Nine out of ten startups fail is a stat that is often wheeled out to both celebrate the companies that make it and demonstrate to would-be founders just how hard building a company can be.
But delve a little deeper into these numbers and you’ll see that the vast majority of failures occur as companies scale. Survival rates in the early years are high. 80% survive year one, 70% survive year two. By year five, half the businesses are dead.
By year 10, the death toll reaches 70%.
As a founder or CEO, there are various things you can do to improve your odds. If 25 years of experience as a leader, investor and board member has taught me anything, it is that few choices are as important as finding a scaleup CFO.
Here are the six key characteristics to look for (and avoid) that can make or break your search, and ultimately the success of your scaleup.
1. Avoid: A bureaucratic CFO from a mature company. Hire: An agile and ambitious CFO who thrives on uncertainty
It's tempting to hire a seasoned CFO from a mature company because they appear to have everything sorted: they're used to working with clear roles, structured processes and large teams.
After all, isn’t that what you’re aiming for? Someone who can create order in the chaos?
Yet bringing a CFO who thrives on order into the less-structured environment of a fast-growing company can, conversely, create a huge culture clash.
If you put your hand on your CFO's chair, it should be ice cold, because they rarely sit in it
It not only causes the CFO massive stress and frustration, but this stress can trickle down into the entire team, and directly and impactfully damage your company culture.
Instead, you want a CFO who loves working with chaos rather than constantly trying to tame it. One who thrives on not knowing what faces them each morning and who is as focused on the journey of building structure as they are achieving the end goal of growing a sizable finance organisation.
2. Avoid: An aloof, poor communicator who stays on the sidelines. Hire: An active and curious team player and leader
A good sign of a great finance leader is that if you put your hand on their chair, it should be ice cold, because they rarely sit in it. Instead, they are constantly interacting and participating with the business to better understand it, to collect information about plans and results, and to influence the business to make better decisions. Decisions that drive improvements in unit economics, growth and cash generation.
An effective finance leader has the capability to listen to the business, translate it to actionable numbers and communicate it back to the business in a way that the teams understand. A poor CFO just spits out numbers and doesn’t drive performance throughout the business
3. Avoid: A diffident CFO who leans too heavily on a CEO. Hire: A savvy, self-assured CFO who inspires confidence and trust
The scaleup phase is, for many tech companies, characterised by frequent fundraising and the impact a CFO can have on the ability to raise such funds should not be underestimated.
The wrong CFO — one who lacks confidence and communicates poorly — not only makes the due diligence process long and tedious, but they don’t inspire confidence and trust from your investors.
You’d be surprised how many CFOs have sat in front of the board or investors and are unable to answer basic questions on unit economics or margins
Fundraising and investor relations is a full-time job at times. Having a CFO who knows how to handle investor dialogues professionally; who understands the balance between transparency and revealing too much, and who can represent the company and its numbers is a godsend for a time-poor scaleup CEO.
Freeing them up to continue driving the business performance forward as the fundraising process rumbles on.
4. Avoid: A CFO who thrives on details and processes over analytics. Hire: A CFO with strong analytical skills and a numbers mindset
This may sound obvious but the CFO of a scaleup needs to be a numbers person.
You’d be surprised how many CFOs have sat in front of the board or investors and are unable to answer basic questions on unit economics or margins, or have missed obvious errors because they lack analytical skills.
You want your CFO to roll up their sleeves and dig into the numbers, build the financial models, analyse and draw conclusions from large data sets, and spot when something looks wrong.
Among finance professionals, there is a tendency towards people being either strong at process or at analysis. A scaleup needs a CFO with an analytical and numbers mindset and who is complemented by team members who bring strong processing skills.
5. Avoid: A CFO who thinks they (must) know it all. Hire: A CFO who knows their strengths and understands their limits
This is true for all C-Suite roles but is particularly important when hiring a CFO — you need someone who knows their strengths yet understands their limits.
The best CFO will identify what skills across the team are lacking and understand that hiring competent and experienced people will only make him/her look even better, not pose a threat.
6. Avoid: A CFO who sees compliance as a waste of time. Hire: A CFO who prioritises compliance
The best CFOs care about compliance. I’ve seen completely unnecessary, costly and serious issues arise from CFOs neglecting taxes, statutory filings, VAT filings and corporate governance regulation in my time.
Not to mention the businesses with strict licence requirements, such as those in fintech or gaming.
A successful scaleup CFO doesn’t have to love compliance; in fact, it’s often better if they don’t. However they do need to believe it is worth their time and priority, and they care enough to do something about it within applicable deadlines.
Technically, these learnings can be applied to any company hiring a CFO, not just a scaleup. Yet from both my own experience and as demonstrated by the failure stats at the top of this article, they have the most impact at the scaleup stage.
Finding a CFO with these six characteristics is also easier said than done, of course, and your perfect hire will depend on your company’s needs.
But keeping these traits front of mind will help make the process smoother and less daunting — and increase your chances of becoming the one in ten that survives.