Aaron Townsend of Habito on the Power of Finance Mentorship & Networking
Aaron Townsend is the Financial Controller for Habito, the innovative online mortgage broker and lender in the UK. Their mission is simple and compelling: take the hell out of finding a mortgage. Since 2016, Habito has grown from two to 180 employees and has launched a whole suite of services to transform and simplify the home-buying process.
We met up with Aaron in London to hear more about his unconventional start in the finance world, what it takes to survive in a startup, and how he’s helping to expand career access to a new generation of finance leaders. Check out our conversation…
You studied biomedical sciences at university before getting your ACA. How did you eventually end up choosing finance as a career path?
I originally thought I wanted to be a doctor, but my grades weren’t good enough, so I needed to top up with a masters or think of something else. I was graduating right when the crash happened in 2008, and it piqued my interest in finance and so I started to research heavily into the causes of the crash. A lot of people in my family are business owners, so as a kid I always had to work in a few of them, so I had an interest in business from an early age. I ended up getting a temp job at Albion Capital in London helping them with the launch of their new venture fund. After two of their accountants left, they asked if I’d ever thought of accounting, and I thought ‘why not?’ They paid for my exams and trained me up and I stayed there for over seven years and that’s how I got into finance. By pure accident, really!
That does sound fortuitous! How was the VC world as a training ground for your finance career?
Being trained as an accountant at a VC is pretty unusual; it’s really a niche within a niche of private equity/corporate finance, and very focused on tech companies — I would visit portfolio companies, sit in on board meetings, and see how all the companies were performing. It’s one of the reasons why it’s been easier for me to transition into the startup world if say, I’d always worked in a large corporate environment. I knew what was expected, I knew some of the dangers and troubles. I saw emergency funding happen, I saw companies blow up… so I was ready for anything.
What would you say is the biggest difference leading finance for a startup vs. a more traditional company?
Pace and width of expected knowledge is the biggest difference. You are expected to be the expert on everything from tax, to accounting to cash flow. Luckily, I’ve stayed in good contact with the finance team at Albion, and we meet up maybe every month to discuss different issues. I’ve also been introduced by the COO to other people who work in finance in other startups which have been very useful and finally finding good advisors to work with can add real value to any gaps in your knowledge.
So, mentorship has played a big role in your career.
Absolutely. Even now, I’m getting coaching from an ex-CFO. It’s something our COO at Habito really supports. Typically, 99% of an accountant’s time is spent on doing and only 1% on strategy. Having a coach gives me time to slow down and do more of the strategy; I highly recommended it.
We’ve started hosting “Finance Fridays” at Habito. It’s an hour for the finance team to talk and be coached on a particular subject. It’s about helping them (and me) level up, and look to the future so that we can start developing now, the skill sets we’ll soon need.
And you also do some mentoring through your organization, New Gen Accountants?
Yes, New Gen is a not-for-profit that’s focused on opening up finance to underserved & minority people and supporting those already in the industry. We’re about widening access, supporting those who are studying and then helping those who’ve qualified to find their niche and go to the next level. We’ve identified that at every level, whether you’re thinking about it, studying or fully qualified, there are barriers as ethnic minorities that are specific to us and we aim to help them overcome them and let their talent shine. There’s 6 of us, and we put on events, we have a WhatsApp group, starting a newsletter and blogs and try to show the diversity of being an accountant.
That’s amazing. Tell me about your current finance team. What does it look like, and how has it evolved while you’ve been there?
At first, it was just me. Now there’s four of us — controller, finance manager, a part-time NetSuite consultant (as we’ve just switched from Xero), and an Assistant Accountant.
Coming from a VC definitely helped as I was building out my finance team at Habito. I took a lot from the VC exposure, as my boss would encourage us to get involved in the hiring process and I got to see a lot of interviews. You have to be prepared for the interview and know what you want for the role you’re hiring. New hires are meant to make your life easier, but are an opportunity for that person to grow as well. I always keep that in mind during interviews.
How much of what you’re looking for in a finance hire is technical vs. qualitative?
It’s way more qualitative; for junior roles, there’s a technical test because they’re probably not qualified yet. However, for a finance manager role, I’ll ask for a presentation on how and why the finance team is different at a startup. At that level I don’t care as much about technical ability, I assume you have that, that’s what the qualification is meant to prove. It’s more about how you think about the work; problem-solving, thinking on your feet and knowing when to ask for help.
What are the tools your finance team can’t live without?
Spendesk, naturally. Netsuite is super powerful too. We just made the switch from Xero and it’s like comparing a VW Golf (an amazing car) to a Range Rover - they do similar things, just completely differently. We use a reporting tool called Solution 7 which has totally changed the way we report our financials. We’re just in the process of implementing an accounts payable AI solution which automatically processes invoices and pushes it to NetSuite. What’s good about this solution is that it’s not OCR technology but machine learning, so the more you use it the better it becomes. Hopefully, it will be amazing! And Slack — we barely use email anymore. The Slack integration with Spendesk is great.
What would you say are the skills of the modern CFO?
I think the modern CFO approaches everything from a commercial point of view, even controls and processes. Startups especially need CFOs who are value-creators, not just focused on cost-cutting. Yes, you need to maintain or chart a way to profitability if that’s the goal and keep an eye on control and processes. But you have to be able to see finance through the lens of growth which is normally the number one indicator for a VC backed business and be thinking of how to move the business forward.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your finance career?
Don’t be a “blagger”. That’s British for “don’t fake it”. Know enough to give a decent answer but if you don’t know, just say it. You can’t know everything but you can know enough.
And how do you stay on top of all the changing trends & tools in finance, so you don’t have to fake it? ;)
It’s very difficult and I often struggle to find the time, but I read a lot, and I’m naturally interested in tech, so that helps. Also, learning from people in similar positions and networking in general. Being part of groups like CFO Connect has been really helpful.
We’re glad to have you in the community! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.
CFO Connect is global community of finance leaders. We host regular meetups in London, Paris, Berlin and other cities across Europe. Join us!