A Startup's Guide to Critical Financial Decisions: Should You Hire a Consultant?
In a 2015 Robert Half Management Resources survey of CFOs, 55% said they would hire consultants to execute general finance and accounting projects within the coming year. A major reason for this is a simple lack of resources. This is no shame whatsoever on the company. Management teams may not have spare resources to divert from running daily operations, may not have the financial expertise necessary to confidently make the right call, or may temporarily need “extra hands” to execute on a project.
However, viewing a consultant as being only useful for a single project or deliverable is a truly missed opportunity. Writing in The Harvard Business Review in 1982, Arthur N. Turner hypothesized that consulting is more than just giving advice. After nearly 35 years, this statement still holds true for any freelance financial consultant worth their salt. As a business owner, you should be aware that no perfect candidate exists overall. However, the right candidate should not only directly solve the problem they are being hired to address. They should quickly get to grips with what solutions have been attempted in the past, what untried steps you have in mind, what related aspects of the business may need attention and how to make sure the solution is broadly accepted.
There are several key aspects to keep in mind when looking for the right consultant:
- Sourcing the right skillset – This can be a tricky situation for certain businesses entering uncharted waters. A company that normally does not employ valuation professionals to run its business may find itself hard-pressed to do so before launching a fundraising roadshow.
- Adding a new perspective – A business owner may be too passionately entangled with the company. Shareholders may focus too much on the rewards. Hired managers may find it hard to propose, yet alone execute on, certain courses of action without getting mired into politics or emotionally charged situations. A freelance financial consultant is there to add a new, unbiased perspective to the table.
- Long-term value creation – If approaching the problem in a holistic manner and if listened to, a consultant will lay the foundations for value creation far beyond their term of engagement. Good consultants should be able to build internal capacity that allows the business to eventually loosen their reliance on the consultant himself.
At What Stage Should You Bring On A Financial Consultant?
Below, we will cover, in detail, how a financial consultant may help a company at each stage of its development. This is not a template for all businesses but the points outlined here will surely strike every business owner as familiar. This guide provides a high-level overview of what a company should consider when hiring financial consultants at different stages of its growth. It also helps highlight specific skillsets that should be spotted during the interview process.
At the startup stage, a company’s product offering is not finalized. Funding may be limited to a founder’s contributions, friends and family, or select seed capital sources. At this stage, consultants can focus on optimizing a company’s resources to achieve meaningful short-term milestones and position the company for subsequent growth. This may involve finalizing a product for its specific niche, assessing pricing, testing market demand, evaluating profit margins within various market niches and making recommendations around priority niches.
Q: A seasoned intimate apparel designer has launched her own startup. She and a small team are working on the company’s first collection, which they seek to introduce next fall. The company has limited development and marketing budgets. The company envisions no additional funds being available from outside sources until after its collection debut. The founder would like to use the resources from the sale of her first collection to fund the development of next season’s collection. How can a financial consultant guide the startup in optimizing development of its first collection?
A financial consultant’s approach to this scenario should leverage interpersonal and technical skills to help the founder optimize her company’s resources. They should also be aware of the startup’s limited resources and thus focus on the key issues and high priority items that will achieve the stated goals. The right financial consultant should demonstrate that she intends to:
- Spend time with the founder and the CEO and probe her on her previous successes and failures.
- Seek out qualitative data on performance of each inventory item broken down by SKU.
- Identify expected price points and all-in cost to manufacture and deliver each SKU to the shelves.
- Recommend that the number of SKUs be limited to most promising items, which are likely to become sold out.
- Help negotiate inventory ordering contracts to ensure re-ordering is quick, easy and inexpensive – if the company wants to capitalize on initial demand.
- Allocate generated sales revenue for the development of subsequent collections.
The hiring manager should listen to the consultant’s thoughts on how to optimize existing financial resources and the quickest way to demonstrate product-market traction. Consultants capable of demonstrating how to position the company for future growth will be a strong fit. Last but not least, a solid financial consultant will raise risks and concerns about the company and openly assess the advantages of this opportunity. A blatant focus on the positives should raise a red flag. A true value-add consultant would be an objective advisor and wouldn’t be afraid of criticising aspects of the business. A consultant only focused on the positives is likely doing so just for the purposes of securing the engagement.
Early Stage Growth
Companies at early stage growth have demonstrated that their product or solution is in demand by certain customers. However, the process of building up a customer portfolio and the systems required to support a rapid acceleration in transaction volume often requires assistance with limited resources. Companies often burn through cash as the scale of existing activities cannot sustain operating costs.
A freelance financial consultant role at this stage may involve assisting senior executives with strategic planning and appropriate alignment of financial resources to position the company for further growth. A consultant will work with management to prioritize strategic goals, track the resources required to accomplish them and help with identifying capital-raising targets. Furthermore, preparing the company for fundraising is a time-consuming task. Financial consultants can provide an outsourced solution and allow the founders and the management to focus on running their company.
Q: A two-year-old software company has developed a unique solution for small and medium power generators, which allows them to earn extra money by flexibly responding to changes in demand on the power grid. The software maker was funded by friends and family through the product development phase. It has two marquee customers, but not enough revenue to fund marketing and sales efforts needed to scale the business. How could a consultant help the company to define its capital needs and prepare to raise VC funding?
The recommended approach by a consultant to this situation may strike the discerning reader as evident but these steps must be followed skilfully and tactfully. The right candidate should:
- Carry out a detailed study of the company’s operating and financial history, identify the amount of capital spent to date and operational milestones achieved.
- Interview CEO, CFO, COO and, if appropriate major shareholders or board members to clarify strategic goals for the next 3-5 years.
- Demonstrate ability to forecast revenues and estimate costs based on own assumptions, instead of management projections.
- Prepare investor marketing materials and other fundraising documents.
- Market-test the company’s “story” by reaching out, on a no-name basis, to select active VCs in order to gauge possible terms and valuation ranges, and advise the management team.
The founders should actively seek the consultant’s thoughts on the potential valuation of the company and its positioning among the most optimal group of investors. A strong candidate will help the company develop conservative projections and help identify a series of milestones that the company can execute upon during the fundraising process, which can lead to premium valuations.
High Growth/Mature Growth
Companies enjoying a high growth phase of development are relatively well capitalized to execute on their business plans and convert substantial number of leads into revenues. But while sales may grow rapidly, profitability may still be marginal as the scale of revenue growth is not adequate to support the costs required to maintain momentum.
At this phase, a freelance financial consultant can assist in refocusing its strategic priorities on making the company profitable. This may involve assessing the growth and profitability potential of each product line and/or market niche or perform an ROIC analysis for substantial capital expenditure projects. The following case study provides such an example:
Q: A zero-emissions delivery truck manufacturing company offers its customers five models of battery-powered electric trucks, which offer substantial fleet-wide fuel cost savings. It enjoys a robust sales pipeline. However, most customer orders come in chunks. A sales cycle may be as long as 12 months and the truck order may involve as many as 1,000 units, which will take approximately five months to fulfill. The company would like to invest in additional production capacity and needs to estimate how much capital will be required and which truck models it should focus on.
Any consultant worth their mettle will take a multi-faceted approach to this scenario:
- Carry out interviews with sales and marketing teams to gain an understanding of sales pipeline.
- Spot-test the sales pipeline through conversations with largest customers.
- Identify potential operational issues around manufacturing which can lead to delivery delays.
- Assess the cost of servicing the trucks after they roll off the production line ,and estimate life-time profitability of each model.
- Evaluate capacity expansion via NPV, IRR, ROI and payback analyses.
- Deliver recommendations around truck models, around which the Company can enjoy the most profitable growth and the quickest path towards breakeven/positive EBITDA company-wide.
- Continue developing the investor relations story to position the company for an IPO or prospective sale.
During the screening interview, particular attention should be paid to the financial consultant’s desire to deep dive into the details of the sales pipeline. If the consultant is willing to question critically existing sales while remaining sensitive as to the conflicting demands of various departments within the company, they will be in a great position to support the company’s management in balancing growth and risk. The hiring manager should also evaluate whether the financial consultant will take a long-term perspective in their analysis of various investment projects. CAPEX investments in plants and facilities are expensive and carry lasting implications. A strong consultant should provide a qualitative assessment of the project fit within the company’s strategy, in addition to listing NPVs and IRRs.
The organic growth of these companies may tend to slow down and revenues may plateau, enter a cyclical pattern or start experiencing a slow but steady decline. Growth must be sought elsewhere through acquisitions, new products or new market niches. Mature companies can therefore turn to a freelance financial consultant to either optimize their cost of capital or halt a declining phase, for example. This can help them to re-invent themselves (more than once, if need be) and continue along the road of growth.
During this phase, a freelance financial consultant (or a team of consultants) typically supports one of multiple constituencies within the company (e.g., CEO, CFO, Board of Directors, special creditor committee, etc). Financial consultants can help assess market opportunities, product lasting power, level of competition. Furthermore, consultants can guide the company as to the cost of capital and advise management regarding optimization strategies. They are often tasked with evaluating strategic alternatives to identify and recommend the most optimal one for the board or CEO. They can be asked to identify a list of potential targets for acquisition or prospective buyers of the hiring client. Last but far from least, financial consultants help their constituencies to put in place a system to optimize the company’s risk management strategies.
Q: A lead-acid battery manufacturer is heavily financed by debt, which is coming due in the next 20 months. Its business has seen steady demand from the secondary automotive market but margins have been in decline due to pressure from mass retailers. The company’s bet on a line of products for a new fuel-saving auto application is promising but is yet to pay off due to slow pick-up in sales. Some customers have even delayed orders by more than two years. How could the company seek the help of a financial consultant’s help in refinancing or restructuring its debt?
At this stage, consultants need to show their versatility in understanding the company, its situation, its market and the options available to it. The approach to this scenario should involve:
- Formulating a map of stakeholders, including customers, debt investors, management, employees, tax authorities, regulators, shareholders, etc.
- Targeted interviews with C-suite executives to develop a full awareness of the situation, including the solutions and vision each wants to see executed.
- Developing an understanding of the debt terms, its covenants and how close the company to “tripping” them.
- Engage with select debt-holders to assess the level of friendliness towards the company and urgency in opening the dialogue between the management team and the investors.
- Targeted current and prospective customer outreach to assess the risks of the existing and future business.
- Development of various strategic approaches to refinance the debt and estimate their impact on the organization and various stakeholders within the short, medium and long-term.
The hiring manager should test for the financial consultant’s sensitivities regarding different constituents and their interests to gauge their suitability. In addition to querying around financial metrics and goals, during the screening interview, a strong financial consultant will raise questions about how their work may affect the careers of various management team members, whose support is needed to adequately evaluate the company’s status quo.
A strong candidate will also come across prepared to flesh out as many strategic options for the company as possible. Clearly, as the company matures, its structure, product mix, a number of stakeholders increase, and so the permutations around problem-solving. For example, a simple solution may be to engage with the debt holders and pay a fee for an extension. However, the least costly and most effective may involve a sale of assets in order to refinance the debt. A strong consultant will appreciate the complexity and, in addition to the simplest solutions, will develop and evaluate complex ones with various moving parts over time.
Pitfalls To Avoid With Financial Consultants
As an overarching theme, hiring managers should be aware of the frequent mistakes that occur when working with financial consultants, especially when an organization is hiring a consultant for the first time. If during the interview, the consultant gives the hiring manager an impression that he is there to minimize these pitfalls, it is a sign that he is strong professional.
Not Defining Clear Deliverables
If the organization does not set specific objectives upfront, this may result in the consultant seeming like part of the company furniture. Unless the role is specifically seen as being open-ended, no clear objectives and deliverables will most likely lead to frustrations for both, the hiring company and the consultant, around time and money. Strong financial consultants will proactively seek to avoid such situations.
Similarly to not defining clear deliverables upfront, scope creepage occurs when the company progressively asks for more work from the consultant without prior discussion of their engagement or increased budget. Strong financial consultants guard against that by pushing back and by managing a healthy client-consultant relationship.
Mismanaging Reporting Structure
A Consultant may have a substantial amount of autonomy when hired by an organization. However, the most effective way to manage the financial consultant is by having one person (or a committee/team, etc.) they report to, even if they are engaging with various departments. That one person should be solely in charge of changing the consultant’s focus. “Let the new guy do it” is a potentially destructive path, particularly if employees approach the consultant with their own projects. The strong financial consultants will attempt to clarify the reporting protocols early.
Treating the Consultant as a Vendor Instead of a Partner
Financial consultants are experts. They are hired to solve problems. They are not gofers and will not appreciate a “here is my problem - go solve it” approach from their clients. Setting aside the purely demotivational aspects of such treatment, strong consultants understand that solving complex organizational problems occurs iteratively and through ongoing dialogue with key decision-makers. A strong professional will indicate early that she’d like to have access to teams and interact with the team members systemically during the engagement. Such partner-like work also fosters healthier relationships.
Not Fully Leveraging Consultant’s Resources
Many financial consultants are generalists. They have strong capabilities to problem-solve and implement many different projects related to finance, even though they may be hired to execute on a project that requires a very specific expertise. Irrespective of the size and complexity of the hiring organization, each consultant will undergo a learning curve, especially concerning internal procedures and culture. Therefore, there is a substantial value in hiring the same consultant (or a group of consultants) repeatedly. Thus the hiring manager must get comfortable with the entire scope of the financial consultant’s skills and capabilities early. Strong candidates will seek to find out from hiring managers as many problem areas as possible and share their capabilities – and desire – to help above and beyond in what they are being hired to do.
In today’s high-paced world, having a flexible workforce is a competitive edge. You effectively manage overhead and call in on-demand financial experts when needed. Yet evaluating a consultant based on the potential for a short-term project-at-hand may lead to leaving money on the table. A strong-fit financial consultant will bring to your organization not only the financial expertise and execution capability you seek, she will seek to set up partner-like environment where her expertise can be shared and adopted by the organization. She will also add a fresh perspective to the table that is not affected by legacy decision or internal politics, which could in turn bring up new opportunities for improvement that hadn’t previously been determined.
Furthermore, an excellent candidate will seek to leave the company better prepared for the next stage of its growth and value creation. After all, the best consultant you can hire will seek to build a long-lasting relationship with your so that she can continue advising your team over the years as new problems – and opportunities – emerge.