For the long and uncertain trek you have ahead, make sure you partner with a CFO who understands the terrain and can master the journey.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
A few months ago, my colleague and fellow on-demand CFO James Jones, published an insightful article titled “There’s a Time for Everything: When to hire the right finance help for your startup”. In his article, James brilliantly laid out a “Framework for Finance” that advises CEOs and founders on when to engage various types of finance and accounting talent.
As James indicated, there is a time for hiring a CFO, whether full-time or part-time. Once you have determined the timing is right you will be faced with one of the most important hiring decisions for your startup and you need to be prepared. Hiring the right CFO will boost your company’s performance; hiring the wrong one will distract you and will slow you down.
The “textbook” marching orders of a CFO are to “maximize shareholder value.” This implies many things, including a control aspect, which involves making sure the right controls and processes are in place so you can make the right decisions, and a judgment aspect, which involves maintaining an objective viewpoint to help you do what is right for the business. However, you also want to have someone who does the above and has the rare ability to foster relationships within the company to collectively work towards the same goals and objectives.
You are not just hiring someone who understands the process of closing the books and issuing financial statements. Anybody with a financial education can do that. You are hiring one of your closest partners, someone who gets it not only from the financial performance side but from the operational and infrastructure perspective as well. This CFO partner needs to be someone that can not only speak to what numbers on the financial statements went up or down, but can provide the insights as to why they moved and can drill down to understand the operational drivers of your company, turning data into information you can use to make good decisions.
A good CFO will partner with you and your management team so that all are collectively working to “maximize shareholder value,” as the textbook definition of a CFO indicates. This partnering is particularly important in startups as they are often a new experience for the CEO or for their management team.
The Psychology of Finance: how to go beyond the resume
Hiring the right CFO certainly requires, of course, carefully evaluating a candidate’s resume. Beyond this basic requirement is where you need to pay attention. Assuming the finance skills are there, you need to understand what most likely is not on their resume—their ability to build internal partnerships to help you operate the company. This is what I refer to as the Psychology of Finance. Specifically, more often than not, your first CFO will also be your acting COO because they will be the ones setting up basic systems such as HR, Legal (negotiating contracts, including sales contracts), M&A, IT, Supply Chain/Logistics and facilities. A CFO with poor people skills will not be able to champion your internal team to succeed at this.
Partnering with the right CFO that gets the importance of people dynamics will be one of your most important early decisions. When scouting for your partner CFO, make sure you ask for examples and find evidence of: a) the person’s flexibility (how do they manage the unforeseen?); b) the candidate’s preventative or enabling style when managers come up with issues outside the plan (are they about “getting to no” or about “getting to yes”?); and, c) their ability to nurture stakeholder relationships (the acid test here is the extent that business managers have consulted them for advice on key aspects of business/strategy in their past).
Key to ensuring you have the right CFO is to understand their view as to their role in your organization. Along with answers like setting up planning, forecasting, processes, controls, helping to raise money and preparing the board decks, listen for past experience that evidences they see themselves as someone responsible for turning the financial data into information that helps you and the rest of the company make informed decisions. A CFO who understands their role in your startup will ask you questions that evidence they do. These can include questions regarding your style for running the company, what are you looking for in a CFO, how your executive team work together, your relationship with your board or the biggest challenge you are facing right now.
Net, what you are looking for in a CFO for your startup is evidence that the candidate knows the importance that people dynamics have on their role as one of the key executives in charge of steering the company in the right direction. Mastering the numbers with no emotional intelligence is of no use to you when you need sound cover from a CFO. So when you decide it is time to hire your part-time or full-time CFO make sure to look beyond the resume to find the person who can make strategic finance actionable and useful.
No matter your size, you’ll need financial guidance to gain or maintain momentum.
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Christopher Michel.
Medium’s blogger John Cutler wrote an interesting article on startup complexity (Complexity is a Startup Killer. Don’t Grow Up) in which he analyzed how the two advantages of a startup – speed and focus – start to evaporate as your company grows. His advice is to resist the complexity that comes with growth and avoid the temptation to: Let features reproduce; Add endless sales tools; Multiply enhancements; Add more people to the Board; Find more and more partnerships; and Hire “experienced” people.”
To this last part about hiring experienced people, Cutler adds “Company experience doesn’t equate to Startup experience.” As an on-demand CFO at Burkland Associates, I’m a member of a team that enables access to startup experience on a fractional basis, enhancing a Company’s ability to scale up with the guidance of a strategic financial resource – when you need it!
A forward-thinking startup rents before buying whenever possible. Posit the following two scenarios where “renting” a CFO can help you minimize growing pains and burn.
Scenario 1: All the low-hanging fruit is coming your way.
A friend with a green thumb tells me “plants usually die out of an excess – not lack of – water”. Sadly, this is the case for many startups that find money and initial traction come their way relatively easily. I’ve been at more Board meetings than I would like to count in which investors were pushing their portfolio CEOs to scale up faster. On the surface, there is of course nothing wrong with scaling quickly; after all, startups are about speed.
The problem comes when scaling up follows little planning – tracing a horizon based on the initial traction that a talented business development person may have generated. Planning involves understanding how the interdependencies of product delivery, market expectations, and customer management could evolve. If you follow short term thinking without considering longer term context you may find yourself in a quagmire in future growth stages. As your strategic financial partner, people like me can help you craft the right plan.
Burkland CFOs can help develop a sound business model that plans growth looking at likely and unlikely scenarios (developing contingencies for them), and evolves your business in the right direction with models that show how to sustain and improve margins while optimally servicing existing customers. Smart investors look beyond traction, they want to see “smart traction” that doesn’t dry up and lives up to the market challenges you will inevitably face. A sound plan helps you to attract the additional capital and key resource hires you need as you scale, and becomes critical to sustaining momentum.
Scenario 2: You’re struggling to gain momentum.
If you’re losing sleep, it’s most likely because you’re not growing as fast as you expected and the solution is not obvious. You’re draining cash and not building the business growth story you need for your next round of financing which, by the way, is around the corner.
The challenge becomes one of creating processes to drive efficiency, fine-tune key variables such as pricing and levels of service, and buying time to figure out your market and educate prospect customers. You can’t justify hiring a full time CFO given your size, but you need a strategic minded CFO more than ever to stabilize your business, or face dire consequences. A part time CFO from Burkland is a huge asset in your corner to help you find traction. In this case, renting is a no brainer because a hired gun brings the relevant experience you need to figure out how to start sales momentum in context of a plan, as most of us have seen this problem several times even in your own industry.
Lack of traction can be a blessing – just ask SaaS star Slack, which came out of a failed gaming company – if and only if you have the right guidance to know where and how to tweak your model. A strategic CFO from Burkland could give you the partner and coach you need to help solve the puzzle and develop sustained traction.
Please contact me at email@example.com to speak further. Thanks
Make sure you plan ahead; it’s going to be a bumpy ride no matter what.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”- Dwight Eisenhower
Developing a financial plan is one of the most beneficial actions you can take as an entrepreneur when starting a business. A financial plan is like a spec for your company; it forces you to translate business strategy into a concrete business plan and to establish an operating roadmap that identifies the timeline for your key business milestones. As you develop your plan, your team and your investors will align on the goals and objectives to move your business forward.
A financial plan is also an essential tool for raising capital. Your projections enable you to determine your business’ funding requirements and communicate the financial opportunity to investors. In discussing your plan with prospective investors, you can demonstrate the financial literacy that investors expect from executive teams.
There are three types of financial plans that every start-up needs: a Long-range Plan, an Annual Budget, and an Intra-year Forecast. Here are some details on each.
1. Long-range Plan
A Long-range Plan is the first financial model a start-up should build. The Long-range Plan should include a 3-5 year outlook, with the number of years determined by how long it will take to prove and scale your business model. You should build the plan with monthly detail for at least the first 2 years, and you can plan the remaining years quarterly or annually.
The Long-range Plan should set your vision for the business model and help you to test the sensitivities of your key business drivers. It is helpful to prepare different scenarios of the model so you can anticipate and plan for different outcomes. I generally recommend preparing a base-case, a best-case and a worst-case scenario.
Investors expect to see your projected funding needs and the business milestones that can be reached in advance of each funding round so that they see a path to scale. You should target enough cash raised between rounds to last at least 12 to 18 months. Think of this plan as building blocks and create it as a detailed bottoms-up plan while keeping a top-down view as a reality check (e.g. what % of the market can we reasonably expect to capture?)
One crucial detail that many new CEOs overlook (sometimes fatally) is to ensure you forecast your cash flow, not just your income. Make sure to account for the timing of working capital (accounts receivable, inventory, accounts payable) collections and payments as well as capital expenditures. Poor working capital management causes many early-stage companies to fail.
2. Annual Budget
The second type of financial projection you should prepare is an Annual Budget, which is a detailed monthly plan for the coming year, generally prepared in the quarter prior to the upcoming fiscal year. The Annual Budget is presented to and approved by your Board of Directors.
It is always a good idea to preview your thinking, assumptions and high-level numbers with your investors before you send them the budget and ask for their approval. Sit down with members of the board that are willing to brainstorm scenarios for the year with you to ensure you get good advice and the buy-in from your board members before the actual board meeting.
Once your Board approves your Annual Budget, it becomes your North Star to measure performance throughout the year. Ensure that every executive team member is involved in the process of creating the Annual Budget, as their input and buy-in to the process is crucial to their performance. I recommend you share the Budget with the entire company to ensure everyone is aligned with the organization’s goals (although some executives prefer to omit sensitive details, such as the timing of cash running out).
3. Intra-year Forecast
As its name suggests, an Intra-year Forecast is simply an update of the budget completed during the year to reflect actual performance to date and an updated view of what is expected for the balance of the year. An Intra-year Forecast is an important tool to manage your cash and make the necessary adjustments to stay as close to the Annual Budget as you can. I recommend preparing an Intra-year Forecast at least 3 times per year – at the beginning of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters.
As the quote at the beginning of this article says, “plans are worthless but planning is everything.” In general, reality significantly deviates from your plans. By having a plan, you will quickly identify when business and market conditions have diverged from expectations and you will be prompted to quickly react and adapt. One of the most useful things that on-demand CFOs like us can help you with is to develop Long-range Plans, Annual Budgets and Intra-year Forecasts to help you plan, monitor and grow your business with confidence.
Here are some useful articles that dive deeper on these three essential types of financial projections.
Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Christopher Michel.