Mentorship, Adaptability & Data-Driven Leadership with Javier Gorena of Zinklar
Javier Gorena is Head of Finance at Zinklar, a SaaS Market Research startup based in Barcelona, and a long time member of CFO Connect. We recently sat down for a virtual coffee to hear about how he landed in the startup world, the particularities of leading finance in the market-research industry, and why data management is key to succeed as a startup finance leader.
Let’s start off with a little background on your finance career - how did you end up where you are today?
I began working at EY in Bolivia as an auditor and then in the advisory department. As much as I enjoyed learning in a Big 4, I felt that some ways of working and processes were a bit old school, it led me to ask myself: what will my role look like 5 years from now? I understood I needed to shift to something more tech and data-centered, because my position could be replaceable. That’s when I decided to make the move and come to Barcelona, where I got my 1st Master’s degree in Financial Management.
I had my first contact with the startup world once in Barcelona. Back then in Bolivia, the fast-growing tech scene wasn't as developed as in Europe. I fell in love with this universe from day one, and I’ve been navigating through it for the past 5 years.
After landing in Barcelona, your first startup experience was at Nautal, an online boat rental marketplace which operates in over 50 countries. How was it to be the first finance hire and how did you build the foundations for growth?
Nautal was like a school to me. I had the opportunity to set up the entire finance, admin, and HR department on one side, and to develop the finance structure with the tech team back then. It was a challenging experience but I enjoyed every part of it. We didn’t have a manual on how to set up finance for scale, but one key component to my success is certainly the help I got from Octavi Uya, the co-founder and CEO - who has an extensive background in Corporate Finance.
In Bolivia, I was more exposed to either small or big classic corporations, and there are certain aspects that are very particular to startup finance, like raising rounds, legal concerns when setting up the product, expanding, the tech possibilities… It was a new world, so Octavi’s mentorship was very valuable.
Some of the things I particularly enjoyed was how closely I worked with all teams and departments, and of course, there’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing your processes in place during the growth phase. We were 17 people in the company when I joined, and by the time I left there were 60 employees at Nautal. This is definitely the growth experience that made me fall in love with startups.
Javier and his team during his last days at Nautal.
After nearly 4 years at Nautal, you moved to the Head of Finance role at Zinklar, where you are today. Tell us a little more about Zinklar.
Zinklar is a SaaS market research platform that aims to bring real-time consumer insights to its customers through advanced mobile technology. The ultimate goal is to connect companies to market insights as fast as possible, and reduce the research work for marketing teams (and replace the need for a classic market research consultant).
We are building the “Google Analytics of Consumer Attitudes”: a platform that delivers unique consumer insights and metrics by continuously collecting and analysing the uses and attitudes of millions of consumers towards new products, brands, advertising, promotions and consumer experiences. There’s a large disconnect between marketers and the rapid changes of consumer behavior in the current market research industry, which ultimately hinders company's decision making process.
Our platform generates live insights and data through consumers’ mobile, facilitating a more agile marketing process and better decisions. It enables marketers to capture consumers’ moments of truth and to be closer to consumption, through richer (video, pictures,..), on the go/ in-store surveys and even continuous interactions. And with selected integrations, we continue to enhance our platform to give brands deeper insights to what consumers want.
Was it fairly natural to transition from one startup to another, or were there still learning curves to scale?
Nautal was a combination of B2B2C so the B2B world wasn’t a complete mystery to me. What was challenging was adapting to a new type of clients, because they expected more attention from us, and the fact the client portfolio was small when I joined didn’t make it easier (the less customers you have, the more attention they demand).
Before I joined Zinklar, there wasn’t a proper client management system, or post-client management procedures. I worked with the rest of the team to develop procedures for account receivables, invoicing and more. We’ve started implementing some accounting and financial management ERPs such as Spendesk for our internal expense management and other tools for administrative management on the client’s side. This is still work in progress, and as any company in growth phase, I can’t discard we may migrate or add other systems.
I enjoyed this process though, I love the rush and excitement of working at a startup where things move fast, and there’s always room for new improvements. It is always challenging but very rewarding.
What’s particular about the market research industry and how has it been affected, or not, by COVID?
One of the main particularities about being in this industry as a SaaS solution, is that market-research is traditionally a “people’s” job and there’s a lot of human touch to it. Our main competitors are large and traditional market research companies that have a history working with big clients, and it’s hard to make customers shift to a 100% tech solution.
When you try to persuade a company that’s worked with the same market research consultancy firm for 10 or 20 years, it’s often difficult for them to understand the concept of automated consumer insights on-demand. I’m confident this will shift, and the crisis has proven that marketing teams need more than ever to be on top of what’s happening in their field, in a very timely manner.
I don’t think the market-research industry itself was extremely hard hit, per-se. As I said, any company, no matter what they sell or provide, needs quick detailed data of consumer behavior amongst other insights to adapt and operate accordingly. What has changed for us at Zinklar is the product packaging. In Europe many clients want to work on a project or monthly-basis plan because of the uncertainty of the current economic climate. In Latin America, customers are going to the same speed they did before the crisis. Because of these differences, we’ve adapted our yearly subscription model to a monthly model in order to provide customers an extremely tailored solution.
One of the main particularities about being in this industry as a SaaS solution, is that market-research is traditionally a “people’s” job and there’s a lot of human touch to it ... it’s hard to make customers shift to a 100% tech solution.
What metrics are you most focused on at the moment?
I would divide our metrics into two “classes”, metrics for forecasting and valuation purposes, and operational metrics. For forecasting and valuation the main metric we’ve always looked at is MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue), which under this COVID scheme we've shown a constant and strong growth year over year. The other big metric we’ve always tracked but that we’re paying more attention to now - probably like most SaaS companies - is churn rate, that in our case, shows a negative value, proving the high recurrence on renewals and upsell.
On the operational side the central metric we’re tracking is outstanding days of payment. This has been particularly challenging for our accounts receivable management as we’ve expanded outside of Europe. We were issuing invoices with a 30 days payment rate but because of compliance and other cultural aspects, clients in Latin America were paying within 60-90 days. There’s always a cultural ingredient to the metrics that you need to keep in mind, and we’ve had to work with legal teams a lot to solve this issue.
Speaking of valuation and forecasting, you helped raise a venture debt round at Zinklar. Can you share more about this experience?
Sure, Zinklar’s venture debt round was confirmed by the time I joined, but the decision came from the CEO who was looking at funding options and the idea of a Series A didn’t make sense back then. This is because in order to reach that, we needed more solid data, history and time, and of course, money. The best way to cover that breach before a Series A, was by raising a venture debt round.
The 1st two quarters of 2019, we clearly established teams (mainly by dividing marketing and sales who were one same team before) hired new executives, we integrated Salesforce to our toolstack and worked on our conversion funnel. Finally, in December that same year we closed the round, and we have done some additional funding since for specific projects and to cover any cash stress that the COVID situation may generate.
The finance function can sometimes be lonely, especially when you’re the first hire, which was the case for you at both Nautal and Zinklar. What helped you navigate through those new experiences?
Talking to others and looking for advice from people with more expertise than you are key. For instance, I talked to the Director of Payments and Fraud from Glovo to get his advice on how they were managing payments in different countries in regards to our recent payments friction in Latin America. The best way to learn is certainly talking to your industry peers. CFO Connect has been a great resource in this matter too.
Are there any tools you think finance leaders shouldn’t go without?
From my perspective, tools are really what you make out of them, and anyone’s favorite tools also depend on what your top priorities are. In my case, cash management, forecasting and tracking KPIs are some of my core priorities, so I love cash management and reporting tools. On that note, I would certainly recommend Holded and Spendesk, and as for the data & analytics side, I think Tableau is a great tool. I must add that I’m a big Excel fan, this is an old one that I can’t live without.
In your opinion, what makes a great finance leader?
A great finance leader is a good communicator, a reliable person and someone who can set priorities while taking as many teams as possible into consideration with his or her decisions.
I think a good way to become a great finance leader, is to get involved in as many projects as you can, talk to other teams, and take ownership of your numbers and data, because this will ultimately help you make smart moves and justify choices, and of course this will help contribute to reaching the company's goals in a more efficient way.
Take ownership of your numbers and data ... It’s one of the best ways to communicate with others and to justify decisions for the short, medium and long-term, and when all parties of the business understand why you say yes or no, the dialogue becomes much easier.
Data helps you visualize where investments are being beneficial, what indicators are moving positively or negatively… It’s one of the best ways to communicate with others and to justify decisions for the short, medium and long-term, and when all parties of the business understand why you say yes or no, the dialogue becomes much easier.
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