Building Your Finance Team for Hypergrowth with David Wieseneck of Letgo
David Wieseneck is the VP of Finance at Letgo, which makes it simple to buy and sell locally, and recently agreed to combine its US marketplace with OfferUp. David joined Letgo in 2015 as the first finance hire - and the first US-based employee - when they were just 10 employees and only a few months started. Now, 5 years later, they’re a team of 300+ based in New York, Barcelona, and Istanbul, with a finance team that runs like a well-oiled machine.
We met with David to get his insights on building a finance team from scratch, harnessing the power of automation to optimize finance processes, when to hire your first CFO, why finance leaders should never say “no,” and much more.
Here’s how our conversation went.
You’ve been at Letgo since nearly day 1. How did that opportunity come up?
Yes, I joined very early on. I worked with two of the Letgo co-founders at a previous company called OLX. I joined as the number two finance person on the team working for the CFO. During my time there, we grew the company from 100 to about 600, with six subsidiaries.
I wore many hats, handling consolidation and reporting, kind of everything that the CFO needed. But over my five years, I had to start taking off these different hats, and my role became more and more narrow over time. When we hit 600 people, I felt like it was a good time for me to leave and go to where I could wear many hats again.
As I was leaving, one of the co-founders of OLX was also leaving at that time, and asked me if I would join a new venture - Letgo. We were 10 people when I first joined, and now we're 320 people. So again, a big amount of growth over those five years.
That’s a really exciting and unique time to join a company. What were the early days like?
One of the really cool things about joining that early on is that there was no financial infrastructure. When I joined, there was just the co-founders putting a little bit of seed money in. We had a few employees. No payroll had been set up. No bank account had been set up. So literally during my first week, I was opening up bank accounts, opening up an accounting instance on Xero. One moment I'd be reconciling cash, and then the next moment talking to investors and raising our first round of funding.
Everything was starting from scratch, Which meant I had the opportunity to build the finance stack in my vision very early on, being ahead of the curve. It was like, I know where we're going to be in six months, so let's start to implement controls and systems in the finance stack before those pain points come up, so we're well-off in advance. And that's paid dividends for me and the team.
You built the finance team from scratch. What does your finance team look like now, and what types of people do you tend to look for on your team?
So I'm a generalist, a jack of all trades. I'm good at a lot of different things. I don't think I'm an expert at any specific thing. Obviously, my co-founders are never going to say, “Let's build a big finance team” when we're 30, 40 people. So, you have to be lean.
One of the first things I did was not hire people, but invest in automation, a tech stack, that would work together so that I can be as efficient and effective as possible in my finance work. And that helped me have a really good tech stack with automation, allows me to close the books quickly, which means I can report to my co-founders, to my investors, really quickly on the financials.
With that being said, after a while, I hired other finance staff - mostly generalists that could come in and learn lots of different things. Usually processes that I've perfected, I can hand off and feel really comfortable.
Now we're 300 people. We have one person dedicated to FP&A, with another generalist on the FP&A team. And a global controller, because we have five subsidiaries. We're in Barcelona, here in New York as well. The controller that can focus on financial controls, consolidation, and financial reporting looking backwards. And we have the FP&A side, which looks forward.
But for the most part the team is generalists with some expertise going one way or the other. And that allows us to help each other out, cover for people if they're out of the office or on vacation. And then kind of move people around so that everybody's working on something new and getting new experiences.
What are some of the qualitative skills that you feel are crucial to thrive in a startup finance team?
I think people skills are really important. And I say that in a weird way because we're finance professionals. We want to be in the numbers, we want to be closing the books. But at the end of the day, we're here to serve the organization, and we need that organization to do our jobs well.
I have a philosophy that finance only touches every person in the organization two times. One is payroll. So I want to make sure people are paid and get their money because I don't want to mess with people's money. Everybody gets paid.
And then the other one is expense reports. Everybody's got to do expense reports. They’ve got to get paid back. So I want to make sure those two things are super set. People get paid quickly, they get their money back, no drama, processes are easy.
If we can do that, that builds a lot of goodwill for the finance team, organization-wide, so that when we do go back to people and we need to work with them on contract negotiations, or we need to work with them on budgets and forecasts, there's that goodwill and they're willing to help us.
As opposed to “the finance team, all they do is tell us ‘no’.”
So people skills are really important to make sure that we have that goodwill and we get that help when we need to ask something from the rest of the organization. Other things that we do with the organization, like forecasting and budgeting, sometimes might only be with department heads, or the C-Suite, and not necessarily everybody in the organization.
I'd love to hear more about the tools you're using to help everything run super smoothly.
Our core GL is Xero. Xero has an amazing API. It's obviously not as robust, as let's say, a NetSuite, which also has really good API, but it's super affordable. It's global. We can't do everything, but it's pretty amazing. Obviously, invoices and bills and journal entries, which helps us. And since we're a global company, everything's in the cloud.
Added onto that is something called ApprovalMax where we route all of our vendor bills and our invoices so that the appropriate manager can approve it. And ApprovalMax has a mobile app, which means my managers can approve vendor bills or invoices from their phone. We have it routing so if it's over a certain threshold, it'll go to the CEO. The finance team approves on the coding, things like that.
Since we get all of that automation, we're able to close the books right after the month-end finishes. So the first day of the month, we're pretty much 99% of the way there. All we have to do is a few journal entries and we can close on the second business day, which means we can report to our investors and our co-founders by the third business day. And if you can close that quickly, you can spend the rest of the month focusing on building more automation, or forecasting, or advising the company on financial decision making. If you spend 15 days closing the books, you never have time to do that type of stuff.
For contract management, we use Ironclad. It's contract management and repository. Finance and legal worked together to implement that software. So we get a lot of automation. It's cloud based as well.
We use Expensify for expense reporting, which integrates directly with Xero. Our expense reports are actually pretty low. We don't have as many expense reports because we pay for flights and hotels through TripActions. TripActions is an amazing piece of software. We have teams in Barcelona, New York, Miami, and Istanbul, so we travel a lot. Huge time saver there.
And we also have an Uber and Lyft for business account, which means that employees very rarely have to pay for things out of pocket. Almost all of their travel expenses are paid for by the company, which means that their expense reports are much smaller.
What else? We have BambooHR for HR management, so that's a combo with the HR team.
We have Carta for our stock options and cap table management. It also does our option expense reporting, which means that we can get our journal entries for our stock option plan really quickly and efficiently.
And another piece of software we're kind of not fully up and running yet is called G2 Track which helps us out with vendor management and software management to know how much we're spending.
You recently hired a CFO at Letgo. What was the tipping point or milestone when you decided, okay, we need an official CFO at the company now?
So about a year and a half ago, our co-founders decided to kind of look organizationally, and say, okay, here's where we've been able to get by being very scrappy. A lot of the people that got us to where we were at that time were early employees, generalists. And more operationally focused.
So they took a look and they said, okay, we need to start hiring more strategic C-level people, including a CFO. I'm more of an operational person. Obviously, like I said, I can do a little bit of strategy, but my experience, my expertise is more in operations, getting my hands dirty and just building.
And so we brought in Rahim who's a much better strategic thinker, really helps our co-founders think long term about financial success. And that's why me and him work really well together because he can focus on working with the co-founders on strategy, and I can focus on more operational things like forecasting and budgeting, closing the books and controlling, audits - things like that.
I can work with my controller and my director of FP&A on those items. And of course the CFO has a bigger remit than just finance. So he owns also corporate strategy, and also our sales team.
Through your experience either at Letgo, or in your prior roles, what do you think are the skills of a great finance leader? So I think there are table stakes for a finance leader, which are closing the books, being able to do a forecast and a budget, and protecting cash. Those are the minimum.
And I think the best skillset for a finance leader is having, on top of those analytical skills, people skills and being able to lead with the co-founders, with your C-level, to advise them from a financial perspective on how to grow the company.
I think I'd be doing my company a disservice if all I thought about was finance. It's my duty to embed myself in other parts of the organization, to listen, to learn, and then to help everybody achieve our goals together.
Being a business partner across the organization is a hallmark of the modern finance leader. How do you encourage your team to play the business partner role?
One exercise that we do is with risks and opportunities. We say here are the risks, and we're going to protect against our risks, right? We'll put in processes, and we'll protect against those organizational-wide. Obviously they are things like controls and stuff that we're going to do no matter what. But organizational wide or strategic questions. What are our risks for making that decision?
But then we also talk about our opportunities. We try to take a step back and say here are the opportunities for that strategic decision. And we bring that to the table whenever we're talking with our exec team.
As a finance team, we try never to say ‘no’. As a startup, I think saying no sometimes can be detrimental to really good ideas. So we try not to say ‘no’. We try to say, ‘okay, it's a great idea. Here's the risk for that, and here's how we can help you’.
I just think that if you say ‘no’ too much as a finance team, then that goodwill that you build up with the rest of the organization is lost. People say, okay, well I'm not going to go to the finance team for ask for permission anymore. Or let's not bring the CFO or the VP of Finance into this meeting because we know they're just going to shut it down. Right?
I'd rather be in that meeting and help prevent the risks, or help to advise them on the risk, or how we can protect against it, than not be in the meeting and be surprised later when something gets launched without the proper legal or financial oversight. So in order to make sure that we're in that room, we can't say no too often.
You’ve spent 10 years in startups, which seems to require a bit more risk-tolerance than say, working for a large established company. What do you like about the startup experience?
For me, working in startups has been a huge career accelerator. You get to wear lots of different hats, be involved in the whole P&L, the balance sheet, cashflow, do everything from treasury to controls to forecast and budgeting, as opposed to going to a big company where I'm focused on just accounts receivable, or just the forecast process.
There's obviously a lot of VC funding in the startup world, so that reduces the risks. Salaries are not super depressed compared to working in a big company. And then on the other hand, big companies have lots of their own risks too.
So I don't know if it’s necessarily more risky to work at a startup than a big company, but the upside is definitely bigger because you have that career acceleration. You get to try lots of different things out, and see where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are, and how you want to navigate your career.
Is there any book, podcast or resource you recommend to other finance people?
Jason Lemkin - the SaaStr conference founder - I've been reading him on Quora for years. And I find his website to be a great resource.
Dave Kellogg, his blog is called Kellblog. He was the CEO of Host Analytics, now called Planful. His blog is fantastic. He talks about SaaS metrics and finance topics, but he also used to be the CMO at a previous company and has a lot of marketing insights. So I learned a lot of marketing and sales information from him, which I find to be very helpful.
Patrick McKenzie, who works at Stripe, is a great Twitter follow. His Twitter is patio11. I think he has a blog too.
What else? Oh, the Cloud Accounting Podcast. I'm throwing up my dork flag here. It's__ David Leary__ who used to work at Intuit for a long time, and Blake Oliver, who used to be a Xero ambassador. And they talk about cloud accounting, lots of different products for cloud accounting, like Spendesk. And they're super interesting. They have a podcast once a week. Very interesting topics, always up on the latest news. So that's one of my favorite podcasts to listen to on this topic.
So last question is a fun one. What would you be doing if you weren't working in finance?
I think I would be building a software that solves a need that I had when I was in my job right now. Some software that's not out there yet that would be connected to your core GL, your ERP. I think that's where a lot of my passion is, in saving myself time and becoming more efficient. So I'd find something to save another person just like me time to become more efficient.
Well, that's very noble of you. I thought you might say something like, open a wine bar on the beach somewhere…
No, I don't think I'd be good at that. No, you have to talk to too many people if you do a wine bar.
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