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In the hot seat - insights into working as a Finance Lead

Written by: Robert Collings
Published on: 9 Nov 2020

Please start by giving us a short summary of your career to date and what role you are currently working in. 

I’m currently the Finance Lead at Flux - a tech startup aiming to eliminate the paper receipt. We think it’s crazy that paper receipts still exist, so our aim is to eliminate them by sending an itemised receipt straight into your mobile banking app. 

My role at Flux means I get to be involved in a wide range of finance related matters, from funding and cash flow to pricing and strategy. If it’s finance related, the chances are it’ll come across my desk (or, more likely, inbox!) 

Prior to Flux, I was head of the tech and high growth sector at a top 20 accountancy firm. That prepared me well for jumping the fence from practice into industry - a move I am yet to regret! 

How did you work your way to becoming a Finance Lead? 

I started my accountancy journey back in 2012 when I joined UHY Hacker Young as a school leaver. I worked in both the accounts and audit departments whilst studying for my AAT and ACA qualifications. 

In my final year of qualification, I was pondering what to do next - do I stay in audit or do I move into a different team? The idea of staying in audit wasn’t particularly appealing and the idea of being a general portfolio holder (where you look after a range of different clients) didn’t excite me that much either. Whilst exploring the many options that an ACA qualification gives you, I suddenly had a thought: why don’t I try and combine my passion for tech startups with my career choice of accountancy? 

That’s exactly what I did, and after qualifying I set out to build a tech startup sector specialism at UHY. After lots of networking, meeting clients and getting things going, I started to move up the ranks and ended up as head of the sector. 

I originally came across Flux on twitter and instantly loved the idea. It was such a simple idea which had the power to make a permanent difference in the way we do things. Towards the end of 2019, they started their search for their first finance hire. That seemed like the perfect time for me to finally scratch that itch and move into industry. 

What is your typical day to day routine working as a Finance Lead? 

I’m still fairly new to Flux so don’t quite have a day to day routine yet, but when people say that working for a startup is a rollercoaster ride, I would fully agree! The days are usually vastly different, but there are some common themes. 

The first thing to worry about is putting out the fires. These are things that pop up unexpectedly but are really important, like dealing with important outside stakeholders or setting up the commercials for deals which might get signed earlier than expected. 

Once they’re taken care of, you can move into things that help the company achieve its long term vision - such as when will we next raise investment and what do we need to achieve to get there. It’s about thinking what the big picture looks like, then working out the steps required from a finance point of view. 

To give a balanced view, there are absolutely still some things to be done which aren’t the most glamorous - dealing with invoice disputes or reconciling an account on the TB which has gone astray, for example. Whilst they aren’t what I moved into industry for, I must admit that sometimes it’s quite nice to deal with something that doesn’t need a lot of brain power! 

Do you have any advice to fellow ICAEW members looking to work as a Finance Lead? 

My experience so far might still be clouded by the new starter feeling, but I can tell that working in a startup is tough, especially if you’re the only accountant in the company! You’ve got to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone when necessary. There’s no time to worry about your limitations - you just have to give it a go and roll with it. You can always fix it later if it needs fixing. 

You’re not expected to know everything off the top of your head, but you certainly need to know (or learn) where to find answers. Being able to make quick decisions on limited information is also a great skill to have. If you wait until you have all the information, it’s probably too late to make the decision. 

It’s a tough gig, but the rewards are worth it. You are part of something that is building the future. Something that has previously only ever been imagined. Something that people have said is impossible. But you have small wins and you have big wins and it’s those wins that make everything worthwhile. 

What is your favourite thing about working as a Finance Lead? 

When you’re in practice, you’re generally working with other accountants or finance related people, and that’s great because you gain a solid understanding of all things finance. However, when you move into a startup things change. You now need to communicate with different internal teams, such as product and sales, and also external stakeholders, such as investors and advisors.  

The startup ecosystem generally attracts very smart people, so one of my favourite things about working in Flux is getting to see how those people think - what matters to them and what motivates them, etc. Developing those personal skills that help you understand people quickly is what I find exciting. 

That, and the fact that we’re building something which has the potential to be huge, of course! 

What do you find most interesting about your role as a Finance Lead? 

When you’re in practice, it’s similar to digging a shallow ditch spread across a wide area. What I mean by that is you’re often advising many different clients, but only at a relatively high level. For example, you might have a reasonable understanding of how to raise an investment round and be able to talk about the subject, but you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable actually doing it (unless you’ve done it before). 

In industry, you’re digging a deep but narrow hole. You’re getting into the depths that you’d simply never experience in practice which means you’re learning about things you’ve not come across before. Continuing with the investment raise example, in industry you actually get to work on a raise and you learn everything that happens or needs to happen for it to be a success. It gives you a different type of experience. 

That’s not to say one is better than the other - both have their own pros and cons! 

What challenges do you come across working as a Finance Lead? 

From a personal point of view, the transition from practice to industry is tough. You arrive with expectations of yourself which you’ll try to live up to, but then you get knocked sideways when something happens which you weren’t expecting.  

Another challenge is trying to manage workload, particularly in a startup. You might have a huge list of things that need to be done, all with their own deadlines, but you only have time to do a few of them. In practice you’re surrounded by accountants so if you need a hand, there is always someone there. In industry you don’t have that, particularly when you’re the only finance person, so you may find yourself working a little longer to get things done or delegating to someone who doesn’t have a finance background. 

What are your career aspirations, and where do you see your current role evolving to? 

The exciting part of being with a startup is that you grow with the company. If you join at a relatively early stage, you get involved in building systems and processes and setting things up. You help set pricing and structure the business model, for example. 

As the company grows, you start to iterate on those processes through feedback you’ve collected or things you’ve learnt. Each stage will bring their own challenges, such as M&A, exit events or fundraising strategy. 

That’s where I see things going with Flux. As the company grows, I hope to be able to play a key part in developing and adapting the business model so it continues to grow at a fast pace. I’ll be ensuring the finance function meets the needs of the company at each stage of growth. 

What challenges do you envisage in the Accounting and Finance world? 

Accountancy is going through a very interesting time. I would compare it to trying to move a 100 year old statue - it’s got to be moved, but things will inevitably break in the process.  

To put some context around that, there is a lot of tech coming not just into the accountancy sector, but into businesses in general. So much tech that the industry is starting to move fast. But when it moves fast, things break.  

In our case, those breakages are coming through in the audit sector. Companies are growing too complex for audit to be able to keep up. There are some tools out there, but the innovation in that particular area doesn’t seem to be keeping pace. 

High profile audit failures in turn put a dent in the reputation of the accountancy sector, so it’s key that the sector looks forward into adopting a new way of auditing companies that really works. Blockchain is often touted as the answer, but I’m yet to see anyone doing meaningful work in this area to bring us closer to a solution. 

Any other comments? 

Moving from practice to industry was a huge decision for me. It took me a long time to make the decision and many, many thoughts crossed my mind. I’d love to share some of the things that helped me make that final decision: 

  1. The world is a big place and there are so many options out there. How can you be sure that practice is the best option if you’ve never stepped outside? When you’re near the start of your career, making a move is fairly low risk - time is on your side and you probably don’t have as many commitments as someone twice your age. 

  1. If things go wrong, you’ll probably land on your feet. You might be out of a job for a little bit of time, but the experience you’ll get from that will be worth so much more than staying where you are. Plus, you have the ACA qualification which adds a lot of weight to your CV. Accountants are always in demand. 

  1. Think about the big picture. People often tell you to think about your career in a 5 year window - where do you want to be in 5 years? It’s great to aim for a certain point, but what happens next? Make sure you’re not locking yourself into something which will make it harder to get out of.  

Thank you to our author Robert Collings on taking part in this blog series to enlighten fellow members on the job possibilities out there.