Marek Cieszko of Packhelp: Using Data, BI, and Online Learning to Excel in the CFO Role
Marek is the CFO of Packhelp, a VC-funded SaaS-enabled marketplace, which allows companies to design and order their own custom-branded packaging. Prior to Packhelp, he was CFO of Adiuvo Investments, a holding company that develops biomedical projects. Marek also spent seven years at Ernst & Young, focusing on biotech and life sciences sector clients.
We met to talk about his experience in Europe and the U.S., and the rapid pace and vast scope of finance in the startup world.
Let’s start with your background — tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up, and some of your early influences.
I was born in Lublin, Poland and grew up in a typical Eastern European block of flats. My parents were mechanical and electrical engineers at the local truck factory. My family always encouraged me to gain as much international experience as possible, and my sister was a role model in this regard. She spent a year at a state university in Pennsylvania in the early ’90s. A Polish student at a U.S. university in the 90s was a pretty big deal – at least for an 8-year old me.
This definitely influenced my career choice – I wanted to do something that would allow me to work both in Poland and internationally. I wasn’t good enough at math to become an engineer like my parents, but good enough to work in finance and finance allowed me to work everywhere in the world.
Yes, I see you’ve spent some time in Silicon Valley. Tell us about that experience.
I spent seven years at EY, and two of those years in Silicon Valley, which was really a life-changing experience, and one of the reasons I joined the firm. EY has offices around the world, and I wanted to utilize the opportunity to work in different environments.
One big thing I took away from the experience is the focus on quality of work. As a client services professional, there’s a high attention to detail and quality, since clients are paying a lot for our services. I observed this focus on quality even more in the U.S. than in Europe, and it’s something I’ve tried to apply in other workplaces.
I was also able to take some Stanford courses while I was in the Bay Area. Beyond just the courses themselves, the whole community surrounding it was great. Being able to work with startups, inventors, IT guys, and helping them with the finance side of the business — that was most remarkable thing that came out of the experience.
Your first CFO role was at Adiuvo Investments, a holding company that develops biomedical projects in the digital health sector. What was it like taking on such a complex role as a first-time CFO?
It wasn’t easy. A lot of trust was put in me as they were building the finance function of their holding company — it’s a special kind of animal. Each of the companies was a biotech project, so there was lots of R&D, lots of science personnel, but no finance or admin function. It was really interesting working with inventors and researchers, who are more removed from the mundane daily operations, and more concentrated on changing the world.
Seeing how these innovative companies think and their problem-solving approach was amazing. It was fun to see the whole process from inventions, to the ups & downs, to the final transactions. The company eventually IPOd so we went through the whole process of writing the prospectus, to the road show, selling stock to investors… it was a really rewarding experience.
You recently became CFO of Packhelp, a VC-funded SaaS-enabled marketplace, which allows companies to design and order their own custom-branded packaging. What were some of the big differences, or learning curves to scale?
All my prior experiences contributed to me ending up in Packhelp. I transitioned from multi-project finance to a company that’s focused on product development and then selling that product, and quickly. The project cycle is much quicker than in biotech, so it’s an exciting pace. Packhelp is unusual, as there are 6 founders. I’ve read research that shows the more founders a company has, the higher probability of success, and I’ve seen how that can be true. Our founders split their areas of focus, with one on tech, digital product, manufacturing, sales, marketing and a CEO that coordinates all of those. It’s really interesting to see how they’ve managed to come up with their MO and how it’s enabled them to be really efficient.
Is there ever a ‘right time’ for a startup to hire a CFO?
As CFO, I’d probably say the sooner the better! But realistically, I think series A is a good time, as you’re getting bigger rounds and the company is getting traction. If there are quick fixes that need to be done, they still can be without impacting the business. I think Seed stage would be too early, unless there’s a finance skill set in the founding team. Founder temperament tends to be different than a finance person, so post-series A is a good time to let founders concentrate on the business and less on the reporting & admin side.
Staying on top of the changing tech and tools seems essential for finance leaders. How do you do it?
Definitely. You have new markets, and new industries becoming part of the whole economy. And if you don’t work with it on daily basis, you need to search for ways to learn. Online learning is a great opportunity to interact with industry experts & leaders from all over the world. I did an online Oxford fintech program, with a mix of students from around the world with different experiences and viewpoints. I wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to get the point of view of someone from a fintech in Kenya, Egypt, or the UAE, for example. So this experience was invaluable. Finance touches every aspect of a business.
How can finance leaders best collaborate with stakeholders across the organization?
My approach is know what each person in the organization is doing, and be able to communicate with them. For that you need the language.
Lately, I have a lot of interactions with developers and IT. When you’re integrating a new tool or ERP, you always need the help of a developer. So learning the basics of coding is something I’d enjoy. It’s like learning a foreign language, and you have to really commit to it.
I’d also like to learn Python, as data analysis and BI are key at the moment. It’s something that allows you to see a birds eye view of business and see which levers to pull so the business develops in the way that you want it to.
You’ve managed teams of up to 50 people - what have you learned about management and leadership along the way? What soft skills are required to lead a finance team?
Straightforward communication with peers and the board is very important. I’ve found that the finance team feels unheard in many organizations, like they’re put behind the business or have to do the cleaning up. But the finance team underpins every aspect of the business - investments, costs, budgeting - so you need to talk to every stakeholder in the company and explain what you do and how you can help them.
When your team notices that you’re working in this collaborative way, they themselves feel more empowered. They see themselves as more than just accountants, but that they’re helping grow the business. It’s a helping vs. policing approach.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a CFO?
Spend less time in the spreadsheets and more time with your customers, and teammates from across the organization.
Any book, podcast or resource you recommend?
After being in the U.S., I really enjoy NPR (National Public Radio), they have various podcasts from pop culture to the economy. Planet Money or The Indicator are useful, as they show how to explain finance or economic concepts in simple terms.
As for books, I recently read the Sixth extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which is not a very optimistic read, but an important one. It talks about how we’re impacting the climate, the environment, and other species. At Packhelp, we’re striving to be fully sustainable, planting a tree for every one cut down to manufacture boxes. Being more conscious about environmental impact is a huge topic in general, but also for our company specifically.
What do you do outside of work to stay happy & balanced?
At the moment I keep boring my team with stories about my wife (who is an amazing human rights lawyer), our 7-month-old daughter and 18-month-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever — and they are kind enough to tolerate this, and even occasionally smile.
My wife and I can’t wait for our daughter to grow up a little bit, so we can take her rock climbing or backcountry skiing – things that we used to do a lot before she was born.
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