An early-stage startup has a very simple team and stack: a founder and a spreadsheet. A founder's first finance hire is themselves. But as the company grows, building out process to organize people and data (financial and operational) become key to maximizing the opportunity.
“I wish I hired a CFO sooner”— Jason Hershman (@JasonHershman) December 12, 2022
-Every startup ever
Let’s first understand the roles
The finance function at a ompany typically encompasses a range of executional and strategic roles covering accounting, AR/AP, analysis, forecasting, and exective-level strategy.
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Bookkeepers are responsible for recording and maintain financial transactions in general ledgers (accounting software). Bookkeepers lay the groundwork for accountants to prepare statements and analyses.
AR/AP (Accounts Receivable / Accounts Payable)
The AR/AP function is typically tasked to pay invoices, send invoices, and follow up on invoices to collect payments (collections). Often this function is performed by bookkeepers in the beginning, but separated into full-time role(s) as the company scales.
At the most junior level - accountant clerk - up through staff and senior accountants, to controller (most senior accountant), accountants are responsible for a company's financial statements. At smaller companies accountants can be outsourced, or if in-house can have more expanded roles that encompass managing cash, AR/AP, payroll, and more. At larger companies the function becomes more specialized and companies will build out accounting teams to handle the financial complexity to the business.
FP&A (Finance, Planning, and Analysis)
FP&A can range from FP&A Analysts, FP&A Manager, up to Head of Finance, VP of Finance, and CFO (Chief Financial Officer). The function typically encompasses budgeting, forecasting, and data analysis, reviewing actuals and budgets, understanding variances, reforecasting, and communicating with business heads to work through the financial impact of business decisions.
CFO and Exec Team
The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) oversees all financial functions, working with executives and the board to translate strategy into budgets and forecasts, and works with business heads to execute on the strategy. Early-stage companies rarely have full-time CFOs, the responsibilities typically filled by CEO or COO, but part-time CFOs or finance coaches for executives can be huge value-adds to help executives understand and communicate the financial impact of business decisions.
I use 5 sacred Planning & Reporting processes to drive financial performance.— The Secret CFO (@SecretCFO) September 22, 2022
Here's the breakdown 👇
(Warning: Contains controversial views about rolling forecasts)
These are the typical operational roles we are familiar with - General Manager, Business Manager, Product Manager, Product Analyst, Data Analyst, and more - that will run the business and use operational data to drive product and business decisions. FP&A intersects with business units to mix operational and financial data, analysis, and reporting to the executive team. At smaller companies the roles can be quite broad, and often narrows as the company grows.
One key thing to remember: being effective at FP&A involves partnering with business units to understand the business model outside the numbers. Akshay Kothari, Chief Operating Officer at Notion, in an interview with Compound:
... when I was running finance over the past 9 months, I met with all the best CFOs to understand what finance meant and what the best finance leaders did. One CFO I met had spent years as the CFO of one of the largest tech companies. He did a full 2 hour financial review with me. When we scheduled the meeting, I thought we we’re going to go through numbers. But he was instead focused on attracting and keeping the best talent, creating a path to becoming a platform, and having a strong business model. We didn’t talk about numbers much at all. What I learned is that these CFOs are business builders and team builders first and foremost.
Startups don’t need all of these people at the beginning.
A startup's first finance hire is often an outsourced bookkeper to make sure their revenues and expenses are recorded accordingly, that invoices are going out and getting paid, and that cash balances on the books reconcile with the balances at your bank.
As the company scales, the first additions are often at the strategic level - part-time CFO, for assistance in establishing processes, reporting for investors, interpretation of financials for strategy, assisting with important business decisions and financial impact - and the transactional level - staff accountant, AR/AP, analysts - to process the volume of activity and data you are creating. The route can be very different, though, depending on the skillsets of the people involved and the key needs of the company.
Spendesk has additional pointers on hiring for FP&A at startups at FP&A best practices for startups, with good commentary on how a couple companies scaled their finance functions.