As part of our “Meet My CFO” series, he talks about his career and the financial and accounting challenges related to the growth and internationalization of the startup.
What are the main differences between a CFO of a startup and that of a more traditional company?
It’s not the same job at all! In large groups, there is a real segmentation of professions. Between accounting, tax issues, legal, M&A and management control, things are organized in silos. It’s totally different in a start-up: there we are no longer specialized at all, we have to touch on everything, including the most administrative aspects. At Heetch, for example, it’s as much about finding an accounting firm in the Congo as managing a tax audit in Belgium, including looking for the mail to make sure you don’t miss an important registered letter.
Another important difference is the fact that in large groups, a large part of the time is devoted to communication and reporting… At Heetch, this dimension is very small, since we are still only a small team, with 7 people at head office on Legal & Finance subjects, relayed by managers in each country.
How are startups pioneers (or not) in tools and methods related to accounting and management?
From what I see, we are rather late! But that will change.
On the production of financial information, for example, we are in a relatively artisanal mode, where each entity publishes its accounts according to local accounting standards. At the end, we therefore end up with Excel files and local balance sheets. We are beginning to see the limits of this system, especially when the number of countries increases… Conversely, large groups have had ERPs for years, they are constantly improving the processes. We are not there yet, because of the significant investments that this represents. Nevertheless, since 2019, we have a single tool for reporting and consolidation, Lucanet. And now that Heetch is present in 10 countries – and soon 15 – the ROI of an ERP will become more evident.
On the management of expenses and payments, on the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m behind, since we use Spendesk, which allows us to easily track expenses, validate invoices, spread payment, the creation of bank cards… There, we are really at a good level in terms of service and control process.
What are the biggest challenges you face today, on a daily basis?
Our challenge is first of all strategic: we operate in an extremely competitive market, against players 100 to 1,000 times bigger than us, with funding levels that have nothing to do with ours. We must therefore absolutely control our costs. This is a major subject on which we have focused since the Covid.
The second challenge is linked to our development in non-European countries, mainly in West and Central Africa and in the Maghreb. In these countries, you have to deal with currencies that are not always easily convertible into euros, as well as regulations that are being consolidated and somewhat exotic tax rules. Everything is much less marked out than when doing business in Europe. An example: in France, the choice of a bank is not so decisive. In Africa, it is absolutely necessary to choose the one in which you know someone, otherwise nothing will progress.
How has your profession evolved in recent years and how do you see it evolving in the years to come?
The profession itself has not necessarily changed, but the intensity of each subject has. With the Covid, we operated a phase of controlling our costs, with a 30% reduction in 6 months, and since then, we have continued with an expansion phase, which involves reconnaissance work in many countries, the search for partners, negotiations of shareholder agreements, etc.
In the years to come, we will have several new subjects, including the implementation of an accounting ERP, to better control our closing process. A second development, which will happen later, will be to appoint local financial managers, with in the longer term, management by zones (Maghreb, Central Africa, West Africa), to model the financial organization on the organization operational.
At that time, my day-to-day job will completely change.
What are the tools and solutions that are changing your daily life as a CFO – and which ones have yet to be invented?
Spendesk. It allows you to have a view of everything that is happening in terms of payment and invoices at a glance. For the control of expenses and the recovery of supporting documents in a structured way, it is a perfect tool. Another tool that helps us a lot is Uplaw, to manage the capitalization table. It is very user-friendly and lets you know who has A, B, C shares, BSPCEs, stock options, where are the vesting plans, etc. We have access to information in two clicks, and, above all, we have in front of each figure a direct link to the corresponding document.
As for the tools that are missing, there may be something to do around Saas contracts, to manage subscription-related expenses and anticipate negotiations.
But with a good Excel, it is still possible to manage it.
What will be the essential qualities to be a successful CFO in the years to come?
In a large group, to be successful, you must above all have great internal communication skills. In a startup, it’s different: as there are not all the support functions on which you can rely in large companies, you must above all manage to create a network, to surround yourself with people capable of informing you on each subject or to find you the right contacts. In the case of Heetch, it is for example a question of finding the person who knows how to explain to you the ecosystem in Abidjan to do business with France, then who can tell you the right lawyer on site, the one who has the right connections. in the right bank… This ability to create an external network and know how to surround yourself with peers is increasingly essential.
Like Julien, Sophie has managed to improve her daily life and that of her employees by offering herself more flexibility, agility and real-time activity management.
Check out his story: