What Finance Leaders Have Learned to Prepare for the Post-Pandemic World
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on business all over the world. It arrived in what felt like an instant, and companies were scrambling to react. But a few months later, we’ve entered a new stage in the crisis.
Slowly but surely, business is opening up again. Across Europe and North America, companies are beginning to plan for “the new normal.”
So what lasting lessons have finance leaders learned from this sudden financial and health crisis? We invited three experts to detail their crisis response plans, and more importantly, to tell us how this experience has changed their companies for good.
We explain five key themes below, and you can watch the full conversation here:
About our experts
Marek Cieszko is CFO at Packhelp, a Warsaw-based managed marketplace for packaging solutions. The platform lets ecommerce businesses design and order personalized packaging, usually for branding purposes. Marek joined in September 2019, and the company has grown to 120 people and generated more than €5 million revenue in 2019.
Sam Haworth is Financial Controller for Kontor, a commercial real estate broker focusing on flexible office transactions and traditional lease transactions. Kontor has offices in London and New York, but deals in many other European cities. Five years into trading, it’s fully self-funded with €4 million in revenue in 2019. Clients include Monzo, Revolut, Deliveroo, and MADE.com.
Fabien Dawidowicz is CFO of Spendesk, an international spend management solution with more than 200 employees and offices in Paris, London, Berlin, and San Francisco. Spendesk also created and runs CFO Connect.
So what are the lasting changes our experts expect to come from the current pandemic?
1. A heightened awareness of key metrics
The business landscape changed almost overnight in March 2020. And for at least the two months after that, companies had to reinvent and update their strategies on an almost daily basis.
For our experts, this has brought a renewed attention to a few key metrics. “We're a venture capital funded company,” says Marek. “We’re geared towards growth, and growth has been one of the key KPIs from the perspective of our investors. So we were always very hesitant to reduce the marketing expenses that fueled this growth.”
But the pandemic forced Marek’s hand. “We decided to drastically reduce the marketing budget. And nothing really happened, apart from the fact that our customer acquisition costs plummeted. It didn't really impact the business much, so it kind of made us a little bit more, maybe not aggressive, but rational, as far as the marketing expenses were concerned.
This experiment brought a whole new attitude to the way the company acquires customers. “Prior to the crisis we were overthinking the customer acquisition cost to some extent. We decided to just look at CAC as a simple market price. If the CAC is low, we can invest more in marketing. When it goes up - because you're kind of buying the cheapest customers first - then you draw the line at a certain point and stop investing.”
This renewed attention to key metrics has helped companies understand exactly what’s driving in their success. And in Packhelp’s case, it was a worthwhile experiment that just needed a nudge to get going.
2. A continued culture of remote work
Firms all over the world have gone fully remote out of necessity. And even as restrictions lift and physical offices reopen, our experts see remote work as clearly here to stay.
“We actually implemented a work from home policy about a month before COVID,” says Sam. “And in that month no one really used it. I think there was this stigma attached to working from home. And I think now that stigma's being removed and our experience of everyone working from home has been really good.”
Packhelp also hadn’t quite embraced working from home when the pandemic arrived. As Marek explains, “we had this goal by the end of 2020 to introduce remote work in our company. It was a pre-COVID goal, just one of our ways of organizing work. So I think this was a quick opportunity to implement this goal and see how it works.
And the results have been positive. “The business is performing well and I think the number of face to face meetings that took place prior to COVID (has decreased significantly), and I don't think that's a negative thing. When your organization grows in numbers, you usually have a lot of meetings that were, to be honest, not that necessary. I think it made our work more economical and more efficient.”
“Even with meetings that still go ahead, they're a lot more efficient when you have them remotely sometimes,” adds Sam. “People get to the point - you discuss what needs to be discussed and then people go away and get on with it.”
Spendesk already had a remote-friendly policy before the crisis, but the vast majority of staff were still in the office day to day. “I think we now realize that working remotely was completely feasible and actually much more powerful than we thought,” says Fabien. “We have plenty of ways now to get in contact and it's a good way to see the future of our offices.
“We’re now talking a lot about flexi-office. I think that having people working remotely part of the week (or fully) would be a good solution - and would save a lot of money. But it's related to the trust you put in your employees and the confidence you have in the quality of the hiring team. If you hire a professional, they should accountable for their work.”
Companies will be having these conversations for years to come. “I do not think the office will return to the way it was,” says Sam. “Yes, people will still be in the office, but it will probably be a fraction of the capacity of what it is now and that will mean a change in dynamic in the workplace.”
3. Relationships strengthened for the long term
The conversation explored the ways in which stakeholder relationships have evolved during this period - often for the better. At Kontor - a self-funded company - the most significant stakeholders are customers. And working with struggling customers, says Sam, is the best investment Kontor can make at the moment.
“I think this is a time where relationships are made or broken. If you take a hard line with some of your key customers, then they're going to remember that. And if you provide support to them, then the chances are you're going to come out stronger together and it will be a more fruitful relationship down the line.
“You're almost stuck between a bit of a rock and a hard place because they owe money, we need to get that money in to add to our runway, but then we know everyone's in the same boat. So we're not going to achieve anything by taking a hard line with them.”
For Marek at Packhelp, investors have proven to be a great help. “I think our board and investors are kind of easy to manage, I would say, because they have the capacity to understand the situation that we're in. Normally, we've been meeting with our investors on a monthly basis for a short call. But when COVID struck, we've been in touch with them on a weekly basis for an hour call, just to make sure that they have the updates related what's going on in our business.”
As Fabien explains, these conversations tend to explore your likely outcomes for the foreseeable future. “With your board or investors, you're going to talk about the runway and probably the cash burn, and the ways you use cash to get runway. I think the best way to help them is to build scenarios and offer perspectives on these possible outcomes for the next 18 months.”
Whether it’s with investors or customers, our experts agreed that these conversations take place far more often in this new work environment than before. Finance leaders that work closely with customers and investors have a stronger understanding of their needs.
And there’s another key stakeholder to consider…
4. More open conversations with your workforce
Another interesting development for many businesses is how much more engaged employees are in the future of their companies. And particularly the company’s finances, says Marek. “Usually the employees were not really bothered with the financial aspect of our business and that was our conscious policy - they just concentrated on delivering in their particular field. But we started communicating our plans related to the next financing rounds, our plans relating to becoming profitable, on a biweekly basis.”
Packhelp now shares financial metrics with employees on a more regular basis. “We have two all-hands meetings. One on Monday - just a short update of the COVID situation. And then on Friday an ask me anything, where our CEO basically answers open questions from our employees in plain English, or plain Polish. He’s not pretending that he's omnipotent and that he knows everything, but he just presents the rationale for the steps that he’s taking.”
Fabien agrees that this is a great time to be more direct and open with employees about the financial and business reasons for what the company’s doing, and how their particular role plays a part. “For sales, for example, it's going to be the cost of leads or how efficient the teams are for every euro spent on them.”
With employees, it's vital to communicate regularly with them, to maintain a good level of understanding of the consequences on the company, and how the management will face each new stage of this crisis.
5. A more resilient company culture
Like it or not, the COVID crisis has forced companies to change in a hurry. And any rapid change can have serious impact on people and culture. As Marek explains, “we were a little bit worried about killing the startup culture at the very beginning, because this stereotypical startup culture doesn't really fit during times of crisis. So we were worried that people would get discouraged, or we’d end up with a different company compared to what they joined a couple of months before.
“But in the end it worked out really well. This baptism by fire - this exam was passed by the whole team, and I think it kind of prepared us for calmer times ahead. And even if something happens along the way, I think this muscle memory related to crisis mode will work out well.” Sam agrees. “We've got a really, really strong team culture, almost like a startup culture. We were worried about the impact that would have on existing staff members and the culture. But you know what? I think it only brings people closer together.”
Optimism for the future
Clearly, 2020 has been a trying a time for the vast majority of businesses. With few notable exceptions, companies have had to downsize, get agile, and learn to operate with less.
But if there’s one clear positive from this experience, our experts believe that this will lead to more efficient and effective companies in the future. All three have had to make huge spending cuts, and in some cases that included payroll and staff numbers.
But the results are more focused, dynamic, and adaptable companies. Businesses understand better than ever what brings success, and how they truly serve their customers.
So as economies come back online and they’re able to ramp up more fully, they promise to hit the ground running.
You can watch the full webinar replay and hear more from our experts here
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