Mastering Scale for fast-growing finance teams
The finance team is the true engine room for expansion in any fast-growing startup. Not only do they lay the groundwork for scale by setting up key businesses processes and reporting, they also support strategic decisions such as fundraising, cashflow and business advice.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough discussion about how the role of finance teams needs to evolve in fast-growing companies. This means a lot of great startups are in the dark about how they should structure their finance capabilities as they expand and take on more business.
That’s why we convened our CFO Connect community in Barcelona on Thursday 4th July to discuss the changing role of finance teams in companies going from startup to scaleup to established operation.
At this meetup, we were joined by a panel of finance experts representing companies at three different stages:
Edward Hamilton, Founder & Director of Mayordomo and Lavalocker (startups)
Juan Carlos Rovira Ventin, VP Finance at Badi (growing from startup to scaleup)
Huw Slater, CFO at TravelPerk (growing from scaleup to established operation)
Between these three experts, we had a great discussion covering the instrumental - but very different! - role of finance at each stage of company growth.
About our experts
Edward Hamilton, Founder & Director of smart locker service Mayordomo and laundry and drycleaning outfit Lavalocker: Edward is an experienced founder, director, and business coach, and also has an established background in the banking sector.
Juan Carlos Rovira Ventin, VP Finance at accommodation sharing platform Badi: Juan has extensive experience as a CFO and founder, and has worked in the consulting, tourist, and software sectors, including positions at We Barcelona and Deloitte.
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.
How should a finance team evolve as the business scales up?
Huw opened the discussion with a fundamental question: when you’re growing a business from startup to scaleup, how should you evolve the role of the finance team?
Edward says finance should focus on its role as a revenue-generating department. “In growing startups, you need your finance team to focus on analytics and insights. This creates a lot of power that might not be reflected simply in the cash book.”
For Juan, going from startup to scaleup is all about building diverse capability. “At Badi, the finance team now has a lot of different tasks. At the start you do a lot of them yourself, but over time you need to hire people to fit those tasks. Analytical accounting is a great example.”
As Huw explains, going from scaleup to established operation means getting access to the right expertise and information. “The role of finance is to provide insights into the company, but you need to be careful about not stretching yourself too thin.”
“As CFO, I have the finance team, the data team, the legal team, and others,” says Huw. “I love having these different perspectives. Each of them are an extra bullet in the gun, and when you’re in a leadership meeting you have a lot of extra context.”
These perspectives show how the finance team can drive company growth, and how the team needs the knowledge and expertise to support the different stages of growth.
How should the finance team help to set a strategy for growth?
For many startups, the finance team is crucial in helping the CEO to work with the board to set a company growth strategy.
But how should finance do this as the company evolves? And how can finance avoid the frustration of having to deal with changes in strategy?
For Huw, contributing to strategy rests on strong relationships. “The relationship between the finance team and the CEO has to be strong. You have to be candid and proactive, and accept that there will always be different opinions about strategy. That way, you won’t be caught off-guard.”
Juan says maintaining a nimble viewpoint is key. “At Badi, the role of the CFO is to be the auditor of the whole company, because you have the cash, and you’re distributing the resources. You need to maintain a 360 degree view to help with strategy.”
At Badi, says Juan, they’re trying a new approach to strategy as they grow from startup to scaleup. “Most of our decisions around strategy aren’t reliant on finance. This is an approach we’re testing to build accountability.”
So, finance’s strategic role rests on strong relationships, staying nimble, and testing new approaches to suit changing company needs.
Which KPIs should be the focus for a growing finance team?
A crucial area of focus for finance teams - especially for growing startups - are metrics and KPIs. So, which KPIs should finance teams track as the company grows, and which KPIs can they leave aside?
For Edward at Lavalocker and Mayordomo, it’s all about building repeat customers. “I look at our accounts daily to make sure nothing’s gone awry, but our two main KPIs are user signups and the number of weekly orders. Monthly, we look at our repetitive orders - that’s the big one.”
As Badi scales up, says Juan, the main focus is on their burn rate. “Cash burn is the main KPI we look at, but the most important KPI at the moment is our cost per listing.”
With TravelPerk established and humming along, Huw also looks at the weekly fundamentals. “We look closely at cashflow, because we need to be clear on what’s going on. I also take a look at sales every week, and our pipelines, too.”
The variety of KPIs tells you one thing: there’s no secret formula to choosing which metrics to focus on. Instead, you need to decide which KPIs are the most important for your particular stage of growth.
Should finance focus on growth, margins, or both?
This is another classic question for finance teams in growing startups: should you focus on your growth, your margins, or both?
Edward has a firm position on this for startups like Lavalocker and Mayordomo. “I focus on both. Some say you can’t focus on both growth and margins, but you can. It’s a question of timing, and focusing on the right metrics for your size and your maturity.”
Huw agrees. “It’s not impossible to focus on both. CFOs are always going to focus on profit and loss, but in startups you want to focus on growth too. At TravelPerk, we’re not thinking too much about margins yet, but at some point we will.”
For Juan, it’s a similar story. “In companies like Badi, if you want to keep growing, you have to forget about margins. Someday it will be the driver, but if we’re expanding into new markets it’s impossible to focus on being profitable in the short term.”
So, if your startup is in the early stages of growth, don’t feel pressured to measure your success purely in terms of profitability - that can come later.
What should a growing finance team look for when hiring talent?
Next up, we have another crucial question: what kind of skills and experience should CFOs look for in new hires for growing finance teams?
Edward says startups need people willing to find the answers to complex questions. “Insight is the big thing. We have to be detail-oriented, but for me, we’re looking for a mixture of technical experience and a desire to search for insights.”
As Badi scales up, Juan is looking for holistic thinkers. “I like people to go that extra mile, and to understand the business inside out. Every action has a reaction inside the company, and finance needs to follow these implications.”
For Huw, startups and established businesses should be looking for different things when it comes to finance talent. “In the early stages, you need your team to be full of jacks of all trades to help with firefighting. Later, you can bring in structure and expertise.”
If you’re still working to establish your business, you’ll need nimble troubleshooters in your finance team. When you’re established, you can hire for specific expertise.
How should finance deal with data?
Our panel finished with an even more fundamental question: given how much information finance teams are collecting these days, how should a finance team deal with data as the business evolves?
For Huw, it’s a question of business intelligence. “Our data team is also our business intelligence team. Data is layered - you have to put it all in the right place and go deeper to find great insights.”
As Juan explains, the finance team needs data to support scaleup decisions. “I feel nervous without data. We have a very strong data team, and we’re all strong excel users. We also have a business analytics department to match all of our business metrics.”
“Data is always a great investment for startups,” says Edward. “Nobody should ever discount how useful it is.”
Conclusion: Companies grow and change, and so does the finance team
We were thrilled to launch the CFO Connect community in Spain, and to kick things off with a great panel of experts discussing the instrumental role of the finance team in startup growth.
To grow your company from startup to scaleup to established operation, you need different expertise and capability in your finance team. Thanks to our experts, we now have a detailed insight into how this works at each of these different stages.
This meetup will be the first of many in-person events for people to share best practices, stay on top of the latest trends, and develop their networks. If you’ve enjoyed this recap, then be sure to join us in-person for our next event - we’d love to see you!
A huge thanks to Huw, Juan, and Edward for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their tips, observations, and advice.
Thanks again to our friends at TravelPerk for hosting this great session!