Quentin Servais Laval: Modernizing the Finance Function at Double, Instacart, and LVMH
Quentin Servais Laval is leading Finance & Operations at Double, a New York-based startup connecting busy executives with experienced part-time assistants. By combining humans and smart technology, Double helps executives save hours every day. More than 100 companies are using the service already.
We sat down with Quentin (virtually) amidst the Covid-crisis to talk about his personal learnings, the rapidly changing role of finance leaders and how his experience in different roles and countries helps him manage this new situation.
Could you tell us a bit about Double and how the current situation has affected your business? Do executives actually seek more assistance during this crisis than before?
We’ve been working on Double for about two years. During the first year and a half, we were really perfecting the methodology around productivity to build products that would be helpful to our users. We came out of stealth and became open to the public at the beginning of 2020.
In the very beginning of the pandemic, in March, we first experienced a complete freeze of the growth. During a few weeks, executives knew that they needed support, but there was so much uncertainty about the impact on their business that they really were making no decisions at all.
But then we were starting to get new leads that were looking at remote work and third party solutions a little bit differently. A lot of people who previously thought that remote support couldn't work or that it couldn't work as efficiently as in the office, were forced to realize that, if you do it the right way with the right people, remote is sometimes the better solution. So now, executives who in the past had only been looking for an assistant in their office have been coming to us.
So we've actually experienced stronger growth since April. And we now have profiles of executives that weren't familiar or comfortable with the model that Double provides before.
How has your role and the perception of finance teams changed during the crisis?
The finance role in general has been put more into the spotlight as you’re truly focusing on the viability of organizations. For me, personally, it's changed in four ways.
The first one is a very heavy focus on forecasting. As soon as the crisis started, we looked at how our growth was starting to be impacted and how we could build scenarios to reach our business objectives while being financially strong and sound.
The second one is that we work very closely with the team to make any necessary cuts. We’re in growth mode, but to be able to keep on achieving those objectives, we need to make sure that we're not overspending on what is not strategic for us.
The third aspect is the relationship with investors in this time of uncertainty and crisis. I think it's particularly important to be giving visibility to your investors: the decisions that you're making, how our business is impacted overall and the forecast you built. And they’re also able to help with their experience.
And the fourth one is the community aspect. This was already true before the pandemic but I believe it’s even stronger now. There are so many good practices and tips and value that you'll find in connecting with other finance leaders that we've all taken more time to do so and have built stronger connections. I've participated more in webinars, I've read more resources that were provided by finance groups like CFO Connect, for instance, the discussion about how to prepare business for the post pandemic world was super interesting.
Is there a piece of advice that you found particularly helpful and that you would like to share with other finance leaders?
The big learning to me really is to not be afraid to pick other finance leaders’ brains and to be candid about some of the questions that you have looking at situations you've never faced before. I think post-pandemic I will definitely feel more comfortable about accessing those resources and reaching out to other leaders to ask those questions.
Short term, the finance role has changed already during the crisis as you mentioned. Do you think we will see a long term effect as well, reflecting on future trends for finance teams?
I do think there will be long term changes, in the same way that we already see changes to the way people work and to how organizations are structured because we've discovered a new way of collaborating.
First, finance was always seen as a support function, but is now evolving into being a strategic partner. The second evolution is related to technology. We’re now able to gather all the data and to monitor our activity to make key business decisions. We’re really able to focus on what we do best.
What is also going to evolve is the access to funding. In the last few years, there has been more capital available to companies than ever before. I believe that the crisis is going to change the way that investors are going to be looking at business models, and companies will need to find more creative ways of accessing capital. So finance leaders will have to think very strategically with the rest of the organization to make sure that they adapt.
You mentioned technology as an important factor. Which tools do you rely on that you would recommend to others?
QuickBooks works well for companies our size, but we know we're going to be limited in the future, so we’ll need to evolve. I've always recommended Stripe. And we recently switched to Justworks which has really helped us as we are now employing people remotely. For cap table management we use Carta. It has really helped us navigate through past fundraising rounds, giving investors access to the necessary forms and information that they need. We also use Brex for credit card and expenses management.
I'm also a very big advocate of Google sheets, and we actually work a lot with Google scripts and SQL queries. So we regrouped all the data from the systems that I just mentioned, but also from our systems (client activities, time tracking etc.), thanks to SQL queries. And we're really able to build dashboards, have alerts and monitor the key indicators of activity.
One of the objectives that I set with my team is to leverage technology, to work with third parties and to work with assistants to automate processes and to really be focused on where we add value.
You’re leading both Finance and Ops at Double, and you've worked in both worlds in the past. How does that go together?
In an organization like ours, there are huge overlaps. And it makes a lot of sense for finance and ops to be closely related because we're a very technology and operations driven business. One of the keys of our future success will be to be able to achieve our objectives while maintaining a strong and sound financial structure. I think having finance and ops under one umbrella helps us streamline decisions when it comes to business strategy overall.
Are there ever any conflicts between the different roles?
There are obviously conflicts related to some executive decisions like budget cuts and investments that you need to make. Just because it’s sound from an ops perspective it doesn’t mean that from a financial standpoint it’s always the decision you would have taken. And there are obviously other very important parts of the business like product, technology or customer service, so I need to make sure that ops is not prioritized when it comes to financial investments. We raise those final decisions that include ops to the group and the leadership team to make sure that there's no conflict of interest.
It seems that the role of a modern CFO is shifting a lot. Does your background make it easier for you to fill this scope?
The shift is definitely happening. As Spendesk CFO Fabien Dawidowicz recently said, finance used to be a very technical function in the past and is now really focused on being business strategists. And the fact that I have close relationships with other parts of the business and I lead teams that are not finance related helps me modernize the finance function. I think it's helped me to have knowledge about project management, IT and ops, and now I’m also involved in HR and legal aspects.
But I don't think this experience is necessary to be a very strong finance leader, as long as you make sure that you're involved and you build connections with the rest of the organization. Looking back at my previous organizations - after the Louis Vuitton group, I joined Instacart - the shift in the finance role is also true for other leaders that are only focused on finance.
You’ve not only worked in different fields but also in different countries before moving to the US, like France, Spain and Hong Kong. How does that change your perspective on the role of a finance professional?
There are differences between countries and between cultures regarding the vision that they have of the finance role. I would say where finance is regarded the most as business strategist is the US and Canada, where organizations have historically been putting finance as a key part of the organization. But when I speak with former coworkers in Hong Kong, for example, I can see that the role is really evolving everywhere now.
As the situation is not easy right now - how do you keep a positive mindset and stay balanced these days?
The most important thing for me is to keep on learning, doing research and connecting with others. So that's really what has helped us as a community in being stronger through everything happening in the world. And for me, personally, it's also exercising a lot, spending time outdoors. I run and I bike a lot – you need to make sure that you keep the time to stay sane and have some time with yourself. Focus on what your body and your mind really needs, find it, and then force yourself to do it because it's so easy to lose track as we're now all working remotely.
And are there any resources that have influenced you and that you would like to share with other finance leaders?
Related to what we were talking about before, changing environment and being a business strategist in the finance function, I would recommend the books from Ben Horowitz. “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” is the one I've gifted the most. And I actually did my master's thesis around this book. In the finance sector my number one recommendation is “Principles” of Ray Dalio. And one thing that I discovered recently is mustread, a website that regroups all recommendations from entrepreneurs and leaders. Our CEO Alice was featured there as well recently.
And I recently started using my lunch break to watch webinars on Masterclass. My vision is to always be learning, and to use tools that fit the way you learn. I push myself and encourage my team to keep 30 minutes per day to learn about something that would help them in their current role or in their future career opportunities.
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