Continuing on with our CFO series, this week I was fortunate to catch up with Camilla Taylor of SaaS startup What3Words.
What do you make of the current UK startup market?
My first CFO startup role was in 2013. Back then, the market felt characterised by funding gaps – most notably between Seed and Series A, and then again at Series B and beyond. Angel investment activity was ramping up, driven by tax credit incentives like EIS, which played such an important role in kicking off the UK startup ecosystem.
Since then, there’s been a steady increase in activity from US investors, who used to find reasons not to invest in the UK, and have lately shown a much stronger interest for quite serious quantities of cash, which is excellent.
When you look around at the nature of the companies in the UK, the startup ecosystem is clearly maturing. Businesses are scaling faster off the back of better access to funding, and we’ve even got some great exit stories. With that scale-up, you see team composition becoming more specialised, which in turn improves the skill base across the tech industry. There are certainly more career opportunities out there, and a greater number of candidates with relevant experience. It feels like a steady but very virtuous cycle!
Why did you move from corporate to startup?
I was an investment manager for a fund for seven years, so I didn’t come into my current role from a typical industry finance-team route. The fund was an AIM listed investment company that made venture style investments in cleantech companies and energy projects in emerging markets.
What I most enjoyed about that role was working closely with the portfolio companies, helping them to define their strategy and grow. However, being an investor inevitably keeps you one step removed, and I wanted to be truly involved in the “building companies” side of things. My investment experience was incredibly useful – I’ve since led M&A and fundraising rounds in my startup roles – and it was great to see the advantages and challenges of becoming and operating as a listed company first hand.
What advice would you give to people looking to make the jump into a startup?
Firstly, find a company that you can really get behind in terms of mission and vision. Secondly, when interviewing, check that you like and respect the people you will be working with. Whether the business goes gangbusters, or faces challenging times, you’ll be putting the hours in, so it’s important you feel good about what you are doing, and the team you’re working with.
It’s also necessary to think about how well suited your life is to that of a startup. How comfortable are you with potentially trading salary for equity? How do you feel about risk? If you are in the finance team, you will see the true health of the business, which might not always be a comfortable picture.
How do you view the role of a startup CFO currently? And in the future?
At a fundamental level, it may be that you’re establishing finance operations for a business, in which case it’s likely to include building a finance team, putting robust cash planning systems in place, and setting up the accounting, budgeting and reporting infrastructure. At its heart, the role is about enabling better decision making, grounded in numbers, and propagating that way of thinking across the business. This often means asking hard questions that won’t always make you popular!
In my experience, an exciting and ongoing piece of work is defining the business model and how the business creates value (everything from revenue model, pricing, channels, market share, attrition, working capital and operational scale up efficiency). This takes the form of a very ‘live’ and fairly long term financial model that maps the business out in numbers and initially includes a lot of hypotheses, which gradually become validated (or disproven). This becomes the basis for long term forecasting, which supports internal planning, reporting, commercial and financing strategy, and fundraising.
The final piece is fundraising and M&A, which will depend on the company’s growth ambition: organic / inorganic; how much funding is needed – firstly to prove the business model, and then to scale (and how fast); and, longer term, thoughts around exit. Ensuring the company is well prepared to engage with target investors, lenders and other third parties to achieve these transaction milestones is fundamental CFO territory.
What’s the best part about your role?
The need to know the business inside out while thinking about the big picture. I also love being involved in building a business that truly has huge ambition (to become a global standard for addressing!).
Can you tell me about a time in your startup career where you learnt the hard way, even though it was a great learning experience?
Don’t count on anything happening until it’s happened! In a previous role, we finished the year with a number of inbound cash flow commitments for January (revenue, investment and tax credits). We all felt good about the year ahead as we went home for Christmas. One week into the new year, most had fallen through or been delayed, leaving us rethinking our growth plans for the quarter.
How crucial is it for you to have a great team around you, both finance & SLT?
It’s super crucial! Starting with finance, it’s amazing how much more it’s possible to deliver with a great team with varied skills. It’s also really important for the SLT. Each of us brings deep domain experience and as a team we have the solidity that comes from working well together for some time. We have daily stand-up meetings and carve out time from busy travel schedules to meet in-person for a day every month. I think we all agree that good communication is fundamental for our alignment, and that enables us to move confidently and quickly – we’re all on board with the principle of “disagree and commit”.
What is it that you look for when hiring a #2 & subsequent team?
First and foremost, that we’re going to work well together. Technical capability and Excel skills are a given – I’m looking for ability to understand the big picture and detail of the business, to work successfully with other teams, and draw out actionable insights from the numbers. Both for a #2 and the subsequent team, everyone has their own important role. I value the ability to work autonomously, accurately and on time, and to bring lots of ideas to the table for how we can do better.
If you were to recommend a work related book, what would it be and why?
A book I’ve really enjoyed and often think about is “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. I was aware of his profile as an investor, but it was fascinating to read about his great depth of operational experience, and his tenacious approach to building his companies, which ultimately led to great success. There are lots of good stories to keep you feeling resolute, as well as beautifully distilled advice.
Camilla has led the development and growth of young companies on both sides of the finance table. She is CFO at British startup, what3words – the simplest way to talk about location. The company has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, giving each its own unique 3 word address. For example ///filled.count.soap marks the exact entrance to what3words London headquarters.
It means that now people can refer to any precise location, from a parking spot to great viewpoint to a delivery entrance, in just three words. You can find your 3 word address at https://map.what3words.com/
Previously CFO of electric vehicle tech business, Saietta Group, Camilla led the company’s merger with Agni Motors and navigated the company through several tranches of fundraising. Before Saietta, she originated and managed investments for a £300m AIM listed clean energy fund. Camilla studied Biological Sciences at Oxford University and has an MBA from London Business School / Columbia NYC.