The Next Big Thing in Finance: Data, Analytics, and Automation

August 24, 2023 Theresa Rex

accounting director analyzing the next big thing in finance on technological screen in tech room

Data analytics is essential to financial success. The ability to collect, analyze, and interpret data can provide valuable insights that drive informed decision-making and improve overall financial performance. As a CFO with years of experience in the finance industry, Anna King can vouch for the transformative power of data and analytics.

Anna brings more than a decade of expertise in data and analytics to drive financial precision and spearhead strategic projects. At Mesh Payments, she leverages this depth of experience to empower finance teams with real-time insights into their expenses. Before joining Mesh, Anna held CFO positions at EverC, Joyance Partners, Social Starts, and Transactis.

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Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we're talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately get results. With your host, Megan Meese, let's jump right in.

Megan – 00:00:31: Today, my guest is Anna King, CFO for Mesh Payments. Anna has over a dozen years of experience utilizing data and analytics to achieve greater financial control and implement strategic initiatives. At Mesh Payments, she puts that experience to use helping finance teams take control and gain insights into their spending in real time. Prior to Mesh, Anna was the long-time CFO for Transactis, a billing and payments processing company acquired by Mastercard. Anna, thank you very much for joining me on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

Anna - 00:01:05: Thank you for having me. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

Megan - 00:01:08: Yeah. I’m excited to have you on the show. And today we'll be talking about finance automation and how to utilize data and analytics to achieve greater financial control and implement strategic initiatives. I’m really looking forward to this discussion with you. So let's jump right in.

Anna – 00:01:24: Great.

Megan – 00:01:25: First and as always, tell us about yourself and your career journey, and how you got to where you are today.

Anna - 00:01:31: So I’m the CFO of Mesh and I’ve been here for a year and a half. Prior to this role, I was the CFO of a company called Transactis for eight and a half years. And I took that company through the acquisition by MasterCard in 2019. I started my career as an auditor at PwC in the banking capital markets group. And I’ve held positions at and consulted for several startups. I really enjoy being an operator and helping companies scale. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My parents, sisters, aunts, and uncles are business owners. So I like to say that entrepreneurship is part of my DNA.

Megan - 00:02:07: And can you tell us a little bit about Mesh Payment and what it is that they do?

Anna - 00:02:12: So Mesh is a travel and expense management platform for global enterprises. And it uniquely meets the needs of distributed workforces and multinational companies. So finance teams rely on Mesh to power their global spending and expense management, automate manual accounting tasks, enhance compliance with embedded spend control policies, and optimize finance workflows for a faster month-end process. We just launched our global capabilities last month and we can now serve Europe, the UK, and Asia. And we've significantly enhanced our product capabilities and have enterprise customers across all industries, including several Fortune 100 companies. Mesh was named to the CB Insights BinTec 250 list and named the fastest growing spend management platform in the US by G2 earlier this year.

Megan - 00:03:03: And what attracted you to this company? What excited you about the opportunity to work for them?

Anna - 00:03:09: Yeah, so one of Mesh's investors introduced me to Mesh's Co-Founder and CEO, Oded Zehavi. And I absolutely loved the Mesh product from the moment I was introduced to it. I love to tell the story that at my last company, Transactis, I hated corporate cards. In fact, I refused to let anyone have a corporate card. I didn't want to deal with the pain of chasing down receipts, manually categorizing expenses, and having the team enter those into the accounting system. All those pain points are eliminated with Mesh. And I’m extremely passionate about how we are using that technology to provide corporate spending and alleviate the pain points for the finance department. And the other thing that really excited me about working with Mesh is this is the first time in my career I’ve worked alongside more than one female executive. In fact, women represent 50% of senior management and 40% of the company as a whole. So it's really exciting to feel like we have a diverse team and it's great to be a part of that.

Megan - 00:04:09: And you advocate for real-time data and analytics. So what initially sparked your interest in this area?

Anna - 00:04:17: throughout my career, I’ve embraced technologies to automate tasks and enhance my decision-making. I worked full-time during college, and in every job, I would use the skills I was learning to improve the processes. So I’ve seen over and over again how real-time data and analytics lead to better outcomes for companies. And that's really what continues to excite me as I work for companies and help them scale and grow.

Megan - 00:04:42: And talk to us a little bit about the process of becoming data-driven. Where does an organization start?

Anna - 00:04:50: Yeah, so I definitely think it should be something that's part of the company culture. It really needs to start from the very beginning when the company is being built. How the organization talks about its data, how they integrate it into the various aspects, and how they communicate it to the employees and the board and investors is really important. And so I really believe that it needs to become part of the DNA of a company. Employees should use it to make better decisions about their day-to-day tasks, right? Companies should use it to enhance their strategic decision-making. It should be part of the product roadmap discussions. Obviously, when you're going out to fundraise and raise capital for the company, it's really important that real-time data really understand the business, the market throughout the company, and the organization.

Megan - 00:05:43: And what tools do you think are necessary to become data-driven? Is it an ERP? Is it like visual software? What does a company need to manipulate the data and I guess tell a story with it?

Anna - 00:05:57: So I think it's really important to have, obviously what everyone sees is that end reporting system, that BI tool. So picking a BI tool that allows different users to access the data is really important, right? The ease of use. So I think that's one of the most important pieces. But it's also important to, as the company is selecting different technology vendors, to understand how those vendors can connect to those BI tools. and so making sure you pick technology systems that allow that connection, that make it easy for the finance organization to pull data from those different sources is really critical. I can share several stories of where I’ve done that in the past and how important that's been to the success of the business.

Megan - 00:06:44: If you could just share one or two, that would be great.

Anna - 00:06:46: Great, so at my last company, I connected the production data to the accounting data and to our sales pipeline data. and I connected those all to the BI platform. So we were able to see in real-time how much revenue we had made that day or even months a day. So we could quickly see which customers were growing and we had the visibility into the pipeline so we could estimate where the month would end up. And we shared this view with the entire company so everyone can be aligned and we would have a short meeting every week to review the month-to-date results and forecast the rest of the month. And this really gave us the ability to target the team and focus on those areas that we're doing really well. So we were able to gain valuable insights into which industries or customer segments were doing well. We could focus the team on just those segments. We could also see which products or services were being used by our customers. And the product and development team could then make better decisions about which features to prioritize. And we could quickly see the adoption of those new features and pivot if needed. So it really enhanced the entire company's ability to make better decisions and execute.

Megan - 00:07:59: And what are some of the common concerns or resistance that you get regarding using real-time value or using real-time data or the value of real-time data?

Anna - 00:08:10: The most common concerns are either time or money constraints. But I also believe that the benefits of implementing these systems outweigh the costs. So I really encourage finance teams to understand the ROI for implementing automation and reporting technologies. And in most cases, the benefits will be really clear. I suggest modeling out the various aspects and using that information to overcome any objections. I think the other thing to note, the hours saved and the cost savings are easy to measure. You can quantify those pretty easily. But it's really hard to quantify how better decisions being made or the ability to make those decisions faster can have an impact on the company. But I think that's a huge value add. And so that's one thing I would just note is there are more benefits than just the pure hard cost savings or time savings.

Megan - 00:09:02: And with so much data available these days, where do you start? How do you prevent people from boiling the ocean?

Anna - 00:09:09: Yeah, it's a great question. I think first you kind of want to take a lay of the land. So identify all the data sources that are needed for reporting, right? What are all those different systems or data feeds that the team needs? And really understand how those can be automated and connected to a BI tool. A lot of times, the good thing is now more technologies can connect to various BI platforms through APIs. So really trying to identify what systems are needed. I think it's also important to identify all the fields and data points needed for reporting. Do you want to report by location, industry, or features? I’m an advocate of having as much detail as possible because then you have the flexibility to slice and dice the reporting later. So once you've identified the data sources and the data points, I think it's important to then pick solutions that will scale as your company grows. It does take time to implement these systems and the worst-case scenario is that in a year or two, the company needs to rip and replace the technology that they just spent a lot of time and money putting into place. So again, the good news is there are a lot of great technologies out there that finance organizations can use that are easy to implement, that can connect to various tools, and that will allow the team to put in place real-time data and analytics. And then I also suggest starting with incremental changes and iterating, it's important to continuously evolve. And I think that even automating one process a month will have a huge impact at the end of the year. There'll be so much better reporting and time savings by just starting with one process and continuing to evolve.

Megan - 00:10:56: And how do you prevent people from putting too much trust in data? Like just taking it at face value and not really thinking about what's underneath it. How do you prevent people from doing that?

Anna - 00:11:08: Yeah, it's a great point. I definitely think there can be a situation where it's too much data or you're spending too much time trying to analyze the problem instead of moving quickly. So there is a cost-benefit there. I think it's important to understand the audience, right? It's critical to really think through what information is needed for that specific audience. And so you don't want to provide too much information that will confuse or delay a decision. The finance team really needs to tell the story in a concise way that gives the information that the decision-maker needs to move forward.

Megan - 00:11:49: And let me try to put this. So as human beings, we have a lot of biases. How do we prevent ourselves or our teams from using data to maybe just prove our own hypotheses that we've already made? Or if we've already come to a decision, how do we prevent teams from using data to just support the decision that we want at the end of the day?

Anna - 00:12:19: Yeah, I think it goes back to culture. It really needs, the culture of the company really needs to be one that the decisions are made based on the facts and not biases. And I also think, yes, data can be manipulated in a way to tell a certain story. But I think that's why it's important for the finance organization to really own and be that one source of truth and to really have that unbiased look at the business performance. So that the finance team can share with the management team the numbers in such a way that really eliminates that bias in the decision-making. And I look at a lot of companies that don't have access to real-time data. That's the other side of the problem is when you don't have the data and you're not making decisions, you're based on data, you're relying on gut and instincts. And well, oftentimes that might be good enough. It can lead to cases where the wrong decisions are made and then the company is in a worse situation than it needed to be. If it just had access to that data, it could do a better job at pricing or working with vendors to reduce costs or hiring employees. So that's the other side of not using data where it can really be a detriment to the company.

Megan - 00:13:33: And maybe you've already answered this, but what are some of the key insights you gained from real-time data that may not have been apparent when using traditional reporting methods?

Anna - 00:13:43: Yeah, so I think when we first started the project that I mentioned at my last company, my initial goal was just to have real-time revenue reporting. So before I implemented this, the CEO would be at my desk the first day of the month asking what was last month's revenue. And it took us so long because the data was in different places. We had to aggregate it. We had to then do the calculations. But when I had real-time revenue reporting, we were able to see it, as I said, every day we could see what our revenue was, month to date. So that eliminated that pain point. But in addition, we could then break out where the revenue was coming from. We could break out which customers it was coming from. And then we could focus the team on those customers that were really doing well. We could focus on those products that were really doing well. And that wasn't something I initially anticipated, how that would really impact the rest of the organization. So not only did we help report the actuals, but we helped the sales team make better decisions. We also helped the company make better decisions around hiring. so we could see our implementation pipeline and we could see the queue of customers that we needed to board. And we could then anticipate those hires that we needed to make in order to meet that demand. And so that wasn't something I started out to provide a solution for, but ended up having one after implementing this real-time reporting.

Megan - 00:15:12: And can you share any best practices or lessons learned from your experience in implementing real-time data initiatives?

Anna - 00:15:19: Yeah, so I would say being a storyteller, I don't know, this might be a little repetitive, but I’ll answer what I was originally going to say there. So my best practices are to think through all those different data points that you need for reporting, making sure that you have all the data sources needed to understand how those different systems can be connected, and then picking a solution that can connect those systems and help scale your company as it grows. The most important thing is how the end result you want is to tell the story and make it accessible to various audiences. So it's critical to have a dashboard, for example, where employees can see the numbers. In my experience, the more information the employees have, the better decisions they make. And their actions are more aligned with the vision and strategy of the company. So those are sort of the best practices I’ve seen is thinking through how you can give these tools to your employees to make better decisions.

Megan - 00:16:24: And let's talk about automation and what part that plays in a data-driven organization.

Anna - 00:16:33: Yeah, so I can tell a story from one of my early jobs after college. We had... it was before SaaS, so I’m dating myself a bit. But we sold software licenses. And each month, we would get this data file of all the software SKUs sold that month. And it was thousands of rows with very limited data. And it took so much time to understand what the actual revenue numbers were. So I created a database and connected it to tables I had built that had details around each SKU number. And there were several benefits. We were able to close month end faster. But we were also able to identify which SKUs were being sold. We could have better visibility in our accounting system by booking specific revenue details instead of a one-month entry for revenue. And that was 10 years ago, right? And it was a very manual process. And I think the great thing now with all the different technologies is there are most of the technologies today have APIs that will allow the team to connect it to the various BI tools.

Megan - 00:17:46: I had a conversation a few months ago, and someone that was working for a P-Automation tool told me that only 5% of what was capable of being automated had been. And that was kind of surprising to me. I just thought we were further down the road in automation because you hear about it all the time. So I’m just curious, do you have to automate in order to have access to the real-time data? Is that part of the process at all, or is it just not necessary?

Anna - 00:18:19: So I think automation is critical for real-time data and reporting. I think there are a lot of great tools out there to help with automation. I’m so excited. We hear the term office of the CFO quite a bit now, and that wasn't a thing 12 months, 24 months ago. And so I think now the focus is on really helping automate the finance organization's day-to-day responsibilities. And that's really critical to implementing real-time reporting, because you need, if you're spending all your time manually manipulating data, there's not going to be enough time left in the month to do the reporting. It's sort of like a pyramid, right? At the top are all the strategic reporting initiatives, and at the bottom are all the manual tasks. Well, if you're spending most of your time on the larger part of that pyramid working you're never going to be able to get to the reporting and the analytics. And so the finance team, by embracing automation and by implementing these tools, you can really flip the pyramid, right? Most of the time can be spent on reporting and analytics and that real-time information. And by automating, the least amount of time will be spent on manually manipulating data or gathering that information. So I think automation is really important. I do think we've come a long way in terms of the tools out there. Look at Mesh. It's a great example of the pain point I experienced at my last company. It was such a manual process managing corporate cards. And now today, it takes hardly any time for us to manage it. We set up the budgets ahead of time, and the employees spend using our cards, and it's reconciled, the receipts are matched, and then it's synced directly to our accounting system. There's very little manual work for our team. And that's one of the examples of how automation is critical. So now my team spends most of the time reporting on where we're spending, where those areas where we can save costs and reduce our expenses. And so that's why I think I believe automation is critical for any type of real-time reporting to be successful.

Megan - 00:20:33: Great answer. So what advice would you have for other CFOs who are just starting down this journey to becoming data-driven and implementing a real-time data decision-making process?

Anna - 00:20:45: Yeah, so I believe CFOs, I believe the main skill of a CFO or a finance leader is to be a great storyteller. It's how we communicate to investors and employees. It's how we communicate with the management team to assist them in making decisions. And it's fundamental to understand the audience, what information they need, and how to best present that information. And it really varies on the audience. What you share with your board is different than what you share with employees. And so I believe real-time reporting and analytics can help the CFOs tell that story. You can create a dashboard for your board that you use when you tell the story of the business to the board. You can create another dashboard for how you communicate with your employees. A great example of this is when we were going through the acquisition process at my last company. We could create reports and dashboards and tailor it to the discussions that we were having with potential acquirers. And this really allowed us to tell the story of how valuable the combination of the two companies could be in each of those different conversations. And so my advice is to really embrace real-time data. There are a lot of great tools out there. And I think the great thing about the CFO community is there are a lot of amazing networks. So if it's something you haven't done before or if you have questions, CFOs are always happy to connect with each other and share stories and tips on how to proceed.

Megan - 00:22:18: And what do you see as the future of real-time data and analytics? With technology advancing the way it is, where are we heading?

Anna - 00:22:27: Yeah, I think the systems that we use and the information we get from various data sources have improved dramatically in the last 20 years. We now have the ability to connect data sources via APIs and feed that data into BI tools. And there are so many BI tools out there now, where 10 years ago there weren't any, right? Everything was done through Excel. I also think the use of AI tools will continue to improve and become ingrained in the technology and systems we use. And that will make it easier or even possibly eliminate the need to integrate and connect the different data sources, right? These tools will just be able to ping those different sources and provide us with the insights that we need. And so I think that there are a lot of exciting changes happening in real-time data and analytics. And I’m really excited to see how the future shapes up. I think the result is that the finance team needs, the skill that they need to evolve. I think the role will continue to focus more on critical thinking, strategic mindsets, and developing those technology skills.

Megan - 00:23:35: And last question, as a CFO, what's keeping you up at night?

Anna - 00:23:39: Yeah, so I think for me, it's, am I moving fast enough? or is the team moving fast enough to provide this data? Do I have access to all the data that we need? Are we missing a piece of data? how can we continuously improve and help the company be successful? And so it's, for me, it's a continuous process of evaluating what we're doing and how we can get better.

Megan - 00:24:02: Anna, thank you so much for being my guest today.

Ana - 00:24:04: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Megan - 00:24:07: Yeah, I really enjoyed it too. And I thank you for finding the time to be here with us today and sharing your experience and knowledge. And I wish you and Mesh Payment all the best.

Anna - 00:24:17: Thank you.

Megan - 00:24:18: And to all of our listeners, please tune in next week. And until then, take care.

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In this episode, we discuss:

  • The power of finance automation

  • Driving financial control with data and analytics

  • How to become a data-driven organization

  • The potential of business intelligence

  • Crafting a streamlined real-time data strategy

Key Takeaways:

Embedding a Data-Driven Culture

Quote data-driven culture

A data-driven approach should be foundational to a company's culture from its beginning. It's essential not just in daily operations but also in strategic decisions, product planning, and fundraising. Moreover, having a user-friendly Business Intelligence tool is crucial. But it's equally important to ensure its compatibility with other technology systems for seamless data integration.

“I believe that it needs to become part of the DNA of a company. Employees should use it to make better decisions about their day-to-day tasks. Companies should use it to enhance their strategic decision-making,” King said - 04:42 - 06:36

Understanding the ROI of Real-Time Data Integration

Quote Anna King CFO of Mesh Payments

Two primary hesitations in adopting real-time data often relate to time and financial constraints. However, Anna believes that the advantages of integrating these systems surpass the initial costs. She urges finance departments to grasp the ROI of adopting automation and reporting tools and recommends a detailed analysis of these factors to address any reservations.

“I believe that the benefits of implementing these systems outweigh the costs,” King said - 07:58 - 09:02

Crafting a Streamlined Real-Time Data Strategy

Quote real time data strategy

Building a successful data-driven business starts by identifying essential data sources and understanding their integration with BI tools. Many modern technologies connect to BI platforms via APIs, so choose the right systems and identify precise fields for reporting, emphasizing detail for versatile future analysis.

Also, select scalable solutions. The effort in system implementation is significant, so it's vital to avoid momentary solutions. Thankfully, many advanced technologies are easily implemented, connecting with various tools and offering real-time analytics.

Lastly, prioritize incremental progress. Even a single monthly automation can lead to transformative results by year-end. Remember, continuous adaptation is the key to optimized reporting and time efficiency.

“There are a lot of great technologies out there that finance organizations can use, that are easy to implement, that can connect to various tools, and that will allow the team to put in place real-time data and analytics,” King said. - 09:02 - 10:56

The Synergy Between Finance and HR

Quote part of the next big thing in finance

People are naturally biased. To ensure data isn't manipulated to justify pre-existing beliefs, it's essential to cultivate a company culture that prioritizes fact-based decision-making. The finance department plays a pivotal role in presenting an unbiased view of business performance, acting as a beacon of truth.

Many companies lack real-time data, leading to decisions based on instinct rather than evidence. This can sometimes result in errors that might have been avoidable with accurate data. Access to timely data can guide better decisions in pricing, vendor negotiations, and recruitment.

“Data can be manipulated to tell a certain story. But I think that's why it's important for the finance organization to really own and be that one source of truth,” King said. - 17:10 - 21:11

The Power of Automation in Data and Reporting - The Next Big Thing in Finance

Quote the power of automation in finance

Automation is key for real-time data access and efficient reporting. With the rise of modern tools, the landscape has transformed rapidly. Previously, finance departments were tangled by manual tasks, visualized as the base of a pyramid. On the other hand, strategic reporting sat at the pyramid's pinnacle, often neglected due to time constraints. However, automation shifts this dynamic. Finance teams can switch this pyramid, prioritizing insightful reporting and analytics. With less time on manual data tasks, they can focus on deriving actionable insights.

“Now the focus is on helping automate the finance organization's day-to-day responsibilities, and that's really critical to implementing real-time reporting,” King said. - 18:10 - 20:33

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