Leadership
July 1, 2020

Solid advice for your first 90 days as a strategic finance leader.

Written by
Laura Grandi-Hill
Laura Grandi-Hill
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Solid advice for your first 90 days as a strategic finance leader.Solid advice for your first 90 days as a strategic finance leader.

Nadia Asoyan is a highly experienced finance leader. As CFO of fintech startup Step and formerly Head of Finance and Strategy at Robinhood, she’s ideally suited to give advice on how the first finance hire at a startup should approach their first 90 days on the job. 

Nadia is a three-time startup veteran, making the jump from Ernst & Young to Square in 2013.  After helping navigate Square through its IPO, she was recruited by Robinhood in 2016, which, at the time, was a fresh-faced Series B company. She was tapped this year for the CFO role at Step a Series A fintech company.

The first finance hire is given an exciting opportunity to build out a finance function from the ground up. They can set the pace and become a key driver of a company’s success. Here is Nadia’s framework for approaching this significant responsibility.

Day 0 to Day 30: Understand the business.

The first 30 days should be laser-focused on developing a deep understanding of the business. Nadia points out that you can’t make plans or implement tactics without a solid understanding of how the business operates today, and how its requirements will change as the company grows. Use this discovery process to build relationships with major stakeholders; get everyone from department heads and executives to star-individual contributors to explain the key levers that drive growth.

Goals: 

  • Start building relationships: “To understand the needs, priorities, and requirements of the finance team, build strong relationships with people at the company.” 
  • Compile business goals: “Sit down with the leadership team,” Nadia says, “and understand where the business is heading. You want to walk away from these meetings with a clear idea of what the founders want from the business in the next one to five years.” These business goals set the requirements for the finance function. Once you know where the business is going, you can start planning how to build out of the finance operations to support the company’s plans.
  • Understand how the business operates: Gather as much information as possible from the various stakeholders in the company to develop an understanding of how the business delivers value. “It’s ideal to keep conversations with stakeholders open,” Nadia says, “and ask questions about how they’re operating at the moment.” She also suggests meeting with someone from every team to get a broad view of how the company delivers value. “Dig into everything, from engineering to sales and operations.”
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Day 31 to Day 60: Assessing and defining finance priorities.

Your next 30 days should focus on developing a plan for getting the company from where it is today to where it wants to be one year from now, and then five years from now. The plan should map out both priorities and resources needed for success. 

Goals: 

  • Audit existing financial processes: Step one is to conduct a process audit to evaluate finance operations. “An audit is critical,” Nadia says, “because it guides you on how to bridge existing processes and new ones; it can help you to identify the gaps and what it will take to close them.
    • Ask questions about everything; how employees are compensated, how they are reimbursed, how vendors come on board. Build your way up to bigger processes; the company’s planning process, leading and lagging metrics, how budgets are decided. Think about where the company’s revenue stream is going to be in a year. Is the spending plan going to work? Is the account payable process scalable? Think about the regulatory and compliance exposure that comes with growth. What systems will you need to set up to prepare for an audit?”
  • Become a strategic partner: Many startup employees are unclear about the role and impact of an in-house finance person. It’s a good idea to open those conversations by asking: “How can Finance be a better strategic partner to your area of the business?” “Just ask people what they see Finance bringing to the table,” Nadia says. “If you’re sitting down with Legal, for example, ask them where they see the department a year from now and how Finance can help them get there.” Nadia adds: “A lot of the answers you get will relate to employees, equity, and compensation.” In other words, how to use resources to meet critical business objectives.
  • Work with company leaders on business metrics: “Finance builds out the process of tracking different metrics, developing the expectation of how we want to grow, and how we want to look at different numbers.” Nadia thinks about numbers from two perspectives:
    • “The first is internal operations—payroll, expenses, vendors—the numbers that tell you how much it costs to keep the business running.”
    • “The second perspective includes revenue forecasts, spending forecasts, and background metrics and is external and strategic.” The latter informs North Star Metrics how existing and future investors perceive the company and the story that the company wants to put out into the world.”
    “It’s important to work with the leadership team on these early on,” Nadia says, “in order to develop the right expectations when it comes to growth and measurement. They’re intertwined with financial processes and you can’t talk about one without the other. It is important to make sure everyone has a consistent understanding of the definitions.”
  • Calibrate expectations: “It’s your job as a leader,” Nadia says, “to calibrate expectations.” Strategic finance leaders often need to temper goals with realistic numbers, processes, and timelines. She recalls the first audit she spearheaded at Robinhood. The company wanted to continue using their existing third-party auditor but Nadia realized they wouldn’t be able to help Robinhood meet SEC and FINRA standards. It took a year to put the right processes in place for a big-four audit. Looking back, Nadia says it was worth it. “It’s the job of a finance leader to take a pause, to step back and say, ‘Hey, I understand this is a great plan, but here’s what you need to consider.’”

Day 61 to day 90: Create steps to success.

Flesh out your plan. Focus on filling gaps in operations and accounting before you start hiring for finance. Use software to automate manual accounting processes and prepare to handle transaction volumes. 

Goals: 

  • Assess accounting and operations: Accounting and accounting-related operations can create friction for businesses if they’re not streamlined, especially as transaction volumes increase. Many accounting teams just add headcount as a solution to operations and accounting problems, but Nadia recommends exploring software solutions that can scale as the company grows. This is especially important in a startup environment where G&A may not get a lot of headcount. “Creating automated processes with software is an approach that’s undervalued by a lot of early-stage companies,” she says. “Many finance leaders focus on the business and finance side of the function and ignore these transaction-related pieces until they’re constantly fighting fires. I’d start thinking about scalable processes first. You don’t want people on your team doing a lot of manual work. Every process in the company should be supported by software if possible. This makes operations and accounting a whole lot more efficient.” 
  • Hire for key finance roles:
    You still need people to use the software, of course. Nadia recommends hiring for accounts payable and accounting as soon as you can. You need:
    1. An AP manager to help with operations: payroll, AP, and treasury.
    2. An in-house accountant to help with the monthly close, audit requirements, and keeping up with regulations.
  • “Finance is critical in a high-growth startup,” Nadia says, “because you can’t launch new lines of revenue without understanding potential risks and rewards.” In particular, Nadia recommends focusing on:
    • Forecasting: Critical to tracking the right metrics and understanding revenue growth.
    • Regulation: So that when the growth happens, you’re prepared for it.
    “If you need to hire,” she says, “bring in someone who can help you build budgets, drive the business model, and adjust it to revenue demands.”
Read all of Nadia’s recommendations and get her full 90-day framework here.
Laura Grandi-Hill
Laura Grandi-Hill
,
at

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