The below interview with Sophie Conaghan 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. With Sophie, we have focused on her experience of building a finance team from one to seven people.
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 Sophie! ✋
Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with the FinOps Forum.
From initially chatting to you I understand you spent some time in audit and then moved to LoveCrafts for about 6 years building the entire finance function there from scratch. Moving on to Freelance work which has also given you the flexibility to make a recent move to Sydney! Please tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Hi everyone, it’s great to see this forum evolving. I wish I had had this forum when I joined LoveCrafts straight out of audit!
Yes, I’m currently living in Sydney, which I have to admit is pretty amazing. Not sure how I’ll cope with the change in weather and choice of beaches to visit upon my return to the UK...
Training and working at the National Audit Office for 4 years gave me a great introduction to the structure of and processes within client finance teams to base my ideas on for LoveCrafts but there was a fair amount of trial and error employed once I was on my own! In a rapidly growing business it can be hard to keep the finance team, systems and processes in line with the business’ needs - that’s why a forum like this to get a quick discussion, share ideas and find an answer is so useful to those working in the Start-Up FinOps community.
We would love to hear about your time at LoveCrafts and how you went about building the finance function. What is LoveCrafts business model?
LoveCrafts is an online community for Makers. The site curates the user through various crafts with project inspiration, tools and supplies to buy and a community to share ideas and stories with. From an Accounts perspective, it is an ecommerce business; with warehoused inventory, online sales and delivery logistics all supported by the latest in website and mobile technology.
Several people in our community are currently 1 of 1 or 2 in their finance function and will be really interested to hear about hiring and growing that function. At LoveCrafts you went from 1 to 7 people.
That’s right. I was the first in-house finance team member at LoveCrafts.
How did you decide when and what type of role your first hire should be?
Being an ecommerce business with a lot of inventory an on-going challenge was processing purchase invoices (there were lots of balls of wool flying around the world, and around the office!).
My first hire was a Bookkeeper to keep on top of this but in an ecommerce business at scale I recommend automating as much as possible by making use of OCR software and invoice matching tools (matching to Purchase Orders) to reduce manual effort, and errors, which are both as important as each other for the job satisfaction and the efficiency of your team.
As you continued to grow, how did you plan what the finance function would look like?
I had a constantly evolving picture file of how I wanted my team to be structured - I listed all the responsibilities of the finance team and then divided them into roles by grouping responsibilities that were in one area (eg Accounts payable, Financial Reporting, Controls) and by level of experience (junior, mid, senior). It was a constantly changing jigsaw puzzle.
What did you learn about growing a team?
Within small finance functions, there can be little scope for growth for individual team members. I tried to move responsibilities within the team to give people exposure to new things and then made the decision to hire when I knew that the current team capacity would soon be reached.
Planning ahead as much as possible is important as hiring can take a long time! Growing your network early can help a lot with hiring too.
I learnt that it’s best to have honest discussions in regular 1-1s with all of your team to understand their ambitions, set up what you can internally, but be ready to help them find their next role when the time comes.
How did you ensure everyone stayed motivated and had room for personal growth?
When finance team members were working across the business and were involved in wider business discussions and decisions then they were so much more interested in their work and their contribution to the business and a lot more motivated in their roles.
Given the name FinOps Forum, we are a community focused on processes, operations and how those skills can be used to drive finance functions forward. Did you find these were key considerations and skills required to build LoveCrafts finance function?
Yes, I think having people focussed on setting up the right processes and systems early on in the life of a business is critical and then having someone oversee the maintenance and improvements to these systems would be great. I would have loved these skills in my team!
FinOps Forum is seeking to build a new accounting career path which is currently heavily split between operational (FC) and strategic (CFO). Have you noticed this split during your career?
Yes, I find it frustrating that there seems to be a mindset that processes and systems aren’t strategic. I think you should have a strategy for the finance function that’s designed to deliver what the business requires and then ask the business to support your strategy through the required investment in people and technology. Once businesses start to think of finance as a value adding function and strategic support to the business then you will start to see a very different relationship with the finance team.
If you were doing it again what would you make sure you did?
I would strongly recommend investing in organising your systems, processes and as much automation as you can early on; if you can afford to hire a contractor or consultant to build this out for you then do, and then your team can focus on the value added areas which are better for the business and more interesting roles to carry out which in turn should be better for retention.
Using a contractor or a consultant at an early stage can feel like a big outlay in terms of cash but if you build a business case around the benefits of having timely and correct data for your Business Intelligence and Data Analytics and having an engaged and happy finance team then the case will be clear.
Please share your Top tips!