It all comes down to data, says Martin Chee, CFO of accounting integrations company Amaka.
Everywhere you go, every transaction you put through generates data.
In our data-driven world, people are becoming increasingly aware of the implications and value of that data. And that’s why Martin and his company have been disrupting the way businesses all over the world capture data — making it not only more accessible, but more useful.
No one likes tedious data entry and double-checking numbers.
And certainly, no one likes doing it more than once.
That’s the problem Martin Chee noticed in his work as a public practice accountant.
“The process around the exchange of financial information was really, really clunky,” he says.
Take applying for a business loan from a bank, for example.
“You need to provide the business’s financials and a whole host of other documents and information,” Martin explains.
While certain aspects of financial information are more automated — like credit score and credit history — there was no system for automating the specific financials of the business. What banks used instead was an “antiquated, deeply inefficient manual system,” says Martin.
“You would email them a PDF — or worse — you’d hand deliver documents to them, and then they'd give it to someone else. And they’d be keying in the numbers into this piece of software, which would then spit out a result.”
The process was not only time-consuming, but it was also very prone to errors, says Martin.
What if there was a way to “liberate” that data, thought Martin.
“One of the phrases we throw around the office is ‘data liberation,’” says Martin. “As a business owner, you have all this information there but it’s just not always easily accessible.”
Take a point of sale purchase for example. There’s the date. The time of the sale. The cashier. The item sold. How much it costs. Any discounts that were applied.
How can you capture that data in a way that it’s not only useful when you make the sale, but also when you want to order inventory, schedule staff, or review revenue?
Because each of those tasks takes place in different software or systems, it’s a complex challenge, says Martin.
“Every system has their own API. They use their own terminology. Sometimes values are created differently,” Martin describes. “It's got so many variables around it. That is the biggest and most challenging problem that we've had to solve.”
But solve it, they did — with Amaka.
“We put a lot of work into architecting something that made it really easy to understand the same information, but in different systems.”
When you can access your data and use it across your systems, you eliminate tedious and repetitive work. But Martin wants to take it one step further.
“The system will already prompt the user for different data points they should pay attention to,” he says. “The next evolution is offering the user actionable steps to take.”
Kinda like having a virtual CFO process your data, then analyze it and make decisions based on it.
For example, say the data shows that Wednesdays are low-volume sales days. The tool may recommend reducing Wednesday’s staffing hours by taking one person off their shift that day. Or it may suggest offering a discount code to boost customer interest that day.
“That’s the next step of where we want to take the product,” Martin says.
Just because you can access the data, however, doesn’t mean you should share it, says Martin.
Leaders of a company, in particular, have access to data about the company’s strengths...and its weaknesses. How much of that should they share with the employees?
There’s no one right answer, says Martin.
“You have to really understand the impact of that information,” says Martin. “Is it potentially damaging to their focus? Maybe it introduces a degree of uncertainty which wasn't there before and has some other ramifications.”
Once you expose an employee to that, says Martin, “it can deeply and profoundly change the way that they see things or the way that they approach their work.”
“Not that you necessarily want to limit the exposure to information generally,” he qualifies. “It’s a really important element to keep in mind.”
This is something the CFO in particular can struggle with.
“You know, you're always collecting a lot of information and looking at a lot of data,” says Martin. “Making the call on how and when you expose that to people has this really human aspect to it.”
As a CFO and a data-and-numbers person, Martin is not easily overcome with emotions — at least not as it relates to business.
Martin recalls a conversation he heard between a cricket player and an interviewee. When asked why he doesn’t celebrate when he scores 100, the cricketer responded: “If I celebrate the highs and indulge the lows, I feel like that affects the focus I have on the pitch.”
This is a guiding philosophy in Martin's life.
He’s the even-keeled voice in the company, providing the “sober opinion and perspective” that keeps everyone grounded during the highs and the lows.
“My CEO, he's much more overt in the exuberance and celebrating the wins,” says Martin. “That's really important for the rest of the team. We need to be able to celebrate our wins when they happen.”
But at the same time, a potential loss could be just around the corner, says Martin. That’s why he avoids getting caught up in the emotion and just sticks to the facts as they are — “without being a wet blanket, of course.”
Controlling that emotion and focusing on the goals is what helped Amaka keep going strong in a particularly tumultuous year.
“We're always in this really heavy product development phase,” says Martin. “We’ve never not had enough work to do. But last year was definitely tough.”
With the pandemic dispersing the team to their homes — and many contending with childcare responsibilities on top of their workload — it was hard to get all the work done. Not to mention the economic blow to investors and customers across the globe.
“We really just had to stay positive and knuckle down,” says Martin.
The pandemic will be over one day, they believed, so in the meantime, they need to just keep their heads down and get to work.
“We had a full schedule of work to get through. We just kind of knuckled down and focused on that — rather than looking at the things that were happening, which were outside of our control anyway.”
What also helped was coming into the pandemic ahead — at least when it came to remote work.
“We were already a fairly flexible, remote-style startup,” Martin describes.
Even before social distancing became a ubiquitous part of the lexicon — and the business day — Amaka had already worked out the kinks with remote work and bridging time differences.
“We were quite dispersed geographically,” says Martin. “A great portion of the development team is in Poland, our support is out of the Philippines, and we have the development team over here in Australia as well. So we had already addressed a lot of those challenges about how to effectively communicate given all of those variables.”
Thanks to COVID-19, Martin’s been spending more time with his kids — and he’s enjoying it. But when he does get the chance to go into the office, Martin jumps on it.
“It's very important to have some segregation where you can go, ‘Yep, I'm in business mode now,’” says Martin. “Sometimes I just need to be able to focus on those kinds of problems that require 100 percent of your attention.”
Still parenting, he feels, has sharpened the skills he’s needed to call on leading a startup: multitasking, keeping a level head and, again, that essential ability to leave emotions off the table.
“In the startup world, it’s incredibly challenging and everyday is different,” he explains. “You’re definitely the recipient of pressure from a lot of different angles, whether it’s investors or business partners or employees, potential customers, existing customers. There’s always some fire you have to deal with.”
Since he has so much practice managing his kids, he feels empowered to manage his company. For either one, “you have to develop a hell of a lot of patience,” Martin says.