If there's anyone that knows anything about finance automation, it would be Jenny Bloom.
Jenny currently holds CFO duties at Zapier, the workflow automation SaaS company, but prior to that, she also led the finance function at Mailchimp, the email and marketing automation platform. Both companies have seen success and hypergrowth that any scaling business would envy. In addition, Jenny has also co-founded her own accounting services firm and a platform for knowledge sharing between Chief People Officers.
All together, Jenny has amassed an impressive 30-year career in and leading finance - of which, 12 years was dedicated to propeling two of the fastest growing SaaS automation businesses used by professionals daily. It is also a career that Jenny will soon be closing as she retires from Zapier at the end of 2021. It won't be a full retirement however, as she will be taking on advisory projects.
In her AHA! Finance interview, Jenny reflects on the things that have helped drive her success and how she sees the state of finance in today's modern work environment. She also drills into how important strategic finance is, even at the very early stages of a company, because it drives so many decisions on cash management and headcount.
Jenny ends her interview by leaving 7 quick tips for finance teams to keep in mind. Read on til the very end and click play on the video to hear the full interview.
With close to 12 years of CFO experience at two well-known hypergrowth companies, what's your secret in making your finance teams as well-functioned as they can be and what skills have been most beneficial?
I don't know that there's a secret but I would say three things:
1. The most important is to hire great people. You're only as good as your team. I've made a lot of mistakes in my career where I rushed hiring and it really hurt. You need to make hiring a priority and spend the time finding the right person.
You must be really clear as to what skills and personality you're looking for. I don't necessarily look for experience but rather for attitude. In a fast-growing startup, you need someone that has grit, thrives in a fast-paced environment and is always looking to learn.
2. Try to make processes and procedures as simple as possible. When you’re small, you don't need a bunch of checks and balances or approval processes. For example, with corporate credit cards, I trust that people will use it the right way. As you grow, then you start thinking of putting controls in place.
3. Instill in the culture a value mindset. I call it staying scrappy - finding creative ways to get the same quality and experience at a lower cost. At Zapier, when someone's hired, they go through an onboarding program and there’s a class called Spending Money Wisely. Part of that class is a section called Smart Savers & Smart Spenders. They give shout outs to people that save their money and spend wisely. People clap or give high fives in Zoom chats. It's affirmation that this is what we would like to promote in our culture.
Zapier is a 100% remote work company. How do you manage your finance team in that setup and continue to impact other business units? Any best practices to share?
Zapier is my first remote job and what surprised me the most was that I am closer to my team now than I ever was in an office setting. I think this is because people are more authentic when they are at home and you see their life going on behind them. Being remote is like being in person x10 - you have to exaggerate everything you do. Zapier is also widely distributed across 20 time zones so you need to be intentional about everything you do and have as much in writing as possible. Weekly, I make sure everyone knows what their priorities are and what they are supposed to do.
I think culture is even more important in a remote environment. I have told my team that each interaction they have with an employee either adds to the culture or detracts from it. That means living the values in all our interactions and providing great customer service. The one important thing I have found with remote work is that you have to build the connections and a relationship in person, and then go back to working asynchronously. Covid has actually made that difficult.
"Accurate & timely forecasts are always important since it always helps leaders make better decisions. Even moreso in early stage companies."
What is unique about finance in B2B SaaS companies versus traditional B2B or B2C?
Both Zapier and Mailchimp are B2B companies, but we are product-led so our go-to market is more like a B2C company. In fact, we don’t even have a sales team. All our revenue comes in through credit cards so we get the cash within a couple days and is fairly easy to forecast. Those pieces are probably a lot easier than a traditional B2B company where it is harder to know customer behavior and why they take action on something.
Customer behavior is always a challenge, and forecasting new initiatives is probably our biggest challenge right now. A forecast is only as good as the knowledge and inputs of the people doing it. You may think you have a great forecast but if you don’t have important information, then it can be worthless. I think the finance team has a responsibility to talk to leaders and managers and make sure that they have all the correct inputs and data.
We have a lot of stakeholders that don’t always know what information is important and what is valuable for the finance team to know. Our FP&A team needs to learn more about the details of the business so they can ask the right questions and get better information. This is a muscle we are starting to build.
What is needed so that finance teams can maintain strategic relevance when coping with the pace of scaling that other departments experience?
I’m the the owner of the budgeting process so I need to make sure there is enough headcount in the budget for what needs to be done. I think that finance should be revenue generating and not a cost center. FP&A done right means finding ways to increase revenue and profits. If you can do this then rationalizing headcount shouldn’t be a challenge. Strategic finance can play a huge role in influencing the CEO, executive and the Board. This is what can really push the business forward.
How do you view automation as a key driver for finance teams? Which processes have benefitted you the most from automation?
My accounting team has done a huge amount of automation and saved a ton of time automating manual tasks... and maybe saved a couple of headcount too. We have also automated approval processes, which is a big time-saver. For example, our approval process for conferences was automated using Airtable. Request forms are sent to managers to approve, then it sends Slack messages to the employee whether it's approved or not, and if yes, directions on how to book travel.
Where we have a lack of automation is in headcount planning. When we have changes in priorities, roles, level or salary it is a manual process. We have tried different ways to link up our HRIS and recruiting systems but we still have issues and spend as much time finding the solution than just doing it manually. For us this is a big problem as people are our biggest expense and an accurate forecast is really important. Right now, it is also our biggest bottleneck in capacity planning for initiatives. It is much harder to find people and hiring is slower than we forecasted.
What are the main differences between finance tasks at early stage vs. growth stage companies?
When I first started at Zapier, they were not hiring as fast as they should since they were trying to preserve capital. Once I showed them the revenue and cash forecast and how they needed to invest in the business and hire more customer support, they started doing that immediately. I have worked with numerous startups that were not investing enough in the business because they did not think they could afford to. Once they can see an income statement and cash flow forecast, it opens the door for them to start spending money and investing in the business. This is why accurate and timely forecasts are always important since helps leaders make better decisions. Even moreso in early stage companies.
I believe in trying to make everything as simple and easy as possible, but this is especially true in the early days. When a company is small you should know just about everything that is going on so there is no need for approval processes or anything beyond necessary documentation. I like to keep things as simple as possible until you have to put in the formal processes.
7 Growth Tips from Jenny
1. When adopting new systems, ensure that they can scale with you for the next few years
2. Build out the FP&A team and really try to find ways to drive revenue and continue growing
3. Stay scrappy and always maintain a cost-conscious mindset. With more money comes more responsibility
4. Implement formal processes when it is really necessary, not when it's nice-to-have
5. What works today may not work tomorrow so always be looking ahead
6. HIRE... before you need that person
7. Take care of your people. They are the biggest cost but also your biggest asset.
As Jenny has proven, growth and success are not impossible with the right automation processes and a positive culture, even in remote circumstances. With the right systems, a proper forecasting and good people to run the business, any scaling company has the chance to be the next Zapier.
Abacum empowers finance teams to become truly strategic partners in the organization by reducing time-to-insight with powerful automation and seamless collaboration. Request a live demo now to see the product and start your own journey.
AHA! Finance is Abacum’s interview series where we speak to finance thought leaders on all topics finance. Want to be interviewed or have an interesting topic in mind? Send us a suggestion at firstname.lastname@example.org.