When the Finance team gets up to speak at Typeform’s monthly company meetings, everyone goes silent.
On a good month, Typeform’s Chief Finance Officer Huw Slater is everyone’s favorite guy in the office. But if results are a bit lower than expected, you can sense the tension in the air.
Such is the life of the finance guy. They watch over the one metric that everyone cares about, even if they don’t fully understand it—the bottom line.
Trying to balance culture with cash flow would keep most of us awake at night. But Huw? He likes to stay philosophical about finance:
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I sat down with him to talk context, company meetings, and Conscious Capitalism.
SD: I’ve been stalking your LinkedIn, and I saw you started off working at British Telecom (BT). What was your motivation for trading in a big conglomerate for startups?
HUW: On one hand, I was coming to work every day thinking, “Holy shit, I’m working with some of the smartest people on the biggest problems.” That part was awesome—you don’t get that opportunity very often.
But on the flipside, was I really learning that much about finance? Probably not. I’d been in that position for three years, so I was mainly learning about how the company works.
And then you look around at the bureaucracy and the culture—I found myself coming into work shaking my head sometimes. I’d always been fascinated by tech too, so I knew that if I left, I was going to work in a smaller organization in the tech space.
SD: Are there any lessons that you learned from your time at BT that you apply at Typeform now?
HUW: I guess what helped me be successful at BT was my bias for action.
I wasn’t someone who just sat on a computer, did the financials, and handed over a report at the end of the month. I always tried to ask: “Why does this report exist?” and “How can we use it as a catalyst to make something happen?”
I brought that to my first startup job and I want to bring it to Typeform. This finance mentality of being there to support the business, not just to do the accounting.
Having purpose beyond profit
SD: You recently attended a conference about Conscious Capitalism, which very much emphasizes the value of company culture, collective rewards, and having a higher purpose beyond profit. How important are these principles to you?
HUW: Incredibly important.
Obviously you need money to survive. But I don’t come to work to make money, either personally or for a company. I always want to work for a company where there’s a purpose, which is part of the reason I joined Typeform. We’ve got a really strong vision for that.
So when I went to the conference, it was like someone had read my mind and already built a framework around it. I was like, “Wow, I’m not alone! I’m not a weird finance guy! This is amazing!”
SD: Would you say the tech industry tries to adhere to values like these more than other industries?
HUW: No, there were actually very few tech companies at this conference. I think sometimes it looks more obvious in tech. The Googles and Facebooks are throwing money at things to try and make the world a better place. They’ve got these grand statements.
But overall, the whole venture capitalist-backed world is all about monetary gain.
Take Whole Foods in the US—their entire premise is providing wonderful, healthy food to people using local suppliers. Not being a Walmart or Tesco and absolutely screwing the margin out of everything. For me, that’s fantastic.
Panera bread is another great example. The founder/CEO left, then actually got private equity to buy the company out—so he could maintain his ethos of investing for the long term, and continue helping his employees, shareholders, and the community around him.
So the tech stuff gets a lot of press, but people tend to look at these things through a tiny lens.
SD: What’s Typeform’s higher purpose?
HUW: I love the new brand phrase “People First.” If it’s what we believe and aim for, “People First” means everyone, not just wealthy people with mobile phones.
That could easily drive us to do different things in different markets to help people. It creates this landscape where every human on the planet is someone we want to connect to their contemporaries. I find that really motivating.
Internally, it also means coming to work and being able to just go and tap someone on the shoulder. It doesn’t matter if they’re the Chairman of the board or the teammate sitting next to you. Everyone’s just a person.
But another thing related to “People First”—that I think we need to start considering a lot more—is how we manage our impact on the community around us.
One thing that always sticks out in my mind is what’s happened to San Francisco. You walk down Market Street and it’s horrific—outside the Zendesk office, outside the Twitter office, there’s just homeless people.
I never want us to be a cause of that here in Barcelona.
And I do worry already, because housing prices are going up. Locals are rightly annoyed that they’re being booted out of their houses and forced to live outside the city.
So there’s a balance that needs to be achieved. And putting “People First” is a way of doing that.
Growing a company with growing expectations
SD: Typeform’s just been given a load of money through its Series B funding, so you might think we can all relax for a second. But actually it’s kinda the opposite. What are the main challenges that have appeared since we got this funding last year?
HUW: Forget the money for a second: Series B comes with a different set of expectations. The whole world looks at you as if you’re a grownup now, so you need to start acting like one. We’re probably more like teenagers at the moment.
A lot of what “growing up” means is linked to our go-to-market strategy.
So there’s a responsibility that comes with the funding, and that’s the hardest thing. In order for us to grow as a company, we need to step up to that.
SD: Would GDPR be a good example of this?
HUW: GDPR is a fantastic example. We can hack it together and just kinda get ourselves over the line. Or we can treat it as something that’s actually a feature that we know customers want, and that stakeholders want us to take seriously.
Maturity isn’t something that happens overnight. But you do wake up one morning and think, “Oh my God, there’s a lot of stuff we need to do now that a year ago we weren’t even thinking about.”
But that’s the absolute joy of a startup, otherwise it’d be boring as hell.
SD: How do you make people conscious of company finances without causing them to panic?
HUW: I’m sure I get it wrong more than I get it right! Context is the answer. I don’t hide any graphs that would make people worried, so we’re completely transparent in that regard.
But you’re right, just looking at the numbers you might think, “Oh God, we burnt through a million in cash? Are you guys nuts?”
Now with context you know this is planned spending that’s sustainable because we’re investing in things that will drive growth. And it’s easy to assume that people already have some of that context. But in a company meeting, it’s not always the case.
You don’t want to bore the people who’ve seen this four times already. But you also don’t want to overwhelm the people who are new to working in a startup and thinking, “You’re losing money? Nobody ever told me we were going to lose money!” So it’s a balance.
SD: Yeah I enjoy it, I think it’s really theatrical. Finance is a stereotypically boring thing, but it has people on the edge of their seats.
HUW: That’s not by accident, we do try to make it engaging. The amount of time we spend making slides for meetings compared to what I’ve done in the past is night and day—because we think about the story.
Want to test your SaaS metrics knowledge? Try Huw’s quiz below. And here’s his guide to SaaS metrics with some tips if you’re struggling.
SD: What are some of the difficulties of balancing Typeform’s company culture with sound financial practice?
HUW: It’s always gonna be hard. For me there are two measures. One is asking, “Is this good for the company, and therefore the shareholders, the employees, and the wider community?”
And that kinda helps you think, “Are we being excessive? Is Typefest excessive? Is the Christmas party excessive?” I would argue that some of these things are cultural, and some are just perks.
That’s the test: are we really adding to our culture, or are we just getting smashed?
The other measure is tradeoffs. Everything is a tradeoff, always. And the test is: “Are you trading up?” “Is this net good or net bad?” Sometimes you don’t know until after, but you better learn frickin’ quickly.
It’s about balancing everything with customer needs. There’s a million different ways to get to the same place, and we’re just constantly making tradeoffs to get there.
Business, boats and bailiffs
SD: I’ve noticed you’re a fan of anecdotes and metaphors to describe finance. Do you have any inspiration for CFOs at other startups?
HUW: Yeah, I just totally make them up. I’m full of shit most of the time.
The thing that I’m looking for in the finance team is not just an inherent understanding of math, accounting, and all that stuff. It’s also imagination and curiosity.
I want you to have your own imagination of where the business is going. Nevermind what the Cofounders David and Robert think. I want my own imagination. And my team should imagine their own future.
Why? Because then we can have brilliant conversations. You say the future’s blue, I say it’s red, then we’ll argue about it and come up with a much more beautiful version of the future.
If you can do those things, the rest of the organization will see that you’re all in this together. You’re not on the edge of the island shouting at the boat to row harder. You’re on the boat saying, “Ah, look where we’re going, it’s fucking amazing.”
I’ve given another shit analogy, haven’t I? That’s so annoying.
SD: To sign off, what’s your wildest finance-related story? Ever nearly bankrupted a company, or lost a couple million euros down the back of the sofa?
HUW: Oh, I’ve lost many, many millions. Thankfully at BT they never noticed.
“Wild” and “finance” aren’t two words I put together often. I think the wildest story that actually happened was having bailiffs at the door. Not at Typeform or BT, it was somewhere else. For no other reason than stupidity on our behalf.
They said, “You owe 100 grand,” or whatever. And then everyone responded, “Well, that’s okay because we’ve got tons of money in the bank.”
And they’re like, “You need to pay it now.” And we didn’t have 100 grand in cash, so we handed over a corporate card as a deposit. But they wanted to come in and take the TVs off the walls, take the laptops.
Obviously that’s bad, but my biggest fear was what the employees would think about it. This sense of, “Oh, have I joined a company that can’t afford to pay its tax bill?”
So it was just a very, very bad experience. We paid and it was fine, but it was not a 30 minute conversation you want to have.