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September 2, 2022

How to become a unicorn: Key lessons from the Unicorn Playbook Volume 1.

Written by
Sarah Barker
Sarah Barker
How to become a unicorn: Key lessons from the Unicorn Playbook Volume 1.How to become a unicorn: Key lessons from the Unicorn Playbook Volume 1.

Unicorns (private companies with valuations over $1 billion) often get a lot of attention for their innovative products and effective marketing strategies. But, behind every unicorn is a hard-working finance team whose ability to scale rapidly played an essential role in the success of the entire organization. All teams — product, sales and marketing, people ops, and finance and accounting — rely on financial data, such as growth metrics, unit economics, and capacity planning, to drive decision-making. The data for this is the responsibility of the accounting and finance team. 

As a company grows, the finance team must become increasingly efficient in providing this information. The paper processes and manually updated spreadsheets that sufficed for a 10-person company will not cut it for a 300-person company facing an audit, or a $100M revenue company pursuing an IPO. 

Our goal with the Unicorn Playbook Volume 1 was to learn how finance professionals helped their companies overcome the challenges presented by hypergrowth. To get the inside scoop, we talked to three finance leaders who steered their companies through the whirlwind journey:

  • Scott Young is CFO at an investment firm. Scott previously held finance leadership roles at Instabase, Lime, Zenefits, and Pinterest.
  • Katie Slattery is Corporate Controller at Fivetran. She started her career at KPMG, where she worked alongside hypergrowth companies such as Stripe, Twilio, Slack, Square, and Zuora.
  • Jason Lopez is Controller at Lattice. He’s also held accounting roles at Applitools, BlazeMeter, and Upwork.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the playbook.

People: Hire finance teams with vision.

Hypergrowth companies rely on finance teams being agile. They play an important role in both the daily demands of capturing and booking information while keeping strategic objectives clear. Rather than simply questioning budgets, finance teams increasingly have a bigger role in business decisions.

When teams are overwhelmed by ongoing tasks, they are not available to think about the bigger picture and broader goals. As Katie tells us, “You need to know the importance of setting goals and planning. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and the firefighting, which kind of forces you to look backward instead of forward.”

Using tools that streamline processes is a key element to empowering finance teams to play a more proactive role. Scott points out that quality software solutions could allow companies to hire fewer people to do manual work and more people to plan the company’s next move. 

“You can hire a more strategic kind of thinker who can help move the business forward rather than just getting transactions done and recorded. So these tools allow you to uplevel your hiring.”

Onboarding: Have a strong process to get employees acclimated quickly.

Part of being a hypergrowth company is onboarding many new faces in a short amount of time. The finance professionals in the Unicorn Playbook emphasize the importance of building a strong onboarding process to: 

  1. Improve company culture and motivate employees.
  2. Provide context for daily work. 
  3. Reduce employee turnover.
  4. Save time.

While an ad-hoc onboarding process could work for a team of 10, it fails when the team is hiring dozens of people a month. And, since many fast-growing teams need to roll out important product launches, bringing employees up to speed quickly is essential.

When companies grow quickly, software’s ease of use and time to train new employees becomes a factor. Jason tells us that if software is “facing the employees in the rest of the company, how easy is it for them to use? How flexible is it? Does it meet our business needs? Obviously, the price gets mixed in there as well. But really, if a task is taking me 10 hours a month to do and this software cuts it down to two hours, that frees up a full extra day during the month!” 

The biggest takeaway? Where possible, limit the number of point solution software used, focus on platform solutions that employees only have to learn once, and make usability a key consideration.

Processes: Strive for a culture of operational excellence.

Our interviews reveal that corporate culture plays an often-overlooked role in reinforcing the processes that induce rapid growth. When companies don’t have a strong process in place for finance and accounting, it can be hard to complete the month-end close before the next month ends. This impacts the finance team’s ability to bring its unique value to the organization, which is to facilitate the decision-making of each of the key operational areas. 

It is only recently that process automation for many of the accounting team’s workflows has been made available to small, mid-market, and early-enterprise companies. A consistent theme was the adoption of these workflow tools to streamline pre-accounting. Another advantage of using workflow automation is that it can help teams work more collaboratively. Jason points to the importance of setting up systems that enable collaboration. 

“Thankfully, we have a company that really works well together. I won’t say it’s a well-oiled machine, but all the parts are working like they should and plans are working like they should. It’s because of planning that was done a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. It wasn’t reactionary, it was planning ahead.” 

When companies do have a strong finance process in place, the finance team can work reasonable hours and spend time on analysis rather than completing a checklist. They have the time to explore process efficiencies and, overall, to have a more enjoyable career. 

Systems: Automate and move on.

Our interviewees have a forward-thinking, open attitude about software and recognize it as more than a way to book transactions to the general ledger. Scott points out, “Now you’ve got people investing in the systems around the CFO to make more real-time data available. Not just accounting information, but all your metrics. The finance team needs the data coming from your product, your finance stack, your banking information, all of your vendors, every one of your customers, everything that touches any part of your company, to make better business decisions quicker.”

A clean set-up from the start can help avoid growing pains. Selecting the GL or the ERP software is particularly vital to the entire finance function. Katie tells us, “Your core accounting and reporting system is central to all your tech stack. It’s the key tool that’s used by accounting and finance. It’s one that you really need to be right.” 

Sometimes, the best choice in auxiliary software for payroll, AR, or AP can depend on how well it integrates with your GL. 

The goal with most finance software should be to consolidate and automate workflows whenever possible and leave analytical work to humans. This increases efficiency and can also increase job satisfaction in your accounting team. As Scott tells us, “When you grow beyond your capacity to do the transactional pieces, you can’t get any of the information that you need. You’re probably manual and you’re probably not enjoying your job.”

Mindset: A growth mindset extends to software purchasing.

A growth mindset seeks scalable software that provides modules that meet today’s needs with easy additions for future requirements. When making business decisions, focus not on what problems you need to solve now but what problems you will need to solve in the future. This proactive, rather than reactive, stance allows your business to steer around issues before they become a real problem. 

All these finance professionals approached their roles with a growth mindset. This impacted the choices made about people, processes, and systems. They anticipated growth and its challenges with deliberate, flexible solutions. 

Download the entire Unicorn Playbook Volume 1 to learn more. 

Sarah Barker
Sarah Barker
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Sarah Barker
Sarah Barker
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