Feature It

Generally speaking, as a CFO you have 2 types of bad news to deliver.  The first type is where there’s a blip that you should report, but you and the CEO are pretty convinced that it’s not worth a long navel-gazing session with your investors.  A simple example that falls into this category is higher than expected G&A spending because your law firm forgot to invoice you for 3 months and you didn’t remember to accrue for this.  So, yes, it makes the numbers look worse than they really are, but if you can present the numbers in a way that doesn’t highlight this in bold underlines, that’s probably all for the best.
The other type of bad news is something that is impossible to hide.  Many CFOs are tempted to do this.  An example: new SaaS bookings are way behind even though the revenue curve for the current month or quarter is fine.  Quota deployed against bookings goals is way behind.  Hiring got away from you and you suddenly added 10 people when the budget called for 3.  You had projected cash lasting 18 months but now it sure looks more like 12.
If this happens, don’t hide it – feature it.
Meaning, present the financials as you normally do, but highlight the miss and make it front-page, bold-type, and unmissable.  Make the discussion about the bad news.  If you have conscientious investors who want to help you find solutions, they will.  In the closed-door executive session, they might have less-than-generous things to say about the company’s or management’s performance.  That’s fair.  Let them have that discussion instead of the one about why they had to uncover issues through forensic analysis because you tried to gloss over or hide it.
The same general rule of thumb goes for sharing numbers with your CEO.  Some bad news should be featured, early and often.

Bookings, cash and revenue

Frequently I find myself explaining accounting concepts to non-accountants.  It’s actually a part of what I do that I enjoy; I’ve taught courses as an adjunct in the past and the teaching was the fun part.  The rest of being an adjunct… well, the less said about that, the better.
One construct that seems to come up a lot, and can be confusing if you don’t spend all day thinking about this stuff like I do, is bookings vs revenue vs billings vs cash.
Bookings are closed orders.  Take the example of a subscription software business that sells a $10 per month service.  If you sell a 1 year subscription, that’s a $120 booking.  2 years, $240, and so on.  It is not revenue.
Revenue on this deal is $10 per month, recognized monthly, starting when the software was turned on for the customer.  Not when the deal is signed – when the service is turned on.  Similar concept in businesses that ship physical products.
This is different from cash.  You might get paid up front, in arrears, as you go, or 50/50 up front and at the end.  But when you collect the cash has no impact on revenue.  If you never collect the cash, this is bad debt expense (although if this happens a lot, you might need to adjust revenue).
I won’t get into the accounting debits and credits for all of these, but they can get complex quickly.  Imagine you have a subscription where the fee is $10 per month but you give away the first month for free.  The booking is $110, and the revenue is $9.17 per month over all 12 months.  From a revenue perspective, it’s the same as an 8.3333% discount.  Again, when you collect the cash for this is irrelevant.
This comes up a lot in membership based businesses where the first month can be free.  If there’s no term for the membership, then the revenue is just zero.  If there is a term, you recognize revenue ratably over the period.
The inverse of this is also true – if you sign a real estate lease with a rent-free period, your rent during the rent-free period isn’t zero.  For a 10 year lease with rent of $10 per month (just making the numbers easy), if you get the first six months free, your monthly rent expense is actually 10 * 114/120 = $9.50. The part you didn’t pay in cash for those 6 months gets carried on the balance sheet as an accrued liability. If you pay your rent late – which I don’t recommend – that doesn’t affect that rent is still an expense.  The total value of that lease is $1140 – it’s sort of the opposite of a booking from the company’s perspective.
Depending on your team, you too might find yourself explaining this frequently.  I have found certain board members in particular struggle to keep this straight.  It is the CFO’s job to make sure terms are clear and consistent, and as always, surprises are at a minimum.

It’s strategic

A sentence that usually sets off alarm bells for CFO’s is “It’s strategic”.  This is usually code for a decision that seems to make no economic sense, but is so important to the business, the company “has to” do it anyway.  Examples of this include, but are not limited to (1) an acquisition that the numbers don’t really justify, (2) launching a new product line that’s not correlated with the current one, (3) geographic expansion to a far corner of the world, (4) overpaying for a certain employee, and (5) going all-in on a particular trade show exhibit or booth construction.

Mainly, I have 2 issues with this approach.

First of all, most things that management teams call “strategic” are actually tactical.  M&A is a tactic.  It should get you into a market segment, a geography, a product category, and be tied to a broader strategy.  In theory, your company will have done a build/buy/partner analysis against that strategy and decided that M&A is the tactic that best gets you there.  Even in build stage companies, where deals are often opportunistic buys of smaller or faltering competitors, it’s only a tactic.  If you’re chasing a deal because it’s “strategic”, something has gone awry already.

Second and maybe more importantly, a major decision that cannot be grounded in numbers of any kind is almost certainly going to go badly.  For example: an acquisition that is dilutive on its face should get to being accretive because it helps you raise prices, lower costs, increase sales volume, cut G&A, something that has an economic return.  This return should be based an assumption that an investor can see clearly and question, including seeing the sensitivity analysis around it.  After all, it is their capital or stock you are proposing to use.

If an acquisition does none of these ‘strategic’ things, and is still dilutive except with heroic assumptions, it doesn’t make sense.  Full stop.

Trade shows are trickier.  I shiver a bit when I hear that a particularly splashy trade show presence for a build-stage company is necessary because I know from experience that nine times out of 10, it leads to heartache and lost ROI.  I shiver even more when I hear that it’s for “brand building”.  Brand building is a very expensive game.  And, if we’re spending a lot to build our brand at a trade-show, I would advocate that this needs to be part of a broader strategy including customer service, how we package and deliver our products, fit and finish, you name it.  You can’t overspend at CES and make these other things go away.

As CFO, you have to keep your eye on what matters.  In my experience, something that is truly strategic will show up in the numbers.

 

 

 

Pick 2

A useful shortcut in build-stage companies is the project manager’s mantra: Good, Fast, Cheap – pick 2.
Here’s a real-life example from the world of fast-food burgers, which because of my Five Guys franchising experience, I know something about.  People sometimes complain to me that Five Guys is expensive compared to other “similar” options.  True.  Good and fast, yes.  We strive for 8 minute ticket times and perfectly cooked food.  But it’s not cheap.  In ’N Out, which I’m a huge fan of, is good and is cheap, and I’ve waited there for 20 minutes when it gets busy.  Burger King is cheap and fast.
Part-time CFOs are similar.  This is my business right now and I had to decide which 2 I would be.  I picked good and fast.  Some prospects don’t want this, and that’s OK.  It means that I (and all of TechCXO, really) am not a good fit for them.
I think in what I do that this is the best way to provide a lot of value.  If things get to a point where being cheap is more important, then I will bow out.
I’ll say that on average, it is simply not possible to be good, fast and cheap at the same time.  It is also not optimal to be kind of good, kind of fast, and kind of cheap.  It’s hard to get initial traction this way and even if you can, it eventually gets companies killed.
In the world of being a CFO, where this shows up in product companies is in the combination of pricing, margins and lead times.  I have one client right now that is good and fast, but not cheap.  High margins.  I had one in the past that was good and cheap, but not fast.  When they tried to be fast, they had to do it at low margin because they had staked out a position on being cheap.  This had huge impact on how much cash they would need in the next 2 years, and therefore how much they had to raise, and therefore on how much dilution they had to take.
All things being equal, startups with big ambitions that don’t have access to limitless VC financing often optimize first around “good” as “fast and cheap” is otherwise limited to  companies with either scale or very skinny cost structures.  If you’re a startup going for fast and cheap, that’s great – then you need to limit your expenses anywhere you can.  If you’re going for “good”, also great.  Then the question is: do you want to be good and fast, or good and cheap.  Either one works.
But all 3 together – that can’t last long.

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.

Skinny G/Ls

Because I work in build stage companies, and often early ones at that, the general ledger (G/L) system I encounter the most is Quickbooks Online.  Often one of the first questions I get is whether we need to make a change to a more robust system.  Always my answer is no.

My philosophy on this is that until a company is much bigger, having an accounting system that knows all isn’t worth the workflow change, the financial investment, and the upfront systems hassle.  Quickbooks Online (QBO) is fine.  It’s not great — but it’s fine.  It does the basics and has the benefit of having tens of thousands of qualified people who know how to use it.

What I would rather do is invest in smart systems around it that do their functions well, and integrate with it.  This can be A/P (bill.com), ERP-lite (Fishbowl), payroll systems (any of them), expense management (Expensify), cap table management (eShares, Carta), sales tax (Avalara), and on and on.

If a build-stage company is going to invest in systems, it probably should be in optimizing Salesforce.  Or if it’s an e-commerce company, better to get your Shopify instance really singing.  Building a sole source of truth about all things customer is way more important than implementing an expensive G/L system.

I’m a believer in keeping the G/L’s functions limited.  I use it for management and Board reporting and as a transaction repository.  That’s it.  For anything else, there is a better system out there and most are not expensive either.

I’ve seen $50M software businesses backed by some of the most sophisticated venture investors in the world run their businesses and do their reporting based on QBO.  If they can do it, I figure I can too.

The Series A Culture Problem

I had lunch yesterday with a COO who I respect at a business that I think has legs.  He was telling me that they are within days of closing a large Series A.  Almost immediately, I felt a little sorry for him.  Not because his investors are problematic or because the dilution is substantial (respectively — they probably aren’t, and yikes), but because the young, scrappy and hungry place he works probably is about to change.

I’ve seen this movie before.  I once took over as CFO of a once-bootstrapped software startup that immediately after its large Series A proceeded to (a) dramatically upgrade its office space and furniture, (b) buy brand-new computers for everyone, (c) hire a bunch of engineers in under 30 days and (d) start flying business class.  Another company had hired a suite of C-level people despite having only a tiny business to manage (and they all got C-level titles).  Still another decided that they’d run a lot of expensive marketing promotions without really knowing how to test them.

Another decided to spend on a tradeshow booth whose one-time cost made me gasp and had no possible ROI justification.  But they wanted to show their new investors that they were putting their money to work.

It reminds of what Richard Dreyfuss said about his rocketing to superstardom at a young age after Jaws: “too soon”.

Beware the Series A culture problem, where a sudden influx of money turns the oxygen thin (related problem: “ping-pong” conundrum, where a table is a signal that a startup is very focused on culture, and not so much on work.)  It creates a lot of headaches if you’re not aware of it.

My advice: run for at least 30 days as if there had been no Series A.  By all means, clear some payables, and make the job offers you’ve been hanging onto just in case the round doesn’t come together, and if you need to true up people who are below market, go ahead.  Other than that, try to hang on.  Run the business.  And, make sure everyone is aligned on the fact that it’s still a startup where the demands on the company’s resources still greatly outstrips the supply.