2 kinds of people, analyst edition

In an earlier post, I suggested that there are 2 kinds of people in business, those who have the money and those who need the money. I stand by this oversimplification. To it, I added another about accounting people vs. finance people.  I stand by this one too.

Let me add another: analysts and operators.

Generally, operators make things happen in the present, and analysts look at the past in an effort to predict the future.  Analysts often say they are really “operators at heart”, which might be true, but they almost never are operators in practice.  Operators know how to get sales comp plans published, manage a hiring funnel, place ads on the MBTA, use LTV/CAC to make marketing decisions today, implement a travel policy, blow out a pipeline to make a quarter when it’s desperately needed, perfect a cash conversion cycle, time product introductions, make a hire when no one else can recruit… you name it.

Analysts can’t do many of these things.  What they can do is look at a dizzying array of data on the business and figure out what is really going on, and what that suggests about what might happen in the future.  Most importantly, they how to tell the story, and because they are not in the weeds about, say, comp plans, they can stay big picture and compare the right broad metrics across companies, or industries.  The part they play is not more important – but as a company gets bigger, it becomes at least as important.  It is challenging to be a very effective operator and a good analyst at the same time.

Over a drink many years ago, a colleague I respect suggested that I had to choose between being an analyst (which I think I was then) and an operator (which I think I am now).  I like to work with build stage companies where making things happen is valued over broad-based analytics, so this suits me well.  In raising money, you need just enough analyst so that you can point to broad metrics, but much of attracting and closing captial is about managing a process and a pipeline.  I still have some of this DNA as well even if I don’t work these muscles as often as I could.

In a few of the companies I work with, I collaborate with Board members or advisors.  In almost all cases, they like to say that they are entrepreneurs or operators at heart.  (Note: maybe they are, but if you’re a venture capitalist and not a founder of your firm, almost by definition you are not an operator.  Self-awareness is important).  The best ones collaborate by providing a view across similar businesses or industries using data that the management team already has.

Put another way: effective (and self-aware) analysts paired with effective (and self-aware) operators make a great combination.

The WeWork ‘Chapter’

I’m starting this blog back up after what I’ll just call a sabbatical.  Much respect for busy professionals who manage to write regularly and work it into their daily/weekly routines.  It is not easy.
Onto the writing…
There have many busted WeWork IPO posts written, many dripping with schadenfreude (look it up).  Adam Neumann may or may not deserve the bad press – it’s hard to know what’s really behind someone’s motivations – but it is pretty striking how quickly the press and investors switched from adulation to tar-and-feather mode.  It reminds me of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.
Mostly, I wanted to write about them because their situation reminds me of the WeWork of the 1990’s: Exodus Communications.
I used to work at Exodus, which was a data center/co-location business back when that was a thing.  It has so much in common with WeWork that I’m surprised more people haven’t drawn the analogy.  Here’s a partial list:
  • A real estate business with long-term capital obligations and short-term client contracts
  • Decidedly *not* a tech company, but valued like one
  • Management making a lot of money through side deals
  • Also decidedly not a marketplace, but tried to present themselves like one
  • Huge debt load
  • Bankers who talked the company and employees into irrational deals (JPMorgan in WeWork’s case, Morgan Stanley in ours)
  • Insane growth (40% quarter over quarter for years) that could only happen by not worrying about running a tight ship – someone wise there told me that 40% QoQ growth meant that of 10 people you met in the hall, 4 just started, 4 had been there less than a year, and of the 2 that were left, only 1 was any good and that’s if you were lucky.  WeWork grew so fast that they had many of the same problems, I’m sure.
I could go on, and maybe I will in a future blog post, but you get the idea.  Exodus has the distinction of being one of the few large public companies to go Chapter 22.  First it went Chapter 11 on its own.  Then Cable and Wireless USA bought them, and they too went Chapter 11.  Then when Savvis bought the assets out of bankruptcy and rationalized the footprint and cost structure, they were able to execute a business with solid return on assets.
Buried within WeWork, there is a business with legs.  The question is how many Chapters, so to speak, have to be written before we find them.

What to include (and leave out) in Board financials

Many a post has been written about rules of thumb for holding effective Board meetings.  People should be present, meaning actually focused on the meeting and not doing other work (this one from Brad Feld at Foundry).   There should be an Executive Session scheduled with plenty of time for it (this one via Fred Wilson of USV).  I’m going to focus in particular how presenting financials can be done in order to maximize value and keep things focused on what is really important.
First of all, whatever you present as the CFO, it needs to be distributed ahead of time, preferably at least 72 hours.  This is one hard and fast rule that I try not to violate whenever possible.  There is nothing worse as the CFO than numbers that go out the night before an 8am meeting.  It’s not just Board members that hate this.  It invites scrutiny and questions, and is a signal – I am big on signaling – that management doesn’t quite have its act together.
What should be in the package?  Here are the things I minimally include in businesses that have a meaningful monthly cadence – which most build stage companies do.  For some it’s weekly; an example is an app where week-over-week growth is a meaningful metric.
  • Last month’s P&L vs. original forecast, and YTD vs. forecast
  • Last month’s P&L vs. prior month – dollars view
  • Last month’s P&L vs. prior month – unit economics view (meaning, take your P&L, and divide everything by the unit that’s most important in your business.  Could be square feet, available days for appointments, hours sold, hats – you name it)
  • Meaningful YoY stats by product line, location, or some other way to give investors an idea of where growth is (or is not coming from)
  • Headcount summary – by department, where are we against plan?  For many startups, this is where cash either gets burned (hiring too fast) or revenue growth is thwarted (because you can’t find the right head of marketing and while this saves you money in the short run, it means you are not driving top line in the medium-term)
  • Rolling forecast vs. original projection – meaning, if I re-forecast the business for the rest of the year (which you should be doing on an almost constant basis), where am I going to end up
  • Cash projection
If you have these ready to go 3 days ahead of time in well-formatted slides with pithy color commentary, you’ll serve everyone well.  You might need to add a few more based the particular business that you’re in, but this should get everyone grounded in the results and communicate how things are going.  Investors will have the opportunity to look through the numbers and draw some initial conclusions, which will make the financials review section of the meeting much smoother.
Your goal as the CFO is to let the strategic discussion take center stage and let the numbers support that discussion.
Caveat: sometimes you will have Board members/observers who do not read numbers early no matter how early you provide them, and are going to ask nitpick questions about one obscure figure that you know is not vital to anything.  Take a deep breath and go with it.  It’s not constructive behavior, and with any luck, the other Board members will talk to this person offline about expectations.  Your role is to set them high, and keep them there.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Who CFO’s report to

Not long ago I had a Board member of a company where I am the CFO inform me that I work for the Board, not for the CEO.  My impression is that it’s somewhat more common in larger companies to have the CFO report to both the Board (in particular, to the head of the Audit Committee) and the CEO.  I think it’s rare in build-stage businesses.

I am not a fan of this kind of reporting either.  I think the CFO should report to the CEO and only the CEO, full stop.

First of all, I am a believer that in a company, there are 2 kinds of people: the CEO and everyone else.  Others can skip the holiday party, not be on the phone with the most important client, ignore unflattering press mentions, not attend Board meetings.  The CEO cannot do any of these things.  Their jobs are demanding in a way that no others are.  So, they need to trust their teams implicitly.  It is much more difficult to do this when reporting structures are unclear.

Relatedly, the CFO role is challenging for a number of reasons I’ve outlined in other posts.  For one: you’re often held responsible for the numbers but don’t sell, develop products, handle customer service or make ad buy decisions.  It’s hard enough without serving 2 masters.  I have been in situations before where Board members, usually inexperienced ones, will approach the CFO to provide numbers to them without letting the CEO know.  I have made this mistake before and will never do it again.  The damage this does to trust all around is not worth the seeming expediency of getting certain information.  Transparency and trust are everything.

In a similar vein, I want members of my team to feel like they work for me.  There is formal reporting and there is how it feels, which are not always the same.

When they have a question, CEOs frequently go directly to the person with the answer.  I give them a lot of latitude to do this, because as mentioned above, their jobs are hard enough (see above).  However, when this inevitably happens with someone in the G&A structure, I’d hope that they would let me know, and the CEO would know that they were going to let me know.  It is more difficult to insist on this as CFO when your own reporting structure is vague.

In some cases, the investors in my companies have wanted to make a change at CEO and involve me in the process without letting him (it’s been a “him” each time) know.  This is  governance at its worst and I will never do this.  My response is always that if they are looking for a CEO exit and want my help during a transition, operationally or otherwise, first make the change and then we’ll discuss how I can help.  Until then, I work for the CEO and that’s it.  Under no circumstances do I ever want a CEO looking over their shoulder at the CFO wondering what he and the Board are up to.  Once that trust is violated, it is nearly impossible to get it back.

I’ve been fortunate not to have worked as CFO in companies where the CEO has committed some kind of fraud.  My main deliverable is integrity, so if that’s being violated by doctoring results, I’d probably react badly.  Short of that though, this rule of thumb on reporting has always served me well, and I plan to stick with it.

 

Integrity

A colleague once told me that as CFOs, we don’t really have measurable output. Salespeople have bookings, engineers launch products, marketers drive leads, manufacturing has a whole set of statistics. Our only product is integrity.

This saying is always playing in the back of my head when I’m asked to pull things in a certain direction. Can’t we show that cash will last 18 months instead of 15? Can’t we show that those months where we got rent abatements were profitable? Can we just up the size of a few deals in the pipeline so that it looks a little fatter?

It is difficult to push back against this sometimes. It is also difficult to push back against what you can show is expansion that is way too fast.

This happens all the time, and I mean all the time, in the SaaS world where companies flush with cash feel obligated to spend it as quickly as possible on a much bigger sales and marketing operation. Their investors often want this too. Sometimes growth does not materialize, for which there are usually adequate warning signs (examples – not enough leads per salesperson, salesperson tamp is taking way longer than expected). A good CFO can see this coming a mile away. But there is tremendous pressure not to “be negative”, so many say nothing. Then one day there is a reckoning, and a restructuring. For some CFOs, this is when they too find themselves looking for a new job.

I have left a client over this before, and I’m sure it will happen again. I understand the prsssures in growth build stage companies and consider myself an optimist and someone who helps management teams set stretch goals. We’re not A/P at IBM after all. But I remember always that my only product is integrity.