Six Lessons In Ten Years At A Tech Startup

CFO at TokenEx, Inc.

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In ten years — that included a pandemic — there were a number of lessons learned while leading a startup. Here’s six for finance leaders — and anyone taking on the responsibility of guiding a company forward.

There is a true transition from financial planning to the “Wild West” of tech startups.

It was exciting to make this transition. It was a new challenge and opportunity to be part of building a business — in a dynamic industry — from its root core. The expectation was that I would have to learn and ramp quickly, and every day would be different than anything that I had ever done previously.

The key was to stay focused and remember to enjoy the ride and take time to pause and reflect. More than anything, you have to adapt to constant change and learn how to respond quickly while still operating in a methodical and thoughtful manner.

There will be many changes from day one to the present.

The landscape has certainly changed, but the client-focused approach has not. I still enjoy the opportunities to engage with clients and work on strategic initiatives with our Client Success department.

When you go through the process of growing an organization, I like to think about lessons learned as you go down the path of pivoting, changing, growing and moving forward. You can learn from the rearview, but it’s also important not to spend too much time there.

Find a philosophy to work with sales on steady growth.

The way I look at it is that there are only two departments: sales and sales support. When sales and finance are closely aligned — I mean truly in lockstep — growth is achieved in a controlled, predictable, realistic and sustainable way. Doing that gives you a forecast that stands up to scrutiny. It gives you the ability to present it with confidence to the board and appear credible and united across the organization.

Some of the specific things I and my team had success with are using data to ensure marketing is driving campaigns in the right direction regarding targeting, timing and messaging. Then, make sure there’s alignment between sales strategies/tactics and overall company goals and growth projections. Really having a pulse of the company’s new client acquisition and retention, the lifetime value of the customer, and then using that information to determine cash flow and make data-driven decisions related to sales and marketing strategies is invaluable.

Metrics can help at any time — especially in a round of funding.

As CFO, overseeing corporate strategies that drive growth in parity with potential sell, acquisition or raising capital is key. More than ever, you must have an intense focus on analyzing financial data to forecast the company’s future, monitor burn rate and pinpoint fundraising opportunities.

I like to focus on both raising and allocating funds properly and evaluating company performance financially to make data-driven decisions about company finances. This led to accepting a series A round of funding in 2019. Metrics allowed the team then and now to measure the company’s inner workings and use that data to improve the bottom line. Net profits and contribution margins are especially crucial measurements.

The pandemic — and other uncertainties — can be met with scenario planning.

I and my team tried to counteract uncertainty with detailed scenario planning. Understanding potential situations and how we would respond helped us better prioritize initiatives, connect investments to outcomes and link outcomes to growth. I think what we’ve all found out over the past year is that we have a greater capacity to do things sooner rather than later, which can help improve efficiencies and eliminate waste as a result.

TokenEx was fortunate to excel during the pandemic. The team embraced challenges, came together to create solutions, and improved communication and collaboration — all in the face of adversity. One of the big things the team did was create a Covid-19 payment program for clients who were most impacted by the pandemic. We received some great feedback around that, and we were happy to do it. We understand we provide a mission-critical service, so we’re not going to leave our clients out in the cold at the first sign of trouble. We’re not here to run anyone out of business.

On top of that, internally, productivity improved instead of weakened, and adapting to a remote work culture proved successful. That’s not to say there weren’t some bumps in the road, but I’m very proud of how our team responded. We couldn’t have done it without them.

The pandemic also spotlighted the importance of working closely with the leadership team and HR to help colleagues see the bigger picture and make sense of the chaos that seemed to unfold daily. Part of that is about investing even more heavily in relationships, devoting time to one-on-ones with your team — those sorts of things.

You can approach your role differently over time. 

I and my team still have a lot of work to do. Defining core values and implementing company-wide strategic planning is critical to ensuring departmental functions are aligned and driving strategies, activities and initiatives key to success.

The team has also made a point to really focus on culture to attract and hire top talent, develop people, and constantly work on improving communication and collaboration to ensure alignment of vision, mission, achievement of growth metrics and goals.

Right now, tech companies are competing in an increasingly data-driven, real-time environment, so financial planning and analysis is a key tool for management and driving everyday decision-making. You still have to focus on building relationships based on trust and ensuring direct, constant communication across the company. That’s huge. It positions the business for future scaling up, and it helps develop a cohesive strategy organization-wide.


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