International M&A and Fundraising Strategy with Gemini Data CFO Chris Seybold
“We're always talking about disruption and innovation — and that applies to every industry.”
Finance leader Chris Seybold has been part of the Silicon Valley tech scene for the past 25 years, with a few interesting detours along the way. While some finance career paths can look like a straight ladder up, Chris thinks of his more as “a series of really cool projects” — and it’s hard to disagree. From hardware, to software, to French wine, Chris’ finance experience spans industries, continents, and perspectives. A career in three acts, you might say.
He started out as a part-time CFO before being recruited to join founder.org as CFO and finance advisor to their student-led startups across the US and Europe. There, he helped develop the “8D” program — the eight dimensions you need to consider when building and scaling a business — and watched multiple startups raise funds & launch successful businesses from the ground up.
From there, Chris had the unique opportunity to become CFO of French wine company, Château de Pommard, after a friend & mentor acquired the company. There he learned the delicate balance of modernizing processes while also maintaining the character and integrity of a multi-generational brand.
And now, in his third act as CFO & COO at Gemini Data, Chris is in the startup trenches: hiring, fundraising, and partnering with leaders across the org to optimize growth — all amidst a pandemic.
In this episode, we chat with Chris about his multifaceted finance career, and some key lessons learned along the way.
Read on for a few highlights from our conversation & listen to the full episode here.
The peculiarities of cross-cultural M&A
So many opportunities come about just based on the people and the teams that you’ve worked with in the past. Michael Baum (of founder.org) had been living in France and called me up saying “I'm thinking about purchasing this fairly sizable wine business in Burgundy. Could you come over here?”
So the next day, I was on a plane over to Paris.
After acquiring Chateau de Pommard, there was a lot of PR to be done on the ground and with the people in the company. We met with the mayor, we reached out to local other wineries, other hotels, and looked for ways to help develop tourism in the area.
And then it was figuring out - how do we take this business into the future? As for the wine-making and the approach to building a great product, we weren’t messing with any of that. What we did focus on was selling and marketing. We were trying to reach out to a new generation of wine lovers. It's just like any other business, you have to adapt to stay relevant.
As with any acquisition, there are folks who were excited about the new journey. And then there are folks who were not. So, there was definitely some turnover and some redesigning of jobs.
For a finance guy like me, wine was a completely different business. I'm not used to working with inventory at all, not even used to really having anything on the balance sheet and the inventory account. Besides the inventory of wine, there’s also the inventory of labels and corks and bottles and barrels. So it was a super learning experience for me.
His main challenges in the role of CFO & COO
Just like any startup, there's not enough resources and there's never enough time.
Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic threw everybody for a loop, and so that presented its own challenges. We're very much a typical enterprise software company where we rely on salespeople and in-person meetings quite often. So that first quarter when everybody just started shutting their offices, it was like — wow, ok.
So, we had some deals that got delayed because people were really trying to figure out remote work. You just had the sense that everyone at the same time, you know, across the globe was trying to figure out how to work in this new way and things got delayed.
But luckily for us, we have very loyal customers. Our renewal rates are extremely high. But some of the new deals though definitely took us longer to close.
I’d say, we weren’t helped by the pandemic, but we weren't really hurt from a deal perspective either.
Maintaining team cohesion in a remote world
The challenge for us has been much more on the people side — working together as a team.
One thing that has been super helpful for us is doing these hackathons where we work in teams to actually figure out, okay, what are the different use cases for our product?
We typically bring together people that wouldn't necessarily be working together on a regular basis. At our upcoming company & sales kickoff, we're all going to be demoing our use cases. It’s been a way for me to work very closely with other people in the company.
And you’ve got to make an effort to reach out and just check in on people. It’s been hard on everyone to be in lockdown mode for much of the past year. It’s important to maintain that human connection, and that shared sense of ‘we're all in this together.’
We all know the fundraising process is a slog. You have to have a lot of conversations, and under time constraints. You don't have forever to raise money if you really want to move your company forward.
You want to really do your research to target investors and figure out things like who is investing at my stage? There could be a great investor or fund that everybody knows about, but they don't invest at the seed stage, or they only do B to C, or maybe they've invested in a competitor…
So you've got to target. Once you can kind of narrow your list down to something that's manageable, you need to figure out a way to get a warm introduction. All VCs will say: you can submit your deck and we promise we'll look at it. But the reality is, just like anything, if you know somebody, chances are your deck will get in front of the right person.
The way that I did this for our Series A was, I went on Crunchbase and did a cursory search. And, you get a sense for what stage and what geographies they invest in and what kinds of industries have been interesting to them. And then you go to each individual website and you drill down and you try to see who's the right partner.
I probably spent a couple of solid weeks just narrowing down that list of the right investor profiles. The next stage for me was going on LinkedIn to see who I know, or who I know who knows someone at this firm. Or do I know anybody from any of their portfolio companies that can maybe give me information about what it's like to actually work with them, or tips on how to pitch.
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