Faces of Finance: Julie Oey of WeGift
Julie Oey is the Finance Director at WeGift, a UK-based startup that’s transforming the multi-billion dollar digital incentives industry. Prior to WeGift, Julie spent two years as Head of FP&A at neobank Monzo, seeing the finance team grow from three to 40 employees during her time there.
We met with Julie in London to get her thoughts on why startups should be thinking a year in advance, how empathy and curiosity can make you a better business partner, the importance of the ‘generalist’ skill set, and more.
Check out our conversation:
First of all, give us the scoop on WeGift. How do you describe it to your friends and family?
WeGift is rebuilding the sleepy gift card industry retailer-by-retailer. As an individual, you’ll probably never actually see our name since we’re a B2B platform, but we aggregate over 500 products and make it really easy for our clients to do things like customer acquisition or engagement campaigns, and run employee benefit programs. We have an edge over competitors because of how fast it is to plug into our platform via API, plus we provide useful reporting analytics for our clients and transparent pricing.
Right now there's a few major players in the market, and they operate with legacy technology. Often, if you want to buy gift cards from brands in bulk, you’ll get a PDF or excel with the actual digital inventory of codes, which is not particularly user-friendly, especially when you're trying to distribute thousands of gift cards to individual consumers.
The more exciting long term vision at WeGift is about how we can transfer value between businesses and individuals instantly and without bank accounts. Gift cards, or digital incentives, are a great way to do this because you are giving someone money without the hassle of a bank and you get a discount for operating in bulk - we’re excited to use this as a premise for something bigger later.
I’ve heard a crazy statistic that something like a billion dollars of gift cards go unused — do you have any data on that?
Yes, it’s a concept called “breakage”, where for example if you are a business giving out 100 gift cards in a customer campaign, on average only 75 people actually use it. The other 25 don't, so what happens to that money? A lot of the distributors in the market will keep that money for themselves. But what we offer is for our clients to retain the bulk of the unused funds, which makes the program much more commercially attractive and helps our clients save money.
We do this because we’re trying to make the industry more transparent, similar to TransferWise, by asking “where is the hidden value in the ecosystem?" and "how do we make sure that's more equitably spread across the market?”
Prior to joining Wegift, you were at Monzo Bank for 2 years. What compelled you to make the move?
I was very lucky to have the Monzo experience. During my time there, the company grew from 150 people to 1,500 (in under two years!) When I joined, I was one of three on the finance team, and we were almost 40 when I left.
It was an amazing, super hyper growth phase. And I was just realizing towards my last few months there that, as much as I loved Monzo, I really missed being more of a generalist, and covering lots of different things. By the time you’re 40 people in a finance team, everyone’s a specialist in their areas.
So I started looking around at more Series A type startups, which is the earliest in the company life cycle I’ve been at. I’m just a month in so it's still a learning curve for me and I’m excited for the challenge.
What’s the biggest takeaway from your experience at Monzo that you're now able to apply in the startup world?
Remember to sleep!
And always try to plan for things a year in advance. When you’re caught in the daily fires, it’s easy to get swamped in the day to day, and postpone thinking about the future strategy. But it takes months to hire people and scale the team, so actually what we needed to focus on was: what do we need in place a year from now, and then how do we get that process started today?
How do you develop that skill of being able to forecast what your needs are going to be? Especially in a startup where the amount of growth can be so huge in a year?
I think Monzo was particularly crazy in the sense that the growth rates exceeded everyone's expectations, but I learned a lot from the previous CFOs I worked with. A lot of it is just figuring out, okay if the company objectives are to be at X in a year's time — in terms of number of customers, number of countries, whatever those factors are — if the company achieves all of that, then where does finance need to be to properly support that?
Once you know what that is, then start working towards it immediately, because by the time you achieve it, the company will be moving onto the next stage of growth already.
And what about the situation where you anticipate what your needs will be in a year, but you don't quite have the funding to make that happen? Do you just plan for the best case scenario? As you know, Series A can go fast.
Hiring for the generalist nature is really important, so that you can cover all your bases if you need to. When hiring people, I look for more qualitative skills; people who have no ego, who will jump in and do anything, research whatever it is they need to research, who aren’t afraid to reach out to their network for help - things like that.
Another useful thing to think about is: what will actually kill the company? And making sure that you mitigate for that, as well as preparing for growth.
How do you recruit and interview for the more qualitative, generalists skills?
It’s important to find naturally curious people and what drives them. Everyone probably had some job somewhere where they were given a box to work within. You can ask about if or when they went outside their box of responsibilities and why they did it, to get a sense of their curiosity levels and their bias to action.
For example, if they are naturally curious, what do they do about that curiosity? Have they taken courses on the side, or read deeply about a particular topic? As opposed to learning something only because they had to.
I read that you're passionate about translating finance for non-finance people, and working with non-finance teams. Tell me about that and why that's important?
Finance traditionally is thought of as very back-office, just doing the books and the accounting. But what I've found in a lot of the startups is that they want finance to be more commercial, to drive strategy in the company and help hold everyone else accountable for achieving company goals. But you can only do that if you can actually communicate with people.
Figuring out how to translate finance in a way that makes sense and gets buy in from everyone is really important. Try to sit down with people as much as possible, really understand what their priorities are, the constraints they’re working in and why they need to make certain spend levels to reach their goals. Then, you can empathize with where they're coming from, ask the right questions, and make better decisions on how to support them. For example, with marketing, asking “how much do you need to spend on advertising and in what channels, to reach your targets?” And then being able to ask “is that really the only path to getting the results that you want?”
Like you said, finance leaders are now expected to be true business partners, and not just policy-enforcers. What are the other important skills for modern finance leaders?
I do think the policing aspect is still important. In startups, it's all about taking big bets on a product and getting it out to market, so it is sometimes difficult being the finance person looking after the wallet when money is limited.
So it really is about developing good relationships across the company and understanding where each team is at, so that you can make informed trade-off decisions, then make sure people around the company understand why you made that decision.
When I was looking at different companies, the ones that attracted me the most were those that said “I need you to run the books, but I also need you to be in the room and tell me when I'm not doing something right.” Finance is a lot about accountability.
Since you're fairly fresh at WeGift, what do you think is the most important thing for a finance leader to do when they arrive at a new company?
For me, I didn't want to make any major changes right away. I spent my first month talking to each of the different teams at WeGift so I could start developing relationships and understand how the company operates. With the finance team, I sat with all the individuals to see their processes, pain points, and asking what they do and don't enjoy about the job. It was all about absorbing information. From there, I could go away and think about what pain points really needed to be addressed. I did this in parallel to assessing what the company needs from the finance team as well, so we could then prioritise our roadmap for the year. My main goal was to not make assumptions.
When do you think is the right time for a startup to hire a CFO?
I think typically around series B level makes sense.
In the early stages you may just need a bookkeeper, ideally someone who can also be commercial. At Series A, you’ll need someone that can engage in meaningful conversations with the leadership team and keep the finance function operating but not necessarily need a C-level person. I think at Series B, when you're at scale and looking at different markets, having that senior a person who can weave through all of that, commercially and operationally, then becomes more crucial.
Any advice or lessons you've learned in your career that have stuck with you?
Going back to the stereotype of finance being a back office function — finance people also tend to be quite introverted. For me, I was extremely quiet and nervous to speak up.
One piece of advice that helped me when I was more junior was ‘remember it’s your responsibility to speak up. You're the only person with that perspective because you're the only one from finance in the room. If you don't say something, you're not doing your job.’ It helped me forget about my nerves in a room full of people and put the focus more on doing a good job.
You mentioned that finance is a fairly introvert-heavy department. It also has the reputation of being fairly male-dominated. What has your experience been as a woman in finance? Do you feel there’s an obvious gender gap?
At the junior to mid-level it’s probably 50/50 and then typically as you get more senior, it gets noticeably more male. What’s been nice in the startup world is that you do see more diversity.
I don't think gender has been as much of a problem though compared to being an introvert in a room of extroverts, particularly in startups where many people can be more dominating types. So that's where it’s helpful to remind myself that it's my job to speak up, as the voice of finance.
How do you keep up with the changing tech and tools in the finance & startup world?
Networking is really important. When I first moved to London and started at Monzo, I was able to connect with lots of people from other startup finance teams, via Slack groups, etc. It was incredibly useful to have these people as a reference point, see what they were able to get in place for their teams and to exchange ideas.
Talking to people, being open about challenges, and sharing experiences whether it be people management or new programs — I find those things to be the most meaningful.
Great to hear, because that’s what we’re all about at CFO Connect. Great to have you in the community, Julie and thanks for taking time to chat with us!
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