Felipe Tunnell of Holded on Spanish Startups, Career Sabbaticals & the Cloud
Felipe Tunnell is VP of Finance at Holded, a cloud-based ERP that helps SMEs manage all aspects of their business, from Finance, to Operations, Sales and HR. His career path has involved investment banking and venture capital, along with a travel sabbatical to nurture his love for scuba diving & coffee — making him quite the well-rounded finance leader.
Felipe’s multi-cultural roots (English, Spanish and Argentinian!) led him to work in different European tech-hubs, like London and Barcelona, where he now leads finance for one of Spain’s hottest startups. We sat down to learn more about Felipe’s adventurous career path, and his candid advice for aspiring finance leaders.
Check out our conversation…
You started in classic investment banking and in the VC industry before landing at Holded, a SaaS startup in Barcelona. What were the most valuable takeaways from those experiences?
After my Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, I did an internship at Merrill Lynch in London. I worked in the Consumer and Retail team, on M&A, equity and debt deals. I then joined the team full time after studying a second Master’s degree in Finance. It was a great first experience as a graduate because it allowed me to work with and learn about many aspects of a business. Although I must admit I didn’t love the excessive levels of stress and the toxic culture, so I moved to a smaller company.
I joined Lepe Partners, where I later got the opportunity to work full time in the VC fund - that’s when I entered the world I’m in today. It was a great opportunity to switch from banking to VC and discover the world of tech and startups. I invested in startups at series A and B rounds, meeting a lot of interesting people, talking to industry leaders and learning a lot from them. Working in VC allows you to dive deep into various different industries and understand how they work, rather than focusing on a single one. For me this was the best learning opportunity I could have ever asked for!
While at Lepe, I suffered a serious ankle injury. Unable to walk, I had to work remotely for a while, so I went back home to Mallorca. At that point I realized that up until then, I had never had a break to think about what I really wanted to do and pursue some of my hobbies more seriously. I decided to take a career break and do some of the things I had always wanted to, like scuba diving, travelling, and more.
How did taking a sabbatical help you personally and professionally?
The career break allowed me to focus on non-work related passions. I took a divemaster course in Fiji and went diving with 6 different species of sharks. I explored my interest in coffee, visiting coffee plantations in El Salvador, and roasters throughout Australia — I now roast my own beans at home!
Professionally, I believe this type of experience gives one new perspectives that you can bring into work and are valuable in any role. It helps you truly decide what you want to do, and come back with twice the amount of energy, passion and ambition.
It wasn’t at all an easy choice. A lot of people around me didn’t recommend pausing my career, and said it would be seen badly by future employers. It takes some guts to break the status quo and say “I’m going to take a break now and I will come back later” but it was definitely a good decision.
The experience was incredible, but after several months, my partner and I decided it was time to go back. We were considering both Berlin and Barcelona as our next step, Barcelona was the winning choice, as it meant escaping the UK weather and being a 30 minute flight from home.
Scuba Diving in the Fiji Islands
After your scuba diving sabbatical, you landed your first finance leadership role as VP of Finance at Holded. That's a big jump - tell us about how that happened?
My initial plan once back in Barcelona was to open a coffee roaster, but after a few months working as a barista in a specialty coffee shop to learn the basics of coffee brewing I realized it wasn’t a perfect fit for me.
I started to go to a lot of startup events in Barcelona to get back to what I knew, the startup and tech world. At one of those events, I met Javi, one of the co-founders and co-CEOs of Holded and we just started talking. It turned out they were looking for someone with a profile similar to mine, and after several interviews, I became VP of Finance at Holded.
The question came up during one of the interviews, Javi asked “You’ve never held this role before, how are you going to make it?” The truth is, this question is applicable to anyone starting any new job, because we all begin somewhere without being experts in that role. I’ve still got the job almost 2 years later so I must be doing something right!
How has your VC background been helpful, now that you're leading finance for a startup?
The main advantage is the ability to think like an investor, it’s easy to put yourself in their shoes and this gives you a huge edge: I can think about the metrics they would like to see, the questions they would ask and the strategy path they can think of. Having VC experience really helps you adopt a strategic mindset for all decisions and be a strong partner to other areas of the business.
As for my main weakness compared to other CFOs, it’s probably the tax and administrative side, particularly the world of Spanish tax. My professional experience was in the UK so I wasn’t familiar with Spanish admin. Luckily, I have an amazing team and we complement each other's skills very well. We have a very talented and seasoned accountant who leads the compliance spectrum of the finance function. I also took some courses to be up to date and be able to handle the basics, although I’m not the one leading on those projects.
How do you think the finance leadership career path has changed over time?
The most common way to become a CFO or finance executive is to go from an accounting background in one of the Big 4, to controller, finance manager, etc. It can be a long path and, in a way, a sort of a “ticking boxes” approach.
I still believe it’s very important to have a wide array of experiences before landing an executive position, and a lot of people do follow that path. Although nowadays people are switching careers more than ever, and people end up in certain jobs with ‘unpredictable’ backgrounds.
For example, before all VCs had done investment banking or management consulting, but now the variety in career paths is broadening. Ultimately, the variety of perspectives and things you can bring to the table with a diversified experience is the most valuable, in my view.
Today, I believe at least in the startup scene, there is certainly more flexibility in how finance professionals make their way to CFO.
What about the Spanish tech scene, how have you seen it evolve?
Spain has been one of the booming markets in the tech industry in the past couple of years, although we did get to the party a bit later than our European counterparts. Spain has proven to be a good market, there have been a couple of early success stories which have put Spain, and Barcelona on the map. I think it takes years of talent building and several exits, which brings money into the ecosystem. This generates investments into more startups, but also creates expertise and large networks of angel investors and entrepreneurs.
I would add that more and more foreign investors are looking at Barcelona. A decade ago, American investors would typically only invest in the US, then they turned around to Europe and now many say “If it wasn’t for the COVID situation I would be in Barcelona this year”.
Foreign investors definitely hold an important role in Spain since they represent larger fundraising opportunities, but there’s a lot of room to raise from seed to Series A within the country. Spain is now on the radar, and will be in the future. We’re certainly catching up to other leading ecosystems like Berlin and London.
Speaking about the future, what trends do you see shaping the future of finance?
Cloud computing is not new, it's a trend that has been going on for over a decade. Yet many in the finance industry still use on-premise software, such as legacy ERPs. They’re expensive, and difficult to use, maintain and update. Now that the COVID-19 crisis has hit we need cloud software more than ever. In today’s distributed world, it makes sense to have information accessible from anywhere.
Some SMEs still rely on pen and paper, others use ERP systems which can take months to implement and sometimes fail. Cloud ERPs allow you to centralize information and can help you manage your entire business from a single place - like Holded does. Not only is it time efficient but it also saves you from a lot of headaches.
That being said, are there any tools your team and yourself can’t live without?
We use Holded to manage Holded. As funny as it sounds it is true, our main tool is Holded since it centralizes finance, sales, operations and HR in one platform. We also use Chartmogul for example to track KPIs and SaaS metrics, and Spendesk to handle company expenses. Those are the three tools we can’t go without as of today, they all automate processes and let us focus on higher impact tasks which are essential to any finance team.
To wrap-up our conversation, what’s a piece of advice you had and you’re happy you didn’t follow?
Well, I guess I mentioned it earlier, it takes a lot of guts to press pause on a good career and then come back. When I was deciding whether to take a career break or not, a lot of people, both family and my professional environment, didn’t recommend it. To them, I was on a good path and many didn’t understand why I needed this pause and were worried about the future implications.
I’m really happy I didn’t listen to them and travelled, met great people and followed my gut. This experience has helped me grow personally and also become a better professional and make better career choices. I would recommend it to anyone who has been thinking about it for a while but hasn’t taken the step, what you get from it is definitely worth it.
Finca Majahual in El Salvador.
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