and systems and ensure GAAP accounting), and maybe FP&A Analysts to support detailed and compressive operational metrics and dashboards and with corporate performance management tools.
Ideally, there comes a point in this journey, usually close to an IPO or an exit, when you stop renting your CFO and buy one. You should feel good – you’ve graduated to the next level and you need not only the full time of a CFO, but her undivided attention and a deep knowledge of what makes your company tick.
There’s a time for everything. Like in all graduations, you’ll have mixed feelings. You’re not a startup anymore.
Renting a CFO can help you have a strategic partner to realize your vision (photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur and photographer Christopher Michel).
Startups are hard. Most fail. Even ones with great ideas. So, how do you maximize your odds of success? Hire the best team you can afford. Including a Strategic Chief Financial Officer with the skills, experience and vision to be your business partner and trusted advisor. Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee. King Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell. Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobe. Who’s got your back? It could be your part-time CFO.
Can’t you get away with just an accountant? In a word, “no”. Accountants are important and help you figure out what’s happened in the past and report the same to your internal and external stakeholders. But you are an early-stage company. You need to drive the bus by looking ahead through the windshield, not behind in the rear-view mirror. Smarter finance is forward looking – it helps you chart the best course.
Shouldn’t you be doing this yourself as the CEO? Again, “no”. Best case, you are actually capable of filling this role. But this isn’t the best use of your precious time. You need to drive the company’s product and sales, build the team and be the company’s face to the outside world. Time spent in finance is time spent away from your highest and best purpose. Worst case, you screw it up.
But can you afford and attract a top-quality CFO? Yes! Because you don’t need this resource full-time and can pay only for what you need. We live in an on-demand world. Don’t buy servers – rent time from AWS. Don’t buy a car – book an Uber. Don’t buy a vacation home – go on Airbnb. And don’t hire a full-time CFO (yet) – rent one from a reputable On-demand CFO firm. You probably only need 0.5-2.0 days per week, can find A-list talent with expertise in your field and be up and running in days. And when you’re ready to make a change, it’s simple to move on or upgrade to a full-time resource.
Here are 5 key things you get from a part-time Strategic CFO:
Rent the CFO cover you need. No-brainer.
Are your sales people farmers or hunters (or maybe both)? Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur and photographer Christopher Michel.
A few weeks ago, our friends at Norwest Venture Partners (NVP) wrote an interesting article on how CFOs should approach sales compensation (Sales Compensation Leading Practices: Tips for Entrepreneurs Building Recurring Revenue Businesses, by Terri McFadden). We’ve seen how our portfolio companies share the pain of modeling for recurring revenue that Terri talks about when it comes to compensating their business development team. In her words, “recurring revenue can be a minefield for CFOs who are trying to figure out how to compensate their sales forces, she goes on to indicate that, “one false step can explode the ambitions of a company trying to establish itself in the market.”
You definitely don’t want to be DOA by not paying close attention to how to create a compensation plan that makes your SaaS recurring revenue business model one your team can sell effectively. We’ve come across clients who created a plan on the fly by relying on their accountants to model it, and undoing it is not fun. That’s why I found the NVP post quite useful to share and expand on in this article.
NVP wrote their article following a round table with two experts from Accenture – Kevin Dobbs, Everything-as-a-Service Practice Lead, and Mark Wachter, Managing Director of Sales Strategy. Below is what they learned.
Sounds straightforward, right? You would be surprised how many times this obvious action is ignored. I think the culprit is speed: your time as a CEO in a young company is spent on product and actual selling, so thinking strategically about compensation seems like a luxury you have no time for. Terri writes that “the complexity comes from defining your key success metrics, how they are tracked, setting goals, what success looks like and then how do you want to pay for these results.” This is exactly where you can use cover from a part-time CFO – all the points their article refers to are part of financial planning and support to tie your incentives and strategies to the fabric of your business model, and keep a close eye as they progress.
For most SaaS companies, hunters are their sales people and farmers are their customer success people. Even if they start out the same, eventually, you need to separate these two groups in your financials and then operationally. How can a part-time CFO help you here? Hunters and farmers need completely different incentives. Hunters go for the big fish; farmers nurture that catch and make sure they reproduce (think renewals). A CFO can help you model compensation to reward both groups differently, according to their incentives, and evolve that model over time as your business grows and your customer success people become more specialized. In practice, the process of designing incentives for different sales behaviors is one of trial and error, so that it can be evolved as these roles change. At certain stages in your trajectory, hunters farm and farmers hunt, and you have to track and evolve incentives around this dynamic with cover from a seasoned CFO that can see the world from the eyes of your sales team.
You don’t need to go to a round table to know that. However, our experience helping CEOs with strategic finance actually coincides with what the Accenture experts told NVP: “When it comes to setting quotas, most organizations don’t set sales quotas correctly.” Correctly is the key term here. All companies set sales quotas, but setting them in a way that works – and keeps working over time – is actually tricky. Low base/high commission? The reverse? On total ARR? New ARR? What level of quota? When to change them? Well thought-out quotas reflect key elements of actual performance such as the length of your sales cycle, how much control do your reps have on the sale, whether you price low to go in, the importance of renewals, etc. To add complexity to this, all these elements evolve over time, so they need to be fine-tuned to keep sales quotas effective at driving sales. A part-time CFO with experience working with sales teams can ensure you keep your eye on the ball regarding setting up and fine-tuning sales quotas for your team.
Thinking strategically regarding your sales machine from day one will result in more confident growth and will attract the best people to your team. Terri at NVP puts it well when she writes that, “If you want your own recurring revenue business to drive a smooth path to success, you must set up a sales and commission plan that works in synchromesh with your strategy and goals.” I would only add that a CEO and a VP of Sales can do it with less pain and more effectiveness with the help of a CFO who thinks about the long-term implications of sales compensation and helps them model incentives, compensation and quotas to grow with confidence.
The CEO & Co-founder of Front wrote about her experience raising their Series A. It contains several insights such as:
We’ve been closely following the emerging trends in the SaaS business model. Several of our customers businesses revolve around it and, as most other tech models, it is going through a transformative change. One of the most insightful articles we’ve read lately about this transformation comes from Techcrunch. On November 13, our good friend and business school classmate, Sequoia partner Aaref Hilaly wrote a story smartly titled “Why the next great SaaS company will look nothing like Salesforce.” In it, Aaref points out that the newest crop of SaaS models turns the notion that to be sticky, a SaaS model has to become the “System of Record” (SoR) which used to be “the single source of truth, for customers’ most valuable information, such as customer records or employee data” like Salesforce. He adds that the emerging opportunity for SaaS is to become “Systems of Engagement” (SoE), meaning apps that employees actually use to get their work done” like Slack, one of the most “sticky” business applications, now the most valuable private cloud company according to Forbes.
Check it out here. Aaref’s article is quite interesting and goes deep regarding how this new business model for SaaS not only makes sense, it solves the real problem of “creating systems of engagement that get users and revenue, by leveraging data in the systems of record.”