You’re a Startup’s First CPA, Now What? 5 Tips for Success

In December of 2015, I walked into a lawyer’s office in downtown Durham, NC and went up to the second floor to find three dudes in an open room, standing around a handful of long tables. A few weeks later, this became my new office. I was hired as the first (and currently only) CPA – Certified Public Accountant – to work at Spreedly – a financial technology startup focused on democratizing participation in online payments by working across the world’s payment silos. Are you a startup’s first CPA or a startup about to hire a CPA? If so, read on!

guidance for a startup's first CPA

Most early stage startups, and especially those founded by non-financial folks (like Spreedly), outsource the accounting function to a local CPA firm. The events that trigger a startup to hire an in-house CPA vary. It can be an investor requirement, a C-suite that wants more financial insight, rapid growth, cost-effectiveness, or to fulfill a regulatory requirement, such as an audit, among other events. For Spreedly, it was a combination of these factors. Regardless of the reason, there are common challenges the first in-house CPA at any startup will face. These include disorganized or non-existent documentation, lack of controls, industry-specific language, and financial tools not built for rapid growth.

My first few months at Spreedly I was drowning in questions and trying to find answers. What is the history of Spreedly? We pivoted? When? Our API integrates with over 100 payment gateways. Ahh . . . what is a payment gateway?

There’s no guideline or rulebook for a CPA to follow in this situation (which is surprising because CPAs love rules, structure, and check-lists). And, aren’t there a ton of startups out there growing and hiring CPAs? Surely other accountants in a similar situation have written about this. I found nothing. So, here is my attempt to provide some guidance for others based upon my experience as a startup’s first CPA.

1. Google is your friend

In the first few months, I got asked a lot of questions and came across a lot of interesting transactions. How to handle relocation expenses in an offer letter so it is not taxable to the employee? Do we have any internally developed software I need to capitalize? Why is QuickBooks giving me this error? To start addressing these questions and many more, I turned to Google.

Seems like a straight-forward, no-brainer, tip, right? Remember, most CPAs come from public accounting firms with fancy technical research departments in New York whose job is to field these complex questions. At a startup, it’s you, your brain, and your MacBook.

2. Create a simple month close process ASAP

As soon as the founders and C-suite know they have a CPA in-house and your first month comes to an end, they are going to expect numbers quickly. Set expectations clearly, but also make this the first project you tackle. My month close process has evolved over time and is now a living, breathing Excel checklist (Pro tip: I found a checklist via a Google search and tailored it specifically to Spreedly).

3. Tool Evaluation

Like many elements of your job that are new to you as the first in-house CPA, you may not be familiar with the tools at your disposal. If compelled to clean house and replace them with what you know, don’t. Remember, you are learning the business, the industry, evaluating needs, the pace of growth, etc. Your “startup” toolset also requires a learning curve. A year from now, most of the tools you use won’t be those you started with. Here are the key tools that were in place when I started at Spreedly vs. 18 months later:

startups first cpa tools

Some tools you’ll outgrow (i.e. QuickBooks). Other tools work well in theory but in practice are not great (i.e Online Banking). You’ll need to search for alternatives. And you might be surprised that the tools you initially thought were inappropriate turn out to be workhorses. The reality is, at the outset you don’t necessarily know which ones are best for your needs and which ones are not. All of this takes time and experience.

4. Document, Document, Document

Startups fly by the seat of their pants. While trying to ramp up growth the focus is often on the short term. This exciting, fast paced culture is what makes a startup a sexy place to work and probably why you landed this job in the first place. There is no time or resources to spend on documenting the how, what, when, where, and why. But it’s important to do so. Knowledge permeates the C-suite and founders; it is your job to pull that knowledge out, decipher, summarize, and document, document, document. Put your public accounting hat back on and schedule time with different people from different departments to shadow and conduct walk-throughs. The initial goal here is to address the “What if I get hit by a bus” issue that faces so many fast growing startups. Once processes are documented, then you can layer on controls.

5. Make your auditors your friend not foe

As a startup’s first CPA, you may not be subject to an audit (yet), but you will most likely have a CPA firm that handles your tax returns. Whatever the relationship or services your auditors are currently providing make yourself known to them (and make sure the C-suite is aware of your relationship with the auditors as well). Remember, they are a group of CPAs with a niche expertise. They have probably seen that funky equity transaction (for example) at another client. So, swallow your pride and admit you do not know everything there is to ever know about accounting and taxes and ask your auditors. It is more time effective for all parties involved.

 

There you have it – from one startup CPA to another: 5 tips to help focus your efforts during the first 12-18 months on the job. Looking for more detailed insight? Feeling lonely as the only CPA in the office? Have other tips to share? I am here to chat. Send all of your questions and comments using the contact us form and I will be sure to stay in touch. Or, feel free to connect with me and follow Spreedly on Twitter. I will return the favor so we can watch our startups grow!