Mastering Collaboration & Communication, with Emily Blakeley of Busuu
Emily Blakeley is the Finance Lead at Busuu, the world’s largest community for language learning. It provides courses in 12 different languages, with more than 100 million learners. In January 2020, Busuu acquired Verbling, a leading online marketplace for live tutoring, with more than 10,000 professional tutors on its platform.
We met up with Emily in London, to discuss her experience managing finance for high-growth SaaS start ups, the finance automation tools she can’t live without, and why your professional network is your greatest tool as a finance leader.
First of all, tell us about Busuu.
Busuu is an app that makes learning a language easier for everyone. We do this by combining intelligent learning with access to a global community of native speakers. Busuu also helps organisations upskill their workforce in a scaleable, cost-efficient way.
The name of the company “Busuu” comes from an endangered Cameroonian language that only has eight speakers. I think the founders were inspired by how languages connect people, they wanted to use technology to break down barriers and provide the closest experience to living in another country and learning with native speakers.
We’ve got around 90 full-time employees at the moment, with offices in London and Madrid.
Since acquiring Verbling, a live tutoring platform, we’re able to offer a blended education experience with app-based learning and live lessons as well.
It’s a very exciting time to be part of a company with such a vision of growth. We have a really strong company culture and value system in place, which both inform our company objectives and targets.
What does the Busuu finance team look like?
The CFO heads up the Finance, Insight & Analytics team, and I report to him as Finance Lead. We have a Finance Manager and an accounts assistant, and have plans for further growth in the future.
You’ve worked in Big 4 firms, and more recently in the startup world. What’s the biggest difference, from a finance perspective?
Having an audit background certainly gave me insights into a broad range of different finance teams and how they work. It also helped me view businesses holistically.
It was exciting going from audit to the startup world, joining a company which only had 25 or 30 people. I found finance very collaborative in this setting - it ended up being quite a cross-functional role. It was a great opportunity to build a distinct finance function and make sure that it was scalable.
You’ve got to make sure that the processes that you're creating will work when the company is 10 times the size, because that's what your goal is.
It sounds like automating processes and streamlining things is essential for modern finance teams. Would you agree or add to that?
Absolutely. You also need to make sure that you find the right tools, and that they're going to integrate together. It’s important to consider the bigger picture when managing change, and to consolidate as much as possible - consider the impact changing an existing process will have. Will we create more work having to do one thing for X, and then another for Y?
The goal is to automate those “business as usual,” more manual reconciliations, to free up time for high-value work: providing detailed support to the other leaders within the business, making sure that they're getting the right information, in a timely manner, and that they can understand and ultimately make sure that the company is reaching its goals.
How do you make sure you're staying connected to what different teams are working on, in order to help them reach their business goals?
I think it's really valuable to have face-to-face visibility with other department leaders and have a channel of communication that works both ways. If I can understand what they’re trying to achieve that month or quarter, and they know what reports we produce and what information we need from them, then we can work together.
It’s about fostering a working environment with a mutual respect for each other's goals. You also need to be mindful of how people prefer to receive information and how different people like to work, as well as being open about setting up meetings and having face time
What are the tools you love and feel all finance teams should use?
There are a few. In the past, I've used solutions like Sage long after the company’s reporting needs have outgrown it, because migrating is such a pain point. Currently we use QuickBooks, which also isn't a perfect or bespoke solution. But it's all online, so at least I don’t need a VPN to work from home anymore. The medium-term aim is to migrate to a package like NetSuite, which offers an integrated solution.
In any company you’ll often find a lot of legacy processes or ways of handling information. It’s great when you find a tool which can streamline your finance process, with as little disruption to how other teams maintain visibility of their information
You mentioned opening an office in Madrid recently - how have you been navigating things like labor laws, tax laws, compliance, etc?
Our parent company is a Spanish entity, so we have a long term relationship with our advisors in Spain - they help with our compliance needs, including labour laws, and also help manage our reporting. Having external advisors who understand the business makes things a lot easier.
What are your thoughts on how the role of a finance leader has evolved? What are the most important skills nowadays?
I think it's definitely more of a collaborative role than once perceived. The finance stereotype seems to be ‘the only important thing is the bottom line.’ Of course, a finance leader does have to have that control, and be that safe pair of hands. But I think it’s a much more dynamic role, working with the rest of the business leads to solve problems, or spot potential problems before they become an issue.
How do you keep updated on all the new trends and tech in finance, as well as changing regulations and policies?
I think it's important you maintain a good relationship with your external advisors. So find a firm of accountants, lawyers, whomever you trust will share those updates.
Networking events are also a great source for knowledge sharing. Having recently returned to London after living in Toronto for 2 years, it’s a great opportunity to build up my international network of other finance leads and tech professionals.
Speaking of networking, what do you enjoy about CFO Connect?
People tend to be very open to helping. If you have an issue, there’s opportunity for a dialogue with other members, who can say “we had that problem as well, and this is how we solved it.”
You can get to the point where you come across a challenge and think, “I know someone who works in a SaaS business. I'll give them a call and see how they dealt with this issue.” It’s a great tool.
What's the best advice you've been given in your career?
Probably the old cliché “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” As long as you're mindful of people's time, I’d say most people want to share and want to help out, or they'll point you in the right direction.
Also, if you find someone during your career who inspires you or you identify as a good mentor, tell them so. Ask them “How do you do that? How do you manage when this challenge happens?”
I think people like to know that they're someone's mentor, that their experiences can help someone achieve their goals. This doesn’t necessarily have to be people working in the same field as you, or advice on technical queries. It’s equally important to invest in building so-called ‘softer’ skills.
What do you do in your free time to stay balanced and happy?
I started playing a lot of recreational sports when I was in Canada - my favourite was Ultimate Frisbee - which was a great way to stay energised and socialise. I’m definitely not “good at sports”, but it’s easy to be motivated when you’re part of a team. I’m also quite organised, so what I lack in sporting prowess I made up for by managing the logistics.
It’s great being back in London. I like to get out and enjoy the city - trying new experiences, new restaurants, seeing a show - that sort of thing.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience & perspectives with us, Emily — great to have you in the CFO Connect community!
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