The market may impact your financial plans — and that gives you new opportunities to adapt.
As 2022 came to a close, you worked hard to finalize your company’s financial plans for what has already been an unpredictable year. Financial planning is only as good as your execution, but execution can be challenging when macro conditions are changing. This paper offers some guidance for strategically driving your financial plans forward with confidence, no matter what the market holds.
Now that 2023 is in full swing, all eyes are on the finance team to ensure that your company can meet its ambitious goals — an even more challenging task in an unpredictable and perhaps unprecedented economic position.
Despite the macroeconomic pressures, though, there’s good news to be found. Companies are working more remotely, more nimbly, and more strategically. They’re dissolving the boundaries for how to build sustainable growth, and they’re finding new levers to pull in order to fuel it. It’s important to keep driving your financial plan forward — both to activate it and optimize it — and continue steering your company in the right direction.
As a high-growth company, with a mission of helping customers build financial resiliency and grow themselves, Brex has learned a lot over the years about what makes for a successful financial plan. Below we've gathered some of our best practices for ensuring that our yearly financial plans can successfully guide the company toward its goals, even in the face of unexpected turbulence.
Align your success metrics to your customers' outcomes.
It's important to have clear metrics that are used consistently around the company. When metrics are unclear or misaligned, this can deliver misleading data that makes it hard for finance teams to make accurate decisions or identify problems. How can you tell if your financial plan is tracking toward goals if every team is measuring performance and results in a different way? And how can you tell if you’re using the right metrics?
At Brex, we believe in orienting our metrics — and unifying our teams — around the customer. If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business, so they must always be your primary concern. Your other critical stakeholders — like investors and the board of directors — can provide advice and counsel, but truly knowing your customers and listening closely to their feedback is mission-critical for meeting your goals.
“The best companies obsess about creating meaningful and measurable value for customers.”
— Pedro Franceschi, Co-founder and CEO at Brex
Pedro Franceschi, our co-founder and co-CEO, said recently, “If we look at the best enterprise companies, it’s not enough to be successful. The best companies obsess about creating meaningful and measurable business value for their customers. We want to do the same at Brex.”
So how do we find out what’s meaningful to our customers?
- We ask them. We’ve created Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) that allow customers to influence where we focus our efforts. “For us, they provide tremendous insight and we get to define value together,“ our Chief Revenue Officer, Doug Adamic, said in a recent blog post. And when customers see their feedback being built into our products so quickly, “they’re blown away,” Doug adds.
- We bring them into our discussions. Last quarter, we invited customers to our quarterly results review. “It was definitely a bold request,” says Camilla Matias Morais, SVP of Operations at Brex, “but bringing the customer to the real business performance discussion forced us to measure success the same way that our customers do.”
- We emphasize the inputs vs. outputs. For example, “we do track NPS, but it’s not really a key metric we focus on day to day,” says Ben Gammell, SVP of Finance and Accounting at Brex. “These are outputs — or lagging metrics. By the time you’re measuring a customer’s net promoter score, they’ve already had a series of interactions with you. To get a better signal up through the funnel, [you want to understand] conversion, win/loss rates, product adoption, engagement, SLAs — things like that — which are much more leading metrics.”
When we measure the success of our product the same way customers do, and orient all of our actions around increasing the business value they extract from Brex, there’s nothing stopping us from building an enduring company that meaningfully changes how customers manage their money.
Stay accountable to customer outcomes by putting resources behind them.
Once you work together with your customers to define value and decide what success looks like, it’s important to take action in service of those desired outcomes — walking the walk, and not just talking the talk of customer obsession.
That means putting the right resources behind those outcomes. Karandeep Anand, our Chief Product Officer, recently explained how, at Brex, we spent hundreds of hours learning about how legacy spend management systems were falling short for today's companies and realized the challenge wasn't only technical, but also cultural.
“We lost a few months initially by focusing on what our customers wanted without understanding what they needed. Innovations and breakthroughs don’t happen that way,” he says. “By empathizing with customers, we conceived an entirely different way of managing spend — one designed to shift the culture of spend rather than simply dialing up features.”
At Brex, every decision memo starts with the customer, meaning that before any decision is made, we must first prove its value to the customer. We ask ourselves, “How does this decision make the customer experience better? Which customers will be impacted by it? Tell us an anecdote of a real customer you spoke with that will be affected by this decision.” On a fundamental level, this keeps us accountable to the commitment we make to every business we serve.
You must be prepared throughout the year, from quarter to quarter, to run scenario planning exercises and, if needed, shift your efforts and resources to meet your goals.
David Eckstein, CFO of Menlo Security, said, “You can't cut ten percent of your customer success resources and still maintain some NPS score, or still maintain your gross retention.”
Brex CFO/COO, Michael Tannenbaum, added to that, saying, “You cannot cut costs to the point that you are not growing. You have to make sure that you’re investing for growth as the leader of your budgeting and financial process.”
In essence, you can't save your way to growth. But you can stay nimble and quickly move money and resources to where they will have the most impact, especially in a down market when financial discipline is key.
Stay nimble and adjust dynamically — but don’t alter the plan.
Having access to real-time, accurate financial data from across the company allows you to detect problems and opportunities early and report them to management and the board. But if you check back in on the metrics you’ve chosen and see that you’re not where you expected to be, changing the plan could introduce some trouble. Namely, it could create thrash as employees try to adjust to the new goals you’ve now committed them to.
“You’ll want to pick the cadence of reviews to identify any gaps against the plan and then determine the actions that you want to take,” Ben says. “Ultimately, if you think you’re gonna miss the goal, figure out what you need to close that gap, whether it’s a marketing push, a new campaign, or some other lever you can pull, but you won’t know whether you’ve succeeded or not if you continually move the goalposts throughout a given period.”
Instead, be selective in what you analyze and don’t fall into the trap of adjusting your financial plan in response to every stimulus that looks negative. You may risk burning resources analyzing the business rather than doing the business. “The thing you really want to ensure about these metrics,” Ben says, “is that they enable you to get the earliest insights into the health and performance of your business and just ruthlessly prioritize them.”
“You have to stay focused,” Camilla adds. “This is extremely hard because it’s very tempting to react to every piece of negative feedback. My suggestion here is that, if feedback is tied directly to your goals, then you act. If feedback is not tied to your goals, then you wait.”
At the end of the day, the goal is to track your progress against the plan and adjust your actions if needed, but keep the plan steady.
Communicate your plan’s progress often and clearly.
At any company, transparency is a huge part of ensuring that any initiative succeeds, but this is especially true with a financial plan. Transparency, along with educating and empowering teams to spend smarter, can help sustain momentum — especially in tough economic times. That’s why communicating as much as you can on successes, potential obstacles, and overall plan progress is critical.
For instance, Danielle Murcray, the CFO of security business AttackIQ, says she may not always be able to talk about sensitive details behind a strategy or spending shift, but adds: “I can always explain the ‘why.’”
Telling employees why something is happening often makes it easier for them to do the right thing. Understanding why certain expense policies exist, for example, makes teams much more likely to act in a financially disciplined and responsible way — they feel more invested when they are trusted with information. Conversely, if employees feel they are in the dark, it leaves room for them to jump to their own conclusions.
This open dialogue is especially important at a time when so many employees work remotely, and many companies have offices distributed around the globe. Regular and clear articulation of the plan’s progress helps generate a culture of trust that can be a motivating force and increase accountability as well as productivity.
Ensure that everyone in the organization is accountable for the plan’s results.
Executing a financial plan is a company-wide undertaking, and everyone should own the initial plan as well as the results, with the finance team as the captain. The finance team needs the support and cooperation of the rest of the company, and your employees want to know how their work is contributing to the big picture and bottom line.
To get the best results from your annual planning and to drive financial discipline, you want to empower everyone — from the controller to the accounting team and managers — to bring the plan to life. Town halls and cross-functional meetings are a good way for the finance team to connect with the broader company and become stronger strategic partners. This helps employees to feel accountable for the continued success of the organization and gives them the mandate to flag opportunities for smart investments that can contribute to growth as well as potential cost savings.
Another tactic is to assign budgets to department leaders to share the responsibility for profitability with their teams. This lets them make smart trade-offs on behalf of the business, the idea being that workers closer to the customer often have a sharper sense of where opportunities lie. “I find frontline employees have some of the best ideas because they’re dealing with things day in and day out,” says Joseph Gwozdz, who worked as a CFO for 20 years at various companies before becoming an operating partner at the investment firm Edison Partners.
Keep driving your financial plan forward with confidence.
Sustaining momentum on your financial plan throughout the year is more than just taking action — it’s a cultural mindset. But with the right actions, CFOs can help set the right tone around financial decision-making inside their companies.
As these best practices become part of the culture, they will position companies to remain focused on the long-term opportunity in front of them. And when done right, they’ll have another payoff: helping employees throughout the organization understand that financial discipline is not a scary mandate at odds with growth, but rather a smart approach to creating a sustainable business.
To get more practical tips for keeping your financial plan on track in every economic climate, watch our recent webinar, Financial plan in action: Top 3 ways to meet your 2023 goals.