Sell it to Yourself

This meeting invite is real – no kidding…

I once took a red-eye flight to Israel to help manage an audit of a software company where I was CFO that was technically based there.  We sat in a windowless conference room for many hours.  In case you are under the impression that this something you would like to do to yourself – believe me, it’s not.  I wasn’t afraid that I would die in that room.  I feared that I might live and have to do it again the next day.

Somehow I came all the way around and instead tried to act like it was the most fun thing I had ever done in my life.  With that, some good humor from the partners from the Tel Aviv office from Deloitte, and a lot of coffee, we got through it somehow (and my company did fine in the audit, too).

This technique really worked for me and I find myself going back to it all the time.  When dealing with insurance and worker’s comp reviews.  In prepping analysis for the investor who just can’t seem to get enough of it.  In re-jigging a chart of accounts, which can happen quite a bit in a build-stage company that is constantly pivoting. 

If you fake that it’s fun, eventually you can (almost) make it so. The term for this was once “grasp the nettle”.

I think it’s rubbing off on people I work with.  The above was a screen shot of a meeting invite I just received for an hour-long session sure to be a brain twister as we figure out some inventory ordering and accounting issues.

As a TechCXO partner of mine often says, “life is a sales call”. Not everything in startups is glamorous – so sometimes, you have to sell it to yourself.

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.

Less is more: simple spreadsheets

Recently I created 2 very simple spreadsheets to show and solicit feedback on monthly business results from 2 of the management teams I work with.  My accounting team (which for these 2 companies includes the same remote, part-time controller) puts together great, detailed, multi-tab workbooks that are sophisticated closing packages that are perfect for me to dive deep into every detailed account.  Since I manage cash tightly, this is crucial as I examine, for example, many of the balance sheet items.

For my audience in build-stage companies, this proved less useful.  Typically what you want there is to balance transparency and accountability with a digestible level of information that helps manage more effectively.  Until recently in both situations, I think the balance was off.

It turns out that creating a simple spreadsheet is a lot more work than a complicated one.  You have to make conscious decisions about what information is truly relevant, how to format it for easy consumption, and how you want the management team to use it to make operational decisions in fluid environments.  This is an important part of what a build-stage CFO does and I think I’m improving at this.

COVID and Toothpaste

There’s a common phrase that “you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube”.  Or, you can’t put a genie back in the bottle (although how would they know?).  You hear this often about trends in business, and this time is no exception. But maybe this time really is different. We’ve been forced to run a lot of experiments that no one would have signed up for willingly. As a result, the toothpaste is out of the tube on a number of business trends. I’m seeing these in my companies and personal life and I don’t think we’re going back.

  • Working from home – this is not an option for everyone and doesn’t work as well for large in-person brainstorming sessions. However, the days of companies organizing around large downtown offices where everyone comes to work every day are over. Why lose hours every day of productive time commuting to a desk where you’re going to work on what you could have done at home anyway? This is a bit of an Industrial Revolution holdover. The implications for large downtowns are mind-boggling. I’ve worked somewhat/mostly from home for a long time and gotten to watch my kids grow up as a result.
  • (Most) companies being in it together – I work with multiple companies that have needed help from landlords and other key suppliers. Most have recognized that if we go under, it does them no good, and that helping us is good business for them. The companies I work in have done what they can for their customers, employees and other stakeholders. Not all – but in 2009, I think it was none. HBR wrote a piece about this last fall. This accelerating trend will change how companies deal with one another when things go wrong.
  • Business performing public roles – the PPP program, in effect, was designed to help companies “keep” employees even if there wasn’t much business to attend to. But if you think about this, this doesn’t make much sense.  It only happened this way because (a) companies are where most people get their health insurance and (b) the unemployment insurance system in America was designed in 1938 and not up to the modern challenge of paying millions of people short-term benefits. In almost every other society, business isn’t asked to perform these roles. In ours, it was. The fact that companies have to do this is going to change the relationship between companies and government, and companies and their employees, in ways we can’t quite see yet.

There are many others, but I thought I would start with a few. We’re in the 1st inning of this thing and there will be plenty of time to identify and track others.

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.

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.

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.

Re-trading the job offer

In many of the companies I work with, I sign candidate offer letters.  This isn’t always something a CFO does, but if possible, I prefer that I (or the CEO) am the final check on this particular business process.  One obvious reason is that I know what’s in the budget for a given position.  One less obvious one is someone with a touch of OCD will find errors – incorrect years, language from an old template that doesn’t belong in this particular letter – that someone else might not.
Another reason is that recently for somewhat junior positions, I am seeing a lot of negotiating by candidates who have received a verbal offer, accepted it, and now wants to re-trade.  It’s hard for a hiring manager to resist this.  With rare exceptions, I always do.
A candidate who has accepted verbally a salary of $100, but then when they get the letter and ask for $105, is setting him or herself up for failure.  He’s now signaled that either (a) everything is going to be a negotiation, (b) I can’t necessarily trust him to keep commitments or (c) my offer is the stalking horse for another one.  In my experience, most often it is (c), but (a) and (b) do also come into play.
I have sales managers tell me that this is just someone who is valuable in the market negotiating hard for themselves.  I don’t see it that way.  Maybe I am biased because credibility is my only product.  In my view, once the parties agree, a negotiation is done.  If someone really is a superstar, we’re going to find that out and likely make an adjustment upward anyway.  Or if they have variable comp, they’re going to crush their numbers anyway so the base salary doesn’t really matter.  Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to adjust down.
Because I work with build stage companies, the hiring managers often are young and haven’t had the scars yet of candidates re-trading their job offers because what they really want is more money to stay where they are. My advice is to resist.

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:.

Payroll

I had a TechCXO partner meeting last week.  I always learn a lot at these and this session was no exception.

One of my colleagues who is a long-time CFO told us about a rule he had in his companies about people who see payroll data.  Which is: you cannot get another job here that doesn’t involve payroll.  Once you see how much everyone makes, you either stay in that role, or you have to leave the company.

This seemed extreme when I first heard it.  But the more I consider it, the more sense it makes.

In truth, many build stage companies trust this extremely confidential information in the hands of office managers who double as the people who “do” HR, which includes running payroll.  Few of these people have bad intentions.  Many are inexperienced.  And not many things blow up culture faster than exposing this information in the wrong way.   Once that toothpaste is out, you cannot put it back in the tube, and it is very difficult to clean up.

So, today I plan to have a reminder conversation with everyone who works with me and handles payroll data.  Not because I don’t trust them – mostly because once you’ve seen this information a thousand times, you can lose sight of how sensitive it really is and how important it is to keep it confidential.

On a related note – another build-stage company payroll risk I frequently see is the “single press of a button” problem.  Meaning, one person can both enter payroll and submit it without an approval step.  I understand why this is tempting in the early stages, and yet: it is a really terrible idea.  (The same goes for bill pay and especially wires, by the way).

Systems like TriNet and ADP actually make it hard to do an approval step in their PEO implementations, which I don’t really understand.  That said – always put in a second pair of eyes on this.  That pair of eyes too is probably bound by the same rule that my partner puts in place: once you see payroll, you can never go back.