Zero to Point One: recapping 6 months as CFO

Learning curves, adversity and cycles

Hi everyone,

This is Younes from The Family.

Chasing Paper is a newsletter giving my perspectives on finance, strategy, tech & innovation - and how they interact. It’s aimed at CFOs and other people with entrepreneurial endeavors who are looking for tools and ideas to improve the handling of finances in their companies.

As some of you know, we French [🇫🇷] are a lazy people who tend to enjoy ridiculously long summer breaks. Add in a dash of Mediterranean roots [🇩🇿🇲🇦] and you’ll understand why I won’t be sending Chasing Paper issues in August (yes, this one was scheduled to be sent automatically).

However, before I start my Tour de France (currently St-Malo, then Lyon, Avignon, Uzès, Nîmes, Paris and eventually Orange), I wanted to write a recap of the things I’ve learned and experienced while being a CFO for the past 6 months.

Started from the bottom | Chula Wired

As I’ve written before, becoming CFO of The Family was (and still is) a challenging experience for me, on several accounts:

  • I had no prior experience with such positions. What I did have was a Master’s degree from one of the finest global institutions for learning finance, a vaguely finance-related internship in Private Equity (1) and genuine interest in financial topics, which I hope you have witnessed through this newsletter. Still, that’s pretty meager and would probably have gotten me turned down had I applied anywhere else for the same job (2).

  • The job roadmap was cluttered and scattered. For all the good work that had been done internally on legal, accounting, cash management and other fronts, there was no unified view of finances. Also, with The Family being an essentially financial organization, we wanted to work on a number of topics that add layers of complexity to the structure.

  • The timing was bad. With Covid-19 pushing the world into a global lockdown, uncertainty increased  and financial decision-making had to be quick and radical.

Recognizing, acknowledging and embracing those hurdles was Step 0 in alleviating them. Steps 1-1000 have been everything that was put in motion to overcome them. Here’s a brief recap of how that’s gone so far.

A permissionless world and learning curves

We at The Family are huge fans of the concept of a permissionless world. It’s a term borrowed from the blockchain environment (a permissionless blockchain lets anyone participate), but the concept is quite simple. It means that there are fewer and fewer topics, industries or activities that require institutional vetting before you as an individual can join in.

In the words of Roy Bahat in his masterful How To Take Career Risks:

“Power once belonged to institutions, many of them; today it belongs to fewer institutions (each more powerful) and to individuals and their steroided power to create.

With this, the nature of success is changing. Successes were once anointed, by elders. They prized inputs — hard work. Institutions thrived on metering out your sense of progress — skipping three levels in the hierarchy violated their norms.

Anointed success — where you are chosen by those with power — has given way to forged success — where you make your own way.

Anointed successes are hired and work their way up the ranks (from clergy to politics). Forged successes (from founders to artists) live by the products of their work. Almost every career includes at least a bit of both.”

As an organization that believes in people succeeding through the product of their work, The Family often entrusts people with tasks they are not supposed to be handling, or at least that they would not be handling in a permissioned environment. (Remember my not having finance experience and being offered a CFO position?)

The condition for success in a permissionless environment is mastery of one’s own learning curve. Incidentally, that was a central topic in my previous experience (building a novel kind of business-oriented, state-of-the-art training organization for employees). Over time, we figured out the main elements that let you accelerate a learning curve are the following:

  • Eν οἶδα ὅτι ουδὲν οἶδα (“I know that I know nothing”). Embracing one’s lack of knowledge is key: it allows you to (i) be comfortable with failure, (ii) be comfortable with asking lots of questions, (iii) seek more knowledge, because you can only know more.

  • Knowledge compounds: chunk and process. There’s no silver bullet or shortcut in learning a new topic. Skills and reflexes will come over time. So one good way to approach things is to split the work into bite-size chunks and take the appropriate time to process them.

  • Background processing. Our brain is plastic: when it knows it has to learn something (or reflect on something), it will look for clues and bits of evidence in all your daily activities, connect dots, and before you know it you’ll be more knowledgeable or have gathered opinions on a topic without actively spending time learning.

  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Well, this one is obvious: you learn better by doing.

  • Sharing. Putting yourself in a position to talk or write about a topic you want to have more command of is a great way to get better at it.

Applying this to my own case, here are the things I did.

I started by observing what was expected of me and determining the areas where I had strengths and the ones where I was clueless. There were things I was good at and generally knowledgeable about: financial modeling, valuations, corporate finance in general, cash planning, fundraising and financing. Then there were things I vaguely remembered from school but had never actually practiced: accounting, management control, taxation, corporate law, insurance. And for quite a lot of things, I didn’t have the slightest clue of how they worked: payroll, labor law, audits, the legal specifics of being an investing organization...  

I did not try to gobble up information on all those topics at once. Rather, I started working on the most urgent and learned on the go. Google has been helpful, my brilliant colleagues have been even more so. I also had really good conversations with CFOs from other companies who helped me expand my knowledge. And I started this newsletter as a way to explore topics I needed to gain more knowledge about.

Today, still far from being an expert, I’ve noticed some very helpful attitudes in approaching topics as a CFO.

  • Be analytically thorough. Especially in entrepreneurial environments that tend to be Pareto-ist (do the 20% of the job that will yield 80% of the results, and only that). This tendency has to be fought against, as the CFO is the person in charge of structuring everything. And you can’t structure what you can’t measure or what you leave aside. Read everything, take all effects into account and get a complete view.

    One very simple example is that I didn’t want to get too caught up in accounting when starting. There were several reasons for that: (i) my dad being a chartered accountant, I know how painful the discipline can be to the non-expert and I was not planning on becoming an accountant, (ii) I never particularly enjoyed accounting as a student, even if I was pretty good at it, (iii) we have a rockstar team member working on it almost full time and she handles everything very well, (iv) I anticipated there being a LOT of things I wouldn’t understand without spending hours and hours asking questions and mostly (v) I had a mountain of other things on my plate with the Covid-19 crisis. So I kind of willingly crippled my view of the finances by not taking the accounting part into account (3).
    Little did I know this would come back and haunt me with the closing and audit season starting. You cannot provide guidance or explanations for something you don’t see perfectly clearly. So eventually, I had to do my homework. And guess what? Yes, there are things I don’t always get, but it’s much better to know they exist because you can build a path to figuring them out.

  • Be radical and explicit. Whether you’re talking to a team member, a supplier or an investor, always strive to give honest and complete information, even if it displeases the other party. It’s much easier to deal with one painful conversation than shallow back-and-forths that avoid the real issue.

  • Anticipate. The minute you get a new piece of information (“we might have to pay X”, “we’ll be hiring starting N”, etc.) is the minute you start planning for it to happen. That does not mean it will happen - you have to guide other executives in their decision-making process or take certain decisions yourself - but anticipation means creating options. And options are great. 

  • Ask for help. The job feels less lonely when you have a team surrounding you (which I do: we’re a team of 5 to handle finances and legal issues), but even if it’s not the case, external advisors are a great help.

All in all, this is the process I put in motion to overcome my lack of experience: know what I have to learn, learn as I do things, learn with others and strive to always learn more.

Facing adversity

My learning curve as a CFO was undoubtedly accelerated by the crisis situation. As I wrote in Uncertainty and a post-fixed costs economy, the pandemic forced a giant leap into the unknown onto businesses.

For a young CFO, this was challenging, but also incredibly helpful:

  • One of the first decisions in facing the crisis was to personally review every single incoming or outgoing payment. I can think of no better way to get familiar with a company’s finances than to spend hours (literally) every day observing debits, initiating payments, etc.
    After a month or so of that daily exercise, I had an almost complete understanding of our current monthly cost structure (quarterly and yearly items aside, naturally). From there, everything had leeway for improvement.

  • The crisis forced me to learn those areas that I barely knew about blazingly fast. Having been through the French prep school system and worked on reports for ministers with really tight deadlines before, this wasn’t new to me. But the stakes here were higher. It wasn’t just about acquiring a lot of knowledge as fast as you can to pass an exam or to present information in a synthetic way. It was about applying it to real life situations that would impact many counterparties (investors, employees, suppliers, clients, partners, etc.). So the will to get it right and have a complete view was strong.

Come to think of it, I figured experiencing adversity was a good thing for CFOs. This is a job where you need to remain cool-headed and make the best decisions for the future of the business with high stakes all around. 

And I guess that’s why a lot of CFOs experience stress, fatigue or loneliness: being uncomfortable is part of the job. By the way, I salute all initiatives that fight against this CFO insulation, such as Spendesk’s CFO Connect community.

One thing I’m happy about, after 6 months of being a CFO, is that there were countless occasions for me to experience adversity and discomfort, and I think all of them made me better at the job. Here are a few examples, some insignificant, some highly strategic:

  • Facing an economic crisis

  • Letting go of team members

  • Negotiating down / delaying payables

  • Refusing a team member’s request for expenses

  • Auditing accounts I had not myself prepared

  • Dealing with bailiffs

  • Dealing with tax authorities

  • Liquidating subsidiaries

  • Setting up new subsidiaries

  • Anticipating cap table movements

And I’m looking forward to many more in the months to come!

Cycles and products

When doing something repeatedly: organize, optimize and find scaleable ways to automate. That’s one thing I have learned over the years, working with dozens of product-oriented entrepreneurs. 

So you can’t imagine how surprised I was when I found out that most tasks done by CFOs were menial and repetitive - at least when they don’t have a full-fledged team to take care of payments, reconciliation etc., as is my case - and that very little was done to automate it.

I detailed in this edition about Finance Hacking what my position was with regards to building tools for CFOs. It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel: plenty of great companies are building the tools that save finance managers a lot of time and headaches: Payfit, Alan, Pennylane, Upflow, Deel, Spendesk, Qonto, to name a few.

However, I do believe that CFOs could and should be more product-oriented. 

This belief stems from an observation I’ve made after 6 months on the job: it’s a position that works in coaxial cycles. Put simply, there are specific tasks that need to be handled in a month, others that need to be handled in the quarter, and certain tasks that need to be handled yearly.

All of those cyclical tasks tend to be repetitive (running the payroll, declaring VAT, sending payments, reporting, etc.); the real value-add tasks are the one-off tasks (fundraising, mergers, structuration, analysis, etc.). With that in mind, CFOs should do everything in their power to reduce the time they spend on repetitive tasks and focus on high value-add stuff. And being product-oriented helps to do just that. 

See something repetitive in your process? Perhaps there’s a quick fix to improve it: lay out the steps, optimize. And if it’s still too repetitive, then maybe it’s time to look for an off-the-shelf solution or build one yourself. Because yes, it’s not because you studied business and finance that you can’t quickly start using Zapier and other automation tools that will save you a lifetime of grunt work.

(1) I’m not saying Private Equity is not inherently finance-related: the biggest part of the job for an intern is to crunch financial statements to feed complex financial models. And since I was doing large cap LBOs with a team specialized in co-investments, I got to see a lot of models from a lot of different industries. My point is more that however complex financial modeling can be, it’s different from managing a company’s finances from the inside, whether in the accounting, purchasing or management control departments.

(2) As a matter of fact, I never applied for the job: it was offered to me. I like to believe the main driver of that is earned trust: I have been involved with The Family since early 2015 and hope I haven’t done too bad of a job so far. I also have to say The Family’s co-founders (Alice Zagury, Oussama Ammar & Nicolas Colin) are really good at detecting weak signals, trusting people and offering them an environment where they can reveal and unleash their potential. That works for entrepreneurs, naturally, but for co-workers too.

(3) Obviously the ongoing accounting matters are central and handled. What I mean here is the backward view of looking at the 2018 and earlier yearly statements. It should be noted here that The Family, per its phoenix logo, is an ever-changing organization and year-on-year analyses rarely make sense given the rhythm of business units and legal entities that come and go within the group.

This was a particular, more personal edition. I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.

You’ll have no summer reading list filled with business books from me: during the summer, I read comics, maybe classic novels I should have read years ago, but mostly I do crossword puzzles.

So here’s my summer puzzle:

All you need, to the Beatles (4)

“What’s more …” (3)

Tens and twenties (4)

Rapper’s rhythm (4)

Until next time,