Published by CPA Canada in Careervision
You’ve spent a good portion of your career in the business world, working with those who manage, keep track of the numbers, and hopefully understand it well. In addition to this practical experience, you’ve probably spent a number of years completing formal business and finance study. It’s easy to take management and finance for granted, when it’s a big part of what you and those around you do on a daily basis.
Although entrepreneurs tend to end up in the leadership role in startup companies (often by default), most lack actual business experience; this is particularly true in terms of finance. The bulk of the emphasis tends to be placed on the product, service, or technology (entrepreneurs are typically guilty of this!), resulting in the business and finance aspects that are so important to any company being overlooked. This can also be a function of entrepreneurs simply preferring to spend their time on what they love, and it isn’t accounting.
Those who have formal education and experience in these areas have knowledge and skills to offer to startup companies, to a degree much more than they realize. What’s important is to understand what the real needs are and why, so that the opportunity to prepare in advance isn’t missed.
Why it Matters
As already explored in this series, startup companies lack the stability of more established businesses, and one of the main areas of risk is cash flow, closely followed by the challenge of attracting investment capital to support growth. Non-financial entrepreneurs typically don’t realize the degree to which their venture is at risk in financial terms, nor do they understand the needs of early stage investors, when it comes to raising capital.
As a result, startups often find themselves in double trouble: (i) short of cash and the skills to manage it; and (ii) an inability to provide the financial oversight and reporting that investors require. The outcome, too often, is a predictable death spiral, where these two factors get caught in an endless loop, resulting in the business running out of cash and being unable to generate what’s required in order to stop the plunge.
Chances are that you have underestimated just how much the business and finance skills that you have learned and practiced are of value to startup companies. Put a lid on the typical excitement and hype associated with new technologies and opportunities and focus instead on accentuating the value of what you have to offer:
- Become acquainted with the “hands on” finance role: Since startup companies are small, the “accounting person” often has to do it all: transaction entry, generating financial statements, and dealing with billing and banking matters. Recognize that startup work is much more involved than a lofty oversight role and that the buck will truly stop with you.
- Map out routine processes: Make the most of limited time by developing checklists to guide task completion, including on a weekly and monthly basis. Most entrepreneurs don’t have the financial experience to do this and it will make everyone’s life easier, as well as provide the discipline that investors seek.
- Revisit financial accounting, in reporting terms: Recognize that internal reporting and recordkeeping often differ from what external parties expect to see. In order to keep investors and financial institutions happy, ensure that you’re able to produce monthly financial statements in the standard financial accounting format.
- Master cash flow management: Being able to manage cash with confidence is critical, and may not be a skill that is practiced much while working in a larger company. Cash flow management is not an area to be learned on Day One of working with a startup, so get lots of advance practice now.
- Learn about what investors require: Early stage investors look for a qualified person in the Finance Chair, as it’s this individual who will take care of their investment. Recognize this and seek to learn about their particular needs, in terms of reporting and ongoing operation of the finance function.
Early stage investors recognize that the majority (if not the vast majority) of startup companies fail. There are a variety of reasons for this, including products that aren’t competitive in the marketplace and an inability to attract enough customers. What’s more typically the problem, however, is poor execution on the part of Management, in terms of not running the business well. At the core is often a lack of financial acumen, resulting in the company running out of money before it even had a chance to get started.