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What it’s like to be CFO of a fast-growing tech firm

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How long have you been at SwiftKey?

Richard Gibson: I have been with SwiftKey since March 2011. The company had launched its SwiftKey Keyboard app on Android in October 2010 so it was just starting to generate revenues and had around 15 employees  The company is now around 160 employees with our headquarters in London and offices in Seoul and San Francisco.

What was your background before your current role?

RG: I have always worked with SMEs and growth companies. I trained in London as a Chartered Accountant with a focus on corporate finance, before moving into the private equity industry in 2001. I spent nine years investing in management buy outs of SMEs/ owner managed businesses which was a fantastic training ground.

I must have worked closely with a dozen or more different management teams over several years, through both the ups and downs of trying to grow their businesses. I learnt a great deal working with different management teams and understanding how they build their own businesses.

During this time I worked out that I preferred working alongside the CEO, Chairman and FD trying to grow the business more than I enjoyed simply investing in them. Once I realised I wanted to roll my selves up and have an impact from inside businesses, I started working as a consultant to a number of VC backed businesses. That was how I was introduced to Ben and Jon at SwiftKey.

What are the key challenges of being a CFO specifically in a fast-growing company?

RG: The first thing I would say is that no two businesses are the same so I’m sure the challenges we’ve worked through at SwiftKey might be similar in many ways, however they are often subtly different.

The overriding challenge for a CFO is managing the business in the context of massive business uncertainty and rapid business change. CFOs often provide the checks and balances for the business ensuring it is on a stable financial footing as well as having robust controls and processes.

In my view perhaps this more traditional role for a CFO needs to be adapted when operating in a highly fluid and fast moving environment. A good CFO in a high-tech high-growth company needs to provide an appropriate level of business control whilst also creating light touch processes which do not hamper the pace of execution around the business.

Our type of company also invests heavily in innovation, which by nature is speculative so having the confidence to make investments and monitor the performance of these investments is crucial for the long term success of the company, particularly as you scale.

I believe the second aspect is the ability to understand non-financial issues that impact the business and have an impact outside of the finance areas. Managing the finances of the business and the relationships with key stakeholders such as investors and non-executive directors is all part of the core CFO role.

In a young, rapidly growing business you are constantly working in a resource constrained environment under significant time pressure so in this environment all of the management team need to pick up challenges outside of their core role.

I’ve worked on contract negotiations with OEM customers, office relocations, and I am currently working on the organisational design of the business as we scale beyond 150 employees. This is why I find working in this type of company so rewarding – there’s so much to learn and no two months are the same!

Does being in the technology sector present particular challenges for a CFO, and what are they?

RG: SwiftKey has been operating in the mobile software market since 2010 and I think it is clear to anyone that the proliferation of mobile devices and the levels of utilisation of these devices by consumers has simply been incredible. I think we have only just seen the beginnings of how mobile computing will impact our daily lives and change consumer behaviour so it’s a hugely exciting market to be in.

SwiftKey was started in an attempt to help make communicating easier on these devices, via an improved typing experience. If you think about how much we all communicate using our mobile devices either via email, SMS, Facebook, or a messaging app it is truly incredible. We see our average user using our app for nearly an hour a day across all of these activities.

Working in such an exciting sector is great, however the pace of change is a constant pressure. We focus heavily on innovating our existing products and also research related products which we may bring to market in the future. What I feel works well for SwiftKey is the combination of deep learning technologies (natural language processing, artificial intelligence, machine learning etc) with language skills.

In terms of the CFO role one of the more significant challenges has been around the globalising the business with customers and offices around the world. The complexity of international business regulation and taxation is not something I’d wish on anyone, so if the policy makers could streamline this it would be enormously helpful for young tech companies trying to build a global business!

What key piece of advice would you have for those following in your footsteps? 

RG: Being a CFO in a rapidly growing business is hugely rewarding and also very challenging. You should expect to have your evenings and weekends hijacked at short notice. This is why I think the most important things are that you enjoy working with the people in your team, you have a flexible approach, and you enjoy working in a continually evolving environment.

Do you think the role of CFO has changed in recent years, and how so? 

RG: I’m not sure if the CFO has changed much over time. I would say that the CFO in the technology sector has changed. I think the CFO not only fulfils the traditional finance, business operations, and management control functions – they have to add value by working closely with the CEO/founder(s)/board/shareholders in tackling a wide range of business issues.

From a strategic perspective, particularly for companies with external investors, the value creation strategy is something that is often overlooked by many teams but I think is a crucial area a CFO can add value.

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