This week I sat down with Ian Sutherland to discuss all things startup. Let’s check out what he had to say…
What do you make of the current UK startup market?
Firstly, the startup market has been growing and gathering pace since I began working in it. If you look at the overall market, there continues to be a huge amount of funding available, and it’s never been easier to start a business. That’s one of the reasons why businesses like Tide exist, because we are here to make it easier for entrepreneurs to get off the ground, and with more technologies like this, people are finding easier ways to start businesses.
Secondly, there is a lot more venture capital money around, so there are huge funds being raised all the time. It has developed into a really healthy and ecosystem. London is particularly good and there’s this great sense we are now one of the leaders globally in terms of innovation, particularly in areas such as FinTech.
Why did you move from corporate to startup?
I was probably quite niche coming out of corporate and into a startup nine years ago, but now I see a lot more people doing that. I got great training at EY and worked in the music industry for a few years, but I think from my perspective I’ve always seen myself as having an entrepreneurial gene and harboured ideas of setting something up one day. Moving into a startup seemed like the natural thing to do. I’m particularly interested in working within technology businesses that are disruptive.
What advice would you give to people looking to make the jump into a startup?
I’ve been asked this many times by people working in a practice or a corporate. If you’re straight from practice or corporates, demonstrating that you have the knowledge and skills around some of the smaller business areas and the way things work is a little bit harder, but there’s nothing to stop you from finding out and learning about that on the side. Being interested in the sector, doing some really good research and being able to articulate your passions for that sector is crucial. It needs to be very specific to who you’re meeting with. I like to ask the question “tell me about a disruptive technology that you use in your everyday life and why” – This helps gives me a sense how much you want to work in the sector.
How do you view the role of a startup CFO currently? And in the future?
I think a startup CFO is different to being a corporate CFO, as you have more hats to wear, including at times operations, HR, legal etc. You have to be willing to expand your horizons. I really think that in todays startup world, it’s very rare for you to not need to be good with data. That to me is a common theme in every business that I’ve worked in. It needs to be understood from a commercial perspective and how that translates into your business model.
One of the first things I do when I go into a business is to really get to grips with that, understand the unit economics and how that translates to future opportunities. Data and technology in relation to being a CFO is very important and we often end up becoming a bit like a mini CTO of your area. You need to think about all of the technology you need to do that.
The finance piece for me is a given, the wider piece is a lot more interesting. I see the CFO evolving into a Chief Finance and Data Officer in many tech businesses.
What’s the best part about your role?
I’m hugely excited about startups and Tide is a platform that is helping that sector with their financial operations. The great thing about my role is that I’m not just doing the CFO piece for Tide but also working in a business that’s helping other business owners save time and money through innovative digital services focused on small business. We’re helping many businesses scale; we’ve got over 50,000 businesses on our platform which is approaching 1% of the SME market in the UK. That’s hugely exciting to me that we’re making a real impact. The best thing for me is being at the front of that, helping businesses but I’m also testing that on the product side, which is very exciting!
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?
As a startup CFO, you’ll spend a lot of your time fundraising. There are a lot of options out there in terms of how you do it and who with. In my experience, it’s important to have a really good strategy about how you approach it, in particular who you’re going to talk to. Depending where your business is, there’s a sweet spot, but it’s not always easy to see. One of my lessons is making sure that you set the right timing about that, because you can end up wasting a lot of time with the wrong investors. Figuring this out with your CEO and other executives is a really important piece of fundraising strategy.
How crucial is it for you to have a great team around you, both finance & SLT?
Extremely – I do believe you can’t spend your day doing things that you’re not interested in. The reality is that you will operate better as an executive with the right people and team around you. Networking with peers on what they do, how they do it and why is important.
What is it that you look for when hiring a #2 & subsequent team?
If I’m hiring, I’m open minded on people coming from all different backgrounds. I really believe in getting the right people who complement what you have, and planning your role around what you’re good at.
If you were to recommend a work related book, what would it be and why?
The High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil, who is a seasoned Silicon Valley guy. The book is about scale up stage for businesses. For me that, that’s super interesting, being involved in something that is going from 100 people to potentially 1000+, learning about what other people have done and learning from their mistakes. It includes some great interviews with people like Marc Andreesen and Reid Hoffman and its all summarised around different growth themes, which makes it super useful to keep on your desk and be used as a reference book for certain situations.
That later stage of business is one that I personally haven’t experienced before, but this book is great at giving a sense of what you should be thinking about if you are ever lucky enough to go on that journey.
Ian joined Tide (https://www.tide.co/) in February 2018. Ian is a Big 4 trained chartered accountant and has been working for 16 years in the field. Most recently as CFO of Wonderbly, and prior to that a number of years in VC-backed technology businesses.