Virtual CFO the Good, Bad and the Ugly

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Background 

18 months ago I jumped into a portfolio career by being a permanent part time CFO for Banjo (start-up fintech lender) whilst launching my own financial modeling consulting business, Model Citizn.

I didn’t even realise the term virtual CFO existed until I transformed myself into one by turning a permanent part time CFO role of 3 days a week into 3 days a month. I then started to take on more startup clients who were looking for a strategic financial modeler and Virtual CFO (VCFO). The word VCFO doesn’t really convey the value or the cost, but for moment its the term used in the industry. 

The journey of transformation from corporate into a VCFO was certainly exciting but also filled with failure, lots of stress and rebuilding following those failures.

A quick word of advice, if you think you can easily transition from 1 employer to multiple “employers” (also known as clients) easily and quickly (ie less than 6 months) you are kidding yourself.

It sounds nice and easy at first blush doing it yourself, but it will never be a scalable business of more than 1 immediately and therein lines the challenge.

Building it and what I learnt

There are a couple of key ingredients to building a scalable VCFO business model. In the end, if your business is not scalable it’s not saleable and worse if you get sick or injured it’s worthless and all your hard work and clients will be lost.

These are the sort of things you need to consider when diving into this growing niche space that has huge potential. Build it around the Power of One will turn into the Power of None unless you consider the following:

How much time are you working on vs in the business?                                  

In the beginning most of your time will be spent on your business whilst also juggling client work within it. This can cause extra stress, huge opportunity cost and a somewhat clunky end to end process for your clients as you figure stuff out. As you start to iron out flaws in the operations, technology solutions you have chosen or need to choose and of course the big one business development and marketing. This is more than just a blog email but far deeper and valuable insights and connections.

The technology you choose or experiments you undertake are critical.           

There are fundamentally 3 key groups of systems to consider namely CRM/business development, operations/client services/delivery and of course your own administration and accounting. Choose the right apps that all integrate or mostly integrate is key to making a seamless transition and smooth customer experience. You also need to invest time in exploring new technologies as they become available. We used 3 different CRM systems till we found the right one for us, it cost a lot of lost customer time, but would have been even worse if we hadn’t found the right solution.

Build a strong brand presence and ensure you are well positioned dynamically.

Dynamic brand positioning is extremely important. This means changing and evolving your methods and products. I started out with 1 single revenue stream and this has now evolved to 6. As competition enters the market and more VCFOs join this game changing opportunity, how will you differentiate your services and remain competitive? How can you ensure your clients are getting the best value? What if your largest client got bought out? Are you a leader or a follower? What are your competitors views of you in the market? How are you helping the broader industry progress? 

What is your why?

Not your what (stuff you do) or your how (process to do it)? This cannot be about you or why you created the business but why do customers choose you? For Model Citizn we help clients get control and simplify their businesses by making relevant, informed and purposeful decisions with insight. Some if this also has links to broader social and health issues e.g. social benefit bonds. This is at the centre of everything we do. We want to help and enable people and businesses to succeed.

Do you have staff helping you?

Are you spending your precious time in the most important areas of your business. This will change as your business changes and you need to be agile. It’s taken me 12 months before I hired my virtual assistant. I wish I had done it sooner. It has taken me 18 months to finally be confident in building the best team around me. Now I need to build it. The opportunity cost of these delays meant that on many occasions my time was not being spent on the most valuable thing (working with current customers and finding new ones). 

So let’s quickly sum this up into 3 headings.

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The Good

  • diversified income/reduced salary concentration risk,
  • uncapped earning potential, 
  • cross industry exposure, 
  • explore the latest technology, 
  • learn about the ever evolving world of digital and social marketing (email blogs are so last century)
  • working with startups that are hungry and desperate to get to break even, deeply understand the drivers of value and want to simplify their business to focus on value creation and exit.
  • opportunity to build a saleable business asset (if you structure your VCFO business properly).
  • Work life balance is absolutely achievable as you get to define what that means for you, not just some square box HR policy. I was at virtually all of my son’s footy practices and games every week (2 times a week) for the entire season. I was one of only 2–3 dads that did this (excluding coaches) as the rest had corporate jobs or were partners in large firms. They may have earned more than me for that year, but I was reaping other benefits they could never have. Defining your own work life balance is gold.
  • When the business becomes scalable and you have staff life really begins and the transformation is complete.

Bad 

  •  much longer hours than corporate including late nights and weekends until the business is well established.
  • Until you build the business properly you can feeling like the harder you work the further and further away you are from achieving that work life balance you sold to yourself and your family.
  • Technology rabbit holes can put you into a time warp of wheel spinning. Playing with a new toy might seem like fun but will it add value to the customer or just be cool or nice to have?

Ugly

  • The opportunity cost of building a scalable business from scratch takes significantly longer than expected, in my case 18 months
  • Less time working on vs in the business. 
  • Power of One is the power of None.
  • Risk of failure and burnout trying to repair an aeroplane whilst in-flight is dangerous, so why do you do it that way?
  • Client concentration risk and switching from 1 demanding employer to many. 

If I had my time over what would I do differently knowing the above.

  1. Get infrastructure setup day 1 to focus on acquiring and servicing clients to maximise revenue and remove huge opportunity cost of building a business at the same time as running it. It takes far longer than I ever imagined. Some people also never get to start life ie scalable business model ever and drown trying.
  2. Buy into or acquire an existing business or franchise that has done the hard yards for you. There are never any guarantees on success but I can guarantee your failure risk will be dramatically reduced this way. I came close to failure and wish I had this option available when I started. Buying in means you can easily sell out of the business later on as it was the infrastrucutre setup to go .
  3. Ensure the business is scalable to cope with more client leads. As you grow, by building a stronger brand, more people will want you and you will need to deliver superior services to them all. This is simply not possible on your own. I had to turn away opportunities on a number of occasions as I was too busy.
  4. Hire my virtual assistant much earlier than I did, she would have saved me a lot more time and money through lost opportunities.

If you are sitting at a cross roads right now wondering why on earth you became a VCFO and struggling with some of the things I mentioned reach out and connect. 

I am always keen to meet new people and help more businesses gain the much needed insight and strategic thinking we can offer them.

Model Citizn also offers training for the Financial Modeling Institute (FMI) and some of the most advanced modeling technology and training programs tailored to your needs.

If you need a coffee or a chat reach out.