This interview with Bradley Warren is part of a series of interviews called Forum Firesides created by the FinOps Forum. The purpose is for members to share their experiences with the community. Brad gives some insight into his life as a COO and how he transitioned from the Finance Function into an Operational role.
The FinOps Forum is a community built for like-minded professionals to share their experiences about FinOps. FinOps is a blend of finance and operations with a focus on processes, technology and systems. To find out more about the FinOps Forum and read more Forum Firesides sign up here.
Hello Bradley! ✋
Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with the FinOps Forum.
Your experience is a great example of how Finance and Operations are complementary, having moved from Head of Finance at MakeShift to COO at The Network Control Group. Please tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Hi everyone, great to be part of this growing group. I’m Brad and I started down the audit path as a graduate with PwC, and like a lot of people, after 4 years, realised this was not what I had in mind as a career.
Looking for the “big cog in a small wheel” opportunity I came across Make Shift, a start-up enterprise platform for local independent entrepreneurs. Was employee 5 and 1st person in finance/ops there helping it grow to 40 people, 3 sites, over 4 years. Wow I learnt a lot and it is funny to look back on how little I knew on day 1!
From there I joined NCG, another start-up, as their COO. I’ve been here since the end of last year.
I’d love to focus on your current role as COO. What do The Network Control Group do?
We’re a Prop-tech start up that provides Connectivity (Fibre internet, Wi-Fi etc.) and SMART technology (Occupancy & Environmental data and analytics) to the commercial real estate market.
What does your role as COO entail?
You know what this is a very interesting question because the role of a COO has multiple definitions, interpretations and reality from business to business.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the COO should act as the number 2 to the CEO ensuring the CEO is kept out of the detail and actual management of operations so they can focus on longer term strategy.
At NCG we are a small team of 9. 4 people in Sales (including the CEO), and 4 people in engineering/product (including the CTO). I sit in the middle and cover everything outside these 2 functions!
So if we put that into reality, the first 6 months were very finance focused (setting up systems; planning; investment models; budgeting; reporting) as we aimed to secure investment by July 20 (which we completed).
The finance work never stops (preaching to the choir), but now I am working on 2 major areas:
- Operational processes, technology and reporting
- Staff performance management (OKRs, policies, bonuses, commission, perks etc)
I’d see myself getting in front of our key clients more in 2021 and beyond once I’ve stabilised operations.
The traditional career path in finance would typically lead to FC/CFO. After starting your career in finance, was it your intention to end up as COO?
Another hard question and one I’ve been grappling with for the last few years. I’ve always seen myself as a generalist with specific financial knowledge so the pure CFO path was something I was always hesitant with. So I asked my MD at Make Shift for a 6 month “stint” in operations where I oversaw multiple functions from finance, marketing, construction, HR & operations.
I loved it and from then on it was about carving that route for myself.
How have you found the transition from Head of Finance to COO?
From a core knowledge perspective the jump is not huge. Yes you need to learn other areas outside finance but only the important stuff. As things get more complex you will have function Heads reporting into you so there is no need to try and master everything.
Finance is great because money tends to follow most processes in the business so you should have a good understanding about how each function works financially.
I think the transition is more dependent on the actual person. Firstly you need to be good with people and managing teams. Secondly you need to be able to “see the wood for the trees” which in essence means big picture. You’ll get a lot of information on your doorstep, how to cut through it to the important items is critical.
What did you learn about running a finance team at Makeshift?
A lot but will try to pick out 3 things:
- Start slow, don’t try to solve every problem at once
- Invest time training your staff at the beginning
- Get into non-finance meetings, involve your function in the organisation, don’t be that team that people are scared of. Work with people and develop those relationships quickly.
Given the role of COO tends to include a wide range of responsibilities and you remain responsible for the finance function, has your approach to running the finance function changed?
My approach has been about making the function work with 1 person overseeing it so that I have capacity to work on my other COO responsibilities. Ultimately it’s about making it slick, automated and something that ticks along nicely in the background.
- Focusing on automation (budget allowing)
- Outsourcing (budget allowing)
- Understanding it all quickly (I pretty much locked myself down for 2 months at the start with my finance hat on)
- Being comfortable with not having it 100% perfect. Focus on what information, as the Board, we need to make decisions. The CEO cares more about our burn rate and runway than whether our lease accounting in 2019 is correct and complete.
One of the biggest areas of automation developed is for processing invoices. Do you think this is done well?
If they are fixed consistent amounts then it’s done perfectly. Set it up once and off you go.
Variable amounts month on month? Work to do. Luckily our invoicing at NCG is low volume/high value but we are now seeing certain projects requiring regular/changing/low value invoicing. And yes I have no plan on doing all this manually so speak to me in a couple of months when I’ve worked it out! We’re currently looking at a couple of billing platforms (think one is called Billingbooth).
What do you think are other areas that could be automated?
A lot of progress in these areas the last few years. Bookkeeping is the one area I think has potential for improvement. Receipt Bank is getting there but a platform to automatically retrieve missing invoices (headache for VAT) would be gold.
We’d love to hear a bit about your personal experiences with building the finance function at The Network Control Group. Have you had any successes you can share with us?
Very early days for the function but the key successes are:
- Taking all financial headaches away from staff who don’t need to do them
- Visibility of what is actually happening financially (simple, effective reporting)
- Investment success
- Making it easy for the organisation to understand how the function works (expenses, payroll, supplier payments, receipts, budgeting etc)
Any significant struggles you’ve faced?
Easily the biggest struggle was pinning down the 2 founders (CEO & CTO) to extract knowledge out of their brains! Patience and persistence eventually won.
Please share a few of your top tips!
- Perfectionism is the enemy
- Carve some time out each week to think bigger picture and reflect
- Help people and it will come back (but don’t expect it to)
- Get to know people. Not what they do. Get to know THEM