Mastering Scale

The CFO’s Role in a Successful Mobile Business

Niels Boon
Niels Boon Ada Health

Mobile application companies are a new phenomenon. 20 years ago, this entire industry was basically non-existent, yet now we have successful, publicly listed app companies with thousands of staff and making serious profits.

This is an exciting space to be a part of, with interesting challenges for finance leaders.

So to help, I’m about to explain the finance function and role of the CFO in a mobile application company.

We’ll look at:

  • Core responsibilities of your future finance team
  • Your most urgent hires
  • Who you need to work most closely with in the company
  • Key principles for effective CFOs

If you’re trying to build the finance function at the next big mobile app company, here’s what you need to know.

About Ada Health

Ada Health offers a personal health companion - it’s an AI-powered health assessment platform that combines medical knowledge and technology to help people manage their health, and medical professionals to deliver effective care.

We mainly target consumers. Around 10 million people worldwide use the app, making Ada the number 1 medical app in around 140 countries. Users enter their health symptoms and are asked a series of questions.

Ada’s technology draws upon a global medical knowledge base. Depending on the user’s symptoms, medical history, risk factors, and more, it provides a personalized health assessment, with possible causes for symptoms and relevant care options. And this service is offered completely for free.

Then second, we have paying B2B clients such as health care payors and providers, or governmental organizations. Ada provides better patient outcomes and more efficient care, leading to significant savings.

Ada operates a B2B2C business, which is important to understand when we’re looking at the different roles and responsibilities for finance teams. Charging millions of consumers for the app directly (i.e., B2C) requires a different team set-up from charging higher amounts to a more selective group of clients (B2B).

Furthermore, because of the technological nature and corresponding cost structure as well as our market approach and business model, my job will differ from CFO roles at more traditional companies, or those tech companies with a different business model.

Let’s take a closer look at that now.

Responsibilities: The finance function in a mobile app business

Your key tasks as CFO in a mobile app company depend on the maturity of the business. As the company grows, the emphasis you place on each role will change.

But you can always count on the need for accounting, controlling, and FP&A.

Accounting and controlling

In the beginning, accounting for a start-up can easily be handled externally. If you’re not charging for the service, you don’t have a lot of payments to record and there isn’t much controlling to do.

So accounting will focus on your tax obligations in each country and the amount of money you’re spending. This needs to be recorded, of course, and ideally accurately as well.

It can be done with a fairly lean team - in our case we only had roughly one FTE shared between two people to begin with, and I stayed closely involved in the review process in the early days.

Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A)

Compared with other companies in this series, when I joined our FP&A activities were virtually non-existent and also relatively simple. We don’t have a huge cost infrastructure as we’re an asset-light mobile app business. We have no logistics to analyze or variable pricing to experiment with.

For a pure technology company, the majority of costs are personnel related, typically working in Product and Engineering. A second larger item is the marketing spend, both on team members as well as budgets spent externally. So the first attention goes to establishing team budgets, especially for Tech and Marketing.

First, we had to account for and track the existing spending, which gave us something to measure against. After a few months, every department gets their own sheet showing how they spent against their budget.

And the same for our sales. With revenue coming in, we could start looking at things like pricing, cutting deals, and the cost of some other ventures.

So that was the starting point. But we were able to explore these roles much more deeply as we added team members.

Personnel: Building the finance team

Alongside determining what your finance team does, you also need to know who it will include. Again, this depends on the growth stage your company is at.

I’ll explain how we grew from that first finance employee, and the reasons behind the choices we made.

Tax advisors and auditors

As I mentioned earlier, accounting and tax can be handled externally at first. Especially if you’re not charging directly to consumers, like us. If you’re charging, you’ll have to pay VAT locally at least as well as internationally once you expand operations. And if you start making profits you have income tax to worry about too, when applicable across countries including potential transfer pricing issues as well. But if you have these issues you’re also making money, so that’s probably a good thing.

Typically for young companies, you’ll have a local tax advisor to keep an eye on the books. In our case, this was once a quarter when I joined the company, and with a delay because of inefficient processes. You might get the numbers for January-March in May or June, which of course is too late. By this time, you could already have run out of cash.

It became clear that we had outgrown our external accountant and tax advisors by the time I came onboard. Because we wanted to raise a significant amount of capital at the time, we upgraded to a larger, more reputable tax advisor more tailored to our emerging and future needs. It was also important to show new potential investors that we were professional and had the right processes in place for future growth, before we even had the new investment.

Now, we also have a tax person in-house, specialized in transfer pricing and international tax, which is very valuable. External advisors easily charge €50,000 for a project, and it’s hard for them to understand your specific situation and company structure.

With someone in-house, the level of understanding becomes higher once they’re fully onboarded, and you can include them earlier-on during more complex client deal structures than you would with an external advisor.

Accountants

As already mentioned, when I arrived we only had two people working part-time on finance related tasks, actually located in two different cities. There were no clearly defined job descriptions, but they made sure all our payments were accurately recorded - essentially our accounting department back then.

At the beginning, I tried helping out as much as possible, but soon as our business grew, I no longer had time to review all of the – now monthly – accounting reports in depth.

Our internal finance team now includes four accountants. Again, the level of accounting expertise you need really depends on the volume of transactions and business complexity you’re dealing with. In our case, this is still relatively low. Especially on the revenue side, we have low volume but high value invoices for our B2B clients, rather than a higher transaction volume with lower amounts as one would have when charging B2C.

Financial Planning & Analysis

The other main half of the finance function - the side I’m more involved with these days - is planning. Today we have two dedicated FP&A people, who establish and analyze the overall budget as well as budgets with all of the department heads.

Every department head or team leader meets with the Finance Director and a FP&A Manager. They get the chance to express the tools and talent they need to add, and our FP&A team consolidates this into the company’s overall budget.

Once the budgets are set, teams can be held accountable for what they’re spending. Tools like Spendesk can help here a lot too once defined team budgets are in place.

Whether you need one, three, or fifteen of these people again depends on your company’s stage and the value they can add. At the beginning, our main reporting was to the Board and our investors, which is still one of our core responsibilities today. As your business matures and you have more data to work with, you’ll have scope to add more people to the team.

Stakeholders: Who you work with, and why

As with the other articles in this series, I want to spell out the key interactions your finance function has with others. We can split these into authorities, investors, management, and other teams within the company.

Authorities

Governments and tax authorities are always going to be key stakeholders for a finance team, no matter in which industry you are active. The first and most important fiduciary duty is to make sure you fulfill the company’s financial obligations for all entities. This includes annual tax filings, VAT, making sure social security and pension payments are handled correctly, and more.

You may also have social security authorities to think about, which is not always on management’s mind before the CFO arrives. In Germany we have a word called Scheinselbständigkeit, which roughly translates into “false self-employment.” The social security office will demand back payments and issue fines or even jail time to companies if there are freelancers working for the company who are perceived as employees. There’s no clearly defined set of rules, but it includes people regularly working from the office, using a company email address, taking direct orders from an employee of the company, working on company devices, and generally indicators that they’re de facto employees.

As I said, there’s no way to avoid the authorities and my personal view is that you might as well communicate relatively open with them to prevent potential future trouble. Every company in Germany gets audited at least once every four years. So it’s not a question of if but rather when this happens. And while it may not be this rigorous in other countries, it’s never a good idea to take relationships with authorities lightly.

Investors

Investors will always be an important stakeholder group that you’ll need a solid relationship with. When I joined, our new investors were used to working with larger, more professionally organized companies as we were a relatively early-stage investment for them.

Shareholders expect reports at latest 15 days after the end of the month, and our early reports were not comprehensive nor arriving with a reliable delivery schedule from our external accountants. So this wasn’t going to fly.

As mentioned earlier, we eventually decided to change our external accounts and tax advisors to make sure that we had clear and accurate information about the company as a whole as well as about our different cost centers.

Should these detailed views not be available in the systems yet, I recommend you keep a strong focus on cash, as this is what investors care about most in high-growth companies, especially before profitability.

Management

The level of interest for finance varies a lot among executives, yet they all need to work according to business plans in the end. At a minimum, we provide the same reporting as investors and the Board receive to the Management Team, to make sure everyone knows how the company is doing. And they have their own budgets, of course.

As incoming CFO of a high-growth tech company, your best friends need to be the CTO (in charge of developers) and the Head of Marketing. Work together to turn their hiring plans into budgets and fix any other financial issues they might have.

Other employees

It’s also important to be clear and transparent with the rest of the company. Everyone needs to know - to a certain degree - how their work impacts the finances and why we make the decisions we do. But, as I’ll explain in a moment, full transparency is not always the best idea especially for those without context.

A few guiding principles for new CFOs

Building a new finance team can be a challenge. No two companies are identical, and you’re going to come across issues that haven’t necessarily been covered before.

From experience, here’s how I suggest you approach your new role as CFO.

Lay out the groundwork

Often, before you can analyze financials in a meaningful way, the first thing you need to establish are clear HR and operational processes. I call this laying out the groundwork or “pre-finance” responsibilities because, until they’re set up correctly, you can’t do the real finance work you were hired to do in a meaningful way.

When I arrived at Ada, the company already had 80-90 employees in place, but only 1.5 FTEs in the Finance and Operations team. And we didn’t have any distinct HR or Legal functions in place. Today, around one and a half years later more than 50 people report into me working in the Finance, Global Compliance & Ethics, Legal, Operations and People & Workplace department.

We couldn’t make a hiring plan because we didn’t even have a centralized system in place to document how many employees were working at the company. So, I simply made my own personnel overview file using raw payroll data from several different systems. There were no official employee numbers, so I made a list of names and roles of the people we were paying from our different entities.

I applied a similar approach to identify our other cost items. I made a list of suppliers and began figuring out which supplier we had for what. Really basic questions.

We also had to set up legal processes for our clients. So for a while I was only doing legal tasks - defining clients proposal and contracts, reviewing and signing NDAs and vendor contracts.

This can be frustrating if your true love is finance. But you simply won’t be able to do the other exciting work until these operational processes are clearly defined and implemented. And by doing these things personally, you’ll find out exactly how the company works, who’s in each team doing what, and especially to identify team gaps and how to make improvements in the future.

Hire slowly and deliberately

I prefer not to hire people too much in front of the wave. Otherwise, they come in to find out there’s not much to do. I prefer that people are 110% busy let’s say, because then they need to make smart choices and are forced to prioritize.

If you’re 90% busy you do everything on your plate and then don’t know what to do next. Whereas I love it when the team learns to be more and more efficient each month.

Be open, but be careful

How transparent should you be with the financials internally? Some companies share absolutely everything, while others keep financial information a top secret. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

It can be stressful for sales teams to learn that you’re losing a couple of million in their market, for instance. Or the other way around, sharing explicit revenues numbers without context could easily trigger a range of requests for new purchases and salary raises. In a previous company, I shared this information using the real graphs from investor reporting but removed the numbers on the axes. So teams could still see trends and relative scales, which could have led to undesired side effects.

Keep in mind as well that numbers, even when shared internally, could reach competitors.

Understanding the context is important for the team, but you can’t sit with 300 people one-by-one to explain the financials. On the other hand, if we don’t talk about the financials, people might think we have endless pots of money. For example, we at Ada Health have amazing offices, which could lead to the impression that we have more than enough money, whereas this is an investment in the future of the company.

So long story short, it’s important to share, but you need to tailor the message to the audience.

Good finance is always a matter of scale

No matter your business model or industry, the finance team should match the phase your company’s in. The core responsibilities are basically the same, but your investment in each increases substantially as the company grows.

Often, these investments come as a result of major milestones. An audit, a new market, or a change in the business model will impact the make-up and focus of your team.

It’s important to build the finance function as a reflection of the company, and to walk before you run. And while it’s hard to say exactly how every CFO should build their team every time, I hope that this article provides some useful guidelines.

Enjoy the ride.

More from Mastering Scale


Mastering Scale is a series of expert articles created by Julius Bachmann for CFO Connect.

Niels Boon is the Chief Financial and Operating Officer. After graduating with a Master of Finance from the University of Amsterdam, he learned the tricks of the trade through advisory roles at McKinsey & Company based out of Amsterdam and Sequoia based in London, as well as financial leadership roles at several multinational technology companies with HQ in Berlin and San Francisco. Throughout his career Niels worked in several countries including China and the United States as well as several countries in Europe including Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. His technology company experience ranges from rapidly growing scale-up Zalando (ETR: ZAL), to big data start-up itembase, Inc., to globally expanding Bonial with a publicly listed company as majority shareholder (Axel Springer, ETR: SPR). Niels is responsible for Ada Health’s Finance, Global Compliance & Ethics, Legal, Operations and People & Workplace departments.