San Francisco startup Ridecell makes a technology platform that provides all of the features ride-sharing and car-sharing services need to build into a fully functional transportation app. The Ridecell platform can handle everything including matching drivers and passengers, setting dynamic pricing, and managing payments.
JD Higginbotham, Ridecell’s controller explains the challenge facing the first finance person that joins a startup company. “Startups traditionally work on a shoestring budget, so the finance team is usually the last team they fill out because they’re trying to get by with as little as possible in G&A expense.”
When a business prioritizes hiring that tenth engineer or sixth account executive rather than any finance person, you end up adding to an accounting problem that quietly grows one poorly-coded general ledger entry at a time.
One of JD’s top priorities at Ridecell was to “assess the situation, figure out how to tackle the mess, and of course, change the process that the company follows so that we don’t keep creating a mess and digging that hole any deeper.”
“As finance people, we have to find a way to be far more efficient. As we scale, there’s more volume, there’s an increase in complexity, and there’s still no additional headcount in the department.”
One of the first problems that JD encountered, other than engineers and salespeople making general ledger entries in Xero, was an uncontrolled corporate credit card situation.
“When I first arrived at Ridecell, there was a single Amex card stored in LastPass [our company password storage tool].”
“Everyone in the company had access to the card and could spend whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. It’s an Amex card, so it was unlimited. From the controller’s point of view, that’s a nightmare.”
“A lot of the spend was on monthly subscriptions, apps that we use to support our engineering team, programs that help us with writing software, QA-ing software, deploying software, AWS for hosting our customer instances.” There were also a number of other subscriptions that didn’t have an obvious reason for existing.
“I had no idea who was using them, why we were using them, and even if we should still be paying for them.”
JD started by cancelling the first Amex card and moving that spend onto a new one that he only shared with company officers and department heads. He concedes that it’s a blunt tactic but it’s a great way to force an organization to audit its spending. Once payments start failing employees “will come running to get money for the important things, but a lot of the subscriptions were never missed.”
Eventually, JD had additional Amex cards issued for himself and the department managers so that he could separate the spend for different departments. This solution was better than having everyone use the same card but he admits that it still wasn’t ideal for the accounting team.
“It was more controlled, but we still had the challenge of downloading all of the Amex transactions into our accounting system. We still had to figure out, ‘What exactly did we buy? What GL account should we assign it to and what department was it for?’”
For example, Ridecell’s IT manager had a card, but he was buying equipment for different departments. The accounting team still had to comb through the transactions and assign expenses to the appropriate department.
As a veteran software buyer, JD admits that he was “pretty skeptical at first” when Ridecell’s General Manager, Samyak Pandya, first brought Airbase to JD’s attention as a possible solution to the credit card problem. Could Ridecell replace the Amex cards with Airbase physical and virtual cards and implement a pre-approval system that won’t slow down employees?
JD needed to dig into the software and test out all of the workflows before he was ready to buy.
“There are a lot of people out there in the fintech industry trying to make a dollar selling stuff that doesn’t really work. That wasn’t the case with Airbase.”
“Once I got a chance to get into the software and see how well-designed it was, how easy it was for users, it was clear that the team put a lot of thought into the user interface and the application was fully baked. Things worked well right out of the gate.”
Onboarding onto the Airbase platform was a straight-forward process for the Ridecell team. JD replaced the Amex cards with physical cards from Airbase and moved over all of the company’s recurring spend to virtual cards.
The Airbase team helped JD migrate over the recurring spend department by department.
“The work Airbase did, going through our accounting records and pulling up the recurring spend to find the candidates for virtual card use. That was amazing and I didn’t have to spend any effort on that.”
“Out of the numerous implementations that I’ve done with various applications over the course of my career, Airbase was absolutely the most painless.”
The only work JD’s team had to do was to find the owner of each subscription and update the payment method for each service. He describes the process as “sending out a lot of Slack messages and asking, ‘Hey, let’s look at these vendors and let’s see if you recognize any of them as yours.’”
JD now has complete visibility into Ridecell’s card spend. “Once we got Airbase in place and moved our spending off the Amex cards, I was able to start identifying specifically who was in charge of each application, what was it used for, and identify which of those went into cost of sales or if they went into G&A, like Greenhouse for recruiting. It gave me a lot more insight into what we were spending on, and helped me eliminate a lot of unnecessary spending.”
Being able to set and edit physical and virtual card limits and getting real-time notifications about rejected charges due to spend limit or cards approaching their spend limits has given JD a whole new level of visibility.
“When I get a notification that says, ‘This Airbase card is approaching its limit,’ I have the opportunity to go back and review the spend on that particular card, look at the pattern, and since I can see immediately who the spend owner is, I can reach out and talk with the owner about why the spend is increasing and if it makes sense.”
“That gives me the opportunity, as a controller, to be proactive and call those things out before it becomes a big problem two quarters later.”
Another unexpected benefit of using Airbase is that now that the employee base knows that the finance team has complete visibility into spend ownership, “they’re not spending as freely as they did on the Amex cards.”
“I’d say that we’ve had at least 20% savings by moving onto Airbase just by removing unnecessary spend.”
The Airbase accounting automation has also been helpful in cutting down the manual workload for the finance team.
“Compared to all of the other accounting tools we use, Airbase is the easiest to use hands down”
Employees submit requests directly through Airbase, and the system generates the virtual card instantly and notifies the employee once the expense request is approved. If employees make a purchase using a physical card, they can take a picture of the receipt and upload it directly through the mobile app.
The entire process is easy for employees, approvers, and accounting. “Compared to all of the other accounting tools we use, Airbase is the easiest to use hands down,” says JD. He also describes the combination of virtual cards and automated expense account coding as a “godsend.”
“When we had five Amex cards, we’d download all of those transactions into Xero and then our accounting manager would spend close to a full day going through all of the transactions to make sure they were assigned to the proper GL accounts and departments.”
“Now that we’ve moved a huge volume of that spend onto Airbase cards, that process is no longer required because Airbase puts each transaction into the right bucket automatically. It’s almost like a fire-and-forget solution.”
For JD, Airbase has been “immeasurably helpful” in reducing spend and amplifying the capabilities of Ridecell’s finance team which is especially important for pre-IPO startups that need to find a way to scale without increasing headcount.