The pandemic was a frightening time for SaaS finance. But for those looking for a silver lining, The Future of SaaS Festival 2021 hosted this upbeat, informative discussion between two of the industry's leading voices.

The speakers were:

  • Idriz Adedoja, Head of Finance at Vizlib
  • Sallianne Buttsworth, Financial Controller at Century Tech

Coupled with their experience and expertise, they shared new insights not just for problem solving, but for leading the way to better financial solutions.

While the full, unfiltered panel discussion is available OnDemand for Future of SaaS members, we've picked out some of the best bits for you below. Enjoy!

Q: Has the pandemic made business partnerships easier or harder?

Idriz: When you work within a startup on the scale of my industry, you always have to broaden your horizons. You have to be able to liaise with marketing, sales, product developers, with support and everyone else. I think what happened during COVID was that I had to actually improve my product knowledge.

The funny thing is, we are a data visualization software company. If you think about it, the product that we sell is actually very unique. If you have data but you can’t read it, then there really isn’t much you can do with it.

We work with lots of big companies, from HSBC to USPS. You need a product like ours to make your data tell you how to make strategic decisions for the board of directors. To make strategic decisions, you need software, you need a platform that will tell you wherever it can.

In terms of the business partnership, we’ve all got to basically broaden our horizons. We need to create a culture of collaboration, not just, “Oh, ignore that guy. He just works in finance.”

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Sallianne: Absolutely. I think the main thing that I realized is that staff approach business partnering from a finance perspective. But if you approach it in a collaborative way, i.e, “How can I help you to help me?” I think you will be received a lot better.

I think we've got to help our staff cut through the jargon and understand key critical questions that will help them answer big questions. No one is interested in accounting jargon.

I think the big lesson for me was, how do I teach my staff to communicate in a way that is understood by non-finance people while still delivering the outcomes that I need them to?

Q: How did the pandemic affect funding for your business?

Sallianne: We lost our funding at the start of the pandemic. And then we gained a little bit of public attention from our free school offers. Ed-tech became quite hot.

A lot of countries were making it mandatory, and Ed-tech is still hot at the moment. In the first couple of months of the pandemic, it really became apparent how important the basics of accounting were.

Thinking about things like supplier payment management, we had to answer some pretty crucial questions. Who are we paying? How do we ensure that we can pay our staff and retain our top talent?

How can we chase debtors so that we're getting cash in the door. Soon, all of those foundational skills that we learn became core to having a business at the end of this pandemic more than anything.

That's insane when you think about all of the other complex areas that we’re educated on as accountants. I think, for me, having that information readily available and up to date at all times was key.

It made me realize that we need to ensure our finance transformation functions are automated up to today, cloud-based, and readily available. I've seen research indicating that the pandemic has accelerated that finance transformation process.

A lot of businesses were saying it wasn’t a priority, but the pandemic has made it a priority.

Q: How do you deal with competition in COVID times?

Idriz: Going back to what you said about automation, I think between March 2020 to December, there were two people in our finance department. I remember asking our CEO, “What do we do?”

He said that the worst-case scenario was mediocrity. But what if we didn't collect enough of our cash, what would we do? How can we survive during this time? What do we spend our money on?

We had to establish our priorities. What is the priority here? We still want to make sure that the payroll gets done, that every single person gets paid. I think we should all be proud that we managed to meet our payroll dates. You have to start with your payroll, and then you need to look at your suppliers.

Sallianne: Exactly. And at the time, people weren't passing on cash, and it was getting a little bit worrying. Idriz, I want to touch on something that you said, which was, what should I spend my money on? Marketing? Should I spend it on lead gen? My tech team, etc?

What I found is that everyone wanted data. The traditional role of finance broadened. All of a sudden, we were bookkeepers deciding who gets paid. We were financial analysis experts providing data for everyone so that they could defend their budgets.

And then we also had this competing resource thing, this crisis management. CEOs were coming to us asking for clarity and strategic vision. We still wanted to look for growth opportunities, but we were scared. We need to know where the risks lie. And we need to put things in a place to manage them.

Q: What do you think were some of the good things to come out of the pandemic?

Idriz: I think COVID re-iterated and shed a lot of light on mental health. I'll give you an example. I did an interview and when I looked back at the video, I just couldn't even recognize myself.

I was just there looking so miserable, and it made me realize that I was working from home all the time, and I didn’t have anything to take my mind off everything that was going on.  

I'm a lot more aware now that, at the end of the day, we are still human beings and we need to look after each other a lot more. I think the people that work for us should be able to come and say that they’re struggling. I think we did that really, really well.

A lot of people had conversations with the director, where he just encouraged people to take a break, have a holiday, etc. Work is something that took my mind off everything, but working from home made it harder.

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Sallianne: I like the work from home office hybrid flexibility that has become the norm. When we think about women, who are especially underrepresented in finance, the issue is because the work-life balance isn't quite there. I think that the work from home/office hybrid solution is going to help with that gap a little bit.

I love that mental health has been a focus for your business, as it has been for us. We've also always tried to maintain that and to ensure that the CEO and myself are always there for our staff, whoever it is, whenever they need it.

I think that's super important. I want to add another positive thing, which is integrating finance with all of the teams. That can be a challenge for businesses.

But that’s the one thing I want to keep. If it means becoming a part of their team, and disregarding the finance team altogether, disbanding it all together, it is not the way to go. This is true of other departments in my company too.

Q: We're constantly hearing about the pain in recruiting mid-level developers. How do you overcome this challenge?

Idriz: I think this is something that is common among pro businesses or tech companies, specifically because there just seems to be a shortage of top class developers.

The main problem is that there just aren’t enough of them. There definitely isn’t enough diversity in this field. We need to encourage people to get into development at a young age. I want everyone to be open to tech. Technology is not going anywhere. It's still growing and will continue to grow.

I think we could do something right now by encouraging people that never even thought about it. I know some startups actually go to schools. Coding and software development is something that can be taught, especially when you're at such a young age. I think a lot of tech companies are facing the same problem.

Sallianne: I'll also add that it's hard to find top talent. Recruiters can find top talent, but they will charge you a 25% recruitment fee. Plus the market is quick and it’s liquid, which can unfortunately mean developers aren't that loyal because of this.

So, you may only keep them for a year. My advice would be to think about hiring a talent acquisition manager that has some sort of HR experience as well. They're going to be constantly scanning the web for staff to fill their pipeline.

Idriz: Also, use connections within your company. If you already have developers working with you, offer financial incentives for referrals, if you can.

Q: What's the most common thing that you're not getting from your CEO that you as finance leaders need?

Idriz: I've worked with a lot of CEOs. Don’t forget a lot of them are founders. This business is their baby and if you’re trying to show them a different way of doing things, it's gonna be hard for them to take sometimes.

I think the important thing is that you show you’re not the enemy. It comes back to finance being seen as just the numbers guys. It goes back to something else we mentioned earlier: intersectional knowledge.

If you’re in finance and you genuinely want to learn about marketing and photo design, you should try it. You should definitely do it. It just gives you a different perspective. And once you do, then your knowledge just becomes a bit more robust.

I think our CEOs just need to understand that the days where you just see this man or woman as a finance person are long gone. They want to be involved. They want to understand everything. Equally, you don’t get to say, “Oh, sorry, I'm only an accountant. I don't do this. I don't talk about support. I won't talk about that.”

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Sallianne: Yeah, I find that, especially if it's a co-founder, it is their baby. But they are very busy people. And they don't understand the full value that finance can bring. That is no one's fault. But I feel like that is kind of the missing link.  

We need to somehow open up this communication path to extract everything that's going on in their head from a strategic vision point of view, to be able to model that and to cost that out and to think about the business as a whole.

I think that there is commonality between a CEO and head of finance, or anyone in finance. We view the business in specific parts, whereas the CEO views the business as a whole. That's really powerful.

I just wish there was a way to extract everything that is going on in their mind so that I can help them achieve their vision. That would be the main thing. And that is something that I'm working on with my CEO. How can I ask the right questions in a really efficient way that doesn't waste their time?  

Q: How do you educate your staff to be able to sift through data, find causes or potential causes, and put that in a concise format?  

Idriz: One of the things that we do is we restructure our profit and loss statement yearly. What you needed one year ago is not what you’re gonna need next year. You should focus on what you need now.

Our CEO will find an error and he’ll ask about it. I then go back to my team and inform them, but then after that I’ll usually just leave them alone and let them get on. You can't drip feed everybody information.

If someone just tells me every single thing that I need to know, then I don't get enough curiosity for myself and I'm not going to learn. A former mentor of mine talked about the five Cs. Context, commitment, clarity, connections and compassion.

Context is important, obviously, people have to know what’s going on. That's also where clarity comes in. Clarity leads to commitment. We need to keep asking questions, but those questions need to be the right questions.

And then, finally, make genuine connections. This is also where compassion comes in. We care about each other, the objective remains the same. We want to make sure we do a good job, we want to make sure we're given concise data that makes sense. So, remember the five Cs and stay curious.

Sallianne: That is such a concise way of explaining it. And I think it is a cultural thing. It's about making people feel like there are no mistakes, there is no wrong in what we do, which is really interesting in accounting, but it is about making people feel comfortable around business leaders and things like that.

You're invoking curiosity, which I think is the main thing. In previous roles, that is something that I've always tried to bring out in my staff. You've done the traditional thing, you've given me the results, but you've not explained to me what may be causing the results.

I feel like it's about avoiding the hand-holding approach. You’re teaching them to be curious and teaching them to look a little bit deeper. I’m going to use those five Cs.

Q: Can we finish with five practical steps for finance in a post covid world?

Sallianne: Mine would be to watch your staff while we're working from home. Office burnout is a major thing that we all need to keep under control. Make sure they are taking mini-breaks, try to have them plan vacations so that there's no chance of you rejecting it. Just really watch out for everyone.

Idriz: The next one for me is to be consistent with your payment plans. Also, leverage technology to help you go out and speak to your customers.

Sallianne: My next key takeaway is never be complacent on your cost base. Review it, review it, review it. There are always components of your cost base that you should be looking at.

How can that money be better spent? Can it be put into lead generation? What kind of lead generators aren't working? What should we reconsider? I think it doesn't matter how much cash you've got in the bank, always review your costs.

Idriz: Next one is definitely to focus on quality. If your sales are reducing, that can only be because there isn’t enough demand for the product. And sometimes the customers don't always know what they want.  

Sallianne: Watch your SaaS metrics really closely. They're all interlinked. Average price, churn rate, Sales cycle, etc. You can gain so many insights from all of our SaaS metrics.

Idriz: Absolutely, that's very true. SaaS metrics are amazing. They are amazing, because they tell you a story.

Sallianne: My last thing would be to upskill yourself all the time. As that finance leader role broadens, we're going to be called upon in so many different ways. Get curious, educate yourself, upskill yourself ready for those big questions from the board or your CEO. And give yourselves a pat on the back for all the hard work.

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