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When is it Time to Hire Your First Chief Financial Officer

November 9, 2021

Post 1 of 4 in the CFO Series

What comes before a full-fledged CFO? Lots of startups have nothing more than an outsourced bookkeeper or one junior staff accountant. Sometimes a founder or a founder’s spouse even steps in on this front. As startups scale, they are likely to hire a more senior accountant, maybe an AR/AP/Collections staff member, or even a Controller or VP Finance.

Depending on the complexity of your business you might be able to hold off on hiring a full-time CFO, but if you have any of these signs then it’s time to start thinking about bringing someone on board. One sign is intuitive, and it’s just the feeling that you’re concerned about cash. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night and that’s what’s on your mind—not just that you’re running out of cash, but that you aren’t clear on how much cash you have and how fast you’re spending it. Is it concerning that you’re tight when it comes to payroll? Are you getting calls from vendors about late payments? Are you way under market in compensation and trying to overcome that by offering equity or “perks'' to attract top talent? These are all telltale signs that your financial situation may be under duress, and a full-time CFO can be a solution.

Another telltale sign that you might need a CFO is more tangible: Are you spending too much of your own time managing fundraising, debt, investors, and cap table questions and issues? If you are in the weeds with the financial reporting, either fixing what’s there or creating a lot of things from a blank slate, then there’s an obvious problem, and solution.

Another sign that you need to hire a full-time CFO comes in the form of things you can’t answer. If your board asks you about some small-to-mid-level analysis or metric like CAC, customer profitability, margins, or ROI, and you don’t have a great answer that’s a signal that your finances are out of control. And if you can’t figure out how to get to an answer, that’s even worse.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until these telltale signs emerge before hiring a full-time CFO—it’s also possible to have a discussion with your current finance person and figure out together what their career path could be, and what their aspirations are. If your finance person aspires to be CFO but doesn’t have the skills (yet) consider bringing on a fractional CFO. A fractional CFO may be the way to go if your business model is simple…some combination of a limited number of complex accounting issues, a limited number of customers or invoices or transactions, and an insignificant difference between the income statement and the cash flow statement. If what you need is someone to oversee a gradually growing team, a slow-paced implementation of higher-order systems, basic financial analysis or modeling, or the occasional fundraising event, a fractional CFO may get the job done, for several years. A fractional CFO can also mentor your current finance person in the realities of the CFO role, and they can help you find a qualified CFO who will be a good fit for your company.

While there is no fast and easy answer about when to hire your first CFO, there are some telltale signs that point to that direction and if it’s not in your budget, consider a fractional CFO to help get things under control before you really do run out of cash.

-Matt Blumberg, November 9, 2021