Building the best financial stack: CFOs share their top seven tips
For any CFO, building a stack of financial software can be trickier than it seems.
As we’ve talked about in our blog post on the best finance software out there, there’s no shortage of solutions calling out for your attention. In fact, there are so many, it can be tough to know where to start.
Fortunately for you, we’ve asked a couple of knowledgeable experts to share their top seven tips on how to build a great software stack.
At our CFO Connect Meetup in London on Thursday 21 February 2019, we took a deep dive on financial software with Urszula Lupienska of Huckletree and Huw Slater of TravelPerk.
Before we jump in to what they had to say, here’s a brief introduction to our two experts.
About our experts:
- Urszula Lupienska, Financial Controller at coworking startup Huckletree: Urszula is an accounting professional with a range of experience working across the medical, retail, education and hospitality sectors. Before Huckletree, she worked at Rendall and Rittner.
- Huw Slater, Chief Financial Officer at business travel software outfit TravelPerk: With a depth of experience in the SaaS industry, Huw has worked as a financial and operational director across a number of large companies, including BT and Typeform.
Building a great financial software stack is critical
After recruiting the right talent for your finance team, choosing a fit-for-purpose software stack is probably the most critical task for any CFO.
No matter where you are in your growth journey, a functional and powerful software stack won’t just help make your financial processes faster and more dependable - it’ll free up your people to contribute to the wider success of the business.
Getting this right involves tackling some tough questions.
For example, to what extent should you customise your software? Should you stick to an out-of-the-box solution, or do you need something you can adjust over time?
What about software integration? Do you need your accounting solution to link with everything else in your stack, or is this not as important as it seems?
And what about in-house software solutions? Is bespoke software more trouble than it’s worth, or is this a necessary part of startup life?
For answers to these questions and more, let’s turn to the seven top tips from our experts.
#1: Most finance teams need a mix of software tools
For both Urszula and Huw, a blend of software solutions is a must-have.
“I’m currently assessing our finance stack to see if everything’s fit for purpose,” says Huw. “We’re using a cloud-based solution called Exact, and Stripe for our payments. A good chunk of our payments come via credit card, so this is crucial.”
Urszula uses a lean software stack, but there’s still a few parts to the machine. “We use Accounts IQ for accounting, which integrates well with our CRM. We also use Stripe for payments, and Spendesk to handle expenses. It saves a lot of time.”
Huw also relies on some other handy tools. “We’re using Netsuite, which takes time to implement, as it’s such a powerful and extensive tool. Go Cardless is useful for direct debits, and we also use Looker for visualisation.”
Urszula and Huw are in a fairly common situation - most finance teams have to rely on a mix of software solutions to get everything done.
However, they both sound a note of caution: always think things through before signing up for new software solutions.
#2: Be careful about rushing into new software
When building your software stack, it’s always tempting to go for the newest, shiniest solution. After all, every software company promises the world, right?
Well, our experts have a few words of warning.
“Beware of jumping in to new software too quickly,” says Huw. “Before you commit, get someone from your team to go over the features in detail so you know what you’re getting into. Not all software works the same way, and this can be a painful lesson to learn.”
Urszula agrees. “Don’t go for the first solution you see. Take Accounts IQ, for example. This works well now, but we had a few things to iron out as we went.”
But how are you supposed to know which software is worth signing up for?
For Huw, it’s about good old word of mouth.
The main thing is to look for customer references and user reviews from trusted people.
He adds: “Software companies tend to overpromise, so you need a way of finding out what they can really do for you.”
One other thing? Don’t be afraid of the do-it-yourself approach.
#3: Don’t be afraid of in-house solutions
For a lot of businesses, particularly those offering a niche product or service, developing an in-house software solution can be easier than looking for off-the-shelf software.
For Urszula, this was definitely the case: “We use a self-developed sales platform. Our entire website was redeveloped, and our priority was to make sure our customers’ experience reflected what they signed up for. It was easier to build that ourselves.”
Huw agrees. “We had an engineer build a bespoke CRM. This took a while because it was so detailed, but it’s just what we need.”
So, finance people: don’t be afraid to look to in-house software solutions, providing you have the expertise and the resources to pull it off.
One last word of warning from Huw, though. “Software developers can get excited and rush into things, then realise just how complicated it is later on. It’s worth thinking it all through before you start.”
And remember, software integration isn’t always the holy grail.
#4: Integration is great, but it isn’t everything
If you’ve ever read any finance software testimonials, you’ll be familiar with the importance of integration. When it comes to building a stack, joining everything together is the most critical factor to consider, right?
Well, according to Huw, not necessarily. “Integration is important, but full integration is overrated. Take ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software - what I hate about it is it’s meant to do everything. I’d rather take the best of the breed for each category.”
Steering away from an umbrella solution has other benefits. “A lot of people don’t realise the benefits of taking things piece by piece,” says Huw. “If everything is connected, the CFO ends up being responsible for wider IT issues, too. This can be a problem.”
For Urszula, software integration is still a work in progress. “Our accounting software is fully integrated with our sales platform, which is fantastic. Stripe also integrates with our CRM, too. These integrations can take time to develop and test, but it’s worth it in the end.”
However, there are limits to how much you can solve with integration.
“Software integration makes things a lot easier,” says Urszula, “but you still need the human touch for when things go wrong. You can’t just rely on software alone.”
Another great tip? Sometimes it’s easier to stick with the status quo.
#5: Sometimes, it’s best to stick with what you’ve got
When you’re thinking about which finance software to use, it’s tempting to think there’s one magical solution out there, ready to solve all your problems.
We hate to burst your bubble, but sometimes it’s best to just embrace the status quo.
“When I arrived at Huckletree,” says Urszula, “our accounting software was already in place. I inherited Accounts IQ, and it took a while to get used to, and to put the right systems in place. Once we got everything under control, it started working well. It’d be tough to switch now.”
This is a common consideration for a lot of finance teams. Once your systems are established, it can be more trouble than it’s worth switching to another software solution. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but you should weigh the decision carefully.
Now, let’s take a look at some words of advice for growing startups.
#6: The right stack can make growth a lot easier
CFOs at growing startups have a lot to think about: raising capital, recruiting the right people, meeting investor expectations…the list goes on!
One thing that can really help smooth out the growth process, according to Urszula and Huw, is having the right financial software.
“We’re launching four new locations this year,” says Urszula. “To prepare, we’re investing in our tool stack, with less emphasis on employing more people as the only solution. Once we have the perfect stack, our finance people can focus more on collaboration and strategy.”
Huw is in a similar position. “We’re growing significantly right now, and the finance team needs to keep up with this growth while still adding value."
Good software can give us the time and space to think about what the role of finance should be, and how we can contribute.
So, time-saving software can help unlock the true potential of a finance team, giving your people the time to collaborate with others.
One last thing to help your finance team realise its potential? Good old Excel.
#7: Don’t overlook Excel
Sometimes, you can’t go past the classics.
Sure, there are a lot of brand new software solutions out there. And some of them might be pretty impressive.
For Huw and Urszula, however, finance teams shouldn’t overlook Excel. “Bespoke solutions are great,” says Urszula, “but a simple solution with Excel can be great too. Excel is often ignored, but it’s a tool you can really rely on.”
Huw couldn’t agree more. “A lot of sophisticated software can be replaced with Excel instead, when it comes down to it.”
Sometimes, Excel is all you need.
Conclusion: Build your finance stack with these seven tips
When it comes to picking the right finance software stack, it pays to take your lead from those who have been through it all before.
For both Huw and Urszula, managing an ideal software stack is a matter of ongoing attention and effort. With growing companies like Huckletree and TravelPerk, finance leaders have to keep a close eye on whether their finance software stack is still fit for purpose.
If you’re a CFO or finance team member, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on these tips and pointers, and think about how you might apply them in your own business.
While you’re at it, cast your eyes over our list of upcoming events, and come join us in person.
Many thanks again to our guest experts Urszula Lupienska and Huw Slater for generously agreeing to share their insights and expertise!