Financial Operations as a Growth Catalyst
Oct 13, 2023
Below are summary highlights from a live event with finance leaders organized by Upflow and NetSuite on October 5th, 2023 in Paris, France.
“The goal is not to do reporting for the sake of reporting, but use it to enable your teams to drive strategic business conversations.”
— Alexandre Antoine (2C Finance)
How do you raise the finance function into a business partner and growth catalyst for other teams?
To shed light on this topic, we recently hosted a panel of next-level finance leaders to share their expert insights. Our speakers included: Grégory Desmaretz, CFO & VP Sales Ops from JobTeaser; Alexandre Antoine, CFO from 2C Finance, Antoine Hue, Pre-Sales Solution Consulting Manager from NetSuite and our very own Alex Louisy, Co-founder & CEO at Upflow.
Together, they discussed and shared insightful practical lessons on transforming your business's financial operations. At the core of the session, they explored how modernizing your financial tool stack and processes can unlock strategic finance.
Why is that? Because, with a solid foundation of trust in core financial data and the automation of low-value tasks, finance teams can shift their focus to what truly matters:
Supporting and anticipating your company’s growth.
Evolving your financial stack to meet new needs.
Providing strategic insights and recommendations.
In this article, we provide key insights and practical lessons to help your business unlock strategic finance. Let’s get into it.
Principles for designing your finance stack.
Just like any tool, your finance stack should help you solve important problems for your business. The first step? Identify the need — Why is it an important problem to solve? Prioritize it against other needs, and spell out the success criteria for each initiative. Only then determine if an existing tool or a new one can help you accomplish these goals.
When you're starting from scratch, as Grégory did at JobTeaser just after the Series A in 2015, your top priority is repaying existing operational debt. In practice, this often entails transitioning processes from manual emails and spreadsheets to dedicated software. The goal should be to automate low-value-added tasks, like administrative work. For example, Gregory implemented Lucca for HR management to move away from sifting through infinite email threads.
Fortunately, innovation in the Finance and HR tools sector has been rapidly gaining momentum in recent years with a flurry of much-needed specialized tools. Having said that, watch out to not over-tool your stack. Remember that every tool should help solve a need. When selecting a tool, don’t neglect:
the ability to integrate the tool with the rest of your stack.
the change management, training, and associated maintenance costs.
As your business expands, the user base of your financial stack will extend beyond the finance team. If you or they are unprepared or lack proper enablement, it can lead to inevitable headaches, frustration, and more operational debt.
How do you avoid this? Project your current needs and stack to the mid to long-term future. Steer clear of overengineering your solutions or thinking too far ahead. A good timeframe is generally two to three years. The objective here is to remain agile and flexible in adding or removing parts of your stack to reflect your needs as you grow or encounter hurdles.
“You have no idea where you will be in 5-6 years. If you try to control what you cannot control, and your teams are not mature enough, you will fail.”
—Grégory Desmaretz (JobTeaser)
A good rule of thumb is to aim to remove one tool when you add one. It's also advisable to periodically review tool usage. As observed by Alexandre at 2C Finance in most companies he has worked for, many stacks show a utilization rate of approximately 50% for tools with similar capabilities, with some used at only 10% capacity.
Now, in practice, this can be fairly complex. It's alright to be somewhat ahead of the curve if your business model follows a predetermined growth trajectory. For instance, at JobTeaser it was clear that the sales team would have to expand four- or fivefold after series A, which is why the team implemented Salesforce as a CRM right from the start.
In any case, your objective should be to stay value-driven in your decision-making process, taking into account both the direct ROI and second or third-order impact. Paying $20k per year for software is not “expensive” if this means freeing up 30% of the time of 2 FTEs, guaranteeing a much higher data quality that makes reporting faster and builds trust with other teams.
In a nutshell, the guiding principles to build a robust and agile stack are:
Implement tools that address immediate needs rather than future uncertainties.
Avoid over-tooling and consider the maturity of teams when introducing cross-functional tools and processes.
Continuously reassess your stack to ensure it remains relevant and efficient.
Focus on automating mundane/admin/reporting tasks to invest your team’s time in value-added initiatives.
Why, when, and how to evolve your financial tool stack?
As with many things, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Determining when to upgrade different components of your stack and the order in which to do so can be a challenging process. As Alexandre has experienced at 2C Finance, it boils down to priorities and criticality related to your specific business model. For example, in the SaaS industry, billing takes precedence due to recurring volumes, discounts, upsells, and downsells. Once again, implement what aligns with your scale and the maturity stage of your team.
Throughout your company’s growth journey, there will be a mix of internal and external factors that will require your financial stack to evolve. These factors may include launching new product lines, expanding into new geographies, increasing your workforce and teams, and the associated needs such as compliance, audits, and legal requirements.
As your business expands both in size and speed, the need to mitigate risks within your financial stack becomes increasingly vital to ensure you can effectively support the growing demands. Over time, Enterprise Resource Planning software (ERP) becomes a key component of the stack, acting as your “business database” and aggregating inputs from your various teams and other tools in the stack.
When should you look into them? As always you’ll want to consider ERPs when they can solve current problems or foreseeable challenges in the near future. Avoid succumbing to “hype factors”. For companies raising funds, post-series B is a typical a good moment to act.
This is precisely why JobTeaser decided to implement NetSuite as their Enterprise Resource Planning software (ERP) as they neared 300 people in the company. For instance, in the case of purchasing processes, they faced challenges such as not knowing who had granted approval for payables and lacking a real-time view of operating expenses
Another typical use case is when your company starts internationalizing. In such situations, you’ll likely need to operate two distinct accounting systems under one roof, often involving intra-company transactions and stringent audit trail requirements.
It’s recommended to privilege native integrations in your stack. Why? As you grow and your stack along with it, it will be key to generate accurate, near-live data. This allows your finance team to start forecasting and anticipating the future of your business instead of reporting on the past.
Speaking a common language with other teams and unlocking fast decision-making is the catalyst to finance teams being perceived as strategic business partners instead as a simple support function.
“Today if our VP Sales wants to run a $20k incentive program on new deals across the team, the FP&A team can produce an answer within 24 hours because we have a near real-time view on budget and expenses in NetSuite. That’s a concrete example of how we can impact business growth.”
—Grégory Desmaretz (JobTeaser)
Finally, adapting your stack and maintaining agility in introducing or phasing out tools is a strategic part of their jobs, and avoid working in frustrating technical environments. In fact, some people may not want to work in a business without a specific CRM or ERP. Why? Because a rusty stack signals growth hurdles for both their personal development and the future of the company.
In a nutshell, the guiding principles to evolve your financial stack over time are:
Take on 1 at a time, avoid growing your stack all at once.
Prepare detailed phase-in and phase-out plans, and involve other teams.
Don’t be afraid to kill tools that don’t fit anymore.
Align your stack to your company’s 2 to 3-year objectives.
From reporting to strategic insights and recommendations.
Reporting should not be siloed or a simple box to be ticked. Rather, it’s vital information used to influence strategic business decisions. A healthy financial stack allows your team to efficiently generate accurate foundational data.
For most software and service companies the P&L is quite simple. Cash reporting is typically where you want to focus your energy. This is particularly relevant for startups and scale-ups, where approximately two-thirds of the cash expenses typically go toward salaries and other software-related costs.
“Most reporting is backwards-looking, except cash — you have to be on top of it with a clear picture minimum 6 months into the future and be able to run ‘what-if’ scenario analyses.”
—Antoine Hue (NetSuite)
The two key elements you should always have a clear view of are:
Outflow = hiring plan.
Inflow = cash conversion of revenues.
At the end of the day, your reporting goals should be to help your teams extract meaning from the numbers and from them derive action items. It’s about making it easy for every team to interact with reports in order to build impactful stories.
How do you get this started? You’ll want to design backwards, and start from the actual job to be done: finding the KPIs you want to track encourages you to organize and sanitize your source data and obtain more granularity. The results? It will enable you and your team to free themselves to focus their efforts elsewhere when they can drive a higher impact thanks to the improved overall quality of the stack.
Consider both the direct and indirect implications of the numbers and empower your team to ask follow-up questions like "So what?" This is how you can establish the finance function as a crucial partner in the strategic decision-making processes.
For example, at JobTeaser, Gregory bridged the gap with the Sales team. They relied on Salesforce as the source of truth for bookings, ensuring a shared language and aligning financial expectations with actual results. Without it they could have faced inconsistencies or found holes in the cash model which left undressed could signify the downfall of a business.
Just like building a house to endure any storm, your business and finance teams must lay solid foundations. Prioritize the fundamentals. While reporting for fund-seeking or external stakeholders is necessary, it should not be where you spend the bulk of your time. Why? To ensure your business not only survives but thrives and remains resilient, it needs direction. This direction is derived from the internal awareness and communication facilitated by effective reporting. Determine who requires access to specific data and be open to generating separate reports tailored for distinct purposes.
Separate your financial reporting (for external audit) from your operational reporting (for internal decision-making).
Model out “bear”, “bull” and “base” case scenarios everywhere possible. Run “what-if” analyses by playing with major operating assumptions.
Extract meaning from key performance indicators: what is the story playing out? what are the 2nd and 3rd order consequences?