The Direct-to-Consumer Finance Function
I’m happy and excited to contribute this installment in the Mastering Scale series. As the CFO of Marley Spoon, my task is to define and detail the finance role in direct-to-consumer (D2C) companies.
As the name suggests, D2C businesses create, sell, and ship products directly to buyers - usually end consumers. There are no third parties involved - no stores or on-sellers.
And as we’ll see, this direct relationship with the customer impacts the responsibilities and focus points of the finance team. In this article, I’ll explain:
What a finance team needs to do in a business like ours
What financial resources you need as the company grows
Who the main stakeholders are
The single biggest focus for D2C finance
But before we can get into all of that, you need to know what we do at Marley Spoon.
A bit about Marley Spoon
We sell meal kits directly to people’s doorsteps. You pick recipes from a weekly changing menu and they come to you with instructions, so it’s easy to cook. We produce these ourselves: we design the menu, buy the food and have it delivered to our manufacturing sites, produce the boxes completely in-house, and then organize the delivery to customers via 3rd party logistics providers.
This means we have a unique supply chain in each region.
The products are available on three continents today: Australia, the US, and Europe. In Europe we’re in six different countries: Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We fulfil via six manufacturing centres across the globe: one here in Europe; two in Australia; three in the US.
As a result, our finance team is also structured by region. Because we have separate menus, supply chains, and production sites in each region, I need people in my team structured by these regions. They’re separate businesses as far as finance goes in a lot of ways, although we do share many of the same systems and processes.
There’s some crossover in Europe - we produce everything at our site in the Netherlands and then ship to Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Nordics. But there’s not much operational interaction between the US, Australia, and Europe, other than certain centralized HQ services, such as the tech infrastructure or customer communications.
This will all be particularly relevant when we look at the process of scaling the finance function. But first, we also need to define the most important roles for the finance team.
What are the core finance functions for D2C?
As we’ll see, the make-up of your finance team will depend on the size of the business, the number of transactions you deal with, and the markets you’re in. But regardless, you always have to focus on three core concepts: accounting, controllership, and financial planning and analysis (FP&A).
Let’s quickly set out what each of these look like at Marley Spoon.
Of the 24 people in our finance team, one third works in accounting. Their core tasks are ensuring our suppliers get paid, and recording business transactions: sales, costs - any occasion when we spend or receive money.
There are two important aspects to this role:
Data needs to be accurate and up-to-date; and
Accounting needs to be done in accordance with global accounting standards and/or local rules and regulations.
That second point can end up dictating the size and build of your finance team.
Next, we have controllers. They ensure that, once transactions are recorded, everything is complete and accurate. You need to have strict controls around how data is recorded, again in line with both global and/or local rules and regulations.
And more holistically, your books need to reflect what’s actually happening in the company.
So this role includes reviewing data and making sure it’s accurate, as well as aggregating numbers and identifying pain points, e.g. aged payables or receivables. If you operate in different countries, controllers need to produce consolidated numbers and reports, as this is what your stakeholders care about. (We’ll talk about them shortly.)
You probably even use different systems in each country, at least at the start, so you need to make sure these systems spit out the comparable information at the end. Providing rules around the “accounting playing field”, such as how your chart of accounts looks, is a typical controllership task.
Really, everything outside of the recording of transactions - everything to do with reporting and making sure that things make sense and the books are right, and tax and other official deadlines are met - are controllership tasks.
Financial planning & analysis (FP&A)
Then we have FP&A analysts. They take the numbers Accounting and Controllership produce, assess and analyze them, and create forecasts. And they work with other company functions to improve our numbers.
We have seven of these people at Marley Spoon analyzing things like food costs (two per region, one in HQ). So they work with menu planners to design a menu that has an efficient cost structure. They work with procurement to help them identify opportunities to spend money more wisely. That’s what we call FP&A.
The easiest part of FP&A is the planning. Everyone can plan somehow. And it’s not until later that you’ll find out whether that plan was good or not. It gets more complicated when you have to analyse and compare back to that plan.
A monthly closing that doesn’t lead to forecast updates is pretty much unheard of at Marley Spoon, also when we make or exceed our plan. There should always be something you learned from a closed month…
Note: Those from a European or German finance background sometimes use the term “controlling” for this. In reality, it’s a bit of hybrid between what I described as controllership and FP&A above.
I previously worked in an American company and they have a very strict distinction between these two functions. One side of the house keeps the company safe and compliant. The other uses these numbers to understand and support the rest of the business when making decisions, but doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have a direct impact on how the transactions are recorded.
Who are your stakeholders?
Capturing and analysing data isn’t done in a vacuum. Finance is a service within the business, so we need to understand who we’re serving and what they need from us.
In a D2C business like ours, I see four clear stakeholders.
These are the governments and tax offices of the countries you’re present in. For us, that includes the US, Australia, and six European countries. As discussed above, we have to meet legal requirements in each of these regions consistently.
Accounting and controllership teams are there to keep the company safe. You get into trouble if you report incorrectly or late, or if the numbers aren’t accurate.
Investors & shareholders
As the CFO, this is one of the groups I spend the most time with on the team. They need to know how the company is run and that it’s in good shape.
Unlike the authorities, investors care deeply about our FP&A work - particularly forecasting. They also want to know that we’re keeping costs as low as possible and finding smarter ways to run our business.
As we saw above, accounting and controlling can become highly relevant here if you’re being audited. But for the most part, investors care more about our planning and analysis, although they like hearing you satisfy international audit standards.
Here we’re talking primarily about the CEO and the rest of the executive team. As CFO, you’re part of this group. And your colleagues rely on your financial insights to make better decisions and run the company well.
But they also care that you keep the company safe. And your accounting and controlling teams help ensure that the business stays out of financial trouble. Plus, if you record all the cash coming in and out, you can be sure that nobody is wasting money or even stealing from the company.
In my view getting to interact and guide other teams is the most exciting part. This is the highest level of finance: to be a real, functional partner.
In our case, that literally means we provide input into menu creation and give a cost targets. For example, we’ve made a recipe builder for the culinary teams years ago, so they immediately see how much a recipe they design costs and can adjust.
I have my team in each country - they need to explain variances for each production site, each cost category, each product line. “I thought I would pay X in food costs this month, but I paid Y. Why is that…”
Finance is the one function that can look at all of these variables as a whole to find opportunities. In my view, a good FP&A analyst will spend more than 50% of their time working with other teams.
Of course this also means you need ways to automate your analysis. You can’t spend two weeks every month on closing and one week updating your plan. That only leaves one week where you’re adding the most value to the company.
It’s not that these other team members don’t get it. But the list of things they could look at and adjust is almost endless. We can show them which steps will actually have the biggest impact and should be prioritized. In our case, this means FP&A spends most of their time on variable costs, and here especially food cost, since this is our largest cost block.
How to build the D2C finance function
You’re going to need people and tools for accounting, controlling, and FP&A. But who do you need, and when do you need them?
In my view, there’s a clear distinction between the early, scrappy stages of the company, and the growth and scaling phases.
I was the first CFO that they hired at Marley Spoon, and they hired me pretty early on. I was onboard six months after the company was founded.
We had just launched in Germany. And other than setting up the first Paypal account, the first bank account and the first entities, I was here for all the international expansion and growth of the company.
The first thing is to get the operational basics in place for finance. Can you pay suppliers and employees, and can you accept payments from clients? You also need to record payments accurately, but there are so few transactions that this isn’t a struggle.
In our case, the first thing we did was outsource accounting in each country. Even though we booked according to international accounting standards (IFRS) from day 1, there are always local rules around the tax code and end of year reporting you need to understand. Systems need to be compliant with these local rules, and external accountants know the standards for each particular country.
The downside is that it’s a bit like herding cats. You need to make sure that they’re all recording things consistently. Often these external accountants will default to local standards, so it took some effort over the years to keep them aligned on how we want to book per IFRS. But it’s still much cheaper than having a full-time accountant for each country or having an ERP system to keep you compliant everywhere.
Controllership is not as big a concern at the beginning - the numbers are not that big. You don’t need many people to police all the transactions if there aren’t many transactions. Maybe your supplier base is only 10 companies instead of 100. There’s just less activity which means you need less time for controllership activities.
And as far as FP&A goes, there’s simply not that much to analyse at this point. As CFO, you can evaluate assumptions and steer the business in the right direction. But you probably don’t need a full team for this yet. And you likely can’t afford it.
For the first year or so, I had one experienced person to focus on the forecast model, as that tends to be a fairly complicated task from the start (investors will want to see a certain level of sophistication here), plus an intern to help with small things.
The first senior controllership person I hired when the company was about a year old.
Two things happen as you start to grow and the number of transactions increases:
You’ll no longer want to rely on outsourced accounting; and
You’ll need a lot more control over your books.
Accounting will almost certainly be the first part of the company you need to build. D2C businesses deal with large numbers of transactions. So you want to make sure that these are dealt with correctly.
In our case, we added a local accountant full-time for each market once the relatively cheap external accountants struggled with the increasing complexity (e.g. multiple sites, multiple product lines, more detailed cost center split).
The next thing we added was more controllership. At a certain point, you can no longer go through invoices one-by-one. We have multiple product lines in several countries, with thousands of transactions each month. As your supplier base and customer base branch out, you need more controllership people to review data in aggregate.
Another good indication that you’re going to need controllership is when you’re thinking about getting externally audited. In our case this started quite early in 2016. Less than two years in we were already doing a Big-4 audit, since we wanted to be ready for an IPO, which requires a couple of years of audited financials.
You really have to beef up this team because that’s a multi-month project on its own. Plus you need to put in place more and better documented internal controls. Even if you perform the same simple controls as before - such as checking your credit card receipts against your orders system - you now have to do this more formally for an auditor. They’re sitting there for weeks, asking questions about everything.
I immediately went from one and a half controllers to four or five people on the team when we decided to get audited.
Scaling FP&A is somewhat similar: the right time to add analysts is when there’s something meaningful to analyse. And the more analysis there is to do, the more analysts you’ll need.
In the US, we started with one site on the East Coast - we were only sending boxes around New York City. Then we added a West Coast location. That means we have different costs, a different production process, and different logistics partners on each coast.
We also have different products in those locations, with different price points. And then we added a Texas site, so we have three different production sites with their own costs, with two product lines in each.
Costs vary greatly, and we need to understand all this when making decisions. Maybe one site or one product isn’t performing. If I want to understand that properly, I can’t do it with one FP&A analyst. I need one for each country. Over time, that increased to two for each country.
Generally speaking, whenever something becomes meaningful in terms of the dollars or euros involved, you need an analyst on it.
A specific focus for D2C finance
What makes the D2C finance function different from, say, B2B software or the marketplace model? They’re all going to require accounting, controlling, and FP&A, but I feel that we emphasise one factor far more than the others:
Our biggest expense is always food costs. That’s where I have to spend a lot of my time and focus. We analyse this in a number of different ways, look at lots of drivers, and always try to make adjustments to keep these low.
In the marketplace or B2B world, you have a lot more pricing dynamics. In pharmaceuticals, for instance, you have large customers and small ones. You sell to health insurers and to wholesalers of different sizes. The pricing is therefore completely different in each instance, so you have to spend a lot of time on pricing and discount models. And (variable) costs are essentially irrelevant.
But when you go directly to the customer, you own the relationship. We know exactly what we charge the customer and everyone gets the same pricing. Of course we also experiment with different pricing ideas - limited time offers or bulk discounts. But these are still consistent for all our customers, so they don’t require too much analysis.
Building Marley Spoon’s finance function has been an incredibly rewarding challenge. Going from a small, scrappy team with a lot of external support to a large international in-house finance unit, which can get a big-4 audit done within two months of the end of year and that is a valued business partner all across the organization is a wonderful feeling.
If there’s one thing I’d emphasise on top of everything written above, it’s to be patient and add roles as you need them. Plenty can be outsourced or automated, and it’s more important that the small team you have is motivated and engaged. Finance is also a function where experience matters, so I wouldn’t hire too junior, there needs to be a good balance. Also, skills and personality types vary a good deal between the three sub-teams I mentioned above, keep that in mind when trying to find and select the right people for the team.
If you’re embarking on the same CFO journey, I hope this article was of help. Good luck!
More from Mastering Scale
More from Julian Lange
We had a special CFO Connect fireside chat to discuss the topics from this article, but also plenty more.
Mastering Scale is a series of expert articles created by Julius Bachmann for CFO Connect.
Julian Lange is CFO at Marley Spoon, a meal kit service bringing delightful, market-fresh and easy cooking back to the people by using technology to reinvent the global food supply chain and reduce unethical food waste. He joined Marley Spoon over five years ago shortly after it was founded in mid-2014. The company has expanded its service to eight countries across three continents (US, Australia, and Europe) and reached sales of €130 million in 2019. It employees over 1,000 people across its six manufacturing centers and four offices in Berlin, Amsterdam, Sydney and New York City.
Before Marley Spoon, Julian spent almost ten years with General Electric, with progressively larger roles across several GE businesses in Europe and the US. His time included three years in GE’s global headquarters during the financial crisis in the late 2000s, when he also worked on one of GE’s largest ever acquisitions in the aviation industry, and culminated with the CFO role of GE’s Gas Engine Services business in 2013/14.