7 key takeaways from the Frontlines of Finance.
We created 20-Minute Tales from the Frontlines of Finance to offer time-strapped finance professionals concise, informative talks on important topics by in-the-trenches finance pros. The goal of each session is to provide at least three actionable take-aways. Over the past few months, these conversations have yielded valuable insights, clear-cut and relevant advice, and entertaining stories. Below are some of the best tips from your peers on improving finance operations.
“The philosophy of focusing on the user experience made the whole process much smoother. And because it’s much smoother, users stop wanting to circumvent processes all the time, so the speed at which we operate increases. And because of that, because we removed all of these friction points, our accounting speed increases, so I am now going from a five-day close to a three-day close, or even to a rolling close.” — Dmitri Litin, Controller at AspireIQ
Look at the big picture. Purchasing several low-cost point solutions may seem like the cost-effective choice, but when you consider the additional training required with separate systems, and the costs associated with integration and maintenance, the ultimate price starts to spiral. Also, consider the entire team who will be using systems. Don’t only test software from an admin account. You also want to see how it works from an employee’s perspective.
Create your own metrics of success. One metric AspireIQ used to judge the success of different systems and processes is the number of POs created after invoices were received. (With their new spend management system, users no longer circumvent the PO process.)
Looking at the user’s perspective will save money in the long run. Ultimately, employees don’t really care too much about which system you use, or how it impacts the finance team’s workload. Their main goal is to reduce friction around spending. When you evaluate systems, document every friction point for every step in a process. User-friendly systems can help change the finance team’s role from being a necessary evil to being seen as collaborative, which leads to better cost controls over time.
User-friendly design can save more money by contributing to good vendor relations. If a vendor can easily submit an invoice, and is promptly paid, they’re more likely to agree to lower prices.
“For a successful migration, you want to involve the key stakeholders who represent each of the different process areas and make sure everyone is aligned on what the objective is for implementing the ERP solution.” — Erlyn Ordoñez, CPA
Recognize when you need a more comprehensive ERP. As a company grows, it often reaches a point when a high level of manual processes inhibits your ability to scale. A more robust ERP like NetSuite or Intacct will scale with you.
Get organized to avoid the potential pitfalls of an ERP migration. Before beginning an ERP migration project, do some spring cleaning. Make sure you have thorough documentation of each process before you start, and that you have a high-level understanding of how processes interact with each other. Review your Chart of Accounts. This is a great time to review how things are categorized, and it’s a lot easier to make changes now than after you migrate.
Make a realistic plan for the migration. For a successful project, you must have dedicated time and resources. The first stages of planning should be considering your budget, bandwidth, and resource time. Which areas do you want to implement first? Don’t start with the most difficult, or you run the risk of being stuck in the implementation phase.
“I think the most important thing is really getting our Chart of Accounts set up, to be able to scale with the company. And then all the kinds of systems and processes can build off of those building blocks. Can you answer the questions of how the business is doing by looking at the Chart of Accounts? Do you have a system that can enable you to do automated reporting more?” — Teddy Collins, Sr. Director of Corporate Finance & IR at SeatGeek
Look to the future when evaluating software. How you set your processes up before steep growth happens is the key, so when you’re evaluating software, think about what you want the software to do based on your long-term goals, not the status quo. Automate as much as possible right from the start, and build in FP&A functions. Make advanced workflow diagrams of every process, and ask what could be cut out of the process to improve efficiency.
Learn about operations across the company. Learn as much as possible about processes in the rest of the company, so you can play a strategic, operational role. This can also help you build the GL so it adapts to company growth. Inversely, make sure the rest of the company is familiar with the finance function and the value it offers.
Optimize your software stack. Two different companies can have identical software solutions but completely different experience and success rates with it. As finance becomes more data-driven, the ability to interpret and manipulate data is more important. The best solutions build this imperative right into their processes, but you must make the effort to learn.
“Once you have the metrics aligned to connect people, headcount, and capacity, you need to really, explicitly understand and show how those guiding ratios connect. You need to be able to explain the relationship between quota and sales headcount in a sentence, to be able to connect the number of customers you have to the number of customer support reps we have in a sentence, and to be able to connect those in a very clear logical way.” — Drew Schulz, Finance and Operations at Kajabi
Create guiding ratios for headcount floors and ceiling. Hiring should be proactive, not reactive, so having guidelines — not restraints — can help facilitate smart hiring decisions. These guiding ratios should be unique to your business, so don’t rely on external benchmarks.
Capacity planning should be collaborative. No amount of FP&A can match open communication with department heads to gage the impact of increasing or decreasing headcount.
Transparent data builds trust. Don’t just offer quantitative data to explain decisions around staffing numbers. Build in additional context to show department leaders that you are thinking of them, and have a thorough understanding of how any decisions impact their operations.
“Recently, my focus has been on avoiding expense reimbursement reports entirely and finding ways to help improve our workflow and make it easier for employees. I have gotten away from long delays with expense reimbursements, to more of a daily or immediate recognition.” — Daryl Allen, Director of Finance at Gremlin
Recognize the cost savings from ease of use, and the risks associated with work-from-home spending. To alleviate risk, the process of obtaining funds to work from home has to be easy to understand, otherwise, employees will find workarounds, and the reduced visibility inherent in a distributed workforce will be further reduced. Gremlin’s onboarding process includes a trial creation of a virtual card, so employees can see right away how easy it is to do.
Let the system be the enforcer. When automated approvals vet expense requests, finance team members aren’t the ones saying “no,” and their role transitions to one of helping to find a solution.
Understand the new role finance plays in a distributed company. With the shift to work-from-home policies, finance is now in the position of helping to keep everything moving, and helping to maintain the company culture from a remote position.
“If you have a system where you can automatically record all of your categorizations for expenses, and you can make sure they get approved beforehand, you can speed up your close process, and you’re no longer the bully who is chasing people.” — Meir Rotenberg, Director of Operations at Spiff
The right systems change your relationship with the rest of the company. With an effective system, your role changes to one where you’re empowering the team, instead of being that annoying person who is chasing after people for expense management. It’s an extra bonus if a system can do things like prepaid expense accounting or different complex ways that you need to book data into your ERP.
When evaluating software, focus on asking others about their overall experience with it, and don’t overlook possible edge cases. Instead of just asking if someone would recommend a program, dive deep into their full experience. Think about how a system will sync with other systems you use, and what happens if the sync doesn’t work. Figuring out what the edge cases are is particularly important. For example, often, if a couple of edge cases can’t be automated, an entire process will have to be manual.
Start with clean data. Automation can’t happen without clean data. Since data flows from many systems and departments into an ERP, clear communication on data standards is vital to success.
“The role of finance is to consider the vision of the company and ask, ‘How do we execute on that over a one-year, three-year, five-year period?’ And then to really dive deep and create specific goals, KPIs, budgets that will help execute the vision over the long term.” — Amer Ali, Head of Strategic Finance at Netlify
Communicate your value. The rest of the company should be aware that you’re not just closing the books, and doing cash and runway, you’re actually playing a vital role in the growth trajectory.
Create a heartbeat dashboard. This shows metrics that reflect the overall health of a company. Evaluate these on a monthly basis, but always remember that it’s easier to have conversations before a target is missed than after, so if you see signs that the heartbeat is slowing down, address it immediately.
Always take a holistic view of operations. It’s easy to forget that all departments connect. Because the people who execute your plans don’t report to you, make sure to show specific scenarios to explain your decisions. Base the scenarios on your audience’s frame of reference. Explain how your plans will help the company reach certain benchmarks down the road, and how it ties to the broader story of the company.
Watch the complete sessions to learn more about the topics that are most relevant to your business.
Contact Airbase if you’d like to learn more about how we help finance operations become more efficient.
Don’t miss the next episodes of 20-Minute Tales from the Frontlines of Finance:
- Procure-to-pay process: Vendor evaluation — with Gil Adler, Corporate Controller at BLADE
- Setting up for success: How to establish finance and operations to support your company’s growth — with Lisa Slater, early stage start-up consultant
Airbase offers a one platform solution to manage all non-payroll spend. It provides oversight and control over spending with real-time reporting and automatic syncing directly to your general ledger. Control all payments – physical cards, virtual cards, ACH, and checks – from one place. Close faster. Empower employees. Control spend.