6 tips for scaling your start-up and being an impactful CFO

With Sabrina Castiglione, COO at Pento and former CFO at Tessian

Kate Wilson | APR 17, 2024

6 min read

Key Takeaways

  1. Early stage companies need flexible, adaptable financial approaches.
  2. Create policies that actually work for your company. Simplicity and adoption over complexity and perfection. 
  3. Get stuck in to the day-to-day operations to unlock better long-term strategies. 
  4. Hiring top talent is critical, especially in executive positions. The right executive hire can make (or break) the business. 
  5. Be comfortable with making decisions without data to back it up.
  6. CFOs play a crucial role in shaping company culture and building respect.

Welcome to For the Love of Finance, the series where we decode insights from finance leaders and turn them into practical insights for your career.

We sat down with Sabrina Castiglione, COO of Pento and former CFO of Tessian, to talk all things scaling and financial leadership. 

She was formerly CFO at Tessian where she led operations across finance, HR, legal, IT, security, and facilities. Sabrina joined as employee #4 through multiple funding rounds to Series C. 

Read on (or watch the video above) to learn how to scale your company, adopt technology, and excel as a CFO

Early-stage companies need a flexible financial approach.

Given the challenges of an early-stage company, ordered processes are rarely possible to nail down. Searching for them can even become an inhibitor! Overcoming the challenge of finance perfectionism involves tailoring resources and processes to match where the business is in its lifecycle.

It’s not about perfect compliance in every respect on day one. It’s the right level of granularity, detail, thoroughness and automation for the right level of maturity of the business.

Early-stage companies need to be flexible and adaptable. Manual processes give you the ability to do that. You can spend time introducing automations as your work becomes more defined, and your company matures.

Successful business processes are more than perfect policies – it’s ensuring they are embraced and adopted successfully.

Ever heard the phrase “perfection is the enemy of progress?” It’s applicable here, especially in the resource-light, fast-paced world of start-up and scale-up companies. Opt for simplicity and adoption over complexity, emphasizing impactful actions with limited resources.

Plus, streamline training and policy rollout to focus on key essentials. This empowers teams with practical knowledge rather than overwhelming technical details.

A theoretically perfect policy with 0% adoption gets 0% output, but a near-perfect policy with 80% adoption might get 60% output.

Don’t skip the groundwork.

Startups thrive on a symbiotic relationship between execution and strategic thinking. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on high-level strategy as an executive. In a start-up or scale-up, getting involved with day-to-day operations gives you a much clearer view of what needs to be done in the long-term.

A CFO role in a Series A or earlier business is probably not one that is doing strategy all day. In the early stages, strategy and execution are almost identical.

And don’t be afraid to embrace the uncertainty of start-up life. Make decisions with imperfect information – if you’re working at ground level you’ll have a good view of what will work and what won’t.

Hiring top talent is critical, especially in executive positions.

Executives who bring in playbook strategies from past roles without considering their fit for the current environment can cause issues.

For example, blindly following “best practices” without understanding their relevance to a specific situation is a mistake.

It’s easy to read about industry trends, but much harder to apply them effectively in a business setting.

Be comfortable with a lack of data for decision making.

As a business matures, the need for data-driven decisions increases as risk and exposure factors increase too. So at an early stage, you have more room to make gut-driven decisions without the need for data.

That’s quite freeing, right? You can try things you’ve always wanted to and thought might work, but never quite had the data to back it up.

It’s also a reality, as compiling data takes a lot of work – something you might not have time for. The key is finding a good balance between the numbers and your gut instinct. Your experience in the field is really valuable here.

CFOs play a crucial role in shaping company culture and building respect.

In early-stage businesses, being reliable and capable are more valuable than just delegating tasks. Being hands-on builds respect and reputation within the early team, setting a strong foundation for future growth and recruitment.

Effective finance leadership involves a balance of problem-solving and people management, with the combined intention of driving people towards a specific goal.

Finance professionals can sometimes be overly rational so it’s a good idea investing energy in trying to understand people and what drives them.

Proving to people that the culture and attitude you’re trying to set is possible is so much more powerful than simply saying it’s possible.

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