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.

 

Radical Acceptance

There is a concept in Buddhism called ‘radical acceptance’, where you accept something as it really is without struggling against it. For example: you realize that you are running late for a meeting and further that you can’t do anything about it. The next thing that usually happens is stress, which is a useful input but not particularly helpful. Better to accept that you are going to be late, not worry about something you can’t change, and then act appropriately.

I bring this up in a blog about build stage companies because recently I have seen a lot of struggle against things that would be better accepted. As a CFO, I get a fair amount of ‘can we make the numbers say X?’ I resist this every time because sometimes, accepting that the forecast isn’t that good is the first step in making change. The corollary to this, which I have also seen, is the investor who doesn’t quite believe the numbers and wants to triple-check them because they show less cash, sales or progress than expected. Sometimes the results say that performance isn’t good. Accept it, and then help the team figure out what to do about it.

Often I help manage the HR function. Another example of where startups rarely exhibit radical acceptance is in how they deal with underperforming employees or those who can’t keep up with the role they need to play as the company evolves. Procter and Gamble can survive this. Your build stage startup cannot. It hurts to realize that a member of your team is not working out. This is painful – but pain is a helpful stimulus. What is unhelpful is suffering, which is self-inflicted. Keeping an underperforming member of the team in a critical role – and in build stage companies, every role is critical – causes suffering for everyone.

My apologies to the true Buddhists out there as I’m sure I’ve butchered this teaching somewhat. I accept that.

Accounting and finance people

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, let me add another one about accounting people vs. finance people.

As someone who became a CFO having never been either, this took me some time to figure out.

Accounting is about portraying the past as accurately as possible. Debits and credits. Extreme attention to detail. Process. Tying out pennies. Having the equity roll work exactly a certain way. On average, this attracts a certain personality type: precise, introverted and someone who operates well at ground level. This kind of person is absolutely essential and vital to have in any business and especially one that is growing quickly. They provide the data for the early warning systems. They strive to eliminate ambiguity.

Where I’ve had to adapt is in describing how the output should look and what it all means. I can look at a balance sheet and quickly tell if something doesn’t make sense. Deep in the weeds accountants, even really good ones, most often cannot. Frequently this has frustrated me; when I get a statement that can’t possibly reflect reality, it makes me doubt the accounting that was behind it.

Although sometimes this is right, I’ve had to unlearn this reflex. That’s because this is finance. Finance is about making sense of the results, communicating them, and trying to predict the future. It’s about a lot more than that but this is it at its heart.

Finance people, of which I am one, often lack the patience for accounting. It’s a little more right brain than left. Yes, you need the skills to build a pivot table or a model. First though, you need to know what you are looking for. Ambiguity is your friend. This is the part that CFOs are good at, or should be. That mindset is very different than being particularly OCD about the accounting for stock-based comp.

Over time I have learned to appreciate both and tried to adapt in particular to working with skilled accountants. I respect what they do, and know that I couldn’t do it. I hope that they can appreciate what I do as well.

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.

Time kills deals

I’ve been in the middle of a lot of transactions: fundraisings, M&A, partnerships, and deals within and across divisions of the same business. They all have one thing in common, which is that they are not done until they are done. More and more, hiring is becoming a high-stakes transaction, and it too is a perishable one. Put another way: time kills deals.

It kills me when people celebrate prematurely on deals. So much can go wrong between “almost there” and crossing the finish line. People leave companies. New management or investors can have new priorities. The market can shift. Fashion changes. Employees or other franchisees can do stupid things. Cash becomes more scarce, or if you are the one looking to invest it, the your target company may rethink if they need it. Geopolitics have killed more deals than I can count.

This is why I give transactions very high priority in juggling different clients. If I have one raising money, those phone calls get priority. I sometimes have to juggle a lot of things around for this (it’s one reason I hired an assistant). The others know that when it’s their turn, they’ll get the same treatment. I suggest that when you’re in deal mode, you do the same and insist that your advisors do as well.

Choose your words

Recently I’ve had to get particularly pedantic with a couple of my clients about language. Specifically, how they talk about certain metrics in the business.

A common one things that young companies conflate are bookings and revenue. It’s not just an accounting nuance that they aren’t always the same thing. It’s an important business problem to be solved. My client that sells fashion online? The credit card swipe is nice, but until we ship, it’s not revenue. It’s actually a debt: we owe someone a hat. In the SaaS world this debt is called deferred revenue and it sits on the balance sheet for a long time.

Another is on the opposite side: cancellations and churn. Or for my co-working client, cancellations and move outs. If someone cancels on November 10th, their move out is December 31st. Without getting into which one is more important to track, they are different and tell you different things about the business.

These distinctions matter a lot when you’re looking at unit economics (more on this topic later). Put simply – per widget that I sell, how am I doing? A widget can be a hat, or a square foot, or for a staffing company, an hour. My new client services cars in mobile trailers. Our unit is the trailer (like a store). It makes sense to know how each trailer is doing. But I could argue, and might continue to, that once the trailer exists, it’s the appointments that matter. Optimizing those is the whole ball game.

My point is that this stuff actually matters. Once you choose a unit, it becomes the root word, so to speak, in the language that your team and your investors are speaking.

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.