Category Archives: FPA

How to Present an Operating Plan to your Board

I’ve been CEO of two startups and on the board of about ten.  That means I’ve presented a lot of operating plans to boards.  It also means I’ve had a lot of operating plans presented to me.  Frankly, most of the time, I don’t love how they’re presented.  Common problems include:

  • Lack of strategic context: management shows up with a budget more than a plan, and without explaining the strategic thinking (one wonders, if any) behind it.  For a primer, see here.
  • Lack of organizational design: management fails to show the proposed high-level organizational structure and how it supports the strategy.  They fail to show the alternative designs considered and why they settled on the one they’re proposing.
  • A laundry list of goals. OKRs are great.  But you should have a fairly small set – no more than 5 to 7 – and, again, management needs to show how they’re linked to the strategy.

Finance types on the board might view these as simple canapes served before the meal.  I view them as critical strategic context.  But, either way, the one thing on which everyone can agree is that the numbers are always the main course. Thus, in this post, I’m going to focus on how to best present the numbers in an annual operating plan.

Context is King
Strategic context isn’t the only context that’s typically missing.  A good operating plan should present financial context as well.  Your typical VC board member might sit on 8-10 boards, a typical independent on 2 (if they’re still in an operating role), and a professional independent might sit on 3-5.  While these people are generally pretty quantitative, that’s nevertheless a lot of numbers to memorize.  So, present context.  Specifically:

  • One year of history. This year that’s 2021.
  • One year of forecast. This year that’s your 2022 forecast, which is your first through third quarter actuals combined with your fourth-quarter forecast.
  • The proposed operating plan (2023).
  • The trajectory on which the proposed operating plan puts you for the next two years after that (i.e., 2024 and 2025).

The last point is critical for several reasons:

  • The oldest trick in the book is to hit 2023 financial goals (e.g., burn) by failing to invest in the second half of 2023 for growth in 2024.
  • The best way to prevent that is to show the 2024 model teed up by the proposed 2023 plan. That model doesn’t need to be made at the same granularity (e.g., months vs. quarters) or detail (e.g., mapping to GL accounts) as the proposed plan – but it can’t be pure fiction either.  Building this basically requires dovetailing a driver-based model to your proposed operating plan.
  • Showing the model for the out years helps generate board consensus on trajectory. While technically the board is only approving the proposed 2023 operating plan, that plan has a 2024 and 2025 model attached to it.  Thus, it’s pretty hard for the board to say they’re shocked when you begin the 2024 planning discussion using the 2024 model (that’s been shown for two years) as the starting point.

Presenting the Plan in Two Slides
To steal a line from Name That Tune, I think I can present an operating plan in two slides.  Well, as they say on the show:  “Dave, then present that plan!”

  • The first slide is focused on the ARR leaky bucket, metrics derived from ARR, and ARR-related product.ivity measures
  • The second slide is focused on the P&L and related measures.

There are subjective distinctions in play here.  For example, CAC ratio (the S&M cost of a dollar of new ARR) is certainly ARR-related, but it’s also P&L-driven because the S&M cost comes from the P&L.  I did my best to split things in a way that I think is logical and, more importantly, between the two slides I include all of the major things I want to see in an operating plan presentation and, even more importantly, none of the things that I don’t.

Slide 1: The Leaky Bucket of ARR and Related Metrics

Let’s review the lines, starting with the first block, the leaky bucket itself:

  • Starting ARR is the ARR level at the start of a period. The starting water level of the bucket.
  • New ARR is the sum of new logo (aka, new customer) ARR and expansion ARR (i.e., new ARR from existing customers). That amount of “water” the company poured into the bucket.
  • Churn ARR is the sum of ARR lost due to shrinking customers (aka, downsell) and lost customers. The amount of water that leaked out of the bucket.
  • Ending ARR is starting ARR + new ARR – churn ARR. (It’s + churn ARR if you assign a negative sign to churn, which I usually do.)  The ending water level of the bucket.
  • YoY growth % is the year-over-year growth of ending ARR. How fast the water level is changing in the bucket.  If I had to value a SaaS company with only two numbers, they would be ARR and YoY ARR growth rate.  Monthly SaaS companies often have a strong focus on sequential (QoQ) growth, so you can add a row for that too, if desired.

The next block has two rows focused on change in the ARR bucket:

  • Net new ARR = new ARR – churn ARR. The change in water level of the bucket.  Note that some people use “net new” to mean “net new customer” (i.e., new logo) which I find confusing.
  • Burn ratio = cashflow from operations / net new ARR. How much cash you consume to increase the water level of the bucket by $1.  Not to be confused with cash conversion score which is defined as an inception-to-date metric, not a period metric.  This ratio is similar to the CAC ratio, but done on a net-new ARR basis and for all cash consumption, not just S&M expense.

The next block looks at new vs. churn ARR growth as well as the mix within new ARR:

  • YoY growth in new ARR. The rate of growth in water added to the bucket.
  • YoY growth in churn ARR. The rate of growth in water leaking from the bucket.  I like putting them next to each other to see if one is growing faster than the other.
  • Expansion ARR as % of new ARR. Percent of new ARR that comes from existing customers.  The simplest metric to determine if you’re putting correct focus on the existing customer base.  Too low (e.g., 10%) and you’re likely ignoring them.  Too high (e.g., 40%) and people start to wonder why you’re not acquiring more new customers. (In a small-initial-land and big-expand model, this may run much higher than 30-40%, but that also depends on the definition of land – i.e., is the “land” just the first order or the total value of subscriptions acquired in the first 6 or 12 months.)

The next block focuses on retention rates:

  • Net dollar retention = current ARR from year-ago cohort / year-ago ARR from year-ago cohort. As I predicted a few years back, NRR has largely replaced LTV/CAC, because of the flaws with lifetime value (LTV) discussed in my SaaStr 2020 talk, Churn is Dead, Long Live Net Dollar Retention.
  • Gross dollar retention = current ARR from year-ago cohort excluding expansion / year-ago ARR from year-ago cohort. Excluding the offsetting effects of expansion, how much do customer cohorts shrink over a year?
  • Churn rate (ATR-based) = churn ARR/available-to-renew ARR. Percent of ARR that churns measured against only that eligible for renewal and not the entire ARR base.  An important metric for companies that do multi-year deals as putting effectively auto-renewing customers in the denominator damps out

The next block focuses on headcount:

  • Total employees, at end of period.
  • Quota-carrying reps (QCRs) = number of quota-carrying sellers at end of period. Includes those ramping, though I’ve argued that enterprise SaaS could also use a same-store sales metric.  In deeper presentations, you should also look at QCR density.
  • Customer success managers (CSMs) = the number of account managers in customer success. These organizations can explode so I’m always watching ARR/CSM and looking out for stealth CSM-like resources (e.g., customer success architects, technical account managers) that should arguably be included here or tracked in an additional row in deeper reports.
  • Code-committing developers (CCDs) = the number of developers in the company who, as Elon Musk might say, “actually write software.” Like sales, you should watch developer density to ensure organizations don’t get an imbalanced helper/doer ratio.

The final block looks at ARR-based productivity measures:

  • New ARR/ramped rep = new ARR from ramped reps / number of ramped reps. This is roughly “same-store sales [link].”  Almost no one tracks this, but it is one of several sales productivity metrics that I like which circle terminal productivity.  The rep ramp chart’s 4Q+ productivity is another way of getting at it.
  • ARR/CSM = starting ARR/number of CSMs, which measures how much ARR each CSM is managing.  Potentially include stealth CSMs in the form of support roles like technical account manager (TAM) or customer success architects (CSAs).
  • ARR/employee = ending ARR/ending employees, a gross overall measure of employee productivity.

Slide 2: The P&L and Related Metrics

This is a pretty standard, abbreviated SaaS P&L.

The first block is revenue, optionally split by subscription vs. services.

The second block is cost of goods sold.

The third block is gross margin.  It’s important to see both subscription and overall (aka, blended) gross margin for benchmarking purposes.  Subscription gross is margin, by the way, is probably the most overlooked-yet-important SaaS metric.  Bad subscription margins can kill an investment deal faster than a high churn rate.

The fourth block is operating expense (opex) by major category, which is useful for benchmarking.  It’s also useful for what I call glideslope planning, which you can use to agree with the board on a longer-term financial model and the path to get there.

The penultimate block shows a few more SaaS metrics.

  • CAC ratio = S&M cost of a $1 in new ARR
  • CAC payback period  = months of subscription gross profit to repay customer acquisition cost
  • Rule of 40 score = revenue growth rate + free cashflow margin

The last block is just one row:  ending cash.  The oxygen level for any business.  You should let this go negative (in your financial models only!) to indicate the need for future fundraising.

Scenario Comparisons
Finally, part of the planning process is discussing multiple options, often called scenarios.

While scenarios in the strategy sense are usually driven by strategic planning assumptions (e.g., “cheap oil”), in software they are often just different version of a plan optimized for different things:

  • Baseline: the default proposal that management usually thinks best meets all of the various goals and constraints.
  • Growth: an option that optimizes growth typically at the expense or hitting cash, CAC, or S&M expense goals.
  • Profit: an option that optimizes for cash runway, often at the expense of growth, innovation, or customer satisfaction.

Whatever scenarios you pick, and your reasons for picking them, are up to you.  But I want to help you present them in a way that is easy to grasp and compare.

Here’s one way to do that:

I like this hybrid format because it’s pulling only a handful of the most important rows, but laying them out with some historical context and, for each of the three proposed scenarios, showing not only the proposed 2023 plan also the 2024 model associated with it.  This is the kind of slide I want to look at while having a discussion about the relative merits of each scenario.

What’s Missing Here?
You can’t put everything on two slides.  The most important things I’m worried about missing in this format are:

  • Segment analysis: sometimes your business is a blended average of multiple different businesses (e.g., self-serve motion, enterprise motion) and thus it’s less meaningful to analyze the average than to look at its underlying components.  You’ll need to add probably one section per segment in order to address this.
  • Strategic challenges. For example, suppose that you’ve always struggled with enterprise customer CAC.  You may need to add one section focused solely on that.  “Yes, that’s the overall plan, but it’s contingent on getting cost/oppty to $X and the win rate to Y% and here’s the plan to do that.”
  • Zero-based budgeting. In tough times, this is a valuable approach to help CEOs and CFOs squeeze cost out of the business.  It takes more time, but it properly puts focus on overall spend and not simply on year-over-year increments.  In a perfect world, the board wouldn’t need to see any artifacts from the process, but only know that the expense models are tight because every expense was scrutinized using a zero-based budgeting process.

Conclusion
Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to better present your next operating plan to your board.  If you have questions or feedback let me know.  And I wish everyone a happy and successful completion of planning season.

You can download the spreadsheet used in this post, here.

What Are The Units On Your Lead SaaS Metric — And What Does That Say About Your Culture

Quick:

  • How big is the Acme deal?  $250K.
  • What’s Joe’s forecast for the quarter?  $500K
  • What’s the number this year?  Duh.  $7,500K.

Awesome.  By the way:  $250K what?  $500K what?  $7,500K what?  ARR, ACV, bookings, TCV, new ARR, net new ARR, committed ARR, contracted ARR, terminal ARR, or something else?

Defining those terms isn’t the point of this post, so see note [1] below if interested.

The point is that these ambiguous, unitless conversations happen all the time in enterprise software companies.  This isn’t a post about confusion; the vast majority of the time, everyone understands exactly what is being said.  What those implicit units really tell you about is culture.

Since there can be only one lead metric, every company, typically silently, decides what it is.  And what you pick says a lot about what you’re focused on.

  • New ARR means you’re focused on sales adding water to the SaaS leaky bucket — regardless of whether it’s from new or existing customers.
  • Net New ARR means you’re focused the change in water level in the SaaS leaky bucket — balancing new sales and churn — and presumably means you hold AEs accountable for both sales and renewals within their patch.
  • New Logo ARR means you’re focused on new ARR from new customers.  That is, you’re focused on “lands” [2].
  • Bookings means you’re focused on cash [3], bringing in dollars regardless of whether they’re from subscription or services, or potentially something else [4].
  • TCV, which became a four-letter word after management teams too often conflated it with ARR, is probably still best avoided in polite company.  Use RPO for a similar, if not identical, concept.
  • Committed ARR usually means somebody important is a fan of Bessemer metrics, and means the company is (as with Net New ARR) focused on new ARR net of actual and projected churn.
  • Terminal ARR means you’re focused on the final-year ARR of multi-year contracts, implying you sign contracts with built-in expansion, not a bad idea in an NDR-focused world, I might add.
  • Contracted ARR can be a synonym for either committed or terminal ARR, so I’d refer to the appropriate bullet above as the case may be.

While your choice of lead metric certainly affects the calculations of other metrics (a bookings CAC or a terminal-ARR CAC) that’s not today’s point, either.  Today’s point is simple.  What you pick says a lot about you and what you want your organization focused on.

  • What number do you celebrate at the all hands meeting?
  • What number do you tell employees is “the number” for the year?

For example, in my opinion:

  • A strong sales culture should focus on New ARR.  Yes, the CFO and CEO care about Ending ARR and thus Net New ARR, but the job of sales is to fill the bucket.  Someone else typically worries about what leaks out.
  • A shareholder value culture would focus on Ending ARR, and ergo Net New ARR.  After all, the company’s value is typically a linear function of its Ending ARR (with slope determined by growth).
  • A strong land-and-expand culture might focus on Terminal ARR, thinking, regardless of precisely when they come in, we have contracts that converge to a given total ARR value over time [5].
  • Conversely, a strong land and expand-through-usage culture might focus on New Logo ARR (i.e., “land”), especially if the downstream, usage-based expansion is seen as somewhat automatic [6].
  • A cash-focused culture (and I hope you’re bootstrapped) would focus on bookings.  Think:  we eat what we kill.

This isn’t about a right or wrong answer [7].  It’s about a choice for your organization, and one that likely changes as you scale.  It’s about mindfulness in making a subtle choice that actually makes a big statement about what you value.

# # #

Notes
[1] For clarity’s sake, ARR is annual recurring revenue, the annual subscription value.  ACV is annual contract value which, while some treat as identical to ARR, others treat as first-year total contract value, i.e., first-year ARR plus year-one services.  Bookings is usually used as a proxy for cash and ergo would include any effects of multi-year prepayments, e.g., a two-year, prepaid, $100K/year ARR contract would be $200K in bookings.  TCV is total contract value which is typically the total (subscription) value of the contract, e.g., a 3-year deal with an ARR stream of $100K, $200K, $300K would have a $600K, regardless of when the cash payments occurred.  New ARR is new ARR from either new customers (often called New Logo ARR) or existing customers (often called Upsell ARR).  Net New ARR is new ARR minus churn ARR, e.g., if a regional manager starts with $10,000K in their region, adds $2,000K in new ARR and churns $500K, then net new ARR is $1,500K.  Committed ARR (as defined by Bessemer who defined the term) is “contracted, but not yet live ARR, plus live ARR netted against known projected ARR churn” (e.g., if a regional manager starts with $10,000K in their region, has signed contracts that start within an acceptable time period of $2,000K, takes $200K of expected churn in the period, and knows of $500K of new projected churn upcoming, then their ending committed is ARR is $11,500K.  (Why not $11,300K?  Because the $200K of expected churn was presumably already in the starting figure.)  Terminal ARR the ARR in the last year of the contract, e.g., say a contract has an ARR stream of $100K, $200K, $300K, the terminal ARR is $300K [1A].  Contracted ARR is for companies that have hybrid models (e.g., annual subscription plus usage fee) and includes only the contractually committed recurring revenues and not usage fees.

[1A] Note that it’s not yet clear to me how far Bessemer goes out with “contracted” ARR in their committed ARR definition, but I’m currently guessing they don’t mean three years.  Watch this space as I get clarification from them on this issue.

[2] In the sense of land-and-expand.

[3] On the assumptions that bookings is being used as a proxy for cash, which I recommend, but which is not always the case.

[4] e.g., non-recurring engineering; a bad thing to be focused on.

[5] Although if they all do so in different timeframes it becomes less meaningful.  Also unless the company has a track record of actually achieving the contractually committed growth figures, it becomes less credible.

[6] Which it never actually is in my experience, but it is a matter of degree.

[7] Though your investors will definitely like some of these choices better than others.

 

The New Gartner 2018 Magic Quadrants for Cloud Financial Planning & Analysis and Cloud Financial Close Solutions

If all you’re looking for is the free download link, let’s cut to the chase:  here’s where you can download the new 2018 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Financial Planning and Analysis Solutions and the new 2018 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Cloud Financial Close Solutions.  These MQs are written jointly by John Van Decker and Chris Iervolino (with Chris as primary author on the first and John as primary author on the second).  Both are deep experts in the category with decades of experience.

Overall, I can say that at Host Analytics, we are honored to a leader in both MQs again this year.  We are also honored to be the only cloud pure-play vendor to be a leader in both MQs and we believe that speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of EPM functionality that we bring to the cloud.

So, if all you wanted was the links, thanks for visiting.  If, however, you’re looking for some Kellblog editorial on these MQs, then please continue on.

Whither CPM?
The first thing the astute reader will notice is that the category name, which Gartner formerly referred to as corporate performance management (CPM), and which others often referred to as enterprise performance management (EPM), is entirely missing from these MQs.  That’s no accident.  Gartner decided last fall to move away from CPM as a uber category descriptor in favor of referring more directly to the two related, but pretty different, categories beneath it.  Thus, in the future you won’t be hearing “CPM” from Gartner anymore, though I know that some vendors — including Host Analytics — will continue to use EPM/CPM until we can find a more suitable capstone name for the category.

Personally, I’m in favor of this move for two simple reasons.

  • CPM was a forced, analyst-driven category in the first place, dating back to Howard Dresner’s predictions that financial planning/budgeting would converge with business intelligence.  While Howard published the research that launched a thousand ships in terms of BI and financial planning industry consolidation (e.g., Cognos/Adaytum, BusinessObjects/SRC/Cartesis, Hyperion/Brio), the actual software itself never converged.  CPM never became like CRM — a true convergence of sales force automation (SFA) and contact center.  In each case, the two companies could be put under one roof, but they sold fundamentally different value propositions to very different buyers and thus never came together as one.
  • In accordance with the prior point, few customers actually refer to the category by CPM/EPM.  They say things much more akin to “financial planning” and “consolidation and close management.”  Since I like referring to things in the words that customers use, I am again in favor of this change.

It does, however, create one problem — Gartner has basically punted on trying to name a capstone category to include vendors who sell both financial planning and financial consolidation software.  Since we at Host Analytics think that’s important, and since we believe there are key advantages to buying both from the same vendor, we’d prefer if there were a single, standard capstone term.  If it were easy, I suppose a name would have already emerged [1].

How Not To Use Magic Quadrants
While they are Gartner’s flagship deliverable, magic quadrants (MQs) can generate a lot of confusion.  MQs don’t tell you which vendor is “best” because there is no universal best in any category.  MQs don’t tell you which vendor to pick to solve your problem because different solutions are designed around meeting different requirements.  MQs don’t predict the future of vendors — last-year’s movement vectors rarely predict this year’s positions.  And the folks I know at Gartner generally strongly dislike vector analysis of MQs because they view vendor placement as relative to each other at any moment in time [2].

Many things that customers seem to want from Gartner MQs are actually delivered by Gartner’s Critical Capabilities reports which get less attention because they don’t produce a simple, dramatic 2×2 output, but which are far better suited for determine the suitability of different products to different use-cases.

How To Use A Gartner Magic Quadrant?
In my experience after 25+ in enterprise software, I would use MQs for their overall purpose:  to group vendors into 4 different bucketsleaders, challengers, visionaries, and niche players.  That’s it.  If you want to know who the leaders are in a category, look top right.  If you want to know who the visionaries are, look bottom right.  You want to know which big companies are putting resources into the category but who thus far are lacking strategy/vision, then look top-left at the challengers quadrant.

But should you, in my humble opinion, get particularly excited about millimeter differences on either axes?  No.  Why?  Because what drives those deltas may have little, none, or in fact a counter-correlation to your situation.  In my experience, the analysts pay a lot of attention to the quadrants in which vendors end up in [2] so quadrant-placement, I’d say, is quite closely watched by the analysts.  Dot-placement, while closely watched by vendors, save for dramatic differences, doesn’t change much in the real world.  After all, they are called the magic quadrants, not the magic dots.

All that said, let me wind up with some observations on the MQs themselves.

Quick Thoughts on the 2018 Cloud FP&A Solutions MQ
While the MQs were published at the end of July 2018, they were based on information about the vendors gathered in and largely about 2017.  While there is always some phase-lag between the end of data collection and the publication data, this year it was rather unusually long — meaning that a lot may have changed in the market in the first half of 2018 that customers should be aware of. For that reason, if you’re a Gartner customer and using either the MQs or critical capabilities reports that accompany them, you should probably setup an appointment to call the analysts to ensure you’re working off the latest data.

Here are some of my quick thoughts the Cloud FP&A Solutions magic quadrant:

  • Gartner says the FP&A market is accelerating its shift from on-premises cloud.  I agree.
  • Gartner allows three types of “cloud” vendors into this (and the other) MQ:  cloud-only vendors, on-premise vendors with new built-for-the-cloud solutions, and on-premises vendors who allow their software to be run hosted on a third-party cloud platform.  While I understand their need to be inclusive, I think this is pretty broad — the total cost of ownership, cash flows, and incentives are quite different between pure cloud vendors and hosted on-premises solutions.  Caveat emptor.
  • To qualify for the MQ vendors must support at least two of the four following components of FP&A:  planning/budgeting, integrated financial planning, forecasting/modeling, management/performance reporting.  Thus the MQ is not terribly homogeneous in terms of vendor profile and use-cases.
  • For the second year in a row, (1) Host is a leader in this MQ and (2) is the only cloud pure-play vendor who is a leader in both.  We think this says a lot about the breadth and depth of our product line.
  • Customer references for Host cited ease of use, price, and solution flexibility as top three purchasing criteria.  We think this very much represents our philosophy of complex EPM made easy.

Quick Thoughts on the 2018 Cloud Financial Close Solutions MQ
Here are some of my quick thoughts on the Cloud Financial Close Solutions magic quadrant:

  • Gartner says that in the past two years the financial close market has shifted from mature on-premises to cloud solutions.  I agree.
  • While Gartner again allowed all three types of cloud vendors in this MQ, I believe some of the vendors in this MQ do just-enough, just-cloud-enough business to clear the bar, but are fundamentally still offering on-premise wolves in cloud sheep’s clothing.  Customers should look to things like total cost of ownership, upgrade frequency, and upgrade phase lags in order to flesh out real vs. fake cloud offerings.
  • This MQ is more of a mixed bag than the FP&A MQ or, for that matter, most Gartner MQs.  In general, MQs plot substitutes against each other — each dot on an MQ usually represents a vendor who does basically the same thing.  This is not true for the Cloud Financial Close (CFC) MQ — e.g., Workiva is a disclosure management vendor (and a partner of Host Analytics).  However, they do not offer financial consolidation software, as does say Host Analytics or Oracle.
  • Because the scope of this MQ is broad and both general and specialist vendors are included, customers should either call the Gartner for help (if they are Gartner customers) or just be mindful of the mixing and segmentation — e.g., Floqast (in SMB and MM) and Blackline (in enterprise) both do account reconciliation, but they are naturally segmented by customer size (and both are partners of Host, which does financial consolidation but not account reconciliation).
  • Net:  while I love that the analysts are willing to put different types of close-related, office-of-the-CFO-oriented vendors on the same MQ, it does require more than the usual amount of mindfulness in interpreting it.

Conclusion
Finally, if you want to analyze the source documents yourself, you can use the following link to download both the 2018 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Financial Planning and Analysis and Consolidation and Close Management.

# # #

Notes

[1] For Gartner, this is likely more than a semantic issue.  They are pretty strong believers in a “post-modern” ERP vision which eschews the idea of a monolithic application that includes all services, in favor of using and integrating a series of cloud-based services.  Since we are also huge believers in integrating best-of-breed cloud services, it’s hard for us to take too much issue with that.  So we’ll simply have to clearly articulate the advantages of using Host Planning and Host Consolidations together — from our viewpoint, two best-of-breed cloud services that happen to come from a single vendor.

[2] And not something done against absolute scales where you can track movement over time.  See, for example, the two explicit disclaimers in the FP&A MQ:

Capture

[3] I’m also a believer in a slightly more esoteric theory which says:  given that the Gartner dot-placement algorithm seems to try very hard to layout dots in a 45-degree-tilted football shaped pattern, it is always interesting to examine who, how, and why someone ends up outside that football.

Putting the A Back in FP&A with Automated, Integrated Planning

I was reading this blog post on Continuous Planning by Rob Kugel of Ventana Research the other day and it reminded me of one of my (and Rob’s) favorite sayings:

We need to put the A back in FP&A

This means that the financial planning and analysis (FP&A) team at many companies is so busy doing other things that it doesn’t have time to focus on what it does best and where it can add the most value:  analysis.

This begs the question:  where did the A go?  What are the other things that are taking up so much time?  The answer:  data prep and spreadsheet jockeying.  These functions suck time away and the soul from the FP&A function.

dataprep

Data-related tasks — such as finding, integrating, and preparing data — take up more than 2/3rds of FP&A’s time.  Put differently, FP&A spends twice as much time getting ready to analyze data than it does analyzing it.  It might even be worse, depending on whether periodic and ad hoc reporting is included in data-related task or further carved out of the 28% of time remaining for analytics, as I suspect it is.

spreadsheetsrule

It’s not just finance who loves spreadsheets.  The business does do:  salesops, marketingops, supply chain planners, professional services ops, and customer support all love spreadsheets, too.  When I worked at Salesforce, we had one of the most sophisticated sales strategy and planning teams I’ve ever seen.  Their tool of choice?  Excel.

This comes back to haunt finance in three ways:

  • Warring models, for example, when the salesops new bookings model doesn’t foot to the finance one because they make different ramping and turnover assumptions.  These waste time with potential endless fights.
  • Non-integrated models.  Say sales and finance finally agree on a bookings target and to hire 5 more salespeople to support it.  Now we need to call marketing to update their leadgen model to ensure there’s enough budget to support them, customer service to ensure we’re staffed to handle the incremental customers they sign, professional services to ensure we’re have adequate consulting resources, and on and on.  Forget any of these steps and you’ll start the year out of balance, with unattainable targets somewhere.
  • Excel inundation.   FP&A develops battle fatigue dealing with and integrating some many different versions of so many spreadsheets, often late and night and under deadline pressure.  Mistakes gets made.

So how can prevent FP&A from being run over by these forces?  The answer is to automate, automate, and integrate.

  • Automate data integration and preparation.  Let’s free up time by use software that lets you “set and forget” data refreshes.  You should be able to setup a connector to a data source one, and then have it automatically run at periodic intervals going forward.  No more mailing spreadsheets around.
  • Automate periodic FP&A tasks.  Use software where you can invest in building the perfect monthly board pack, monthly management reports, quarterly ops review decks, and quarterly board reports once, and then automatically refresh it every period through these templates.  This not only free up time and reduces drudgery; it eliminates plenty of mistakes as well.
  • Integrate planning across the organization.  Move to a cloud-based enterprise performance platform (like Host Analytics) that not only accomplishes the prior two goals, but also offers a modeling platform that can be used across the organization to put finance, salesops, marketingops, professional services, supply chain, HR, and everyone else across the organization on a common footing.

Since the obligatory groundwork in FP&A is always heavy, you’re not going to succeed in putting the A back in FP&A simply by working harder and later.  The only way to put the A back in FP&A is to create time.  And you can do that with two doses of automation and one of integration.

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the “Great” Strategy You Couldn’t Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.

I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.

But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.

It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.

BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.

Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)

The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.

So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.

Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)
  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.
  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.
  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.
  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.
  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.
  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)

If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.

If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing