If you’re a startup owner, you’re probably looking to expand your company as fast as possible. Rapid business expansion creates complexity in every area: supply chain, human capital, distribution, and especially finance. There comes a point in every startup’s lifecycle that triggers a need for a CFO to take responsibility for the company’s financial trajectory.
This article is a one-stop shop for all your questions regarding finding and hiring the right CFO for your startup.
Qualities to look for in a startup CFO
While shopping around for a CFO, you can accelerate the process by knowing the qualities that make for an excellent CFO. As a general guideline, you want someone relatively young and agile, who is willing to work in a fluid environment, and who also has the following traits:
Whatever your industry may be, SaaS, aerospace, biotech, etc., look for a CFO with prior experience within your industry. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a hardened industry professional, but you should look for someone familiar with the space. As a bonus, look for CFOs that have previously worked in startup environments. This experience can alleviate any culture shock potential when they join your team.
Industry experience or knowledge makes your CFO an invaluable asset in strategy and general counsel. Chances are, they’ll have dabbled in unique industry-specific tactics and trials within companies they’ve worked with in the past.
Venture capital experience
If you’re at the stage where you’re hiring a CFO, you’ve probably procured solid seed money or perhaps completed a Series A round. As you move forward and your need for more significant funds grows, your CFO can guide you to success. Look for past CFOs that have raised capital for companies on the order of millions of dollars. While these people may be hard to find, their experience could save you tons of heartache in the future; think of your time spent searching as an investment.
Passionate about innovative financial strategy
Your entire company revolves around innovation. If your CFO has no desire to innovate, how can you expect them to fit in? Look for candidates who exude a passion for creativity and the ability to ask deep questions. The only way to tell if someone has these qualities is to talk with them in person. When you interview candidates, ask them some of the following questions:
- What’s a unique financial initiative you’ve taken? What were the results?
- What is the most exciting trend in finance today?
- What growth opportunities have you identified in the past? How did you take advantage of this?
- What is your process for identifying the financial health of a company?
- What are your favorite forecasting techniques?
Modern fintech savvy
As a modern startup, cutting-edge technology is your lifeblood. As a result, your finances should be managed in the most progressive fashion possible to retain consistency with the rest of the organization. Your CFO should be very familiar with modern financial technology; they should be able to suggest tools that will directly impact how you do business. If you’re interviewing a CFO stuck in their old ways, they simply won’t be the right fit.
As we mentioned, a simple way to find out if they are fintech savvy is during the interview process. Ask them about their favorite new tools, platforms, and techniques. Ask them if they’re comfortable with learning and teaching new software. Deep tech familiarity can go a long way, especially when it's in the hands of a critical person in your company.
CFO soft skills
While all CFOs have hard skills such as financial statement analysis, investment strategy, and forecasting, you need to look for candidates with critical soft skills. CFO soft skills bring this role to life; without them, you might as well be working with a robot.
A CFO should have incredible communication skills. Translating numbers into intelligent insights is tough, and even tougher still to communicate those to other people. Look for candidates that have strong verbal and written communication skills and those who display these traits:
- They know how to listen
- They are relatable
- They ask intelligent, useful questions
- They are specific in their words and actions
Great CFOs are always looking ahead. They have Big Hairy Audacious Goals, clear, attainable, yet ambitious milestones that guide a company’s future. When interviewing for a CFO, look for people who set great goals. You can eek these candidates out by asking questions such as these:
- What is your process for setting goals?
- Why do you set goals?
- How would you communicate the importance of a goal to your team members?
Your CFO must have confident answers to these questions; after all, they will act as a guiding light for your startup's business model and people.
Let’s face it; the CFO has a very stressful job. They are debatably more directly responsible for company success than any other leader. A CFO must make critical decisions that could make or break the company daily.
In addition, CFOs need to be confident enough to speak up. If they aren’t willing to share their radical opinions in a company meeting, there is no chance they’ll have the gumption to make big calls in the future.
Negotiating startup CFO salary
The CFO has the largest financial impact potential of any of your employees; you should expect to pay handsomely for this potential. There’s no way around it; CFOs are expensive. According to Salary.com, the 2022 median pay for CFOs in America is $415,000. This may seem considerable, but they will pay for themselves in droves.
2022 CFO salary by the numbers
Most CFO payment schemes are split into base, bonus, and equity. The average base salary for a startup CFO is ~$130,000. You can pad this with hefty bonuses and equity. As with most other executive positions, the average salary is primarily affected by geographic location. For example, the average corporate CFO salary in New York City is ~$470,000 but is nearly $100,000 less in Dallas.
Stock option vesting
Naturally, if a CFO believes in the future of the startup they’re working in, they’ll want to vest as much as possible. You should offer them as much as possible, as it offers several benefits. Aggressive vesting offerings are great because they subconsciously incentivize success and reduce cash salary. Setting up a good vesting scheme is complex; we recommend looking at this guide to begin the process.
We’ve clarified just how expensive hiring a CFO can be, but luckily there is another option.
Fractional CFO for startups
Recently the idea of “fractional C suites” has been taking the startup world by storm. Outsourcing experience is an excellent idea for any startup team, especially those who lack deep industry knowledge.
It's easiest to hire a remote fractional CFO who can Zoom in during crucial meetings and counsel the team. Depending on the complexity and scope of your startup, you may only need them to work 10-15 hours per week or even on an as-needed basis.
Benefits of a Fractional CFO
There are a lot of benefits to working with a fractional CFO, most of which contribute to general flexibility. Here is a quick overview of how a fractional CFO can revolutionize your startup:
- Cost-effective: this may seem obvious, but a fractional CFO is radically cheaper than a full-time hire. Most fractional CFOs work on retainer or as contractors; you may end up paying them 70-80% less than a full-time CFO.
- Fresh perspectives: a fractional CFO often works with other companies simultaneously and likely has varied experience in various industries. Even though they are probably bound by NDAs, a fractional CFO can still provide general insights into the trajectory of technology and business.
- Long-term planning: when you are starting up a business, it's hard to see the forest among the trees. A fractional CFO will give you hard-hitting strategic advice to propel your business into prosperous longevity.
- Growth management: it is deceivingly easy to overstep your bounds as a startup. Overexpansion affects many startups; thousands of companies experience growing pains. A CFO will help you tame your expectations to build your business into a long-lasting “camel,” not a burning unicorn.
Drawbacks of a Fractional CFO
While hiring a fractional CFO may seem ideal, it doesn’t come without its issues.
- Information flooding: A fractional CFO could be servicing several startups at once, which leads to informational overload. If a CFO has to juggle four complex, totally different business models simultaneously, they may find themselves overextended and exhausted.
- Availability conflicts: this issue is especially prevalent for CFOs working on retainer between several companies. A CFO may be on-call for all of them, inevitably leading to disputes and tough choices.
We hope this article has given you some direction in your search for a CFO. There are many ways a great CFO can improve your startup’s financial viability; soon, you’ll find that they are an irreplaceable asset to your team.
Many people find it challenging to begin looking for qualified CFO candidates. The best solution is to work with a recruiter. J2T is a finance and accounting recruiter in Colorado and Montana. If you’re struggling to find a CFO for your startup, please contact us today, and we’ll set you up with one of our expert recruiters.
Written by Jordan Gibbs
Jordan Gibbs is a content writer for J2T. He has a Master of Innovation Management degree and a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering. Jordan loves to be creative in any medium, whether it be writing, music, or art. He is also passionate about nature; he’s happiest when he’s in the mountains.