Editor's note: On our podcast recently, Artem Mashkov shared how he helped SwagUp grow to $22 million in annual revenue with just two people in finance. In this guest post, he dives further into how he runs finance at SwagUp and his organizing principles.
Most finance leaders obsess over accounting and FP&A—but a healthy finance team needs a third function: FinOps. For any startup looking to scale their business—and their finance team—it’s important to have clearly defined roles for each function. That’s particularly important in today’s evolving landscape of finance automation and operations, which has revolutionized the way that we do business. Here’s how I describe the framework we use at SwagUp:
“Accounting is the past. FinOps is the present. FP&A is the future.”
Let’s unpack the core focus of each function, why their respective roles become more important with scale, and what you can do to grow these functions.
The 3 pillars of finance
Accounting, by its nature, is a backward-looking function. Its role is to audit and double check transactions that have already occurred, whether they took place yesterday or a month ago. Even when looking at future transactions (i.e. accruals), accounting still uses the past as a basis for projections.
Accounting essentially guards the gate. It keeps people honest and reconciles the past. Companies need a strong accounting function because they need to understand why losses occurred in order to drive profitability going forward.
Financial operations (FinOps), on the other hand, focuses on transactions occurring in real time. It makes sure that bills get paid, invoices are collected on time, and payroll works properly. FinOps also helps streamline processes via automation and ensures compliance to rules. For example, FinOps can help prevent employees from going over their spending limits.
Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) allows organizations to look ahead and make the financial plans necessary to achieve future goals. The goal of FP&A is to make sure that every initiative ultimately results in cash flow, whether those returns come in after three months or in 10 years. But you want to make sure that the numbers are based on strong data, since you don’t want to miss your projections.
How accounting, FinOps, and FP&A are interconnected
I'm a CFO who spends a lot of time thinking about operations and how different functions work together. While these three functions all play different roles in an organization, they’re also all interconnected. I think of them as a circle, where each one enables the performance of the other two. For example, FP&A will create a plan, FinOps will ensure its execution, and accounting will double check to make sure that the numbers are aligned with the goal.
While the roles of accounting and FP&A are crucial to an organization’s success, it’s hard to overstate the importance of FinOps. That’s because FinOps is the function that allows you to pay your vendors and your employees. Without that capability, you have no business.
As an organization grows, the distinct roles of accounting, FinOps, and FP&A become even more important because the impact of errors becomes more obvious. Making a 2% mistake when a business is generating $100,000 in revenue results in a loss of just $2,000. That can be a far less painful mistake than a $100 million business that loses $200,000 due to a mistake of a similar scope. The marginal impact really matters as a business scales and that’s where FP&A matters most.
How to scale up these financial functions
Hiring more finance people as your business grows will help you keep up with operational work, but it’s important to scale the team strategically. This is something I have personal experience with. Before building out the FinOps function at SwagUp, we only had two people on our finance team. We were able to grow to nearly $22 million in annual revenue with just that team, but we needed to streamline our operations and improve efficiency within finance to sustain our growth.
Today, my finance team includes three people and a director in accounting, one person in FP&A, and six people plus a director in FinOps. While I see FP&A as the least important finance function for us at this point, I still believe it’s more important to a company’s success than sales or product.
We still run very lean. I’ve learned that the key to avoiding growing pains as a finance team scales is making sure that accounting and cost attributions (both fixed and marginal) are properly labeled and as accurate as possible. Particularly amid today’s market volatility, cash has become even more important to growing businesses. An important question businesses must consider is whether they have enough cash to reach their goals. This requires positive unit economics and modeling for actual cash versus profit, because the former often matters more than the latter.
The role of automation
Making smart use of automation can allow even small finance teams to scale more quickly. That’s because automation allows team members to focus on efforts that are driving value, rather than simply on repetitive, non-impactful tasks. Automation allows startups to make the best possible use of time, which is often their most valuable asset. However, I think that companies sometimes automate the wrong parts of their business. For example, companies should automate the $1 transactions that happen 100 times per day. Those add up to $100, and it’s fine to have less visibility there so that the company can focus on what actually matters, e.g. the three transactions that are worth $3 million each.
Automation can also flag potential issues, allowing the team to address them quickly before they become problems. For example, we started using Ramp to automate our expense reports, and we were able to suddenly see the areas where there were gaps in our controls. We were subsequently able to change our policies and tighten controls to eliminate those issues. This important as our spend has grown 10x since we started using Ramp.
FinOps, accounting, and FP&A are all essential functions to any growing business, and automation is the key to integrating each of these functions. Automation helps improve their efficiency and create a more profitable company.