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The Start-Up CFOs with Unicorn Aspirations

By Nina Hendy

CFO experience in the corporate world is the ideal launching pad into the wonderful world of start-ups.

It’s somewhat brave to leave the comfort of a cushy corporate job bound for a start-up still trying to find its feet.

But fear of failure is not holding back established CFOs from making the leap. In fact, the thrill of working for a start-up that could very well be declared Australia’s next tech unicorn is attracting CFOs like a moth to a flame.

By the time a CFO leaves the corporate life, they’re adept at handling M&As, wrangling an ASX listing and have tonnes of experience in legacy systems and new technology implementations.

These skills are precisely what start-ups need. Some of the best known tech darlings include Canva and Atlassian, who have reached the giddy heights of a $1 billion valuation or more.

And those making their mark on the world right now include Data Republic, Health Engine, Employment Hero, Assembly Payments, Judo Bank and Lendi.

In the fintech space, there’s a range of digital banks (otherwise known as neobanks) continue to be among the best start-up employers in Australia, including Judo Bank and Volt, according to the job networking site LinkedIn.

Movers and shakers

Just this month, finance guru Tanya Ward accepted the first CFO to be appointed to Sydney-based fintech Cape, which is setting out to reinvent the corporate card. Cape is powered through the relatively new open banking system. Cape is only a fintech infant, launching onto the scene in September 2020.

Ward spent years working for Ernst & Young and Westpac in a variety of finance roles, including transformation projects and investor relations. Based in Sydney, she also spent time as the group head of financial planning and analysis for Pepper Financial Services Group.

The appeal of joining a start-up that could very well revolutionise an entire industry sector appealed to Ward. She admits that she’s enjoying watching the company prepare to scale, with a flexibility that she hasn’t experienced in previous roles.

“What really attracted me to the role is that I’d be focused not just on the data and unit economics, but I’ll be working in a start-up that’s sole focus is on helping small business owners save time and money through innovative digital solutions.”

“There are lots of blurred lines, so the role is about building the capability of the team and creating structure from a blank canvas,” she says.

Six months ago, Joshua Dawson also left behind the corporate world in search of a new challenge after a combined 15 years working for Qantas, AGL and renewable energy company Engie.

He’s settled into a VP of finance role at digital start-up Render Networks – a construction technology provider that is innovating large-scale fibre and wireless network deployments.

Dawson’s experience in the M&A space and time working shoulder to shoulder with CFOs at ASX-listed companies brings unique experience to the table.

“I’ve had a lot of critical experience in the corporate world. I’m putting a lot of infrastructure in place that will allow us to scale right now, it’s an exciting time. Start-ups are about fast growth, and working across a range of projects at any one time. It’s about running fast and hard and pushing for fast growth,” Dawson says.

“I love the sense of achievement of working for a start-up. There’s a real feeling of accomplishment you don’t get working for corporates. Our revenue run rate has grown significantly.

Jai Laungani discovered the opportunities for CFOs in start-ups a couple of years ago, and was lured to the CFO role at subscription video production start-up Shootsta, which launched in 2015. It provides companies with professional editing, training and resources, and a tech platform for uploading and storing video and an operational camera kit, and more.

Shootsta recently signed Woolworths and MLC on as clients, as well as re-signing on $3.5 million worth of existing client work.

Laungani came from corporate juggernaut Proctor & Gamble, and also worked for Lego, but admits that building something from the ground up always appealed to him. “There’s something motivating and satisfying about taking a chaotic start-up and turning it into a well-oiled, humming machine that can pretty much sustain or drive itself.

“I knew I wouldn’t get close to doing anything that has the same level of impact at the companies I had worked at until then. I can tell you in hindsight, after having spend a couple of years at Shootsta, I’ve learned more in these two years than I have spent in my entire career before that.

Advice for others

Of course, start-up life isn’t for everyone. Ward says there’s some very specific skills that CFOs need to bring to the table. “You need to be self-motivated, and be able to deal with ambiguity with confidence. You also need to be both hands-on, while driving the broader strategic agenda. If you can do this, then a start-up could be a great challenge.”

CFOs considering a move from an established business to a start-up should assess which environment is best suited for them to success.

“It’s also very important to get to know the founders and the team, the culture and team dynamics is critical to ensure the fit and alignment is there, particularly when there may only be a handful of employees. For me, Cape ticked those boxes and I’ve been really enjoying the challenge so far,” she says.

Laungani adds that you need to brace yourself for a wild ride. The big difference is that there’s no one to go to and ask for help.

“There’s no army of experts or a fairly abundant resources to go to from outside. It’s you. If you need help or advice, you have to decide if you should go outside to get it, and if the answer is yes, you have to go and find it, and then decide if and how much you should pay for it, if you can afford to at all.”

For bootstrapped companies, that’s not always an easy call, he says. “If you succeed, it’s you. If you fail, it’s also you. High risk, high reward, as they say. Except the risk is guaranteed; the reward isn’t.

Restructuring a company, raising capital, setting up share incentive plans, commercialising new products – all these things sound very exciting on paper or in a conversation, but when you have to do them, these endeavours are painstakingly detailed with very real implications, he says.

Despite tall this, nothing else can give you the understanding of how things work on the ground quite like a start-up, he says.

“As a CFO in the start-up world, you will eventually face most if not all these questions, and will develop the ability to navigate all these challenges and situations much easier than anyone who hasn’t worked in a start-up,” he says.