If you’re considering outsourcing the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role for your startup, you’re not alone: In our experience, almost all startups outsource CFO services at some point. Contract CFO services offer many of the benefits you would expect from an in-house CFO, but on an as-needed basis that suits early-stage startups. Their services vary, so as you research the options you may be wondering: Which functions can (and should) you outsource?
The short answer is that most functions requiring a CFO’s advanced finance knowledge and business acumen can be handled successfully by a third party; the top services of outsourced CFOs are listed below. (Note: The outsourced CFO function may also be described as temp, contract, part-time, fractional or virtual CFO services). However, there are some functions that aren’t appropriate for outsourcing—keep reading to find out what they are, and why an outside CFO isn’t the best solution.
What is an outsourced CFO?
An outsourced CFO is a financial expert that works as a strategic financial consultant for businesses on an hourly, part-time or otherwise contracted basis. They have experience in high-level financial roles across private and/or public companies at different stages of growth and work with businesses of all sizes on everything from strategic planning to scenario modeling, unit economics, financial projections, and more.
What types of businesses should consider an outsourced CFO?
In the early stages of development, businesses may not see substantial benefits from hiring a full-time CFO. Outsourcing some of the work can help you maintain a reasonable budget, particularly if your finances are relatively simple.
However, it’s important to understand the limitations of outsourcing. Most businesses underestimate the cost of contract CFO services. Startups tend to allocate their finance and accounting budgets based on hourly rates, estimating about 3-4 hours per month for financial projections, planning, and reporting. Generally speaking, that’s not enough time.
While some outsourced CFOs can provide basic services with only a few hours of work, developing long-term solutions to problems will require much more than 3-4 hours per month. Extending your budget to allocate 15-25 hours of CFO services — the average requirement for early-stage startups — can cost $5,000 to $8,000 per month. Additionally, if your outsourced CFO isn’t a permanent part of your business, they may not have the necessary knowledge to provide in-depth analysis or actionable advice. To benefit from a CFO’s experience, you’ll need a dedicated professional who understands your startup’s challenges.
Zeni’s best-in-class CFO solutions help address these challenges. Unlike most outsourced CFO services, we offer full-service solutions that combine expert human analysis with a powerful AI-driven platform. By developing a working knowledge of your organization, Zeni delivers accurate insights and reliable guidance while maintaining your startup’s budget — starting at $549 per month, depending on your monthly business expenses.
11 Outsourced CFO Services Startups Need
Before a business’s initial public offering (IPO), a startup can outsource many of the primary responsibilities of a CFO to a knowledgeable expert without sacrificing accuracy. However, it’s important to remember that every business is different. Before outsourcing, make sure you understand what your CFO offers (and their limitations).
Below, we’ll look at 11 services that are typically beneficial for startups.
1. Financial Projections
Every startup needs financial projections: They show the revenue potential of your business and help attract investors. Financial projections also form the basis of your budget and indicate the amount of investment the business needs, so it’s important to work with a finance expert to make realistic predictions.
An outsourced CFO solution will use your financial results from previous periods to help predict how the company will perform over future months and years. This includes projecting your expenses and revenues across all key verticals, how your sales expenses will grow, and how many salespeople you’ll need to meet revenue targets. If you already have financial projections in place, an outsourced CFO can extend and maintain them.
2. Scenario Modeling
Scenario modeling involves creating alternative projections that show how your company is likely to perform under various conditions. For example, you may model an aggressive scenario where the business grows by 30% in one month, as well as a more conservative scenario where it grows by just 10% in a month. For each scenario, the modeling would predict the impact on financial results like revenue and costs.
Modeling can also help businesses adapt to unique circumstances without sacrificing continuity. As an example, in 2020, many organizations created COVID-19 impact scenarios, where growth decreases month over month. Planning for multiple scenarios is necessary but time-consuming, so outsourcing this task can give you back valuable hours.
3. Actuals vs. Budget
The budget sets targets for how the startup should perform each month in order to achieve the results in your projections. To monitor whether the business is on track or underperforming, the outsourced CFO will compare your actual financial data to the budget and report back on where you stand. Calculating the variance between your budget and actuals highlights where you may need to adjust your strategy or review whether the budget is achievable.
If your CFO has experience with your business, they may offer guidance for correcting your budgeting. However, many outsourced CFOs have no permanent relationship with their clients—they’ll simply report the reality of your budget, which limits your ability to correct any issues.
4. Unit Economics
An outsourced CFO solution can help you establish and track the unit economics for your business model. For SaaS companies, this usually involves looking at the average revenue and costs per customer. The CFO will likely monitor the ratio of customer lifetime value (LTV) to customer acquisition cost (CAC) to show how sustainable your business is, and to indicate ways you can improve profitability.
5. Startup-Specific Guidance
As a startup, your finance needs are different from those of established businesses. An outsourced CFO who has years of experience in your vertical can guide you through processes like building out your team and exploring funding options, and highlight details someone with less specialized knowledge may have missed; for example, contract loopholes that need to be fixed.
However, if you choose an outsourced CFO without the relevant experience, the support they can offer will be limited. For instance, if your business is a SaaS startup and you work with a CFO specializing in direct-to-consumer businesses, chances are they’ll only be able to act as an adviser rather than being a hands-on partner.
In order to provide useful guidance, an outsourced CFO service will need extensive knowledge of your business model, capacity, and how your team operates. That type of knowledge isn’t attainable with 3-4 hours of work per month. Your team will need to fully understand your startup, so set reasonable expectations.
At Zeni, we employ a full team of financial professionals who have worked within dozens of industries and business models. By leveraging the experience of our team—and understanding the unique needs and expectations of each client—we’re able to provide precise guidance for meeting goal outcomes at an affordable rate.
6. Financial Presentations
Many of the topics that board meetings cover are directly linked to your finances: fundraising, business strategy, the annual budget, etc. Some outsourced CFOs offer the service of attending board meetings to lead financial discussions and interpret the figures. The outsourced CFO can field questions, go into detail about financial projections, present financial models, and explain the theory behind the assumptions in their projections.
Once again, an outsourced CFO will need extensive knowledge of your startup in order to present knowledgeable interpretations of the data. Depending on your business model and the complexity of the figures, you may want to avoid outsourcing financial presentations unless you can develop a strong relationship with the individual representing your business.
7. Financial Reporting
Even if an outsourced CFO won’t be presenting at meetings, they can support the team by preparing the reports, slides, and figures for you to present yourself. This service is particularly helpful when you’re preparing for meetings with investors. Having key financial documents on hand means you can respond immediately to requests and avoid the embarrassment of looking disorganized. Plus, your outsourced CFO will review and confirm the accuracy of your key monthly financial statements — Profit & Loss (P&L) or Income statement, Cash Flow Statement, and Balance Sheet.
8. Strategic Planning
Founders who are new to the startup world (and sometimes even those who aren’t!) may make strategic decisions that have unexpected consequences on their expenses or revenue growth. An experienced outsourced CFO will help you avoid these kinds of mistakes by advising on strategies that work from both finance and business viewpoints. For example, the interim CFO may be able to give advice on the business models you’re designing, and suggest an alternative model that might be a better fit.
9. Customer Contract Reviews
An outsourced CFO can advise business owners on how to negotiate more profitable contracts with customers. From a finance perspective, the CFO can identify potential risks that could end up costing the company and make sure contracts are watertight. From the business perspective, they can assess whether the contract terms are in your best interest, and suggest ways to make them more profitable. Customer contract reviews require a CFO who understands your industry, your target market, and your business’s stage of development.
10. Legal Team Liaison
For a CFO to produce accurate financial statements, they need to have a clear view of the company’s contracts and legal obligations—something they can only get by working in close collaboration with your legal team. Such collaborations also give them an opportunity to review your legal documents to see if they’re in the best interests of the business. Having a CFO’s perspective on legal decisions ensures you’re aware of the financial outcomes before you make a commitment.
11. HR Oversight
Headcount is the main HR function and also often the biggest expense of a startup (or any company, for that matter). An outsourced CFO can collaborate with the HR manager to monitor how changes to the team affect your ability to hit budgeted figures, and, if necessary, make recommendations about how to cut staffing costs. They can also advise on how to develop a competitive compensation package that is still good value for the business.
2 Services Your Startup Shouldn’t Outsource To A CFO
An outsourced CFO can offer a huge amount of value to your team, but if you rely on them for the wrong kinds of services, you won’t get the maximum benefit from this relationship. There are two main mistakes founders often make here:
- Trying to outsource functions that rely on long-lasting relationships
- Using CFOs to complete basic projects that should be assigned to someone else
Below are two common examples of how some startups use outsourced CFOs in a counterproductive way.
Some articles suggest using an outsourced CFO solution to handle fundraising for your startup, however, we don’t recommend doing this. Investors are usually buying into the story of the founder’s vision, so it’s the founder who should be meeting with investors and developing relationships, rather than a representative from an outsourced CFO solution. Where outsourced CFOs can help with your fundraising is by preparing documents, slides, and financial models you can take into investor meetings.
Although the founders should always take the lead on fundraising, if your startup has progressed to the point of Series B or Series C funding, you may need a CFO who can become more involved in the process. Once you get to this stage, it’s probably time to hire a full-time CFO for your team.
2. Bookkeeping & Accounting
A lot of people who engage the services of an outsourced CFO ask them to do their business’s day-to-day bookkeeping and accounting. This is a bit like having a samurai sword and using it to cut vegetables. CFOs usually command a high price for their time, so using them for basic accounting tasks can be an expensive and ineffective use of their expertise.
Instead, it’s best to delegate the day-to-day finance tasks to a bookkeeper or accountant, freeing up the CFO to work on higher-level (and therefore more valuable) projects. If you want to outsource CFO and accounting services to the same firm, make sure you’re working with a finance solution that has CFOs and accountants on their team, so each function is managed by someone with the appropriate qualifications.
Outsource Your Startup’s CFO Services With Zeni
Looking for the best-outsourced CFO services for your startup? Zeni is a next-generation, full-service financial firm that handles finance functions more cost-effectively and intelligently than traditional outsourced CFO solutions.
Our experienced finance team of CPAs, tax advisors, accountants and CFOs work in tandem with artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to deliver expert finance management services. Enrolling in the Zeni CFO Plan means your day-to-day bookkeeping and finance functions are handled by our certified bookkeeping and accounting experts, and tasks related to financial planning and analysis are managed by our CFO-level finance experts. With one integrated team managing every aspect of your financial management and planning, results are fast, accurate, and actionable every time.
With Zeni you get a dedicated always-on finance concierge, and access to a sleek finance dashboard that turns your accounting data into powerful visualizations. Plus, our team has firsthand knowledge of what it takes to make a startup successful, and can help you manage your finances smartly.
Unlike many other CFO firms, you won’t have to worry about mounting hourly charges: Our flat monthly fee includes all your outsourced CFO services, including:
- Financial forecasting and projections
- Budgeting (planned vs. actuals)
- Scenario modeling
- Board meeting attendance
- Investor deck review and feedback
Learn more about our CFO services by scheduling a free demo!
your business in our interactive demo!