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.

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 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.