When a startup is growing rapidly, the finance team needs to keep apace. It’s usually a balancing act between hiring for today, hiring for the future, and knowing what roles to fill first – which isn’t always clear.
Rhianna Brancato, VP of Finance at Properly, built the finance team completely from scratch just months after she started. A team of one who wore many hats, Rhianna took it upon herself to identify talent gaps, source new hires, and assess what resources were needed to scale the business.
In this interview on the Retained Learnings podcast, she shares some advice on how to structure your team, where to find your next hire, how technology can support you, and what she would do differently if she had to do it all over again.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to your role at Properly.
A: I’ve been at Properly since April 2021, but I’ve been in accounting and finance my entire career. I worked in cannabis for a few years and had the chance to go through the IPO process, which was a lot of fun and a lot to learn. Before that, I worked at Ernst and Young where I got my CA.
I’m probably one of the few people to say that I don’t hate the audit world. I enjoyed my accounting role at the cannabis company but I was looking for something different. I wanted to get on the more practical side of things and understand how businesses really operate. I was looking for an opportunity at a smaller scale growing company – and that’s what led me to Properly.
Q: As the first finance hire at Properly, how long did you independently manage everything and what was that experience like?
A: I was pretty lucky. I was a team of one for about two months. When I started, we kicked off our first-ever audit, but two weeks after that, we began our Series B raise. That combined with bringing on some basic cash and payroll controls kept me very busy – I wanted to hire help right away. Although it was a short period of time working solo, it really required a lot of prioritization. When you initially join, there’s going to be tons of stuff you want to do and fix. And if you’re like most accounting people, you’re willing to work a lot of hours to get there – but there’s still going to be more than you can actually do alone. You need to make a roadmap for yourself, prioritize, and be honest with the company about what you can realistically get done and when.
Q: You joined Properly, hired another team member, and got right into the deep end. When did you know you’d be able to hire more team members?
A: I knew I was going to hire someone before I even started. It was actually part of my business case when I interviewed with Properly – to bring on people right away. Based on what I learned about the company, I knew that they were growing really fast and that I alone wasn’t going to be enough. So I started scoping the role and may have started getting involved in interviews before my first official day in the seat. After that first person came on, I hired a lot more people in a rapid succession. Like I said, the company was growing really fast, and I realized I needed more help than I initially thought. I brought on a controller about six months after that, as well as two more people in our back office to help process deals. I had four people join within my first six months.
Q: You mentioned you saw a need for more financial resources in the company. What in the company made you see that? Can you walk us through how you did that? What key resources were you looking for?
A: When I was looking at the company during the interview process, I spoke to many different people there. When I spoke to a couple of the founders, they shared information about where the company was today, what they needed to get done, the legal mandatory compliance that had to happen, and what they were projecting the company to look like in the future. We discussed how fast they were growing and where they wanted to be in the next year. Based on all of that and considering what needed to be done – basic controls, getting through audits, dealing with lenders – I started scoping out how much work was involved to actually level things up and not just stick to the status quo. I wanted to make things better and raise the bar across finance and accounting and I just knew that as much as I wanted to do everything on my own, it wasn’t physically possible. From there, I began intentionally considering the type of help we would need to succeed in bringing a full finance department to the company.
Q: What do you look for in new hires?
A: I would say there isn’t a one-profile-fits-all when it comes to a finance team. Every time I hire, I hire for something a little bit different. Outside of finance, there’s the criteria of: What skills do they need to have? Are they quick learners or do they need a lot of training? What level of experience do they need? How senior do they need to be? What do you expect from this person? Do you expect them to be independent? Do you need to have more oversight over their role? All these factors shaped what I was looking for in people. For my first hire, I brought on someone who was more junior and didn’t have any practical industry experience. I was willing to train them and bring them up to speed. For the next one, I was looking for someone more senior. I brought on a financial controller and expected them to be independent and take work off my plate.
There are different routes to finding the right people. Some companies will hire from the Big 4 or another accounting firm. If you’re hiring for financial reporting or accounting, you can definitely look for someone in the Big 4. They probably have all the technical skills you’re looking for but don’t have practical industry experience. You just have to be willing to train them. The other option is to hire someone with different industry experience. This can be really helpful if you’re looking for an FP&A or strategic finance role. You want someone who is a strong modeler, analytical, and has those technical skills that they may not have gotten with a traditional accounting background. Diversifying hires within the accounting team is key.
Q: How do you train someone without industry experience? What are the challenges someone might encounter?
A: I’ll tell you what was done for me. It may not be a one-size-fits-all approach but I swear by this. When I left the Big 4, I was a second-year manager, so in my mind I was fairly senior. I got hired by a VP of Finance who said “guess what, you’re doing all of the bookkeeping, replacing our external bookkeepers, and taking it all on yourself.” In my mind, I was already at manager level, so I wondered why I had to do this. But at the same time, he was really smart for throwing me into it. I learned a lot about the company and how accounting systems work in the industry. I was able to see how the company functions, how the payroll runs, and how the manual journal entries are posted. I didn’t do it for very long – it was a couple of months before I hired someone onto my team to do it for me. But I think that experience got me up to speed with the practical day-to-day functions of an accounting department. When I brought on my first hire at Properly, I made them do the same thing. I got them right into the books and connected to our external bookkeepers. He learned very quickly and gained a lot of practical, hands-on experience.
Q: Other than hiring new staff, how else can you scale your team’s impact and effectiveness in a startup like Properly?
A: I never want my team to operate in a silo. Being an effective finance department means that you’re serving as a partner to the rest of the company. To me, scaling fast and being impactful to the business requires us to be curious about what’s going on in other departments. I have that expectation for my team. They have that curiosity and genuinely want to understand the business. They want to help other teams make their lives simpler. My team reads every monthly and quarterly report, they are integrated in many different Slack channels, and they just have a pulse on the business. When we’re closing the books, doing variance analysis, and board reporting, we actually understand what happened because we’re so integrated with what’s going on. It’s also important for my team to be able to identify where other teams are struggling and where they might need more support in their analysis – we can bring a different perspective.
Q: Did you make any key technology decisions that helped scale your team? For example, an ERP.
A: We’re not on an ERP. That in and of itself is a ton of work and we just didn’t have the manpower to get there. Instead, I focused on finding a software that was easy to integrate, could be added to the existing backbone of our accounting system, and just made everyone’s life easier. Everything we have is automated. We brought on Float – shameless plug there – but it was absolutely great. We’re able to automate a bunch of our cash controls and get rid of the need to collect receipts and invoices from employees. There was no more manual work for us to do.
It’s important to know that with smaller systems like Xero or QuickBooks, there’s a lot of add-ons that can provide greater value – without the need to fully rip out your system and bring on an ERP, which takes a lot of time and money to do.
Q: As a high-growth startup that’s constantly thinking about scaling, how far in the future are you living from a resourcing perspective?
A: I think the right way to do it is to be thinking six months ahead. Startups and scale ups grow fast. A year in the startup world is probably five years in any other business. If you’re hiring for what you need today, you’re already behind. It takes three or more months to actually bring in a good person who knows what they’re doing so if you’re not thinking six months down the road, you’re not going to have the person when you actually need them. When I first joined Properly, I didn’t necessarily think six months ahead. I was thinking about today and by the time I got my controller in the seat, I wished I had them a lot sooner. But I learned from that and now we’re constantly thinking about where the business is going and looking at what team members we’ll need to support at the next size and scale. I have a mentality that finance should never block anything the company is doing because we can’t move fast enough. I don’t ever want to be a blocker, so I need to get ahead of the changes that are coming.
Q: Are there any lessons or guidance you would provide to people that are coming into similar roles at a startup?
A: Hire fast and don’t be scared to bring on a more senior person. My initial instinct when I joined Properly was to hire an analyst-level position first, and in reality, I probably should have brought on the controller first. This is more so because I would have been able to leverage the controller to help me in the hiring process and they could have built out their own team for themselves. If you’re in a fast-growing company and you can see the volume of work that’s coming in, bringing on someone more senior might be more expensive but if it’s going to provide more value to the team and the company, it’s a worthwhile conversation to have.
Q: What does the finance team at Properly look like today?
A: I have the finance team divided into three different sub-teams, and we operate together as one unit but with three different focus areas. On the FP&A and strategic finance side, I have two people. On the financial accounting and reporting side, I have another two people. We’ve replaced our external bookkeepers and brought everything in-house a couple of months ago. And then on our back office brokerage side, which are the people responsible for processing real estate transactions, we have another two people. So it’s myself plus a team of six.
Q: Is there a rough number of people you’d expect to have easy rubric in a startup?
A: I do. I’ve heard this from a few different finance leaders, and so far it’s made sense as we grow. So I’m going to stick to it. Somewhere around 5% of headcount should be your finance team. It’s not that it must be 5% on the dot but I’d say if you’re dipping below that, you’re probably understaffed. I’d say 5% to 6% is likely where you want to be. If you know your company is growing quickly, think about what you need to bring on to keep that ratio as the company grows further.
Q: Where does FinOps fall for you at Properly?
A: We don’t actually have a true FinOps team at Properly right now. I think the responsibility of a FinOps or financial operations sits between our operations and accounting teams – we both do different pieces of that. I think as we grow, it’s something we’re looking at and considering where it belongs. I think a lot of people define FinOps in different ways too. When I think of it, I think more of the customer-facing side of finance. So operationally you’re dealing with customers, whether they’re potential or paying. Operationalizing finance is how I think about it. As we grow, it’s something we need to pay more attention to and we’re actively thinking about where to go from here.