Where should founders look for untapped value? The finance department

Few numbers matter more to a founder than their company’s valuation. This is a fairly universal truth. But if you asked a focus group of founders which employees they valued the most, you’d probably get a few different answers.

I know, it’s a bit like choosing between children. But if I had to wager, I’d say marketers, product developers, and sales teams are all likely to come high up the pecking order.

I expect very few would choose the humble finance department - despite the extraordinary impact it can have. Here, I look at what founders need to know about setting up their finance team for success.

How the finance department impacts valuation

All too many founders make the mistake of viewing valuation as a ‘hype metric’ rather than something intrinsically linked to financial and business fundamentals. But while building hype in the press or on social media can certainly help you make a few sales, when it comes to standing in front of an investor, your fundamentals have to stack up.

Other high-growth companies will spend lots of investor cash tinkering with product development or hiring a high-profile executive with a stuffed Rolodex and an equally chunky pay packet. Unfortunately, this can mean the finance department goes unloved and under-resourced.

When sourcing investment from private investors or a venture capital (VC) firm, or even the public markets, you have to ensure your business model stands up to scrutiny. Up-to-date, accurate financial statements and accounts are essential for your business to appear competent, efficient, and worthy of investment. The devil is in the detail, so having a CFO who is directly responsible for this part of the process and has both the time and the experience to work independently can pay dividends.

The importance of getting the right people in the door

Many early-stage businesses will lack the resources to fund a fully-fledged finance team. But that doesn’t mean you should try to do it all yourself. Instead, I often recommend companies in this position consider hiring a CFO on a part-time basis.

If you do have the resources to hire a CFO, hire wisely. Your CFO should be your right hand. You should be in constant communication and trust each other fully. If you’re lucky, your CFO could be with you for years - or even decades. But it’s also true that some people can be outgrown by a business.

The person you hired as CFO in your seed round is not necessarily the right person to lead the charge during Series C or IPO. Making decisions to hire or fire based on your heart rather than your head can create serious issues if someone doesn’t have the experience or skills needed for a role.

It’s also important to consider the structure of your finance team. More senior or strategic tasks are not going to be suited to a graduate or intern. But nor are generic tasks or administration going to be the best use of time for senior financial professionals. Aim for a balance of experienced, strategic minds and diligent fresh talent.

Setting a tone of financial discipline

I’ve spent more than 30 years advising companies and no two days have ever been the same - but there is at least one thing I’ve learnt to be true all the time, everywhere: a tone of financial competence and discipline can only ever be set at the top.

A top finance team is also the best antidote to one of the most fatal mistakes a founder can make: forgetting that you’re spending other people’s money. Unfortunately, that means the finance department can develop a stigma of being the team that says “no” a lot. There’s a kernel of truth to it, as your finance team should be the voice of reason. But they’re also a source of opportunity, particularly when it comes to your valuation.

Rather than positioning the finance department as aloof number-crunchers, they should be embraced as a core part of the team. Everyone from product development to marketing should be in regular communication with finance and encouraged to negotiate on spending based on priorities, helping to create a more collaborative environment. Again, this needs to be something that comes from the top.

The finance department and corporate governance

Another underappreciated part of business for many founders is corporate governance. It’s a term that might seem alien to very early-stage entrepreneurs working on a shoestring budget out of a basement.

But as companies grow, corporate governance rapidly goes from being an afterthought to being essential. Poor corporate governance has been behind some of the biggest falls from grace for high-profile startups in recent years - just look at THG or WeWork. Even some of the travails that have hindered Revolut in recent years come down to corporate governance failures.

So, what’s this got to do with the finance department? While some corporate governance responsibilities lie with the CEO or legal team, your finance team will play a crucial role in terms of financial reporting, bookkeeping, and expense tracking, among other things.

They should also play a role in deciding best practices in everything from HR and people management to sales. CFOs or Finance Directors also tend to be analytical, process-driven people. Their contributions can be invaluable in setting standards today that will serve you well in years to come.

Give your finance team some love - they’ll repay you

The early-stage investment industry sells itself as a catapult for bright ideas with big potential. In principle that’s straightforward, but it’s also an industry that can be guilty of focusing on cult of personality, flashy branding, and media hype. It rarely talks up the virtues of good business fundamentals.

But how the industry likes to present itself and how it actually makes decisions are not the same thing. Venture capital is and always will be about maximising returns for investors. The cold, hard reality many companies eventually realise is that the bottom line - and what that bottom line will look like a few years from now - is what matters. Without question, that’s where your finance team can make the biggest difference.