Jeremy Foster is the Chief Financial Officer of Austin-based Talroo.com, the data-driven job and hiring advertising platform that helps businesses reach the candidates they need to build their essential workforce. Jeremy shares insights into the key indicators of business valuation: 1) The necessity of leaders knowing the language of finance; and 2) The differences between startups, growth companies, and mature companies. He covers why alignment of the stakeholders is important for a company’s successful scaling, and when to use blitzscaling, if at all. He explains analytics and shares examples from his past and present work, in an educational overview of the interplay between finance, data and decision-making.
[2:14] Jeremy started in marketing and then ended up leading operations and retail banking for a 15-branch community bank in New Mexico and West Texas. His background was not in accounting or finance. That changes how Jeremy tends to approach the numbers.
[2:41] Jeremy explains how he evaluates a business by looking at three numbers: the lifetime value of the customers, the customer acquisition cost, and the total addressable market. Marketing is a key component of each of those numbers.
[4:36] Jeremy has worked with startups and scaling businesses. He’s seen a broad spread of financial knowledge within company leadership. Sometimes an executive team has problems because of their different levels of understanding. Do you understand GAAP and income statements? What are revenue, gross profit, and EBITDA; the basic terminology. Some executive teams don’t know these terms.
[5:33] The next big question is which financial statement is the most important to look at, the cash flow or the P&L statement? It depends on whether you are a startup or an established company. There’s a transition the executive team needs to make from a stage of perpetually raising capital to a stage of starting to generate capital and focus on unit economics, and understanding sound investments.
[7:51] Super-mature businesses are balance-sheet-driven. These are companies like banks, oil, and gas, that have balance sheet sensitivities they need to pay attention to.
[8:06] Get an executive team all on the same page with a basic background in finances and then focus that alignment in education first on whichever financial statement is the most important to the business, according to what stage your business is in.
[9:27] There’s an element of leadership that’s getting people to follow you and there’s an element of knowing what the right direction to go is. The math of business is useful in helping you figure out what the right direction is.
[9:45] The first step in identifying the right direction can be self-study. Sometimes it’s about understanding the terminology. Sometimes, it’s about looking at your business and thinking about what’s most important for your business. The easiest way to do that is to rely on the ability to identify a bottleneck. What’s the most immediate limitation on the business? Is it sales, product, or capital?
[10:58] The first thing is to recognize the most immediate pain point in your business. Decompose it. Understand what the most important numbers are in that pain point. You don’t have to understand all the numbers in the business at once. You can learn over time. Start by figuring out what’s most important.
[11:59] Jeremy explains scaling and growth. A scaling business differs from a startup in that as the business gets bigger, it juggles an increasing number of variables. Part of becoming a scaling business is looking in advance. If you want 100 new customers how much staff do you need to onboard new and maintain existing customers? Look for limitations and plan to remove them before you hit them.
[14:06] Past guest Margaret Heffernan identified planning for limitations as adaptability. Jeremy notes that the amount of flexibility you have is contingent upon your availability of capital. Blitzscaling has its drawbacks. If you hire too much staff, then when the capital is drained, you will have massive layoffs and you may lay off the wrong people if you don’t know the metrics. That puts you in a death cycle.
[15:44] Growth can be self-financed or it can come at the cost of additional capital. Blitzscaling is valid in winner-take-all markets. An example of this is Netflix. Their model is streaming video, so they had to grab as many customers as possible before others captured the market. They had to raise capital through growth and figure out how to make customers sticky. They enabled streaming through Xbox.
[16:54] Often, blitzscaling is not the right approach, especially if you raise too much capital at too low of a valuation, which may hurt your investors. Prove profitability first and then raise capital at a higher multiple a little bit later.
[18:56] Marketing analytics is used by companies like Facebook to choose what ad to show. Talroo uses analytics to identify the right job candidates for employers that are looking to hire essential workers. The analytics calculate the likelihoods that a job seeker will: apply for a job, be a good fit for the job, and be selected by the employer. With the right characteristics, you can start to reach the right people.
[19:37] There’s a space for analytics in most businesses. With analytics, you will gain a level of additional insight into what your team needs, what your customers need, and what your shareholders need. Understanding where those numbers that matter to you are is where analytics starts. Jeremy gives an example of how his former employer, Kasasa, used analytics and rewards to drive consumer behavior.
[22:45] Analytics work best if you know what factors drive your business. It can also help you figure out specifics of what drives your business. Jeremy cites the problems with having too many dashboards or too few dashboards and the benefits of having an appropriate number of dashboards. Analytics will tell you where to go next if you pay attention, but you have to be thoughtful about what you’re building.
[26:28] When you talk about pricing, ask yourself if you are reaching the combination of the right targets that are willing and able to pay that price and if that is price sufficient for you to make money after you’ve acquired those customers. And are there enough of them to grow the business well? Jeremy shares some facts about the cost of acquiring customers, their lifetime value, and marketing cycles.
[28:20] A business is considered investable or backable by private equity or venture capital if it is going to make three times as much as it cost to pick up that customer. … What sometimes VCs and PE groups don’t pay attention to is how fast that cycles. Having multiple cycles in a year multiplies the profit.
[29:14] More about pricing: Sometimes getting extra traction on the sales front isn’t about charging less, sometimes you can deliver more value. Sometimes all you have to do is take risk away. Jeremy relates a Kasasa case study. When you de-risk a transaction, sales friction goes away.
[33:16] As companies scale, they have to broaden their understanding of their stakeholders. What do the customers want? How do you deliver value? It is easier to work with private equity and venture capital if they’ve seen the metrics. To be a partner, they can’t operate blindly; they need transparency. If you skip wage increases, consider the customer churn that will follow as employees leave.
[35:53] Jeremy shares some aspects of conversations that were held at Kasasa, post-acquisition. They were discussing how to balance their white-label segment against their branded segment. They needed to understand the concerns of customers moving from one to the other as they navigated early conversations with the private equity group.
[37:00] The PE group was focused on long-term growth. They were the right partners. It’s important to have the right partners with the same objectives as the company leadership and previous owners who are investing. You want that alignment. If the idea is revenue growth at any cost, everybody better agree on that. If the alignment is to grow profitability x% year over year, everybody needs to be aligned.
[39:01] Talroo sees a very high level of demand for essential workers. That’s a strong vertical for Talroo. Jeremy doesn’t foresee a full-fledged labor recession. There is softening in tech sectors in terms of need for workers, which Jeremy attributes to earlier overhiring of workers by a lot of large businesses. Most of the pressures in the labor economy are still present. There are a lot of people retiring or recently retired.
[40:19] One of the biggest problems the U.S. faces over the next decade is a shortage of labor because we’ve been below our replacement rate. We don’t have enough workers. It’s important to retain your talent, or partner with Talroo to find new talent! One of the places where analytics gets overlooked a lot is in understanding who your best performers are. Which people is it most important that you retain?
[41:41] It’s still going to be important to lead well the people that you have.
[42:34] Jeremy has been a key part of three major restructurings in the last 13 years. It’s awful for everybody involved and it should be awful. If it’s not awful, something’s wrong with your culture. Restructuring should be a last resort. You can sometimes avoid them by staffing the right people in the right places. Sometimes you get it wrong.
[43:45] Part of leading is looking at the metrics to know when to make those decisions. Part of leading is looking at people first when you’re making those decisions so that you’re making the right choices. Part of leading is knowing that your team members are vital, too. You have to do what you can to provide a soft landing for the people you have to lose. Provide as much transparency as you can upfront.
[46:34] Jeremy’s last message for listeners: “People look at numbers and people as exclusive and they’re not. They should both provide you with insight into the other. So, when you talk about the hard side of leadership and the soft side of leadership, they’re both sides. There’s a lot to be said for figuring out how to use them to work together, to make you stronger on both sides of that equation.”
[47:26] Closing quote: Remember, “Academic qualifications are important and so is financial education. They’re both important and schools are forgetting one of them.” — Robert Kiyosaki
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