Control Your Destiny (Chris Seidensticker)

I love the phrase "control your destiny." When I tell a startup to do this, I mean "get to cash flow positive" because, at that point, they could theoretically survive without future external capital. And if they choose to raise more capital to pursue a strategic opportunity or grow more quickly, they can do so on their own terms. In other words, they are free to make the choices they need to make that are the best for their business.

So I was intrigued when I saw a fantastic post from Y Combinator that aggregates advice for startups from a bunch of different VCs. One of the one-liners is "most companies don't die because they run out of money," which is likely true, but getting near cash out and getting forced to either raise at ugly terms or getting acquired at a low valuation, while not death, is also not a pleasant situation and no way to live! It's literally the opposite of controlling your destiny.

So how do you control your destiny? 

Big picture: have a clear vision of your cash runway, understand the impact of business decisions on that runway, and appropriately plan ahead for growth, fundraises, and for taking chances. By doing this, you significantly improve the overall health of your business, the overall stress level of your organization, and the overall probability that rather than not dying by having an unfavorable outcome, you end up with your ultimate outcome: either getting acquired at a great valuation or going public.

OK, so let's dive in on the actions you can take to execute this. Controlling your own destiny should be a core value of sorts. And by that, I mean it should be engrained in your company culture and lead to everyone having discipline around spend. Does that mean experiments shouldn't be run, especially at the earliest stages? Of course not. Does that mean you shouldn't invest in product development? Of course not. Does that mean no ad spend, not hiring enough people, not running promotions? No, no, no. But what it does mean is that you develop, even early on, discipline around why money needs to be spent on an initiative. What is the objective of the spend? Is it measurable? Can you determine the ROI?

So tactically, how do you begin to build this culture within your organization? It can begin at the earliest stages, and even at the earliest stages, it's helpful to have an executive operator at the table that's done it before, and so I'd strongly recommend you engage a fractional CFO. At this stage, you'd only need them for a few hours per week at most, but the value they can bring is extraordinary and the spend itself has an incredible ROI! 

Anyway, on to tactical steps that can be done to ensure your company operates with a "control your destiny" mindset:
  1. Through at least Series B, cash flow positive is almost always just a glimmer in the CFOs eye. So don't overthink it.
  2. Build a financial model so you can play with different scenarios and different options to fuel growth. At the pre-seed or seed level, this model can be fairly high level. It doesn't need to be a turn-by-turn map but rather a higher level, rather simple model that defines key assumptions for revenue growth and how that growth ties to hiring and other spending. Keep the number of assumptions limited because 1) You don't actually know yet all the drivers of your business, and 2) it reduces model complexity and makes updates much easier. This is your fractional CFO's core competency.
  3. Ask your team to justify the spend. As profitability becomes more than just a glimmer, this justification can become more structured.
    1. At the earliest stages, though, keep it simple: simply ask them to document the expected effect of the spend, including the timeline in which that effect will be seen. And then revisit it once the defined timeline has passed. What did you learn?
    2. As you grow, this exercise can become more structured. Templates can be built, better documentation can be developed, better measurement tools can be developed or acquired
  4. As your company scales, build a budgeting process that keeps your management team in sync. At least every quarter, provide each department head with details of their department's spend plus what is forecasted for the next 12-18 months and ask them to verify that the forecast looks accurate.
    1. In the historical data, are there vendors they no longer need?
    2. Are the expenses and vendors that are booked to their department correct?
    3. Looking forward, given the company's revenue goals, does their forecasted headcount and expense forecast appear reasonable?
    4. These quarterly updates can be lightweight and not require a massive amount of your department heads' time. But when it comes to the end of the year and building the full budget for the next year, they've already been thinking frequently about the next year, so the budget process that is typically an ugly, months-long process in the last quarter of the year, should also be relatively lightweight.
    5. The side benefit of this budgeting process is that it increases transparency and gets the management team aligned on controlling the company's destiny—it becomes part of the company culture!
  5. Talk about company financials transparently across the organization. Give monthly or quarterly financial updates at the company All Hands. Have your fractional CFO present departmental financials occasionally at each department's regular team meeting. The more your whole team sees the impact of their work on your company's ability to control its own destiny, the more bought in they'll be, and the more they'll treat the company's money as their own
Building a culture of spend discipline—controlling your destiny—won't guarantee success, but it will significantly increase the probability of success, will align your team around one big honking goal, and will make everyone feel more confident when deciding on large initiatives. Although it should be started at the earliest stages, it's never too late to start! Best of luck!


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