Build to Prove

I call myself a build-stage CFO, meaning that I tend to work with companies that have found product-market fit.  They’ve passed the “prove” stage.  My goal is to get them to the “scale” stage, where the foundation of the house is sturdy and they can start to build more stories onto the building.  I’ve succeeded at this a few times and yielded to a full-time CFO after a significant fundraising round.

Startups being what they are, sometimes this goes the other way.  That is, a company hits build stage and either the world changes, or the niche they thought they’d found isn’t so attractive after all.  Then they have to pivot, and sometimes, that means moving back to prove mode.

Moving back to prove mode is hard.  You have people on payroll who no longer match the direction you are going.  You’ve built processes and reporting that may not be relevant anymore.  The cap table likely has people who invested in one vision who need to be brought along to the new one.  The sooner you do this though, the better.

For a CFO, it means a few things.  Likely you need to skinny down the infrastructure you built.  Almost certainly you will have a re-forecasting exercise that will involve a new way of showing KPIs and financials to the Board and other stakeholders.  Probably you will be part of letting people go and opening up hiring in a different part of the business.  It is also possible that one of the people you will need to let go is yourself.  Because I am “on demand”, I can scale myself and my team down (another reason to hire a fractional person).

The bottom line is that startups that hit the build stage have not hit escape velocity.  Far from it.  Sometimes they start to fall back to earth and as a CFO, I’ve had to develop tools in my toolkit for when this happens.

Your Home is a Coworking Hub – now what?

Here is a copy of a post I wrote for Workbar, which is one of my companies.   When all of this is over, companies will discover that they don’t need to have massive offices, and individuals will find that working from home looks great on paper until you try it all the time for real.  Workbar is right in the middle of these 2 trends.

Here’s the link to the blog post on their site (which looks a lot nicer than mine, I admit)…

And here is the text…

……

I have a friend who hates his commute and sometimes will idly say something like “I wish I could work from home all the time!”  I’ve told him that this might sound great, but trust me: it’s not what you really want. He’s always ignored that advice because there are some things you have to experience to understand.

After the last 5 days experiencing working out of his busy home with small children running around, I think he is starting to understand. 

My home too is now a coworking center.  My wife works from home, my teenage daughters are doing school online, we have an extra guest here all week, and our dog continues to expect to be walked, fed and entertained.  He is greedy that way. We are on top of each other all day, and still have to get stuff done.  

Luckily I work at Workbar (I’m the CFO) so I’ve learned a few things along the way about to get set up for success.  We’ve implemented some of these best practices in my house, and maybe they’ll help in yours too.

    • Write it down – we developed a “coworking constitution” (see pic) that we all agreed to and signed.  It’s important to have rules and buy-in, especially if you have teenagers who tend not to be interested in either of those things.  Workbar has an operating manual, so we decided we need one too. What are the operating hours? Who can come and go? How do you register guests?  
    • Have “neighborhoods” – one of the things that makes Workbar go is that our spaces are separated into quiet areas, collaboration areas, call-centric areas, and common spaces.  We did the same in our house. This required some imagination; for example, our dining room (which we don’t use at the moment because no one is coming over anyway) is now the quiet area.  My wife’s office is next to the main TV room, so we had to compromise and make that TV room a collaboration area instead of a loud space. Etc. Make this specific and try to stick to it.  
    • Set limits – We implemented a rule around lighting candles (again, see pic).  This one is for me. Basically it means “no scented candles when dad is downstairs because they smell like a store in a mall and it makes him crazy.”  Set “must haves” in your rules.
    • Take reservations – just as you can reserve conference rooms at Workbar, we set up a Google calendar for different rooms in the house to block them off if needed.
    • Decide on roles – At work, I usually hide that I once used to be an IT person, because once people know this, you will be tech support forever (BTW – don’t tell my Workbar co-workers).  I can’t pretend at home though, so I am the technical support person of the family. My daughter Lily is (more or less) the Community Manager. We all load the dishwasher with dirty glasses by the way; some jobs are too much fun for only one person.
    • Get tech enabledWorkbar invests a lot of time and money in our systems.  If you can afford it and haven’t done so yet, invest in a good printer/scanner and in a webcam if you don’t have one on your laptop already.  Get good headphones for long days on calls that used to be meetings. We can help with recommendations if you need us to. Another form of technology that you haven’t thought of is your chair.  We buy chairs for Workbar that you won’t notice after 8 hours in them; that’s on purpose. We want people to be comfortable and productive. A dining room or folding chair, believe me, is not going to work for long.  If you can, invest in something with decent support.
    • Be socialWhat makes Workbar more than a place to work is the community and other people around you. It’s harder to enjoy that these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t check in with each other occasionally.  If you have young children and can swap off who is watching them for specific periods of time, I recommend that too.  

 

 

 

 

 

If you are working from home in these uncertain times, consider yourself lucky.  I know I do. Hopefully, these tips will help make the best of that situation and keep you productive and sane.

 

Good Hygiene (employment edition)

I’m spending a lot of time with offer letters these days.  In the very early stages of a company, in “prove” mode, these tend to be loosely written.  In particular, bonuses are unspecified, benefit aren’t mentioned, and key requirements are left unwritten.  It’s not ideal but perfectly understandable.

Fast-forward to “build mode”, though, and this won’t work anymore.  One primary concern is intellectual property, and in particular that created by developers or people who interact with a company’s customers, operations or sales process – that is, everyone.  Another is that people who are pretty intelligent become mysteriously confused once they quit about being paid bonuses for things that might have happened had they stayed.  The list goes on.

When times are good, this is a headache.  When times turn bad, it could be the end of your company.  WeWork is about to get tested for how their offer letters were written.  My membership lapsed over a year ago and I still have a membership card that works anywhere in the world, so I’m guessing their operations overall are pretty sloppy.  They are about to find out what happens when you terminate thousands of employees who have unclear and unrealistic expectations.

To execute on this appropriately, I implement a checklist for my companies that includes the following:

  • Offer letters that specify that we will need to check citizenship (I’m in the middle of one of these right now – it’s amazing that in this environment that people don’t take this more seriously) and require you to sign a form NDA and assignment of inventions. Yes, the offer letter is in part sales document, which is appropriate.  It is also a document that you might need to rely upon someday.
  • Bonus templates that very clearly specify conditions under which bonuses are paid, when they are paid (pro tip: don’t promise them in the first payroll of the next month if you pay biweekly) and exactly how they are calculated. If you want to force adherence to a particular policy (example – keep Salesforce updated), this is the place to do it.
  • NDAs that are straightforward and to the point
  • Assignments of Inventions that ask employees if they’ve brought anything with them and make clear that what they develop on your payroll belongs to you. This is going to feel like overkill and could save your company one day.  VC’s in particular want to see this before they write a 7 or 8 figure check
  • Handbooks that lay out vacation and other benefits, but also are your opportunity to make your anti-discrimination, harassment and other policies crystal clear.  You won’t want to need them, but someday, you will.  Then you’ll want to stick to what they say.

 These are the basics.  As you move into scale mode, the compliance headaches will multiply.  Even more reason for good employment hygiene while you are in build mode.

Bcc:

As a CFO, I’m often included on cc:lists. Because I started my career in larger companies, I get why people cc: a lot of people on messages even though I try to limit this myself. And CFO’s often need to know when something is happening: a major contract negotiation, a sales discussion about an important customer, HR matters, you name it. It’s a core part of the job to be the second pair of eyes on something.

One thing I never do, however, is use bcc:

In my experience, it rarely does any good, and almost always causes issues. Example: someone who is bcc’d does a reflexive ‘reply all’ with a salty response instead of just to the person who bcc’d him. I once had a CEO who was bcc’d commit this sin and it was, to put it mildly, a problem.

This is why someone bcc’s me, I immediately ask them not to do it again. If they really want me to see something without having their recipient know it, then just forward it to me after the fact. This happens sometimes in sensitive situations where someone is on a performance plan and whoever put them there wants me to know. Even more reason not to do it via bcc:.

I mention this in a blog post about build stage companies because these tend to be populated by dreamers, which by extension means people who are young and inexperienced. You need some element of youth and inexperience to believe you can change the world. It’s not required but it helps.

So to those of you lucky enough to have these traits going for you, I’ll just say that this is an experiment I can save you the trouble from running. Just say no to bcc:.

2 kinds of people

Someone smart once told me that in business, there are 2 kinds of people in the world: those who have the money, and those who need the money.  I have a lot of “2 kinds of people” sayings in my life, but this one pops up for me all the time.

I don’t mean this in an Ayn Rand kind of way.   It’s more of a practical saying to think about what’s going on in a transaction, a term I use loosely.

Example: you’ve just raised financing and “have the money”.  Now is when the non-formula lenders of the world will offer you options for having more.  When you “need the money”, and they have it, you often can’t get it.

The corollary is that you shouldn’t try to raise financing when you have your back all the way to the wall.  This is something that seemingly every startup knows, and yet the number of close calls I’ve seen suggests that it’s an axiom often unheeded.

Example 2: you have sold to a customer but haven’t collected on your invoice yet.  They ask for changes to your product, or a little more help installing it.   They have the money.  You need it.  It’s difficult to extricate yourself from this, especially if it’s an enterprise B2B sale.  If you are in a B2B world selling with real COGS and lead times, always try to get 50% up front.  Extend credit reluctantly.  It seems tempting and almost always comes back to bite build-stage startups.  To use a phrase – you don’t “have the money”.

Example 3: you have a consultant who is performing poorly in all areas except sending invoices.  We’ve all had consultants like this.  I’m not suggesting that you don’t pay someone for services rendered under a contract you’ve both signed.  I am suggesting that because you have the money, and they need the money, you have the ability to force timing on a much-needed conversation.  At some point, even if they have been very difficult to get in touch with, which happens, they will contact you.

Example 4 (last one): you are running a company that is shutting down.  I have personal experience with this unpleasant experience.  However, once you have fulfilled your legal obligations to your employees and the taxation authorities, you actually are in the unique position of having the money while your vendors need the money.  The axiom holds true even if “the money” you have isn’t sufficient to meet your obligations.

Which is why — while it’s natural to be in a position to need the money (that’s business after all), ideally your CFO can keep you in a position where you don’t need all of it.

What CFOs do

Often I am asked what a CFO does. Usually this happens with a smaller (build stage) company that doesn’t have one, or has hired a part-time CFO who mostly focuses on being an excellent controller. There is nothing wrong with this – but it’s different from what a CFO does.

In build stage companies, CFOs first and foremost help predict and manage cash. This means some level of forecasting of the future (finance) which controllers can but don’t often do.

Side note; CFOs are not credentialed, unlike (say) licensed service providers like plumbers or electricians, so it’s not surprising that many controllers hang a shingle and call themselves CFOs. Some are excellent. Some manage that transition less well.

CFOs also help drive understanding and optimization of unit economics. In retail, this is almost always on a square foot basis. In staffing, it’s on a per hour basis. Getting to this point requires some insight and continual honing. CFOs should be good at constant, incremental improvement and knowing how to fine-tune what comes out of the accounting function. The result is that they should be helpful on the top line, in addition to managing costs.

Finally, a CFO needs to be able to build a team. I use the term ‘team’ expansively as this includes not only employees and contractors, but also insurance brokers, lenders, auditors and outside accountants, systems gurus, benefits experts…. on and on. Litmus rest: If you are taking to one of the top growth company lenders in town, a CFO probably will have them on speed dial already. This is part of what you are paying for.

What is a build stage company?

“Build stage” companies are the adolescents of the growth company world: not cute infants whose mistakes are still sources of joy and amusement, and not quite fully grown adults in full command of their faculties and their identities.  They’re somewhere in between, like teenagers.  It’s a phase that is exciting and a little dangerous.

These companies, by and large, have found product-market fit, meaning that they have made sales and have some idea of who their early customers are.  Their product exists, it works, and they’ve sold it for money.  In the world of high growth startups, they likely have some institutional backing: seed financing, or a modest Series A of about $5M or less.  And they are starting to professionalize; there is a great Medium post on this phenomenon from earlier this year.  One sure sign is that in “prove” mode, there are no swim lanes.  Everyone does everything because that is the nature of things at that stage.  In “build” mode, you want to start to establish swim lanes, while making sure that the entrepreneurial mindset of the prior phase is accessible.

I tend to focus on the G&A stack for these types of businesses.  Usually when a CFO arrives on the scene in a company just maturing into build phase, he or she finds some combination of the below:

  • Bookkeeping is done by a relative of one of the founders, or a local accounting firm
  • Benefits are scarce – until now it hasn’t affected the ability to attract talent, but in the back of everyone’s mind, they know it will soon
  • The financial forecast is either (a) numbingly complicated or (b) comically simple, and almost always lacks a cash flow forecast so that everyone can carefully track when the money might run out
  • “Sales ops” capabilities are limited – spreadsheets, not Salesforce
  • There is minimal understanding of the company’s “unit economics”, and how to really track this effectively
  • The economics of acquiring customers is not yet well-understood (see above on sales ops).
  • Very expensive lawyers from the company’s top-tier law firm are doing everything for the company
  • There might be some insurance, or there might not
  • HR hygiene (signed handbooks, travel policies, etc.) are minimal.
  • Board meetings, if they happen, likely lack cohesion.  Decks are distributed less than 10 minutes before the session begins
  • The cap table is kept in Excel, and/or by the aforementioned very expensive lawyers
  • The company uses Google Drive (great), but there is no structure to it (not great)

This is a natural phase of a company’s evolution.  This blog is about how that evolution progresses, how CFOs in these companies can add value and thrive, and some of the particulars of the industries in which I’ve seen companies in this phase.  Put another way: adolescence is exciting, but no one wants to stay there long.