The route to transitioning from “Big 4” accounting to early startups is not always a natural transition, but for that exact reason–and more–Melinda Smith is one of the most unique CFOs we’ve had on the podcast.
She demonstrates how to best leverage practical, financial, and technical skills into emerging firms like she has done in the past at now-massive companies like Venmo.
On this episode of The Modern CFO, Melinda shares her insights on driving culture, building a strong finance team, and what it means to be a custodian while raising venture dollars.
5:21 – Your team is your foundation
While most CFOs are thought of as the public face of the finance team, they are also an extension of the firm's culture and mission. At startups, CFOs tackle some of the most important functions in the company, including hiring."
“I think, from a leadership perspective, building the team is one of the most critical things in an early-stage business. It's also true of a finance team inside of an early-stage business. Rapidly realizing that the experience matters of people you bring onto your team, the training matters for building and growing your team. It's the energy as a leader that you put behind building the business–building something, partnering with the team, and providing those operational insights and the custodian of where that investment is going–that really helps motivate and drive and, ultimately, retain a great finance team.”
6:18 – Drive the culture of your startup
As CFO, you are a key driver of the company’s culture, especially in the early days. Make sure you are in alignment with what the founders and CEO want that culture to be.
“In my experience, I've found that the CFO at an early-stage company has a lot of responsibility for some of the more traditional human resources functions. I have been in a role where I have some HR support, but I am also driving a lot around the culture. I think it's really important to be true to the founders and the CEO to some respect–maybe the founder/CEO and how they want to drive the culture of the business–but ultimately in a startup, you just have naturally that energy of a team and the passion of a founder that you can get behind.”
12:42 – Timing is important
In a young organization, timing is everything. Each business has a different trajectory, so you can’t rush the growth process.
“The experience that I have gives me a good perspective on where we can be looking to partner with certain organizations–to really build that value towards an exit, or just generally thinking about each business uniquely. I think each business has a different trajectory and there's honestly a little bit of luck and timing that goes into when a founder's coming to market. There are businesses that can be incredibly efficient with their funding. They are right on the timing to build that value and they perhaps grow very quickly, but I think in the normal and more usual case it is more of that longer timeframe to incremental progress, building value over time, taking 10 customers that you have when you first start, figuring out how to build that into a hundred customers, figuring out what that timeline is really going to look like uniquely to your business for the sales cycle and all the other metrics that go into determining how fast your company is ultimately going to grow and achieve that exit.”
16:16 – Becoming a custodian of your funding
Your role as CFO is to be a custodian over the company’s funding. You need to determine how much to bring in, and what to do with the funding once you’ve secured it.
“One of the interesting things I see in the environment we're in today is companies that are raising these gigantic rounds of funding. I do think that there is a role of a CFO to help the team determine how much is the right funding to bring on and balancing that with the dilution that you're taking on in the business. And how confident you are in what you see as the data points towards your growth rate, that supports that valuation at the end of the day. I think there's a propensity, potentially, to take this big amount of money and then have trouble being responsible, I guess, about where to invest that money. That ties back to my view of this custodian of the funding and how do you invest every dollar to drive at least a dollar of value, so that effectively you're turning that dilution that you took from selling equity in your business down to zero.”
18:53 – Women in technology
The best way for a woman in technology to succeed is with the right support resources. As society shifts to a less traditional work culture, that support is easier to come by.
“I think that some of the quality of women in the workplace is fundamentally dependent on this concept of having the right resources to support them in that journey. Whether it means flexibility for a two-job family to split up everything that needs to be done in a day; whether it means splitting up childcare drop-offs in the morning or in the evening, or heading to the soccer field for a four o'clock varsity soccer game, then getting back to finishing up your email when you get home after dinner; spending time together as a family; cooking on Sunday afternoons so that you have food to reheat during the week for dinner. I think employers fundamentally need to realize that those old days of a single breadwinner dedicating nine to five in-person in an office are long gone. I think the interesting part about today's world is that COVID has accelerated this flexibility for families and for that two-career household where it’s a lot easier now when you're working from home, at least for people who have the opportunity to work from home, to really split up that flexibility. And I'm hopeful that that's going to drive more opportunity for women and that support structure that they need to accelerate their careers.”
20:47 – Scaling for both company and investor value
As you lead up to a new round of fundraising, it’s important to build up as much value into the business as you can.
“In the next 12 months, we are working towards our next fundraising, so it's all about building as much value in the business this year as we can leading up to that fundraising round. We're really laser-focused on identifying that repeatable business model where our ideal customer profile is focused and how we can also look towards building the right team, spending a lot of time on the hiring process, and this environment right now, especially for hiring engineers, I know lots of your listeners out there probably have the same challenges we have.”
21:44 – Building a diverse team in 2022
The best and most effective teams are the ones that have a commitment to diversity, so be intentional about building a diverse team.
“I'm a big believer in building a diverse team. The best teams and the most effective teams come from a commitment to diversity, which is also increasingly hard in this COVID environment to find workers who are now demanding that they can live in dispersed locations with flexible working schedules. So really focused on building the team. And then ultimately it's building the top line. A lot of what I spend time doing these days internally is being that data-driven advocate for where those proof points are working in terms of marketing campaigns that are driving the best qualified opportunities, moving those down the funnel into sales accepted opportunities. And then ultimately, what is the velocity that I can forecast for how the growth of the business is going to support our next fundraising?”
23:55 – Keep your culture consistent
With a dispersed workforce, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of unity and culture. Work to keep your culture consistent, whether that means regular Zoom meetings or other check-ins.
“We also do have a fairly dispersed workforce. We have some folks in the UK, and we also have a bunch of locations now in the U.S., and so to your point, Andrew, it's really difficult to keep that culture moving. Some of the things that we're doing–we have town hall meetings over Zoom every other week. That's been a big part of building the culture of the business given the realities that we live in today with everybody on Zoom. We hold these town hall meetings, and Thomas Hazel, who's our CTO, is also quite the character and he likes to open up our town hall meetings with some kind of fun activity. We then spend a lot of time making sure that we're connecting our business wins in those meetings so that the entire employee base can understand how the business is progressing, and really building that excitement coming from that passion that our founder has in the business.”
28:28 – Put in the work
At the end of the day, CFOs need to put in the work to partner with the other leaders and learn as much as they can about the operational aspects of the business.
“I think a lot of what I've learned has been rolling up your sleeves and putting forth a partnership with all of the other leaders, trying to learn as much as you can about operational aspects of the business, and being a driver of that data analysis internally. Not only does the CFO have to worry about more of the mundane accounting, traditional flows of quote to cash, procure to pay, and things like that, but the value of that first CFO role is learning as much as you can about the operational aspects of the business and how you can drive whatever data elements you can out of early learnings, especially in that early stage mode. Learning from every data point you can is really going to help you become a better custodian of where to invest and help those leaders direct that funding.”