On this month's Good Money we have Ben Watiwat, VP Finance & Operations at InDebted. We talk about fast growth scaleups, building out financial operations from scratch, how to cut wasteful spending, and winning the ‘war for talent’ with a remote-first 4-day work week.
Friday, 5 November 2021
Since Ben began his career at Deloitte in 2008, he’s been building and perfecting his own CFO playbook of scaling companies through a mixture of M&A and internationalisation of operations. Ben in his own words enjoys “building things in high growth scaling startups”. In September 2020, Ben joined the team at InDebted as the VP of Finance & Operations, taking the reins during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this episode of The Good Money, Ben details how he grew from a software career into accounting, how he helped Vocus scale from 50 employees to 2,500 over 5 years through acquisitions, how he helped a fast growth scaleup such as SafetyCulture build out their financial operations from scratch to cut wasteful spending and he reflects on InDebted’s international Go-To-Market and commercial strategy.
As a startup, speed is everything. If you’re not able to scale quickly, then you’re not leveraging your biggest advantage over larger competitors. M&A is a great tool to speed your entry into new markets and quickly bolt on new capabilities that you haven’t the time to build internally or acquire talent you wouldn’t normally be able to easily secure.
Ben reflected on the challenges faced throughout his career when it comes to scaling businesses through mergers and acquisitions. At Deloitte Ben learnt the blueprint to carrying out rapid due diligence processes when assessing opportunities. Before joining Vocus Communications, where he put this to practice with leading the team that completed 25 acquisitions over a 5 year period.
"Two thirds of all acquisitions are somehow value disruptive, which I can completely understand. But it is to say that you're literally just burning money. As soon as you go down that path, I guess the need for before you even entertain buying anything, you need to know how it works, how it's all put together."
Three lessons from Ben for every CFO:
1. Select your target carefully & identify the key stakeholders inside. Your due diligence process needs to set out a thorough and detailed roadmap of the acquisition process to ease any concerns for the two companies as you enter into the process.
2. Integration risk & clash of the cultures. There is significant risk when two corporate cultures collide, especially for the senior leadership team. There needs to be a clearly understood talent management strategy. One culture, as Ben comments, has to win. Which is why Ben believes you need to have an acquirer and acquiree. Not a 50/50 merger.
3. Ensure there is a clear shared vision of the future and a strong sense of the future direction that you are investing into. The overall process can easily take up 12-24 months of time, so without that clarity you’ll struggle to get buy-in from stakeholders to see through the process.
When asked about what levers you can pull as a CFO joining a startup for the first time or any business with an immature finance department, he was quick to highlight the benefits of carrying out a ‘root and branch’ review of all current purchases. Easy access to company funds that have no spending guardrails in place can lead to unapproved and unnecessary spending, as well as duplicated and unintentionally renewed subscriptions.
"At one point, you know, we were spending $6,000 a month on fava beans as healthy snacks for the office! The first thing I did was really just try and understand what our cost base look like, where things were coming from where things were going. As with all kinds of scale ups, the biggest cost is going to be headcount. But there's so much low hanging fruit outside of the headcount costs where there's very easy wins without necessarily being the stereotypical finance guy that doesn't want to spend any money."
The key to success is to control spend before it happens with software that can create budget limits and transaction restrictions for employees.
the war for talent
The impact of the pandemic closing international borders over an 18 month period has created a well documented talent shortage of Engineers for the Australian technology industry. With building complex software, the biggest risk for any startup is execution risk with not having the resources and capabilities to build what they intend to deliver. With competition intensifying for the most talented employees, Indebted’s answer to attracting and retaining colleagues was to adopt a remote first 4 day work week. From a CFO perspective when asked about the impact on the bottom line, Ben commented that InDebted’semployees are “Still paid for 40 hours, even though you’re working 32 hours, with having Friday’s off.”
"We made a conscious decision, that we were going to invest more in our people rather than less. We took a view that it’s going to cost us a bit more, but the payoff for us will be a more engaged workforce, a more efficient workforce, and workforce that wants to stay with us for a long time."
But in terms of their core productivity KPI’s, the InDebted team haven’t seen anything fall behind. Ben explained that they reviewed the meeting culture in particular and begun to analyse whether the time taken for those meetings could be halved or even cut entirely by moving it onto an email.