“When you put the right people in the right places, it can be transformational.”
The ‘Modern CFO’ is many things. They’re a business strategist, strategic advisor, growth leader, and finance wiz – all rolled into one. Today, CFOs are expected to transcend from a traditionally back-office role and be responsible for several critical business decisions. They have a much more significant stake in taking the organization to the next level.
The driving force behind this shift has been the advent of new business models (increasing adoption of recurring revenue models) and access to real-time data, thanks to our ability to build a robust tech stack. So besides compliance and budget forecasting, the finance function is now expected to play a more active role in supporting the organization’s scalability and growth.
So how can finance leaders accelerate decision-making and shape long-term growth strategy while putting in place compliance and reporting infrastructure that allows the books to close on time and for appropriate internal controls?
We bring you insights from a CFO who’s walked the walk, someone who’s worked in the trenches of startups, built out the financial tech stack and processes for mid-size companies, and catapulted businesses into the big leagues.
We spoke to Mike Beach, CFO at Chargebee, whose rich experience ranges from auditing and advising tech companies at EY, to scaling several growth companies and taking a company public and operating for many years in the public markets Mike has spent his 30+ year career helping companies for growth, prepare for the public markets, as well as fundraising and M&A.
The Modern SaaS CFO’s Playbook
The CFO game is not what it was a decade ago. The stakes have been raised, the job description has gotten longer, and the ‘pace of change’ isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Modern CFOs navigate unchartered territories and tackle new challenges effortlessly. It’s a scary-exciting time to be a CFO. How are you feeling?
The Modern CFO wears multiple hats, but what does his wardrobe look like? In a conversation with Mike Beach, we attempt to understand how those roles come into play, how CFOs can incorporate these new responsibilities into their typical day, and what exactly goes into a Modern SaaS CFO’s playbook.
We identified four key levers that modern CFOs should focus on.
Adopting a cross-functional view of the business
With consumers depending on flexibility in consuming products, the shift to the subscription model is becoming more mainstream. In a subscription business, every function in the organization impacts the customer life cycle. The modern CFO has an excellent understanding of the impact of key business drivers and what can influence growth.
Today, a successful CFO works cross-functionally to build a better business by helping the organization make better investment decisions and evaluating the efficiency of initiatives.
More than any other function, finance sees every part of the value chain created. CFOs have access to a holistic end-to-end view of the company’s processes, from customer conversations to back-office operations. Given their vantage point, they can identify operational bottlenecks and work with the respective leaders to convert these insights into action items.
“Finance needs to help other functions be better. I want my team working as partners across the organization and having the organization want our help and seek it out,” says Beach
The big picture view also comes in handy when taking org-wide decisions. Today’s CFOs are no longer fighting for a seat at the table; they’re expected to participate and drive strategic decisions actively. CFOs act as a sounding board for growth strategies and new initiatives within the organization and are expected to analyze whether they make sense from a financial point of view.
“The tone at the top plays a key role in ensuring how well the finance function influences other departments and processes,” says Mike Beach. 86% of CFOs have increased the frequency and scope of collaboration across the C-suite. Building relationships with other business leaders and working with them to understand how finance can improve their processes is a crucial role of the Modern CFO. Working relationships with other departments and regular audits of processes can ensure that risk assessments and compliance efforts are proactive rather than reactive.
Setting up people and processes to support a global strategy
As much as people tend to associate CFOs with cost-cutting and saying no to things, strategic CFOs need to campaign for investments in infrastructure and automation.
CFOs need to conduct an unsparing analysis of the organization’s processes and identify areas that require improvement. They need to go about this like they’re building a lego tower. They need to find the best blocks that will make a solid foundation and replace shaky ones that will crumble under the weight as the building grows taller. This can look like investing in a new tool to gain better visibility, automating a process to eliminate errors, or hiring leadership roles.
Financial automation has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have for all organizations. In a 2021 Trintech Global Benchmark Report, 51% of finance professionals cited ‘lack of automation’ as the top barrier to an efficient financial close process. Besides eliminating errors, automation can also be a tool to reallocate the time your team spends and encourage an innovation culture.
CFOs need to leverage automation to simultaneously improve the value proposition of the finance function while generating bottom-line financial results for the organization.
When we asked about his process, Beach said, “Midway through the year, I like to take a step back and start thinking about the initiatives that’ll be important to the business in the next year. What I find is that a lot of it starts with people.”
Talent plays a pivotal role in the success of any organization. After all, employees maketh the company. As a CFO, you can identify promising talent, foster strategic thinking within your team, and cultivate a healthy creative culture by redefining criteria for promotion within the finance function.
“Setting up for success is as simple as finding people who are obsessed with moving towards greatness within their functions. That in itself is going to drive the right kind of procedures and infrastructure from a financial perspective,” says Mike.
Building out a company’s infrastructure and standardizing core processes can be a thankless job. There aren’t any immediate payoffs, bringing in automation can be disruptive, and generating buy-in from the rest of the C-suite pantheon can be challenging. But the value of this exercise accrues over time, and when it does, everyone will thank the CEO (!)
Leveraging budgets and data forecasting to identify opportunities
To summarize what Edwards Deming meant when he said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” – metrics matter. Organizations depend on data to understand their bearing in the market, understand their audience, and measure their success. Thankfully, we now have several tools to give us deep insights into customer buying behavior.
Strategic CFOs often decide the key metrics that a company will focus on, and these depend on multiple factors – the company’s lifecycle, market trends, its financial state, or investor relations.
A startup’s sole focus would be setting a budget, increasing ARR growth, having healthy unit economics, and managing the cash burn of the business. As a company scales up, there’s still a healthy obsession with unit economics, but CFOs start to take a step back and adopt a strategic perspective on where they want to invest for long-term growth. Budgets and capital allocation become essential tools to achieve that.
Related Read: A Plug-n-play SaaS Financial Model for your Business
The scope of a budgeting process can go beyond cutting costs and driving profitability. It’s also an avenue to identify areas within the organization where you get the greatest return for your resources. Even if you have sufficient funds, human capital and time are still limited. Leveraging predictive analytics to allocate the proper spend, people focus, and infrastructure in the right places can be transformational.
Metrics are a means to measure the value drivers for your business. Strategic CFOs ensure their decisions are backed by data from a diverse pool of sources – the company’s financial data, capital market trends, or other industry-specific metrics. Analyzing that data with accuracy and almost real-time allows for more granular strategic initiatives that help optimize cross-functional synergies better.
But what’s more critical than assembling the right dashboard is ensuring that they evolve. Metrics need to be constantly refined and re-evaluated to ensure you’re focusing on the right things while also matching KPIs to real-world compliance trends and consumer behavior.
Being proactive about fundraising
Raising growth capital becomes a critical part of a CFO’s job as a business matures. “Fundraising can help you accelerate your business plan. So you need to work with current and future investors to ensure the organization has that access to capital. First, you need to have enough funds to execute your current business plan. Second, you need to look at opportunities that help the business grow faster or become more profitable using the additional capital you can use organically in your organization’s growth,” says Beach. According to him, CFOs need to be aggressive when it comes to fundraising timelines. “My advice is to raise capital sooner than you think because markets can change,” he says.
As a company further matures and starts thinking about public markets and profitability, there is also a focus on revenue predictability. As more stakeholders come on board, goal-setting and result-oriented approaches become more favorable. Knowing how much revenue you can guarantee helps manage stakeholders’ expectations and is a reliable marker for growth. Every CFO should attain that level of predictability to set a goal and forecast towards that with high precision.
“So it’s an evolution from a budgeting perspective. Initially, you’re focused on growth, and then it moves to the right investments at the right time. As you mature, budgets become a tool in trying to be accurate in forecasting the profitability and revenue growth you deliver because as a company matures in public markets, that’s critical to your success.”
When should high-growth SaaS businesses bring in a CFO?
In fast-growing SaaS businesses, the obsession with growth can sometimes overshadow building out the finance function. And at most hypergrowth organizations building the finance function is usually an afterthought. So at what point in their journey should SaaS businesses bring in a CFO?
The short answer is – the sooner, the better!
“Organizations that start building some finance infrastructure earlier than later reap the benefits of painless scaling. The companies I have helped grow brought DFOs in anywhere from 40 million and 100 million in revenue. I’d say that is the right time to put a professional CFO in place if your focus is to get ready for public markets. At a minimum, you need to put a director level of accounting and FP&A, long before you hit around 40 plus million dollars in revenue, or you’re just creating a lot of challenges for the business in the long term.”
If you grow a business too big without any real thought of finance, then when you bring a CFO in, they’re going to be cleaning things up for a long time instead of being strategic. Bringing in a compliance person, starting to get the rigor around FP&A, building budgets, and learning to forecast – setting up these cadences early on in a company’s life can save the leadership a lot of hassle.
“The businesses I’ve worked with, one of them is Chargebee, had the forethought to build out a powerful finance function with people focused on accounting and FP&A – before they brought in a CFO. And that makes all the difference,” says Mike.
Advice for aspiring CFOs
If you’re a financial controller who’s looking to raise the stakes, we come bearing gifts. We asked Mike what advice he’d give to aspiring CFOs, and here’s what he had to say.
If you want to become a CFO or you’re a CFO looking to scale your career, the most critical thing is looking for dynamic businesses, says Beach. In a company that is introducing new product lines, and doing a lot of M&A, the finance scene is going to look different every 12 months. In organizations like that, you will build a toolbox as you watch org-level changes unfold, things that went right, and make mistakes. Whether you want to be a CFO or move into another C-level position, working in dynamic organizations is the best thing you could ever do for your career.
All through his career, Mike says he tried to make strategy a consistent part of his role. If not anything else, you can walk away with these two pieces of advice from Mike Beach.
1 – Be obsessed over what the business needs to be two years out. Challenge why you’re not doing things today you will need to do then to be successful. If you’re worried about what needs to happen in the future now, not just in finance but across the org, you will greatly increase the chance of success.
2 – Every year, I try to find a way to take 20% of what I did in the prior year and clear it off my schedule so I can be more strategic. In high-growth dynamic businesses, it becomes imperative to do that. When I do this, it all gets pushed down. So there’s more and more development that naturally happens throughout the finance function.
The CFO’s role has been evolving for decades and is now going through an even more radical change. So the modern CFO needs to look (laterally) at traditional finance responsibilities and handle business strategy – while being cognizant of past and future trends.
As strategic CFOs, you’re poised to lead enterprise-wide transformation and usher in game-changing automation into your business, breaking down data silos and building bridges (people-wise and processes-wise) within the organization. Modern CFOs aren’t merely thriving but actively driving hypergrowth in fast-growing businesses.