A consumer play not yet served by Amazon. Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
“Warren Buffet just confirmed the death of retail as we know it,” – that’s the headline of an article published by Business Insider last week. If your startup is in the consumer retail space, you should take notice.
Warren Buffet is usually spot on when it comes to having long-term vision. To illuminate this long-term view and how it applies to the consumer retail outlook, here is an exchange he and Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, had at their most recent annual meeting earlier this month:
Warren Buffet: “The department store is online now, I have no illusion that 10 years from now will look the same as today, and there will be a few things along the way that surprise us, the world has evolved, and it’s going to keep evolving, but the speed is increasing.”
Charlie Munger: “It would certainly be unpleasant if we were in the department-store business.”
As strategic CFOs for consumer startups, we’ve learned 3 lessons we’d like to share in order to help you position your startup to attract the investment that will bring success in the evolving retail landscape that Mr. Buffett refers to.
People love Amazon. Consumers are used to finding and ordering on their site or app in a painless and quick way. You do not want to be solving a problem they don’t have. You therefore will have a hard time raising money for an online business selling things that can be easily found and bought on Amazon, like regular books, toys, and small electronics. If you focus on these types of commodity items, investors will have a hard time believing you can source your products for less, or get them to the customer faster, or even get people to visit your site in the first place and transact there when they already have Amazon Prime.
Yet, there is hope for your startup. Although it may seem like they already sell everything, Amazon didn’t get to every category at once (for instance, they are just now getting to furniture and groceries). They didn’t do every category well on the first shot either (case in point: fashion). Your opportunity to play alongside this online giant is by focusing on a niche they are presently not choosing to focus on or have historically had execution challenges with because of obstacles related to merchandising, vendor relations, or other factors. A complex selling process also opens up a window of opportunity, for instance, a market where you need to customize the product online (like glasses), or a market where regulatory compliance makes Amazon’s standard checkout process insufficient (think pet RX), or areas where merchandising is key (like designer fashion).
If all it took to imagine the future of retail was visualizing empty malls and a world where every purchase is made on a mobile app, a sharp guy like Buffet would not have said that “there will be a few things along the way that surprise us.” Although news about the death of bricks-and-mortar retail and retailer Chapter 11 notices surrounds us, many local shops are doing quite well. Online brands are building and emerging faster than ever. One of their “secrets” seems to be to open physical retail along the way for brand support, and for retail “showroom-ing”. This term is used when an online brand (like Warby Parker or Bonobos) opens a bricks-and-mortar location that is open to the public in order to let the customer touch and feel the product. This allows the company to get closer to their end customer and acquire feedback that will be essential for future product development. Often these new retail showrooms carry very limited or even no inventory for purchase, and customers need to wait for their purchases to be mailed to them, as if they had purchased online, while they have had the benefit of a physical try on.
The destruction in legacy retail is a naturally occurring forest fire; it is creative-destruction that opens up space, and creates opportunities for new brands in the form of short- and long-term and pop up leases in premium, high street locations and malls. These opportunities would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. If you think bricks-and-mortar are dead, think of millennials; as connected as they are, they also like to stroll their local neighborhood on weekends and find stuff they can buy. Tourists from areas of the country less dense with early adopters, and international arrivals in particular, can also be introduced to new, emerging brands – in fashion, home, electronics, even food & beverage and health & wellness – through strategically placed physical outposts in high traffic locations. Physical space is here to stay for those startups that are creative and use it to augment their digitally-driven business models.
The model invented by Zara and H&M has put many former titans of the mall on the brink of irrelevance – and they did not do it by shifting consumers online. Fast fashion companies like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 know that consumers are fickle and what is hot now can become old news next month. Their entire model is designed to take new styles from the designer’s desk to the shelf in just a few weeks, without squeezing their suppliers. As a result, their initial buys are shallow and frequent, and stores only carry current stuff that will not need to be heavily discounted because it went out of fashion while sitting in a warehouse waiting to be shipped – which is a huge issue their competitors have.
Having a lite – or even zero inventory – business model reduces the investment in working capital, which in consumer businesses, is often a risky asset. Getting to inventory-lite requires high inventory turns. High inventory turns are made possible by a kick-ass concept-to-shelf design process, aided by superior logistics. Even better than inventory-lite is inventory-zero. Inventory-zero is inherently less risky, requires the least working capital, results in the highest operating margins, and has a tendency to translate into a free cash flow machine. VCs know this. Think eBay, MercadoLibre, Grubhub, and Opentable, who don’t even own anything they sell. They are the toll-takers of the internet, taking a piece of other people’s transactions, but never actually taking the risk of owning anything or the expense of warehousing or shipping anything. These agency businesses are fantastic business models, but they tend to be winner-take-all because of the importance of scale and network effects, so when attempting to build a toll-taker business, be prepared to answer questions about how you will acquire your customers, how much it will cost to do so, and who your competitors are.
Use them to fine-tune your value proposition
These three things to have in mind when formulating the plan for your consumer startup are by no means exhaustive… the comprehensive list of potential ways to maximize the value of your consumer startup would be a very long one. These are however three key things you should keep in mind as you try to define your value proposition for VCs. They are also key items to keep in mind as you prepare your strategic plan and do your long-term modeling to ensure you have an attractive beachfront to compete supported by smarter finance.
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.
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.”
This Thanksgiving week, Series A startups can be thankful for your funding, but realize that the B Round is now the tougher round and the time to start preparing is now. This presentation by Jed Katz (https://www.linkedin.com/in/jedkatz), who is the managing director at Javelin Venture Partners (https://javelinvp.com) explains how to do that. Jed posits that your next round of financing is much closer than you think, which catches some Founders by surprise. To prepare, he gives tips on setting 12-month goals, making cash last, managing & leveraging your Board, creating separate roadmaps for Sales & Engineering, and using the right metrics. Note how creating a brand serves recruits and investors in addition to customers. We especially like his final “words of wisdom,” that, unlike the perfunctory summary in some presentations, are useful and action-oriented.
These are valuable tips from a VC pro who’s seen everything. Check them out.