S02E01: Koala's CFO John Toth: Scaling your business from local hero to global success

Ryan Edwards-Pritchard
November 8, 2022


John is the first to admit he’s a “recovering investment banker”. In fact, he spent the first 15 years of his career in capital raising and financial analysis, before shifting gears into the role of CFO.  

Most recently, John took up the role of CFO at Bark (a monthly pet gear subscription that he describes as in “the happiness business”). Over six years, John helped the company go from $30 million to $600 million in revenue and was a driving force in taking Bark public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Originally from San Francisco, John left the US just three days before the first outbreak of the pandemic back in March 2022 and now calls Melbourne home. Today, he heads up the finance function of Koala as CFO and is passionate about adding value to early-stage startup and scaleup companies.

In this episode, John explains what he loves about working in customer-centric brands, his playbook for internationalising, his observations of the challenging startup environment we’re currently facing and why a strong finance function is key to realising a brand’s sustainability mission.

Joining a customer-centric brand

John joined the Koala team in early 2022, attracted by the company and its founder’s mission to make a difference in the world. While the direct-to-consumer brand might sell couches and beds, John sees the brand as solving real problems for its customers.

“The customer doesn’t want just a bed. They want their old bed to be taken away and their new bed to be assembled and available when they want it.”

John sees Koala as part of what he calls direct-to-consumer 2.0. Unlike bricks and mortar retailers or big marketplaces, Koala has the data to know exactly why their customers are buying their products. Plus, they’re part of the circular economy and have integrated sustainability into every part of the business (something that is a top priority for their Gen X and Z customers).

John’s playbook for internationalising

Koala has Australia built into its DNA. But, the company has big plans to dominate globally, with 40% of its revenue already coming from Japan and Korea.

So, what’s John’s formula for going global?

“I'm a big believer in moving quickly to engage the customer. Adjust, move fast, make lots of small bets, be prepared to fail, but fail quickly and learn and iterate”

Rather than slowly gathering data, running surveys and coming into a new market with expectations, John urges companies to move fast, listen hard and respond instead.

Plus, Koala has learnt the importance of tailored products to each local market, too. In Japan, multi-functional products that work well in tight spaces are a top priority. On the flip side, Aussie and American customers are more interested in products to kit out their spare bedrooms when guests come to stay.

Even while going global, meeting the needs of local customers is key to success.

Building teams in high-growth scaleups

In today’s tight labour market, finding the right talent to build out any department can be a challenge. But John shares a tried and tested hiring principle that works across all recruitment environments.

“One of the big challenges is finding the right person for the environment. To me, this is a conversation about fit. We’re inventing a new company… so you’re bush bashing through an area that hasn’t been established before. If you love that, that’s a great fit. If it's uncomfortable for you, it’s not a great fit.”

Working in startups and scaleups means having an entrepreneurial mindset and taking uncertainty in your stride. It isn’t for everyone, but that’s what you need to look for when hiring.

Navigating economic uncertainty

John sees a two-fold shift happening in the startup ecosystem: first, equity valuations are adjusting and second, we’re all holding our breath to see how consumers respond to the uncertainties of interest rate rises and inflation.

Finance has a strategic role to play in navigating this environment, and John believes the best finance teams will get out in front and make their business has the capital and resources to pursue their mission in this environment.

“It’s not the time to be timid or slow. If you need to cut costs, the sooner you cut them, the sooner you get the savings and you can help the business. Focus on what's important and the real drivers for the business, not perfecting the details.”

Realising a sustainable business vision

Koala doesn’t view sustainability as an afterthought: it’s built into the fabric and function of every department.

The team have launched a number of initiatives, such as achieving B Corp certification, giving back 1% of profits to the planet and donating over $6 million in products to those in need (such as those impacted by the east coast floods). Most recently, they’ve launched Koala’s Second Home initiative, where customers can donate used products to find a new home, rather than ending up in landfill.

“You can only do that if the business works. The business is not a charity. And so you have to design the company to be productive and integrate sustainable practices into the genetic makeup of the operations in the business. It's part of who we are, it's not an afterthought, which I love.”

You can find John on LinkedIn

Ryan Edwards-Pritchard
November 8, 2022