How to Land Your Dream Job at a Startup When You’re in Finance

If you’re in finance, it can feel like a daunting challenge to land a job at a rocket ship startup. Given the self-serving lore that gets spread in the startup world, it’s easy to convince ourselves that the only positions these companies are looking for are engineers, data scientists, and product managers. Why are these companies not talking about hiring finance analysts, directors of finance, or FP&A leaders?

Personally I blame whoever came up with the loathsome General and Administrative (G&A) label that finance is lumped under. But I’ll let you in on a little known secret. While a lack of influential early finance employees is what’s commonly peddled in popular media, this isn’t a recipe for success. In reality, startups need rock star finance people much more than they care to admit. And luckily the great one’s realize it.

But in a sea of qualified finance candidates, how do you stand out? Its not by focusing a CEO’s attention on the deft finance skills that you (and all your peers) are bringing to the table. Frankly, they don’t care too much about this. Its in an altogether different area you want to differentiate yourself, one which you probably least expect. Sales.

The Finance Reality

Over my career I’ve run into the following situation at early stage startups countless times. By hook or by crook a startup begins to get legs, achieving unexpected early success and the business growing quicker than planned. Given the velocity at which a startup is running, before the CEO knows it, they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of increasingly not being able to answer business questions their board or potential investors are pressing them on. Obviously the status quo isn’t going to fly, so what happens next?

Ideally the startup has a self-aware CEO who decides its high time to hire the company’s first finance person. Note I said finance and not accounting. I often see these two used interchangeably which is dangerous since they have expertise in different business disciplines. Accounting is focused on the recording and reporting of financial transactions, whereas finance focuses on planning and directing the financial transactions.

While hiring someone to focus on finance should be a no-brainer given the tremendous analytical leverage it provides, it often ends up being more difficult than one could image. While, most startups CEO’s are willing to admit with no arm twisting that being buried in spreadsheets is not their idea of fun, they often have a hard time letting go. One needs to keep in mind that for many, they have been handling finance since the company’s onset, and its’ been going OK up until this point. While out of necessity they have convinced themselves that they can do this, and many of them can at the early stages of a startup, the reality is that they should be focused on other things where they can add significantly more value and let a qualified finance person take over.

So now that the CEO knows it’s time to make a finance hire for his/her startup, how do you differentiate yourself? Make this choice easy on the CEO by helping them with their single greatest pain point: Sales.

Differentiation Around Sales Operations

In the context of a startup, I’m not suggesting you pivot your career and take a sales position by becoming a quota carrying rep. No, what is really going to set you apart from other finance candidates and make you invaluable to the CEO is to have a grasp of fundamental sales operations (aka sales ops) skills, particularly sales forecasting. Sales is the lifeblood of any company, and startups are the extreme examples of this. Startups are hyper-focused on sales success and for good reason. Demonstrate repeated quarter-over-quarter sales growth and investors will be beating down a CEO’s door to invest in the company. Fail to get the sales flywheel going and you’ll get politely passed over by the money wo/men.

So how does this apply to you the startup finance job seeker? By clearly demonstrating to a CEO that you can not only help solve their finance issues, but also have expertise and desire to help with sales related analysis, you will make the CEO feel like they have found the holy grail. Your offer letter is as good as written. But how does one obtain this knowledge?

Sales Operation Toolkit for Finance

Truly exceptional finance folks separate themselves by willingly wading into the world of sales ops and taking the time to master this discipline. While certainly not an exhaustive list, the following four areas represent the highest impact skills that finance professionals should master regarding sales ops:

  • Forecasting — No sales ops area will get more airtime and discussion with a CEO than forecasting. Not only is the board pestering the startup CEO for this figure daily, but business decisions for the rest of the company all hinge on this. In order to provide more accurate forecasting, finance needs to become intimately familiar with the sales pipeline, tracking critical deals and understanding all that is changing week-over-week.
  • Quota Setting — Quota setting (or capacity planning) is essential to perform as an integrated part of the budget/planning process to ensure alignment with corporate goals. This can be a particularly challenging exercise for startups when there is limited historical information to help inform at what level quotas should be set. One needs to understand the psychology of the sales rep, ensuring that what gets set is fair and attainable, and does not act as a demotivator for the sales team.
  • Compensation — As the old adage goes, sales reps are coin operated. Therefore, you need to understand the mechanics of what makes an exceptional compensation plan that drives the right sales behavior. Great finance professionals aren’t satisfied simply calculating the corporate commission figure available for the sales team to dole out, they want to ensure the compensation plan being structured generates the right sales and customers for the company.
  • Performance Analysis — This is the metric and KPI framework that gets built out to run the operating cadence of the sales organization. It’s essential to include metrics that provide early warnings to potential problems so they can be mitigated before they become a burning issue. Don’t fall into the practice of simply producing vanity metrics that makes everyone feel good, but doesn’t actually provide any meaningful insight into sales.

Only by immersing yourself in these and other aspects of sales ops can you obtain an informed perspective on sales, and be seen as a true partner by the sales organization. Your insights will now provide a truly informed perspective on the forecasting figures that sales provide, and no longer put the CEO in the position of having to accept this on blind faith. You’ll also be better positioned to make informed business decisions as you understand the intricacies and risks of the sales forecast. Consequently, you’ll be well prepared to provide recommendations to the CEO and be able to defend decisions to other members of the executive team. What CEO wouldn’t want this exceptional finance employee as part of their inner circle.

Now I would like to hear from you. Has acquiring sales ops skills helped further your career in finance? Leave me a comment below so we can discuss.

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