Building a Strategic Finance function for the future: An interview with Stacey Zhou, Head of Finance at Curated

Ever wondered how to develop a Strategic Finance function? We recently sat down with Stacy Zhou, Head of Finance at Curated, to discuss her experiences creating a Strategic Finance team of all-star players.

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As a business partner of an organization, the Strategic Finance function extends beyond the typical responsibilities of a finance team and serves as a core entity to drive growth. By identifying blockers, spotting opportunities, and providing greater financial and operational data analysis, the Strategic Finance team can support tactical decision-making among senior management. 

If you are looking to build a modern Strategic Finance function from the ground up, our team at Abacum has created the perfect resource for you. Our very own Head of Bizops, Julie Jin, interviewed Stacey Zhou, Head of Finance at Curated, to learn more about her personal experiences developing a finance team from scratch. 

This interview covers Stacey’s priorities, top considerations, and the strategies she used to create her lineup of star players at Curated over the past two years.

Who is Curated?

Curated is an eCommerce platform with a mission to humanize online shopping by connecting customers with passionate experts. Every shopper on Curated receives personalized advice from an expert to find the perfect sporting goods product that fits their unique needs and interests. This company currently specializes in outdoor sporting goods, including skiing, snowboarding, golf, camping, cycling, fishing, along with many new verticals approaching on the horizon.

After securing its series C investment led by Capital G, Curated has now raised a total of $141.5M. This latest funding round will help double their team and support their expansion into different verticals.

Now that you have some background into Curated, let’s dive into our interview with their Head of Finance, Stacey Zhou.  

Julie: How would you describe the traditional finance function?

Stacey: There are many moving pieces involved in a traditional finance function. Typically bookkeeping, accounting, payment control, accounts payable, accounts receivable, as well as general FP&A (specifically forecasting and financial reporting) are all critical aspects of a standard finance function. Now companies are also shifting their focus to prioritize Strategic Finance initiatives to align the different departments of an organization and support their overall growth efforts.

Julie: You are currently in the process of building an exclusive Strategic Finance team. How do you approach this and what type of roles are you looking for?

Stacey: When hiring qualified applicants for our finance team, I’m looking for A-players who can be a jack of all trades. We need finance professionals who can support various functions and be brought up to speed as soon as they are onboarded. I specifically look for out-of-the-box thinkers that can create an infrastructure around specific metrics to help align our team and support operational growth. 

Julie: What specific backgrounds and competencies are you looking for when hiring your team?

Stacey: I have found that investment banking and private equity backgrounds are the best fit for our finance team. I also look for individuals with operational experience as well, considering our Strategic Finance team has to jump in and out of different functions regularly. I have also noticed that analytical and data-driven candidates tend to be more comfortable with numbers. This is critical for our team as each member will have to be able to zoom in and out on metrics depending on the project. 

Julie: In terms of your day-to-day work, what does your Strategic Finance team prioritize the most?

Stacey: Our priorities shift on a regular basis. For example, when it comes to the Marketing function, we have a recurring review and analysis of customer acquisition costs as this is one of our largest expenses for the organization. When it comes to the Product function, we tend to do ad hoc analysis depending on the project they are working on. 

Julie: How do you think the Strategic Finance function adds true value to the entire organization?

Stacey: Prioritization and educated bets are where our team adds the most value. As a startup, there are a few initiatives we invest in that are not necessarily ROI positive. There needs to be assumption-making in the beginning to properly assess whether or not these initiatives are something we want to fund.

Julie: What are the macro trends you see around Strategic Finance?

Stacey: Strategic Finance is a newer function that has emerged over the past few years. More and more finance teams are incorporating a Strategic Finance team into their general finance function and are finding ways to differentiate themselves from Bizops and core cross functional teams. Companies are noticing its value and can see how it’s taking pressure off of other critical roles within the general finance function.

Julie: When do you think is the best time to build out a Strategic Finance function?

Stacey: It depends on the core strengths of the team. For us, we started off doing BizOps projects and then realized there were more and more strategic goals we wanted to focus on. That is  when we decided to build a full-time Strategic Finance team. As a new company, we knew that we were going to have to make this investment early on if we wanted to continue to scale.

Julie: How do you think our current economic downturn will affect the future of Strategic Finance?

Stacey: Now it’s more important than ever to have a Strategic Finance function. In 2020, finance teams did not place the same importance on scaling sustainably as they do now. What I appreciated about my team is that the founders were very focused and tactical when it came to the prioritization of Strategic Finance. Many companies are finding that they did not prioritize these projects soon enough and are now paying the price. 

Julie: What are a few critical decisions you will be facing within the coming two to three quarters. 

Stacey: We have a few projects that we are deciding whether to scale or not. These projects are more experimental, such as our influencer program. These initiatives involve a lot more assumptions rather than depending on hard data. Another part of our strategy is to have our experts become content creators around the topics they are passionate about. Generally speaking, there are a lot of exciting projects that we are classifying as larger bets within the next coming months. 

Julie: Since you are so cross-functional in operations, how do you properly measure your talent?

Stacey: We depend on qualitative feedback from other team members and departments. Factors we consider include the types of projects being worked on, their impact, and finance’s contribution to getting it over the finish line. From there, we can roughly measure the impact of the finance team and show that it is more of a value driver rather than a cost center. We want to keep the Strategic Finance function lean as we expand. This allows our finance professionals to maintain a high level of visibility across all verticals so we can have easy pattern recognition. We want to be able to go into any function and use those insights and learnings to apply them across the organization so that we will be able to meet strategic goals. By keeping the team high impact, we can better support other functions. This means we are looking for very specific candidates that can wear multiple hats and jump into different roles, from financial reporting and forecasting, to modeling and scenario planning, to facilitating conversations and advising on decisions to support business growth. 

Wrapping up

Building an elite Strategic Finance function starts with each individual you hire. If you are an early-stage startup, prioritizing Strategic Finance over the traditional status quo can make all the difference to your organization’s overall success. By driving organizational performance and focusing on hiring the right candidates, your Strategic Finance team will be able to drive change and take your organization to new heights.