For CEOs

Signs Your CFO isn't Scaling

Post 4 of 4 in the Startup CFO Series

While all the functions of a team are needed, perhaps the most critical function to make sure your company is able to scale is the CFO. Cash flow, investments into the business, compensation, budgets—nearly everything that happens in a company flows through the CFO—and it should. So, getting this role right is one of the most important tasks of any startup team. But how do you know if your CFO is up to the task of scaling?

For CEOs, one of the first things that’s a telltale sign is what I call the gut check: do you have an uneasy feeling about cash, either that you’re running out of cash, or that you’re unsure how much cash you’re burning through and how fast you’re spending it? Do you spend a lot of your time dealing with finance-related issues like fundraising, debt, investors, or cap table questions? Are you on the hot seat during board meetings on finance-related questions, metrics, runway, cash burn, or other issues? Trust your gut. If you have even a little uneasiness about how your CFO is operating, it’s probably worth heeding. You might not have a person capable of scaling, or you might have to invest more resources (time, mentor, fractional executive) to level up your CFO.

For members of the executive team, a telltale sign is whether or not your CFO engages with you and your team to understand your part of the business. Do they spend time learning and steeping in the substance of the business? Do they interact with all the functional leads like product, marketing, and People? Do they spend time in-market with customers, partners, or vendors? Sure, a CFO can understand the business by looking at the numbers, but you’ll never be able to scale if that’s the primary focus of your CFO because the numbers—all of them, and all of the time—are lagging. It’s impossible to be proactive if your CFO is totally focused on the numbers but doesn’t understand your functional issues, timelines, upcoming events or expenditures—and why. A CFO who is capable of scaling doesn’t see their role as “corporate,” as “administrative,” or as an enforcement function. They see it as strategic and as a partner to other parts of the business.

Other Signs Your CFO Isn’t Scaling

One sign of a CFO that can’t scale is whether or not they’re scrambling to hit deadlines. Everybody has to pull an all-weekend stint or over-nighter—occasionally, but if it happens regularly…it probably isn’t going to improve over time as things become more complex in the business. There’s always a pending crunch time that requires their personal attention and a ton of manual work - the monthly close, the audit, the budget, commission planning, compensation cycles. These things are not surprises, and they come up the same time every month, quarter, or year. CFOs who are mired in doing all these things personally and manually haven’t built the systems, teams, or processes required to scale the business.

Another sign that your CFO can’t scale is if their solution to problems is to throw more people at it. If the accounting teams swells in size you might have a CFO who can’t think strategically about creating innovative processes and systems. “Throwing bodies at the problem” is easy because it’s the path of least resistance, but would your CFO allow other teams to do that? Accounting teams in particular tend to be the most traditional, paper-based teams and don’t need to be. Your CFO should be thinking strategically about how to scale financial systems with process and procedure rather than adding headcount.

A final obvious sign that your CFO isn’t scaling is if they get forecasts wrong, or don’t even try to do them. Especially while your startup is in burn mode and constantly calculating its runway and months until the next required financing, regular and accurate/conservative forecasts are critical. Even without a ton of revenue visibility on forward looking sales, good CFOs should have enough of a grip on expenses, cash flow, and order-to-cash dynamics to produce good, rolling 12-month cash forecasts. Anything short of that and you’ll be blindsided in the market, unable to take advantage of opportunities, or limping along with so-so growth for a long time.

In many startups people are learning on the fly but at some point you’ll begin to wonder whether everyone’s able to keep up or, more importantly, whether the people you have will be able to help your company scale. The CFO role touches every part of the organization and it’s critical to figure out earlier rather than later if your CFO can scale or whether you need to go in another direction.

You can find all the CFO Startup Series here, here and here.

-Matt Blumberg, March 2, 2022