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Building finance and accounting operations — Lessons from the Unicorn Playbook

A hallmark of companies that hit unicorn status is the speed with which they typically get there. Large sums of capital can fuel hypergrowth, and yet without skilled teams building companies with the right people, processes and systems, growth can be stymied and resources squandered. While 2022 will see far fewer unicorns than the 250 minted in 2021, the lessons learned from those who experienced the journey can be valuable to all companies. Building efficient finance and accounting operations, implementing the right systems and careful planning are essential during a hypergrowth phase and can perhaps be even more helpful in resource-constrained circumstances. The Unicorn Playbook Volume I profiles three finance professionals who shepherded their companies through the chaotic growth phase from startup to unicorn — here are some of their lessons.


Accounting and finance teams are resource-constrained under any circumstances. The timing and the type of hires they make are therefore critical. Scott Clark is currently CFO at a venture capital firm, advising early-stage companies. Prior to that, he was CFO at Lime, and four of the last seven startups where he worked hit unicorn status during his time there. He says that the hardest part of getting your company on track for growth is building your team and determining who your first few hires should be.

Scott often opts to do the work of an accounting firm himself when he is in the process of getting things set up and organized. That way, he can be sure that whoever takes over after him will have a good template to work from. He also points out that, “Leveraging tools means you don’t have to hire for some of the more entry-level roles, or maybe you’ll just need one person instead of three or four.”

Fivetran Corporate Controller, Katie Slattery, agrees that the hiring process is one of the most important steps in creating a successful company. “One of the most fun parts of the role is when you start to bring on the key players to take on leadership roles, and then I can step away and focus on more strategic issues,” she said.


Katie revealed that at Fivetran, “Our accounting organization’s goal is to achieve operational excellence. Creating and sticking to a roadmap that prioritizes critical infrastructure … is how we’re going to achieve it.” She goes on to say that successful finance teams must always have a plan and, equally important, a way to effectively communicate it.

“We communicate with regular meetings, both one-on-one and standups, that serve as a round table of what everyone is working on. We have a full running list of everything that needs to get done, which is not just related to the close.” Katie’s team divides the list into high, medium and low priority tasks. Prioritization is key, and each task is assigned to an employee with fixed completion dates.

Meanwhile, Katie herself works to maintain an open line of communication with legal, FP&A and the sales teams almost every day. This allows her to be aware of any problems that arise so that she may take action and stop them from progressing in a way that ultimately affects her and her team. “This type of problem solving is more ad hoc than the formal planning process, and it’s a constant flow, whether on Slack, email or calls, we’re always in communication. It’s so important. You can’t be effective in a silo,” she said.


Likewise, the interviewees agree that automation plays an important role in allowing lean finance and accounting teams to move more quickly and free up time from manual tasks. This gives more time to focus on strategizing and mapping out the trajectory of your company. Katie was clear on this point. “Startups need to focus on getting the right systems in place early and automating processes wherever possible.”

When it comes to selecting the right tech stack for your company, a key component in the automation process, Jason Lopez says that you should always opt for the most efficient software that will be easiest to implement. Additionally, the Lattice controller recommends taking an objective look at the systems you already have in place and being honest about what is and isn’t working for your company, adding that people often fall back into that which is familiar, even if it is no longer serving them.

Software can eliminate inefficiencies, as Scott did when implementing a spend management solution. “I was focused on how much time our operations team was spending on expense reports, rather than doing their own job.” Jason also improved inefficient processes with software and cut credit card reconciliations by 80% to 90% after automating with Airbase.

When it comes to building, running and improving the finance and accounting function from startup to unicorn, some overall advice was provided. “You need to know the importance of setting goals and actually planning,” says Katie, adding that it’s very easy to “get caught up in the day-to-day” operations of a startup and lose sight of the big picture. “It’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get lost in the mix. Then you don’t achieve your goals. You don’t want to look back and ask, ‘What did I actually achieve?’”

Download the Unicorn Playbook here.