The CFO Lens on Responsible SaaS Spending

4 min read Indus Khaitan

Venture Investors, Entrepreneurs, CTOs, CFOs, CMOs have come together recently for our first-ever virtual event: Quolum Live. With SaaS powering business as never before, a responsible and strategic approach to software spending is crucial in the 2020s. Our 6 sessions at Quolum Live bring together critical and diverse perspectives on the growth trajectory of SaaS, key factors driving SaaS growth, pandemic impact on SaaS, and what lies ahead this decade.   

We’ve taken our live sessions and curated the best parts for your reading pleasure. 

In this session, Quolum conducted a Zoom chat with Wailun Chan, CFO of Plastiq and former VP Finance, LinkedIn. Wailun shared a Finance perspective on how modern CFOs are leveraging SaaS to drive company growth while focusing on unit economics, and the journey from CFO visibility and predictability to sensemaking, with SaaS. 

Wailun’s session was a vivid reminder that in the 2020s the role of Finance has already moved beyond bookkeeping and policing of expenses into steering the business through investments that focus on value in the long term, while partnering with the CEO, IT, and Go to Market teams.


Session Highlights

Q: What are the biggest changes you have seen in your finance career over the past 20 years?

  • As Wailun shifted from CPG to Financial Services to Tech, he has seen major changes in Finance which also has implications for the enterprise tools used for Finance
  • In industries like CPG, Margin expectations and predictability is a key focus. Since profitability was lower relative to, say, Tech, there is a greater focus on predictability and expense management, to identify where for e.g. marketing spend was going to drive revenue. Finance played a bit of a policing role in traditional industries 
  • In industries like Financial Services, speed, and execution mattered more. Heavy focus on deleveraging – how to flip $1 as leverage to loan out $3-$4, securitize it, and use the same $1 to drive the profitability of specific cohorts. This is why Big Data plays a huge role in Finance to help manage risk and ROI
  • The role of Finance in Tech is very different, it’s about the value proposition and speed, transparency. In contrast to Financial Services and CPG where the focus was on visibility, predictability, and managing expenses. In Tech, finance is about being a business partner and being a subject matter expert in Finance
  • Wailun doesn’t even use the term expense anymore, he uses the word investments. For him, every marketing dollar used isn’t against budget, it’s about the ROI. Every investment is about the ROI and value returned, and the mindset of Finance is shifting dramatically in 20 years to value in the longer term

Q: How has the role of CFO evolved towards being a true business partner to the CEO?

  • A simplistic view of organizations is you have the CEO (the visionary) and COO and CPO (who focus on the business and product roadmap, the value proposition, what the company is solving for) with the Go to Market teams in sales or marketing. You have the CHRO helping bring in the talent that fuels the business. This is a basic value chain 
  • A CFO’s role is now to quantify this great value that the chain of teams is bringing and what does that mean for the investments being made in the company 
  • Previously, the CFO was seen as the person “doing the math” and managing accounts, now the CFO is seen as the leader that thinks about the value from first principles, working alongside these other C-level leaders
  • Wailun is a “full-funnel” thinker (traffic leads to opportunities to accounts funnel) and thinks modern Finance teams have to think through this funnel more than before
  • Wailun sees the CFO and Finance leadership role as a spectrum that goes from visibility to predictability with insights to supporting actionable strategy set by the CEO and Board
  • If you have a quantitative COO, the role of CFO is a bit different than if the COO is more story-driven, then the CFO needs to counterbalance that differently, so where exactly CFOs need to be in the visibility to actionability  spectrum is a function of the kind of company, and the stage and the leadership the company is in 

Q: From spreadsheets to modern intelligence tools, how can technology reshape finance?

  • Wailun is excited about how newer technologies are emerging to help Finance, for example, Machine Learning and AI tools
  • Coming from LinkedIn, Microsoft had a strong Finance team, and so there was a team on the full spectrum from visibility to actionability, but there was also a Machine Learning layer that checked if the team was being over-optimistic or conservative
  • Challenge with SaaS is when you hit diminishing returns – the first 10-15 tools (for example) being added in a company add a lot more value but when you cross key thresholds, then the incremental value becomes debatable. For e.g. how many times can you optimize headcount forecasting or IT spending, you are likely to do it just a few times
  • The beauty of SaaS vs On-Premise is the ease of deployment and instant use versus had to wait for an army of engineers to work through 2-year implementation cycles in the past

Q: In today’s environment, how can companies balance unit economics and growth investments with SaaS?

  • Wailun believes if you are a business that builds SaaS then we are shifting from a long period of predictability of your own revenue to some new headwinds. 
  • If you are a SaaS business and customer-facing headwinds, are you a true value add a product that customers won’t unplug or were you a nice to have in the first place
  • Wailun also added that if the customer calls you to cancel a contract or ask for a 50% discount, are you a true SaaS company 
  • Do you focus on the short term benefit of a customer asking for a discount, or do you focus on the longer-term value and give them that break right now. These are hard questions a CEO and CFO have to answer
  • If you flip the question for CFOs, it is a perfect time to ask “are these nice to have or must have SaaS apps”, and ask if the 20th application is providing as much value as the previous tools invested in

Q: What new technology skills are crucial for finance professionals entering the industry today?

  • Wailun believes there is still a lot of white space in Finance because these are often seen as internal products or G&A workflows
  • More SaaS investments have typically gone into areas like building a new business, new pipeline development, and infrastructure investments. Just as manufacturing 
  • Back office functions like HR and Finance, new product development is lacking a little bit. What would be great to see is CRM or CRM-like platforms that exist in Sales and Marketing, for back-office functions that come with APIs with plug & play capabilities 
  • One area of opportunity Wailun sees is bringing everything into one platform versus all the different platforms teams have to jump in and out of every day in their workflow, with really easy user interactions

Q: What SaaS interfaces do you think you will stop using in 10 years, or new interfaces that you would like to use in another 10 years?

  • Wailun sees Excel has been around for so many years because it has incredible horsepower and flexibility 
  • New data dashboards e.g. PowerBI that link to Excel, that are like dashboards are like outside CRM, that can help bring the power upwards to more decision-makers
  • Power of Excel to cut and slice information, and translate to something for sensemaking

Q: What new technology skills are needed for finance professionals starting out today?

  • Wailun sees the need to understand the structure of data is a far more valuable skill than just knowing how to use new software tools
  • For eg. Microsoft Access is an old tool in which you linked different kinds of data
  • In any kind of planning system e.g. Anaplan, Hyperion, Workday, when it comes down to it, the interface is different, but the structure of data behind them is similar
  • Data structures are what finance professionals should worry about more than specific tool and technology skills e.g. analysts to directors, understanding the foundations of the data you are dealing with is more important than the specific tools