The Finance Function in the Sharing Economy
I’m very happy to be able to contribute to this Mastering Scale series. Following Julius Bachmann’s introduction, this post will detail the role and responsibilities for CFOs and finance teams in marketplace companies.
I’m CFO at Campanda, an online market for people to rent RVs all over the world. I’ve had the pleasure of building the finance function essentially from scratch. This has brought plenty of challenges with it, which of course I’ll explain in full below.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- How we grew the finance team into a lean machine
- The challenges that come with operating a marketplace business
- How the finance team works with our main stakeholders to deliver value
If you’re running finance for an international, online, or marketplace company, I hope this post will be helpful. Let’s begin.
I joined the company two and a half years ago after having worked for a large corporate (adidas group) as well as another startup in Berlin and was hoping to combine my learnings of these two very different experiences. I was excited to be able to join a company that was not only growing and full of promise, but that also let me flex my entrepreneurial muscles. I knew I’d have the chance to influence growth in the business, which was more important to me than just efficient finances.
We operate a lot like AirBnb. Only instead of renting fixed accommodation, we rent RVs (also known as camper vans). Users come to the website and can choose and rent an RV in one of 42 countries worldwide.
Right away, I was convinced about the business opportunity… I believed in the market potential as well as the economics of the business model after reviewing the financials and building my own case. . This was a chance to work in the sharing economy - something I’m a fan of and see a strong future for.
I was also attracted by the people. I really liked and connected with the core management team and their vision. So I was very keen to work with them - it’s so important for a CFO to be part of a strong leadership team.
About the business model
It’s important to understand that we actually have two distinct business models: agent and merchant. These are important for tax and also affect how we control supply and demand - more on this shortly.
The agent model is where we connect people needing an RV with those renting them. We’re simply a middleman, and we take a fee for this service. This can make accounting complicated, as I’ll explain shortly. As a merchant, we also own a fleet of RVs in certain locations. In this case, we rent these directly to holiday-makers and they pay us directly for this.
Both of these models operate at the same time through the website. So some travellers rent directly from us, while others are connected by us to an RV rental company or owner. This depends on the market they’re searching in, and the RV they choose.
Building the finance function
Once I came onboard, there was work to be done immediately. Everything technical was done by an external accountant. Which is pretty standard in a lot of businesses, but isn’t ideal as I’ll explain shortly.
My first responsibility upon joining was to set everything up, basically from scratch. A lot of the work had been done without much control, so I spent a lot of time cleaning up data and processes. Over time, I was able to build a functioning finance system.
Our finance function is split into two core roles: accounting, and F&A/controlling. Here’s how we put those in place.
This was my first focus - it’s really the bread and butter of the finance function. So I worked closely with the external accounting consultant to understand how things had been done to that point. And then I moved accounting in-house.
We needed more control and to be able to move faster. It’s so difficult if you’re always forced to go back and forth with an external adviser, and I felt that we lost too much time to communication.
And of course, having accounting within the company means you’re always in complete control of your books. You need to know exactly what accountants do with your data - how, why, and when.
Finally, it’s almost always cheaper to have accounting in-house. Consultants aren’t cheap - especially if they’re good - and you gain so much freedom and flexibility when that person is in your office.
Controlling and FP&A
After accounting, we implemented controlling and FP&A pretty much in tandem. We were fundraising at the time - pretty much as soon as I joined the company. So this was a difficult time, and we needed our finance team to be up to speed quickly.
So at the same time as putting processes in place for the first time, I also needed to produce reports and be accountable to potential investors. This required a business plan and future financial plans.
All while fighting fires.
There were two keys to setting up these functions: hiring people and choosing tools. And the first step to proper controlling was implementing LucaNet. This was a big decision, because it requires a huge amount of effort to get started.
But it was absolutely the right call, and I highly recommend this tool to other companies in a similar position. It saves so much time, and probably people power too. You connect it to your bookkeeping tool - in our case DATEV - and then you can build all the reports you need. These are automatically updated thanks to that connection with DATEV. Monthly reporting is essentially done for you.
So we have cost reports, revenue reports, and profit centers always ready to look at and share. And I have special investor reports set up in the same way.
I later implemented automatic cash flow forecasting and cash flow controlling, with different rules for our specific use case. This was one of the major projects that I worked on, and was certainly a success.
Today, the team is still pretty slim. We have a Head of Accounting, another accountant, one payment ops person, one controller, and me as CFO. The payments ops person is important for us because we have to deal a lot with our payment providers, or handle cancellations. So that’s a specific need for these daily financial operations in this marketplace model.
As CFO, I also specifically handle our investor relations, and all the business and financial planning. We’ll see this in the next section.
Our finance stakeholders
Finance is a service function - we’re here to provide information and expertise to others. As Julius set out in his article, we deal with authorities, management, and investors. And we also work closely with other business teams to help them hit their targets.
As an international marketplace, we deal with tax all over the world. And as I’ll explain shortly, the rules here aren’t as clear as you’d think.
So the important thing is to keep very clear transaction records and to keep a healthy working relationship with the tax authorities. At first, when you’re only dealing with small revenues, you can’t really get into too much trouble. Of course, it’s never a good idea to take risks with taxes, but mostly the authorities won’t come after you too hard.
As soon as your revenue grows, however, it’s a different story. And when it becomes worth the effort for the tax people, you don’t want to give them a reason to come for you.
This relationship is slightly peculiar, because I’m currently also the Interim CEO. So perhaps compared with other CFOs, the line between management and finance is blurred.
But in general, management needs to know that the company is running smoothly and that we’re making smart decisions as we grow. I’ll explain more below, in our case we have to think hard about the markets we’re attacking, and how hard we push sales and marketing efforts there.
So from a financial perspective, I need to show other managers the rationale behind our particular sales or marketing focus for the quarter. And I also need to convince myself as CEO.
Due to my special role, I work very closely with investors. We have a monthly report we look at together including profits and losses, and about 10 KPIs that they care about: things like our conversion funnel and our spend in the different countries. And always cashflow.
Most of this stays at a fairly high level. You could get very granular in these reports, but investors don’t have the time. And since we meet regularly, there’s no need to go into great detail every single time.
And then we discuss strategic projects. These might include merger and acquisition (M&A) opportunities, budgets, business plans, or funding rounds.
M&A is an interesting area for us because often the fastest way to break into a new market is simply to buy a business that already exists. So I’m quite active in looking for these opportunities, both as CEO and CFO.
Sales and marketing
I work very closely with all departments, but the most important relationship is probably with sales and marketing. In our marketplace model, one of the biggest drivers is our level of supply in each country - how many RVs we can offer. We can’t grow without a good number of suppliers.
Our sales team handles supply, especially in new markets. So we use our financial data to help them manage that supply, and identify target cities.
Meanwhile, marketing is responsible for demand - finding new people to rent our RVs. So again we can use financial data to find the right target audiences and to allocate marketing spend to them.
And our marketing can take on a lot of different forms. Maybe we want to use more money to attract Germans who travel to Australia. Or perhaps we run campaigns for everyone who wants to travel to the US.
Globally, the goal is to empower our teams to do this analysis themselves. We use Tableau for this purpose - to let employees access the data they need. We set it up and do training, and then they can use it themselves.
Challenges for the marketplace model
As with the other articles in this series, there are a few issues that affect the marketplace business model perhaps more than others. These stem both from acting as an agent as well as a merchant, and also because we operate all over the world.
Agent vs merchant models
I already touched on this big challenge above. When we act as a merchant (renting RVs to travellers directly), the accounting and payment processing are relatively straightforward.
But as an agent, we have to collect money and send it on to the RV’s owner without using it. We’re not allowed to reinvest or spend this money - it can’t even go into our bank account. So that’s quite different from our merchant model, and from the way that most companies handle incoming revenue.
The biggest challenge here was finding a payments provider who could handle this for us. We eventually settled on MANGOPAY, and they’ve made this process very easy. But we have to be vigilant in our bookkeeping, because we can’t book these third party funds the same way we would normally.
International rules and regulations
Another major challenge for us is that we’re an international marketplace. And while the user can easily rent an RV through the website, they’re usually renting from someone in another country. Which makes the tax situation pretty complex.
If an RV owner is in France, but the renter is in Germany, where do we pay taxes? Where should we register the company? What are the tax implications?
I talk to lots of lawyers and CFOs for marketplace companies about this international tax issue. Originally, I thought it must be a black and white topic with a clear answer. But actually, nobody is 100% sure about the rules. There’s room for interpretation.
So we have to do our best to stay compliant and responsible, always in the knowledge that the rules are still a bit of a mystery.
As a result of being an international marketplace, we also have entities in different countries. This makes controlling and reporting a lot more complex.
For example, we have two main entities - one in Berlin and one in Boston. So every month I have to consolidate these and produce reports for management and the board.
It took some time, but we were able to set up new account structures, cost centres, and profit centres to be able to monitor the different entities. And now that we’re up and running in LucaNet, the reports mostly create themselves.
The finance function should help to drive growth If you’re building or upgrading your finance team at present, I hope my experience helps. As CFO, the early work will always be hands-on. You’ll have to fix bookkeeping processes, build cashflow reports, and do a lot of non-financial work too.
But this is how you get to know the business best, and also how you’ll figure out which gaps should be filled.
Here’s my advice in a nutshell:
- Get the basics in place early, and make sure your foundation is solid. This lets you move faster and remain flexible as you grow.
- Use technology to automate repeatable tasks. We did this with LucaNet, and it saves us so much time on a regular basis.
- Empower other business teams with data wherever possible. You can do this for them at the beginning, and then find ways for them to access information themselves.
Overall, make sure the finance function is fast and efficient, so it can be free to help the business grow. That’s the most exciting part of running a company, so you need to make the most of it.
More from Mastering Scale
- The Role & Responsibilities of the Finance Function by Julius Bachmann
- The Direct-to-Consumer Finance Function by Julian Lange
- How to Build the Finance Function for Hyper-Growth by Oliver Ottens
Mastering Scale is a series of expert articles created by Julius Bachmann for CFO Connect.
Florence Lampe is CFO and Interim CEO of Campanda, the leading marketplace for RV rental worldwide. Florence built and manages the finance team, reports directly to investors, and steers company growth in her dual role as both head of finance and CEO.