The first 180 days of occupying the C-suite at a start-up

Zandi Tsibulane reflects on what it takes to be the CFO of a start-up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

by Zandi Tsibulane, CFO of Capebio Technologies.

When I made the very unpopular pivot from corporate finance analyst to CFO of a biotechnology start-up, I fell into the trap of thinking that I was going to be a “finance person”. After all, that’s what the title has signalled for a long time. Fast-forward six months and my role continues to evolve beyond financial steering.

Although I never dreamed of being a “finance person”, I embraced the prospects of my new job because of what I believed was going to be a core task: to build a finance function, from scratch, with my bare hands.

That was enticing enough for me, because the role resonated with my strong inclination to build something out of nothing. I love to develop and optimise processes. I love to find new and efficient ways of performing tasks. And being a CFO for a biotech start-up that was pioneering a diagnostic kit for Covid-19 in Africa, right in the middle of a global pandemic, was a well-timed endeavour.

I also thought it would be quite the feat for a 26-year-old CA(SA) who has medium-term dreams of pursuing an MBA abroad.

I have read many texts on the roles and responsibilities of a CFO for a start-up, and my practical experience has shown that all of them are right about one thing: one has to be a jack-of-all-trades who is able to fill multiple roles in the organisation.

When I joined the start-up, it was at a phase in its growth trajectory where outsourcing the finance functions was no longer sufficient. Although it was very much important for the company to establish robust financial processes and controls, in its hierarchy of financial management needs, the company had transcended its clerical needs and required financial intervention that spans trusted reporting and strategic partnering. This is an insight I arrived at when I joined and attended my very first board meeting. It became clear that I was not there to solely drive the metrics and presentation of results, but to be involved in strategic planning and execution.

I had never been involved in strategy before, which is something I believe to be a development area in the training matrix for CA(SA), so I needed to amass the intellectual and functional dexterity that would enable me to lend my voice to the strategy while also overseeing day-to-day financial activities. I was eager – scared, but eager – and it has been quite the steep learning curve.

In the six months that I’ve been a finance executive, I have learned the following about the value a CFO can add in a start-up environment:

The most obvious project would be to guide fundraising. When the founders/CEO and advisory board decide that the company is mature enough to have someone responsible for the evolving finance function, the timing is usually synonymous with imminent capital raises intended to fund growth. I was therefore able to leverage my corporate finance skills to lead fundraising projects alongside the rest of the C-suite and the advisory board;

Being a custodian of the company’s commercial interests in its agreements with external parties – if the organisation is entering into contractual arrangements with third parties, the CFO needs to guard the company’s commercial interests and ensure that all relevant parties meet their end of the bargain.

Involvement in the development of pricing and market-entry strategies – my accounting skills came in handy when building a detailed costing model, but pricing strategies require in-depth understanding of the industry. I needed to be prepared to expedite my acquisition of industry knowledge in order to aid the development of data-driven market related strategies.

Creation of culture – as an executive, the responsibility to create a sustainable working culture and live out the company’s ethos is embedded in your role. Employees tend to look up to the management team for cultural leadership and it’s important to be tactical about building a solid and conducive environment that enables creativity and innovation.

Always wearing the entrepreneurial hat – working for a start-up exposed me to real-time and real-life entrepreneurship. You become fully immersed in the challenges that keep entrepreneurs up at night (fear of failure, fear of taking risks, fear of financial woes, etc.), which makes it crucial to maintain an affinity for problem-solving.

Involvement in business development – having a forward-looking approach for the business is not only limited to forecasting and budgeting. As a CFO, you are heavily involved in conversations about product development and the value-propositioning of products, prospects for international expansion, industry analysis and surveillance, marketing strategies, building the company brand, etc. This involvement is not only important for optimised allocation of financial resources, but for organising the business for future scaling up.

It is clear from the above that working for a start-up tends to evolve traditional roles as typically defined by titles in big organisations and I have been incredibly privileged to be privy to this evolution.

What has also emerged from my experience is my propensity to drive change and influence the company’s strategy. Being multifaceted and taking a view that falls outside the ambit of financial leadership and oversight not only increases the ROI of a CFO at a start-up but also positions them to occupy other C-suite roles in the future. I am well on my way to building solid business acumen and looking forward to augmenting the experience during my tenure.