The Startup Finance Playbook & Untangling Tax with Asif Ahmed of Acclivity Advisors
“Fundraising has changed a lot these past few years. Where once the majority of the venture community was focused on taking big moonshots and building impact, now, things like profitability and unit economics are a lot more important.”
For the past 10+ years, Asif Ahmed has been focusing on helping entrepreneurs structure and leverage their finance processes to grow faster. He’s also been a tax advisor for HMRC, and is Managing Director at Acclivity Advisors.
Between changing fundraising rules, emerging challenges for companies in their Series B, and an evolving finance landscape, it can be difficult for finance leaders to navigate the complex environment of today and lead their companies to success.
In this episode of the CFO Yeah! podcast, Asif discussed the complexity of the tax system, how the rules of fundraising are changing globally, his book The Finance Playbook for Entrepreneurs, and how CFOs can level the playing field through knowledge and community.
Table of contents
From PwC to finance entrepreneur: Asif’s professional journey
I started my career at PWC, where I learned chartered accounting. However, for the past 10 years or so, I’ve focused specifically on working with entrepreneurs, among the early stage technology community.
I'm also an advisor for the office of tax simplification as well as on an HMC board. Those two roles came as a result of being an advisor to startups, which allows me to bring the perspective of entrepreneurs to the table.
Acclivity Advisors is a boutique advisory firm that specializes in providing accountancy, taxation and consultancy services to entrepreneurs and high growth, early stage businesses both nationally and internationally.
We focus specifically on companies reaching their Series B stage of growth. But we also like to work with entrepreneurs when they are at earlier stages, and trying to establish processes to operate their business.
We help our clients with their compliance, and with the work that comes with running a startup at that stage. That could be taking a deep dive into things like fundraising, setting up an option scheme, or doing research and development tax credits.
New fundraising challenges on the horizon
In the last 12 to 24 months, the landscape, especially in tech, has changed quite significantly. There’s a lot of funding available right now for good ideas, and for entrepreneurs that are willing to take big bets.
However, as the global economy contracts, we get the feeling that this sort of thing will begin to become a little bit tougher. Some of the moonshots that we've experienced in the past, when founders were less concerned with fundamentals, but more concerned with trying to build out a hypothesis, are not as common now.
I think that the attitude and aptitude for that sort of fundraising is going to start drying up. People now have to wrestle with the idea of focusing more on fundamentals. Where once the majority of the venture community was focused on taking big moonshots and building impact, now, things like profitability and unit economics are going to become a lot more important.
The big changes pre- and post-Series B
Our thesis on Series B is that once you’ve raised funds, you’ve established product-market fit. You probably have some significant customers. And actually now more than ever, the business is going to be a function of its own efficiencies.
Whilst before, the company was a function of its ability to establish product market fit, and consequently, a lot of the success was based on the individual efforts of the management team or the CEO, after the Series B, success needs to rely on an operational infrastructure that fuels the business.
In the old world of Series B, that's a point where more than ever the company is looking to rely on its own efficiencies and infrastructure to be a successful business. And this is when you probably will fall short, if you haven't instilled some of these practices in-house.
The Finance Playbook For Entrepreneurs
I wrote a book over lockdown, The Finance Playbook for Entrepreneurs. Because we work with companies at a very early stage, we get to see entrepreneurs from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have been employed for their entire career and want to start their business, some come straight out of college.
But it’s become abundantly clear that there’s no uniform or accepted way to start and run a business efficiently.
Even the basic decision of what kind of entity they should set up, it has just become accepted practice that you’re going to have to pay for advice from a professional advisor. These are simple things that either a lawyer or an accountant can teach you. But it’s hard to find resources to actually go and learn these things yourself.
The thesis behind the book was that I really wanted to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. After reading it, you’ll get 10 or 11 immediate things that you can implement and get your head around in an easy to digest way. This way, you’re starting from 20% into the learning process, as opposed to negative 5%.
Building a solid finance tech stack
A lot of the time, clients are coming to us with a blank sheet in terms of finance processes. This allows us to design what their technology stack will look like from an accounting and finance perspective.
More often than not, we'll ask clients to start with using a platform like Xero or QuickBooks. Then we’ll introduce them to a suite of add-on software that we believe is useful for them. This phase is based on what kind of business they are and what kind of reporting requirements they might have.
So, we'll set the client up with adequate software, but then they could need something more complex like inventory management. In this case, we need to go about finding the right tool for them for that specific situation.
Keeping future scale in mind in the choice of tools is also important. Sometimes, we see clients scale very quickly, which becomes an urgent question, because these tools aren’t made for everybody. What we are trying to do is create content around what comes after Xerox and some of the off-the-shelf packages.
Making knowledge available for CFOs
There's no consistent knowledge around the topics that surround this area of the economy. And so, we want to be the ones to bring it to people. The extension of my book was the fact that we now work with a broad network in our space. We collaborate with many other operators and advisors: lawyers, tax advisors.
So, we decided to start curating all of the best content topics we know are required by our CFO community. And what we're trying to do is create a platform. We want it to become the place for people to go to develop entry-level knowledge about some of these topics.
We’re doing this because we want to take the teaching away from the advisor community. After all, accountants and lawyers were never trained to be good teachers…
Regulation vs innovation: a never-ending cycle of complexity
One of the main problems about the tax system is that the velocity of change in the economy over the last 30 years is probably the equivalent of the velocity of change over the prior 150 years.
And so it's hard to keep up with the way that things and people are going about doing their business and earning their money. Because you need to understand whether what you're suggesting can actually be enforced or not.
And because of this situation, we've ended up with a tax system designed for a very different type of economy. And it’s now trying to modernize itself to keep up with the way that people are going about their business. But inevitably, in the effort of doing so, it’s outdating itself by virtue of not doing it quickly enough.
Besides, the world is becoming more and more complex. After Brexit for example, a lot of companies had to grapple with changes to a tax system. However, very often, they weren't fully conversant with the tax system in the first place. And unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of great execution either. From the standpoint of growing or trading overseas, that does accelerate a company's need to understand tax a little better. But thankfully, nowadays there are so many great tools out there that can help you navigate these things.
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