The CFO role continues to expand, particularly at fast-growing, VC-funded startups. These companies lean on the broadening position to scale their operations and bring a data-fueled, strategic view to the business. No longer centered around accounting matters as the years-ago CFO was, today’s CFO responsibilities have grown from oversight of the finance function to frequently also overseeing HR, IT, operations, legal matters, risk and IT security management. At the same time, the CFO’s long view and expertise help the CEO and the company make smart decisions at critical moments to steer it toward successful milestones.
While the role can greatly vary from company to company and even from year to year, depending on the startup’s exact needs, the CFO handles the following as a matter of course.
1. Take the long view.
The market may change, demand may change, and expectations from the Board and investors may change. To keep up with all the shifts, a long view approach is vital. What are some of the future steps for the company and what can be done today to get there? It’s a constant question. Accurate and reliable financial reporting make it so the company can keep the various stakeholders informed and make better decisions.
A CFO’s mindset is strategic at all times. Close attention is paid to historic trends and current data points, to inform what moves to take. The CFO is prepared to execute quickly at critical moments by planning out potential expansions and investments, exploring scenarios and exit strategies, and determining how the company can prevent growing too fast or not fast enough.
2. Value top talent.
The finance function is not always fully formed at many startups. Certain skillsets may be missing. A certain level of expertise may be needed to move forward—but a full-time hire is not yet in the cards. Filling in the right layers through a CFO full stack team is a highly efficient way to address the talent gaps, with the right skills and expertise brought on only when it’s needed.
3. Oversee the capital structure.
Debt and equity financing falls under the CFO’s purview. As the advisor on the company’s capital needs, the CFO leads fundraising missions and converses with prospective investors to show them the company’s potential. The role extends to interacting with current angel investors, VCs, and the Board to go over the company’s priorities and any plans for transformative transactions. Simultaneously, the CFO keeps watch on smart spending, often with a controller’s support on budgeting and monitoring spending.
4. Tell the real story behind the numbers.
There’s a connection between the numbers and the narrative that can be shared with investors that only the CFO can meet. Understanding what the numbers say is one thing—but then being able to communicate them in a way that investors can understand and appreciate is a special skill.
5. Refine the business model.
The CFO’s analytical skills and understanding of business strategy steer the company toward growth milestones. There could be detours along the way. Startups need a CFO’s keen eye in analyzing revenue streams, key resources, activities and partners, and cost structure to make the right decisions on picking the right model.
6. Use technology strategically.
The CFO has a firm handle on the tech solutions that will keep not just the finance function running smoothly but the company’s operations as well. Evaluations of available systems will change as the company grows—rightsizing is a priority. The goal is to not overinvest in systems with all the bells and whistles that could overload the tech spending budget and not be used to their full capacity for some time.
Within the finance function, the CFO looks for opportunities for innovation and efficiencies. Automating core processes achieves both goals while ensuring the team accesses more reliable, timely data and freeing up their bandwidth to focus on more strategic matters. That’s when opportunities open up to explore how advanced technologies like AI can lead to a better understanding of client usage patterns, enabling the company to predict what will be in demand.
Today’s startup CFOs are also frequently chartered with managing the IT function. In that capacity, they manage IT security, handle IT compliance, to mitigate data breaches and cybersecurity risks. The right IT systems support proper workflows, helping to ensure the integrity of the company’s financial information.
The CFO Role Varies at Every Startup
What startups need out of the CFO role varies and can be met with a CFO full-stack team. Special skills can be brought in at just the right time and a part-time finance team might be best. Overhiring does not have to be a risk to take on as the company scales. The right people, processes and systems are a work in progress in the early days of a fast-moving company, and CFO expertise helps to ensure the right decisions are made every step of the way.
Tracey Hashiguchi heads up RoseRyan’s Emerging Growth Solutions area, which focuses on delivering all areas of finance and accounting that VC-funded companies need to go further, faster. This practice area delivers both the strategic and operational finance that growing companies need through its dedicated team of savvy consultants. Tracey develops RoseRyan’s strategy, programs and consulting team for helping startups get to the next stage of growth. Before joining RoseRyan, Tracey worked at Deloitte.