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Finance Insights

The CFO skills, experience, & qualifications most in demand for 2024

David Masaon
Dav Masaon Zanda co-founder

In the startup world, where innovation and passion rule, a seasoned finance leader can be vital to ensure sound fiscal management and drive sustainable growth.

But while great CFOs are always in demand, the skills, experience, and qualities companies prize keep evolving. 

Today, we’re seeing renewed attention on the bookkeeping skills that had previously fallen out of fashion. Founders also want recent experience in companies like theirs, and the combination of these two factors can be hard to find.  

My Co-Founder Andrew Waters recently shared his perspective on the state of the CFO job market in 2024. As a follow-up to his piece, I’ll go deeper into the hard skills, qualifications, and experience companies are looking for in their next Chief Financial Officer. 

About the author

Dav Masaon is a Co-Founder at Zanda, a UK- & US-based executive recruitment service that supports tech companies looking to build out their finance function with ambitious CFOs and Senior Finance Leaders. Zanda's speciality lies in supporting the learning and development of up and coming CFOs through numerous programmes, which in turn provides their clients with highly-skilled, industry ready candidates. 

Zanda is known for finding transformative CFOs for Series A to pre-IPO companies, in industries ranging from B2B SaaS, FinTech, HealthTech, e-commerce, marketplaces and CleanTech. 

Dav previously held management roles at executive search firm Hays. He is also an angel investor, and mentors at pre-seed startup accelerator Founder Institute, SEED Spot, and the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt

The CFO skills companies need today

Andrew gave an excellent appraisal of the state of business in general today, and how that feeds into the CFO search process. Clearly, all eyes are on cash - both for CEOs and investors. 

Companies need CFOs with that strong focus on cash flow, cash flow forecasting, and cash flow modelling. It’s almost as if they have become kind of controllers, but still with the commercial savvy when it comes to financial modelling and dealing with investors. 

As we’ll see next, that’s placing more emphasis on CFOs’ qualifications and experience in the big four firms. Because a lot of businesses have been placed under a lot of scrutiny by investors to extend runway and hit profitability sooner, as well as improving ARR.

Thus CFOs have to become a lot more controlling of the processes and systems, and challenge internal stakeholders when it comes to cash flow and budgets and forecasts. 

Founders are almost asking for a week-by-week as well as month-by-month account, which means CFOs really need to be in the numbers daily. 

Series A-B vs Series C+

That focus on control is particularly apparent in early startups — up to about Series B. We’re even seeing lots of these younger companies opting for a VP of Finance in place of a CFO. They really want someone motivated by hands-on work, which doesn’t appeal to lots of CFOs. And there’s a cost factor too. 

In the later stages, there’s still more emphasis on cash control than we’ve seen in recent years, but there are a few other trends to note. 

Companies that have demonstrated good traction in product, maybe with a path to profitability, they're looking at listing publicly or if not, acquisitions. And they need CFOs who’ve been there, done that. (More on this shortly.) These CFOs often come from the Big Four, but not necessarily audit. 

That’s another recent change. Early post-COVID, transactions were very much on the backburner. Today, they’re back up. 

Renewed emphasis on CFO qualifications

In 2024, CFOs are expected to have a strong technical background and to be able to challenge internal stakeholders to ensure accurate cash flow and budget reporting. They need to demonstrate tight control. 

Obviously, one of the clearest ways to prove these skills is with a CPA. A few years ago, companies were generally quite fine with an MBA. As long as you had good experience and could put a strong controller in place, that was great.

That has definitely shifted, and tech CFOs with a CPA qualification are gold dust to us in the recruitment process. 

And there’s a real shortage of these candidates today, particularly coming from the Big Four. For whatever reason, the number of qualified CPAs coming from the top firms has dropped off. Companies are also struggling to find CPA controllers, and both CFOs and controllers are in high demand. 

So if you do have that qualification, you’re able to demand a great salary and have a lot of opportunities to choose from. 

Industry leaders are responding by introducing programs to encourage younger people to enter the accounting profession. PwC has a scheme to support 16-year-olds in pursuing a career in accounting, for example.

CFOs need specific industry experience

In this more conservative startup environment, founders want to see a track record in businesses that look just like theirs. In previous years, there was more willingness to look at a candidate’s motivation and culture fit, with exact experience being less of a factor. That has changed. 

Businesses are asking not “have you built and run a finance function before,” but “have you successfully run this kind of finance function before?”  

I encounter two particular examples of this constantly. First is among B2B SaaS startups.

B2B SaaS experience

These companies are doing comparatively well in the broader context, but business is still slower than they’re used to. 

Founders and investors are explicitly telling me they will only consider a CFO candidate with significant B2B SaaS experience. You need to talk revenue recognition and ASC 606 in detail, with a track record to back it up. 

And this is then creating a shortage of candidates with that expertise. Ideally they have experience growing a company from 50 to 300 employees, or from 30 to 100 million in revenue, and can provide a success story of taking a company to profitability within 2-3 years.

Someone who has been through a B2B growth story — maybe a successful exit— is going to be in hot demand. They’ll have four or five offers compared to other candidates who are finding it hard to get a board interview. 

M&A experience

The other big theme is M&A and IPO. Mergers and acquisitions are hugely important today, with so many distressed companies in the market. A CFO who knows that process inside out will have plenty of offers on their hands. 

And I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a lot of companies going public relatively soon. Some well-known businesses are already doing this, and more tech companies will follow suit. That’s certainly what investors are expecting and hoping for.

So founders need candidates that have got public markets experience, or at least some M&A exposure. Because they know there are some good deals to be had. And even those who won’t go public in the next 12 months still want a CFO with that experience. You can get them to a position where they can list in the near future. 

In the US many are looking for SEC reporting experience. Because they're planning to be accountable to the public markets. So it's not just experience in taking a company public, but a history of SEC reporting once the public listing is finished. 

The rising prominence of fractional CFOs

Finally, I want to touch on fractional CFOs. We’ve seen a massive increase in the use of these services, particularly among Series A-C companies.  

These startups need help for maybe two days a week to build a financial model, do fundraising, get the controls in place, and eventually recruit someone junior when they leave. 

And this arrangement is very appealing to some current professionals. I recently spoke to a CFO who had been at just two companies for the past 20 years. He was considering the fractional route because the market rates are simply so appealing.

Fractional CFOs may not have the security they’d get in a permanent role. They also likely won’t have equity in the companies they serve. But they can work less and earn more in the immediate term, and have more flexibility than they’d get in full time employment. 

If you want to stay ahead in the competitive landscape of finance leadership roles within startups, read Zanda’s NY 2024 Compensation and Equity benchmarking guide. It’s built on 1,000s of data points from CFOs & finance leaders in the UK, and jam-packed full of insights from industry leaders and VC experts.

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