How to Build the Finance Function for Hyper-Growth
I’m very happy to contribute this article in the Mastering Scale series. Like the pieces before mine, I’ll share how we created the finance function at audibene, and what I’ve learned along the way.
In particular, we’ll explore:
How we built the team and our key areas of focus
How we interact with investors, management, and our other business teams
audibene’s non-corporate approach - a key to our success
Why we don’t worry too much about tax and other regulations
More important than our specific finance team responsibilities, I’ll also set out some of the guiding principles that have helped our company grow incredibly quickly.
Let’s talk how finance can be a real a force for growth in a modern company
We were founded 8 years ago and are now the global number one in online hearing care - in every single market including the United States. We have two main brands, audibene and hear.com.
We’re active in 11 markets and have more than 1,200 employees, with more than 4,000 partner audiologists in stores. And we already served more than 5,000,000 customers.
The model is pretty straightforward. Customers first visit our websites, fill out a questionnaire, and then are called by our hearing care expert. The consultation is absolutely free, unbiased, and without obligation. We discuss their current hearing situation and provide them with expert advice on finding the right solution.
Next the customer is sent to an acoustician in our closest service center. The partner audiologist fits the perfect hearing aid and conducts a hearing test, adjusting the hearing aid to the hearing loss. Once the customer is happy, they buy from us.
I’m very proud of the fact that we’re a hyper-growth company. In just our seventh year of activity (2019) we brought in around €100 million, and in 2020 we want to achieve €185 million. We are profitable since FY19 despite huge investment into Tech, Innovations and People. And at the same time as scaling the business, we also became more efficient. Especially the finance team, as I’m about to explain.
Building the finance function
I’ve been with the company for five years. When I joined in 2015, there was almost no finance at all. Accounting was outsourced to a tax advisor and some Finance was also done by working students or directly by the founder.
The Company focus was in the early stages clearly on Sales and Marketing and on Finance side a little chaotic.
And at the same time, we were growing like crazy. The company was acquired by a well-known Swedish investment fund - EQT. We only had a few months until we needed to close our financial statements and introduce a new ERP system. So, for the first few months, my job was just fighting fires and setting priorities. I also had to set up proper finance processes and get the ERP up and running and a full year-end audit coming up in less than 2 months.
The first major hurdle was we had a pile of unbooked invoices, mostly as a result of the switch from an external accounting service company to internal accounting and in the same time an introduction of an ERP system. Probably 2,000 invoices and receipts hadn’t been booked so far.
So the first step was pretty basic accounting work. We hired freelancers to begin with just to get this done. Once we had settled the accounts, everything was entered into the ERP system (Navision) and our IFRS audit had been done by KPMG (for the acquisition). In the same time we began with the roll-out of the other eight countries incl the Finance set up.
Once we had the proper accounting and global FP&A functions - about 1.5 years in - we started to move parts of Accounting to India, in total so far 12 FTE. They started to handle all the basic accounting for us as well as reporting topics.
We also needed to set up a global business intelligence (BI) system so we’d have full and immediate visibility over the business KPIs.
And of course, one of my first jobs was just hiring, hiring, hiring. I really wanted people with an agile, non-corporate mindset. These kinds of people don’t only think about what they need to do, but think across boundaries to try to support others. I learned this from my time in business consulting and had seen it work successfully in lots of industries.
Today, our team has around 40 people of which 20 work in Accounting, most of them in our Service Center in India, 13 in health insurance claims teams in Germany and US, 4 in FP&A and 3 in Reporting and Tax topics.
Responsibilities of the finance function
Here’s a quick breakdown of the main roles our finance team plays.
Our philosophy on accounting and tax is a little different from many of the other authors in this series. I’ll go into full detail on this shortly.
As I explained above, we have an in-house Accounting team in our Indian branch. They do all of the more manual aspects of accounting - booking transactions and doing the data entry. We’ve found this to be far more efficient and at significant lower costs than using expensive external services. We benefited that we had our own subsidiary in India and so could built up the team quickly which share the same mind set.
But our main focus has always been on generating business, supporting sales, marketing and business development. These are the core functions and generate value for the whole company - not highly-granular bookkeeping. But again, I’ll explain this philosophy shortly.
We have a central FP&A function which is rather small - only three to four people. They are more responsible for monitoring deviations whilst also supporting management with ad-hoc scenario analyses. On top, they update business plans for the future. Also preparing slides for the CEO and for me as well.
The main focus for us is on analytics: where do we lose business or are inefficient, where do we gain it, and how do we make our customers happy?
And what’s most important here is that we can empower other teams like sales and marketing to own their analytics. Controlling and FP&A can contribute and provide excellent analysis, but ideally other business and functional teams will be partly in charge of their own scope as they are closer to their respective business.
So we have strong business analysts in our other business teams like Sales, Marketing as well. They can directly access and analyze the data. Other teams use f.e. partly their own systems like Salesforce which requires specific knowledge to access it.
It was like this from the start. Teams and business owners could do their own basic analytics and not have to rely on finance to provide data. So our global FP&A function focus on the bigger picture and do the overall business planning and analytics, but the daily operating analytics are often handled by the teams themselves.
That’s a basic overview of our responsibilities as the finance function. Let’s look more closely at how we work with others.
I see finance as a service organization. We’re here to help other teams do their best work and move quickly. So who do we serve?
The management team
Our mission as finance is it to be the spirit of excellence, integrity and dedication. Finance supports value creation by identifying opportunities, providing critical information and analysis to make superior operating & strategic decisions, especially with the C-Suite. TSo we try to provide data and create transparency as fast as possible, and with as much accuracy as possible.
But, crucially, we’re not aiming for 100% accuracy, especially for internal analysis. Often it takes too long to get that last 10% or so. It’s more important that they get the information they need when they need it, and can make informed decisions. And as long as the information they have is sufficient, it doesn’t have to be immaculate. This is part of being agile and a key driver of growth, in my view.
The request from management is always that they can trust myself and our team, and that we can give them as much information as we have in a timely manner.
Our targets are very ambitious - both those set by the shareholders and by ourselves. So I put a lot of my energy into helping the business hit these, and they relate to revenue and new customers - not financial accuracy.
We give the shareholders monthly and quarterly reporting packages. Our founders also meet with EQT for quarterly or half-yearly sessions. Again, here, they’re not looking for incredibly precise financial metrics.
They’ve always been happy because we can show that we’ve grown all over the business; we show improvements year over year. So these sessions were always more on business and revenue topics, and not so much on finance.
They know that we’re a hyper-growth company and that we can’t provide the exact, detailed data that Siemens or BMW might be able to. It’s about providing the big picture and giving them confidence that the business model is working and that we’re focusing on the right strategic topics. The investors really care that we prioritise correctly and work on the highest-impact topics that will impact revenue.
I really emphasize our interactions with and impact on customer happiness as a finance team. All of our decisions come back to this and how happy customers help us grow the business.
Overall, we believe that only happy customers will buy a second hearing aid, and they’ll recommend us to their friends and colleagues. This directly reduces our marketing spend, which obviously has a huge financial impact. So we need to have happy customers.
So we introduced a KPI system based on Net Promoter Score. We ask and track every customer we win or lose how happy they are about their interactions with us. We do this across all entities worldwide.
This customer focus doesn’t always feel like it’s in the finance team’s best interest. For example, if we give customers further discounts or bend rules for customers it actually creates work since one-off exceptions affect the accounting rules. Accountants want everything to be uniform and predictable.
But our policy is that we make the customer happy first and we figure out the back-office impacts later. But those are internal concerns, and our external performance is more important.
This was also a learning curve for me early on. But I’ve learned from my time here that making the customer happy will also pay off for the business. It decreases your marketing spend when you have a lot of referrals, and we’re building a strong brand for the future.
Every author in this series has talked about the tax authorities - usually first. And of course they’re important. But honestly, part of the reason we’ve succeeded and grown as quickly as we have is we don’t worry so much about tax authorities or social security.
Of course we’re compliant. We don’t want to get into serious trouble. But we just do business and then find out later if we need to make improvements. Tax is mandatory, yes, but we focus on supporting the business first and tax matters after.
From time to time we’ve had to pay extra fees as a result of this approach. But when we compare these with the value we’ve added to the business elsewhere, this trade-off has been completely worth it.
This is part of the entrepreneurial attitude of the company - if we worry too much about external roadblocks, we’re just stunting our own growth.
Advice for new CFOs
Both from my time at audibene and before, I’ve developed a few key principles that I think will benefit other finance leaders.
Focus on opportunities, not risk
At audibene we don’t worry so much about risk - we focus on opportunities. Due to this approach, we’ve paid penalties and had higher expenses on a few occasions - most notably taxes.
But the value we created for our shareholders was significantly higher than these payments along the way. So we tried to stay compliant and would never truly risk the future of the business, but if we had to make these payments along the way they were always worth it.
Aim for maximum impact
You’ll probably be aware of the 80/20 principle: the last 20% of the job takes 80% of the time. So forget about the 20% for now. Do a rough job of this and make changes if you need to.
Again, this applies to our approach to tax, but also to some of our finance processes. If something isn’t essential and is going to take a huge amount of time and effort to implement, we’ll get to it later.
Scaling up is all about finding big growth drivers - for finance and for the rest of the company.
Hire agile team members
The biggest recommendation I would give to hyper-growth companies is to hire agile people. And make sure you have analytical skills all over the company - not just in finance. That way, when you have to take time to get the finance function set up, they can handle themselves. You don’t need to be an investment banker to understand basic analytics.
Don’t be afraid to hire more talented people than yourself. People who’ll bring positivity and have a growth mindset. We hired a lot of people directly from business schools who were very eager and could still bring strong analytical skills, even if they didn’t have pages of experience.
And we also prioritised entrepreneurs who could bring creativity to these challenges, rather than fixating on structure and a narrow mindset.
Own the company culture
As CFO, I feel personally responsible for promoting our non-corporate attitude. Finance teams are often seen as non-creative, or even as police within an organisation. That’s not the spirit of the company and I’m passionately in favor of this.
So I have to foster this within our team, hire people who’re entrepreneurial rather than corporate, and support this culture. I intentionally avoid hierarchical processes, for example. And I don’t stay hidden in my office - I move around, talk with other teams, and sit wherever feels right on the day.
These little things keep the company open, transparent, and help us move quickly when challenges come up.
Good finance is key to growth
Building the finance function is always an interesting and rewarding experience. You put so much time and energy into creating good systems, and when they work out it’s a nice feeling.
But in my view, CFOs often emphasize the wrongs areas during this process. Finance teams have become police officers in their companies. If you’re always focused on control and setting limits, you create barriers for the rest of the business.
Instead, try to empower other teams with data and free them to achieve their best. That’s the fastest route to growth, and eventually to scaling up.
More from Mastering Scale
The Role & Responsibilities of the Finance Function by Julius Bachmann
The Finance Function in the Sharing Economy by Florence Lampe
The Direct-to-Consumer Finance Function by Julian Lange
Mastering Scale is a series of expert articles created by Julius Bachmann for CFO Connect.
Oliver Ottens is Head of Finance at Audibene, the world’s leading online hearing care company. Prior to this, he held management roles at KPMG, Casio and before he joined audibene he was Commercial director at travelite.