The world of FP&A has become more strategic and complex, but most CFO tools haven't been updated, and those available on the market continue to have issues. So how can financial leaders deal with this challenge, and is there any way to help them become the finance heroes of their organizations?
Christina Ross may have the solution for that. Christina is a former CFO turned founder and CEO of Cube, the first FP&A software that delivers a delightfully frictionless experience by letting you keep what you love about spreadsheets and automating what you don’t. Christina is passionately mission-driven to help finance leaders become the heroes of every organization.
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 Weis. Let's jump right in.
Megan Weis: Today, my guest is Christina Ross. Christina is a former CFO turned founder/CEO of Cube, the real-time FP&A platform for modern finance teams. Christina is a two-decade finance veteran, most recently a venture-backed CFO, building finance teams and high-growth environments. Before her spins at Rent the Runway, Criteo, and Eyeview, Christina ran global finance at GE, and served as finance transformation leader at Deloitte Consulting, managing large-scale technology projects for the office of the CFO.
After growing frustrated with the manual nature of FP&A and from an implementation of a leading solution gone wrong, Christina set out to build the next generation of FP&A technology. Founded in 2018, Cube now serves hundreds of finance teams around the globe, helping companies graduate from numbers to narratives in record time. Hello, Christina, thank you so much for being on today's episode.
Christina Ross: Hi, thank you for having me.
Megan: Today, we're going to be learning a little bit about you and your journey to becoming the founder and CEO of Cube, which is a software company that's doing exciting things within the FP&A space. I'm looking forward to hearing your story. Let's get started from the beginning. You could start by talking us through your career journey and how you got to where you are, that would be great.
Christina: Sure. I know a lot of founders are serial founders or serial entrepreneurs. I would describe myself though as a serial CFO. I started my career at large companies like GE and Deloitte and after found my way into the startup world. I got lucky quite a few times. The first one was this little 30-person organization called Rent the Runway back in 2010, in the early days of Silicon Alley.
I will say that when picking companies to work for, you can really sense when there's magic around. Even though the company was small and had limited traction, I could tell something really magical was being built. After a couple of years of Rent the Runway, I went to my next startup, and again got lucky. It was a little 50-person organization in North America called Criteo. Criteo, of course, is a leader in ad tech and went public in 2013. I had another one of the startups go to IPO.
Instead of becoming a VC, though, I continued on my CFO journey, and it was time to move on to the next organization. This was the height of the ad tech market in 2013. I joined an organization called Eyeview, which did programmatic creative videos. Basically, ads that can be personalized in video, which was really interesting technology at the time. We grew that company from 2 to over 50 million of revenue in just a few years. That was another high-growth story.
The thing that was unique about Eyeview, although it didn't become a public company was, this was the first time that I was able to sit down and say, "I'm going to build my own or implement my own FP&A software." I'd done this role a few times, just like in every other company worked with spreadsheets, trying to scale. It was a challenge and I think any of us who have tried to build finance organizations to scale have struggled with this problem around FP&A, which is, it's an incredibly manual, but data-driven type role and they're very limited tools to support it.
In my role at Eyeview, I said, "I've had enough of the spreadsheet world, and I'm going to move on to some of the software that's out there." We did our own internal RFP process and landed on a leading solution in the market. I thought this should be pretty straightforward. We all use SAS products, they're relatively easy to use to get up and running. When I was at Deloitte, I was literally an implementation consultant and would implement tools like Hyperion. I thought, "This is right up my alley. This should be pretty straightforward."
Instead, what happened was I spent the next six months of my life doing an implementation of the system. I had to hire more people on my team because someone had to do the work while the other person focused on the implementation process. Ultimately, once we got it up and running two weeks before the board meeting, we couldn't get our numbers out and we had to go back to spreadsheets.
This was a very eye-opening moment for me because all of these things that I thought would work didn't. I thought, like any rational person, "I must have done something wrong, let me talk to my peers." As I started to talk to more and more CFOs in the space, everyone told me the same story. The story had two components. One is, I'm in pain, and the way of managing FP&A in the past is no longer working.
There's more expected of us. FP&A is a much more strategic role. There are more systems and more data than ever because we live in the world of best-of-breed solutions so there's more systems we have to pull data from, and they're all real-time. Trying to do this all in spreadsheets is very difficult. On the flip side, the second thing I heard is my story was not unique to me.
It's very, very common that FP&A solutions on the market are considered legacy. They're either generation 1 like your Hyperions and IBM TM1s from the 1980s and '90s or their gen 2s, the cloud-based solutions like Adaptive Anaplan Platform, that cohort of solutions really solved the problem of moving on-premise to the cloud, but they didn't solve the solution of how to get up and running quickly and efficiently.
Because these solutions replaced spreadsheets, effectively, you have to rip and replace your Excel, Google Sheets, whatever you use. Ultimately, you're moving to a new environment where your team is not familiar so you end up with end-user rejection. You have to rebuild every single cell of data from formula to your drivers to the data containers and templates. All that has to be customized into this new environment, which is incredibly difficult to do, and you have to reconcile all that data to make sure it makes sense.
There's a very big uplift and a lot of friction involved with ripping and replacing spreadsheets. I'm setting the stage for how I ended up founding Cube just based on my own pain points in the space. Just to recap for a second here, the world of FP&A, we're in pain, we need more help, more is expected of us, we're moving into the era of the CFO, and yet our tools really haven't changed. On the flip side, what's available in market today has issues. Those issues are it's very difficult to get up and running quickly.
You're moving people off of their existing tools and workflows, which is disruptive and very difficult to have a successful adoption process. The lightbulb moment for Cube came in figuring out how will I solve this problem for myself? The solution was the following. Why can't we have the best of both worlds or why can't there be an option three? By option three, I mean if you think to the world of cars, you can buy a car, you can rent a car, and those were really your only two options for getting somewhere, forget taxis for a second.
Then the third option came along and it was rideshare. Suddenly, I don't have to own a car, I don't have to rent a car for a day or a week, I can pay for a ride. Cube is the ultimate third option, which says you're not just stuck anymore between the idea of spreadsheets only or rip and replace your spreadsheet. Cube connects directly into your tech stack, including native connections with Excel and Google Sheets. Behind the scenes, is powered by an engine as powerful as these other FP&A platforms.
We've built the ultimate FP&A platform, which has the power and performance of enterprise software, paired with the flexibility and familiarity of your actual spreadsheet. The way Cube works is it connects directly through your spreadsheet and your spreadsheet works as the UI. You can model in Excel the way you always have. What are the challenges with Excel that don't work? Number one, it's not a database. We provide a database on the back end so your data gets pushed into a database, we call it cubifying your data or pushing it to the cloud.
You can also pull data from that database. One of the challenges with spreadsheet modeling is actualizing your data and your model, typically, is a long process. All of that happens on the backend and there's automation involved. What's another challenge with spreadsheets? They don't have controls. I don't know who's in there and who's making changes. We have an audit trail and userbase permissioning so we can control who sees what data and what people are allowed to post and not allowed to post.
I can go on and on but the idea was let's take what works from these enterprise software solutions and pair it with actual spreadsheets. We work across Google Sheets, Excel, or any other spreadsheet that you'd like to use. That's a little bit about me and the career journey and the beginning of Cube and a little bit about what Cube does.
Megan: Cube was founded how long ago?
Christina: I quit my job in 2018 to found Cube. We've been around since 2018. The interesting story about getting started is, I was so passionate about doing this that I left my job without a real plan. Meaning I told myself at the time-- By the way, I was in my late 30s, I had two and a half year old twins at home. Not really the ideal time to start a company, but I knew at that moment that if I didn't make the big move now, there would always be a reason why I couldn't.
If it wasn't now, when would it be? I sat down with my husband and we were talking about buying a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence, and two cars and all of that. We decided to put that on hold. Instead, I would dedicate my time and energy into starting this company. I started with nothing. I left my job and I opened up my laptop on Monday morning, and asked myself, "What in the hell?" That was literally the beginning of Cube.
Megan: What an amazing story, and what courage that must have taken.
Christina: It was very scary, I definitely woke up with night sweats, but just like anything, you figure out what's the first step in this journey. Let's start talking to people. The best thing that I learned was in software development, that the least expensive way to build software is to prototype, and the least expensive way to prototype is actually just to ask questions. I started by interviewing my network, and that was step one of building Cube.
Megan: Talk me through the first few steps of you're starting a business, what did that look like?
Christina: Step one is, what is this business going to look like? You start with a thesis. I had my thesis for what I thought Cube would look like and who I would support. I actually thought in the beginning, Cube would be more of a small business platform for your everyday mom-and-pop businesses. As I started to interview people from mom-and-pop businesses about their cash flow, I was like, "Tell me a little bit about how you think about cash flow." I would hear things like, "When I have cash in the bank, I spend it, and when I don't, I don't."
That's an anecdote of basically it wasn't a need. There's a saying in start a plant of, you want to build a painkiller, not a vitamin. For these small businesses, it felt like a vitamin. What I then noticed is, as I started to interview larger and larger companies, that-- I interviewed founders, because yes, their thought was, "Hey, maybe this is finance for non-finance people. We can make it so simple that your CEO or your COO could run finance."
As I started to talk to those companies, I would hear things like, "No, we don't really need help in that area, but why don't you talk to my head of finance?" I recall one very specific incident where I said, "Okay, fine. I'll talk to your head of finance." This woman walked in the room. She looked like she hadn't slept in three weeks. She'd been in the office night after night. This is back when we were in the office. I asked her how things were going, because I was like, "It sounds like you guys are in a great place."
She's like, "No, absolutely not. We're struggling, we're in pain." At that moment, I realized also that finance really is just as I was, the customer, because, as finance folks oftentimes, we absorb a lot of the challenges in the organization, around how difficult it is to manage the finances, but we do it well enough that the CEO or COO doesn't necessarily feel the same level of pain. Going to vitamin and painkiller again, if we're going to solve for a pain point, we're going to do it for the right person. That put me back where I started, which is finance leaders in mid-market organizations.
Megan: Who's the ideal client for Cube?
Christina: We usually say around the time that your first head of finance or your first FP&A head is hired. The reason why is that that's usually the point at which FP&A on traditional spreadsheets starts to become a lot more difficult. That's around the time that you have maybe 10 or 12 departments, 5 to 10 department leaders, each one having to manage their own budget, or having to get data on a regular basis. Managing more complexity in the process becomes more and more difficult as organizations scale.
We typically start around, let's call it 100 to 150 FTEs at an early starting point. Then we scale up and our focus today is on sub 5,000 person companies, mostly reason being we want to focus on a mid-market customer that can click into the product and use it quickly, easily, with a short implementation time frame. To do that, we don't necessarily want to focus too heavily on enterprise at this stage.
Megan: What is the normal implementation time? How out of the box is it?
Christina: I'm so glad you asked this, this is one of the things we're proudest of. The vast majority of our customers, and when I say majority, it's mean, median, mode, all of our averages get up and running in about two weeks, which is very different than the six months story, or what I hear from prospects now, where they're on year two of a three-year implementation of a large enterprise solution.
In fact, it's so unbelievable that we have to provide a lot of documentation and references to people to say, "No, this is really real." I'll tell you our secret sauce. It's in the tech. The way we do it is, we have these need of integrations with Excel and Google Sheets. They can actually read the spreadsheet. You find a range of data and it can identify the dimensions within that data, and contextualize the information so that it can cubify our database to find the data. Anyone who has worked with row and column data knows that you can make it into a tabular format.
Effectively, what we're doing is we're using a certain amount of AI to recognize that data and convert it to a tabular format so that then it can be recognized by the engine and managed. In layman's terms, we're automating the entire implementation process. We're not requiring you to rebuild all of your reports and charts and data, we're actually taking it and migrating it into Cube using automation.
Megan: That's amazing. Do you have consultants that work with clients, or do clients do this on their own?
Christina: One component of how Cube works is, its self-service. You never need IT, and at this stage, you don't need external consultants to use Cube. Internally, we have an award-winning service and implementation team to help customers get up and running in that time frame. We have our own onboarding software, we have a team that helps you. The idea is we work with you to get you up and running as quickly as possible.
Megan: You described yourself as a serial CFO. How has it been transitioning to the role of a CEO? What differences have you-- What have you noticed in that transition?
Christina: It's so funny because I spent so many years talking to other CFOs about how to work with your CEO. It was always a very delicate dance because the stereotype is the CFO is trying to keep the crazy CEO in line. It's funny because I've certainly transitioned a little bit into a crazy CEO, but I always have my finance roots. I would say that number one thing, especially for anyone who's looking to get out of the CFO seat and more into the COO or the CEO seat, is around how you think about risk.
As a CFO, my job was always to take all the crazy ideas the CEO had and bring them back down to earth, and assess and manage risk. I think as a CEO, you're coming up with those large, grandiose, visionary ideas. You can always add a CFO lens to it of how risky is this? Or how much risk appetite do we as an organization have, and apply some frameworks to it. I think that's the really cool think about having a CFO and CEO background is I love frameworks and assessments and quantifying everything.
As we come up with these big, grandiose ideas, we can also bring them down to earth at the same time. I think that the most exciting thing is bringing on our own VP of Finance recently, and having him be my gut check as I ascended into the CEO seat.
Megan: Yes, thank you for that advice. I think more and more these days, there's lots of CFOs that are transitioning to the COO and CEO roles, as the role evolves.
Christina: Right. The Peloton's CEO was a CFO, and we're seeing more and more of this. I'll make an official prediction here that, over the next 5 or 10 years, you're going to see this being the primary channel for COO development, is to come through the CFO channel.
Megan: You've said that your mission is to help finance leaders become the heroes of every organization. What does that mean to you? What does it mean to be a hero and how does that apply to finance?
Christina: Finance is the ultimate strategic position in the business. I have to use the term we because I still am a finance person at heart. Finance people, we see the past, present, and future of everything that's happening in the organization. We're the ones who are the most downstream with data, meaning every data, every piece of data that comes into the organization somehow ends up in the finances lap. When we're building our three statement financial models, we're looking at the future of data. When we are building plans, we're trying to predict or build different scenarios around the future.
We're looking at the present state because we're comparing what happened to what will happen and how we can manage performance. I'll start with saying we have an incredibly valuable position in the business to be able to be strategic. We're also there catching everything as it falls. I talk a lot about finance being a downstream function. By down I just mean that everything that happens ends up in finance last as the ultimate position before it goes to Wall Street or to the board.
We often catch bad things before they happen. We're also sometimes the first set of eyes on things, whether it's good or bad, and we can provide really wonderful strategic recommendations. I think the role of finance hasn't been seen as this hero in the past, it's been stereotyped as the CF know, and talking about how not to spend money and a lot of the we think about the old school way of thinking about finance versus the newer strategic lens, which I think finance has always been but is finally being seen as that role. Our mission is to help empower finance leaders to become the heroes of every org by taking things off their plates that don't add value.
Cube does a lot around automation. Work that is not value add but takes up a lot of your time, we'll take that off your plate so you can spend more of your time actually doing the work to be the strategic business partner at the table. Another prediction of mine is I think we saw this in the world of HR. What was once described as human resources and considered again, a back-office function became people operations and became workforce planning and became a much sexier and more mission-critical part of the business. That's only an understanding only. We'll start to see that more and more in finance because we're moving again from this idea of finance being a back office, to finance being the strategic business driver throughout the organization.
I think organizations that do finance and accounting well actually end up with a strategic advantage to those that don't.
Megan: Absolutely. Talk to me about automation and the role that that plays in FP&A, and where you see automation taking us in the future.
Christina: I'll start where I'm not as bullish about automation. I think sometimes I've heard about AI and FP&A and it'll predict the future. There are certainly some really amazing algorithms and intelligence that we can build into FP&A. One saying that a customer told me once which is my favorite is, finance likes to see how the sausage is made. We need to be able to get our hands into data and understand if there is a prediction around the future, what drivers were part of that prediction? What algorithm was used? What assumptions were made?
I believe that true automation is more around building the right business logic and having tools to automate that process. It's automation around the process for prediction, and it's automation around the mechanics for pulling actuals. There's a great blog post that actually our head of product wrote that said, "One of the big challenges around FP&A is not the FP&A work itself. It's the mechanics around the FP&A process. That's where most of the effort is placed." At Cube, we aim to automate the mechanics of the FP&A process. Everything around analysis, performance management, and planning to allow people to spend more time in the actual analysis itself and telling the story behind the numbers.
Megan: Where, or what do you see are some of the biggest challenges that finance teams are facing today?
Christina: For one, more is being expected out of finance. I refer to COVID as the great preplanning when in March of 2020, everyone thought the world was falling apart and every business out there went to reassess their cash position and had to think about the year in a different way than they had thought before. Suddenly we're all planning off-cycle, so it's not November, December, and we're coming up with our budget for the next year, it's March or April, and we have to replan the year. We're also doing it remotely, by the way. People aren't in their offices. I think it was an inflection point in finance around how we think about FP&A and how companies need to start paying more attention to finance as a function.
Megan: Just curious, how do you think the last two years have changed FP&A maybe forever?
Christina: I think this acceleration from finance to strategic finance has been pushed by the great preplanning and we're starting to see a C-change in even finance titles. Someone who used to be called a finance manager is now called a strategic finance business partner and we're all working remotely. If we're not working remotely, we're working with other organizations that work remotely or other people in our organization that's working remotely. We've had to evolve a lot more quickly as finance teams.
That is not going to change and go back. I think another C-change is this idea of who's actually running FP&A. We went from boomers to gen X and now millennials own FP&A at many companies, and they want to buy software the way that we've been buying SAS products for years and years. FP&A is no longer accepting the status quo of legacy tools that don't work very well or Excel only. People are actively looking for solutions in the market, whereas they haven't in the past.
Megan: You created a slack community at Cube geared towards FP&A and strategic finance professionals to allow them to connect with one another. Why should finance professionals embrace this idea of community and learning from one another?
Christina: It's time. It's time we have our own community. I think for many years I didn't talk about this a lot or admit it, but finance is a really lonely role, especially in a smaller organization where it's very small teams, especially within FP&A, you might have a larger accounting team and a small handful of FP&A folks. If you're not actively included in a lot of the strategic conversations in the organization, it can be very lonely.
Because the teams are so small, there's not as many resources out there around what are the best practices? How are people doing things? At one point in my career, I had joined a CFO group and we met on a monthly basis. It was a formal group. I paid money to this organization. We all met together and these were casual, but formal conversations. It was life-changing because I got to hear how other people were doing. It was also like an emotional support group because we all had the same story around the dance with our CEOs and CFOs. What terms are you getting on a debt deal?
These are all things that we need community for, to not only connect but to share best practices and learn from one another. We've seen this for so many years with other functions like sales and marketing, and even IT. It's really the era for finance to start building community and to find one another and help each other.
Megan: Yes, absolutely. I think as accountants, we're introverts, but it's important that we connect with one another and the organization as a whole.
Christina: Right, exactly.
Megan: As you look near term, what's one of the biggest challenges that you and your team are facing, let's say this next quarter?
Christina: At Cube?
Christina: I think what's happening in the market is very interesting. We've certainly got our eye on a number of different things from how interest rates and inflation are going to affect capital markets and how that affects us and how that affects our customers. Certainly, I think the entire startup landscape has benefited from the last couple of years where there's been more money in the ecosystem.
A lot of that has gone to venture capital. A lot of venture capital companies have been funded and a lot of these companies are growing and spending money. That's been great for startups and the VC world at large. The question will really be what happens next that maintains a status quo? Will there be compression or further compression in capital markets? How will inflation impact us? How will that impact the way we think about debt versus equity?
I'll tell you at least earlier, like six months ago, I was telling everyone, "Go out and get debt if you can." When interest rates go up, that conversation may be different. A lot of these things are things that we're keeping our finger on the pulse around.
Megan: How are you attracting and retaining talent in this market? I think every CFO or anyone I've talked to recently has had a hard time finding talent.
Christina: It reminds me a lot of fundraising because it's a fit exercise. There's certainly finding and there's finding the right people. Of course, it's a challenge, but I think one of the things that companies have to double down on and not apologize for is investing in culture. Because your culture will allow you to hire and recruit and keep people here. I think that's one of the things that's not always looked at.
There's I think an overwhelming focus on bringing people in and not on keeping people. You really have to look at both. I would say of course it's a challenge, but we're really focused on building the best possible culture to help keep people happy at Cube and also to have them recruit their friends. Because I think for companies on our sides, the best recruiting channel is through peer networks and personal referrals.
Megan: Absolutely. Are you guys working remote? How do you create culture when nobody is in the office and everybody is working over Zoom, or Teams, or whatever the case might be?
Christina: I'll say we're very lucky because we came of age during COVID. We didn't have to transform from an office-based culture to a remote culture. We built ourselves as a remote-first culture. A couple of things that we do that- Whether these were intentional or not. -have served us very well is short frequent communication. What I mean by that is-- One of my favorite things is to come off and stay short. One of the things we do is we have an all-hands every single week and it's 30 minutes.
We're not making people sit through a 90-minute conversation. It's not every single day. It's 30 minutes of your week and we all get together. One of the ways we make it a little fun is we have a rotating company DJ who plays music while we all log onto the Zoom and are waiting around for the call to get started. We pick the DJ for the next week and it's a fun little game. We have stories around the song. We get started on talking about what's happening in the company. Everyone can really feel a part of what's happening, the good and the bad, and feel like there's transparency to what's happening at large.
That's the one thing we do for the entire company. Our leadership team gets together every single week. We're very structured around it. We make sure to pay attention to communication and cadence. That's really important for people to stay connected and to feel a part of an organization especially if we're not meeting in person.
Megan: Sounds like a fun place to work.
Christina: So much fun. Come visit.
Megan: Christina, thank you so much for being my guest today.
Christina: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Megan: Yes. I really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing about your experiences. I want to thank you so much for sharing your story today. I wish you and Cube all the best. To anyone wanting to learn more about your product, they can visit your website at cubesoftware.com. To all of the listeners, please tune in next, and until then take care of yourselves.
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In this episode, we discuss how to accelerate your FP&A, transitioning from a CFO to a CEO, empowering finance leaders, and what the role of automation in FP&A is, among other interesting topics.
Accelerating Your FP&A
Christina and her team designed Cube to be FP&A software that empowers finance teams to deliver faster, more strategic insights. Cube connects directly to your tech stack, including Excel and Google sheets, and is powered by an engine equally as powerful as the best FP&A platforms on the market.
“We built the ultimate FP&A platform, which has the power and performance of enterprise software, paired with the flexibility and familiarity of your actual spreadsheet.”
Transitioning From a CFO to a CEO as Finance Heroes Do
Becoming a CEO requires you to take a broader view of the business and embrace visionary ideas. But the benefit of having a CFO background means that you become aware of risks and can manage potential challenges more effectively.
“As a CFO, my job was always to take all the crazy ideas that the CEO had and bring them back down to earth and assess and manage risk.”
Empowering Finance Leaders & Heroes
Finance leaders oversee most of the data that comes into the organization. They also have to be aware of the organization's present state as well as making future plans and creating scenarios that drive success. As a result, CFOs play a significant role in designing and implementing business strategies. Christina empowers finance leaders to become the heroes of every organization by taking the things off their plates that don't add value.
“Finance is the ultimate strategic position in the business.”
What is the Role of Automation in FP&A?
In FP&A, automation should focus on building the business logic and having tools automate that process. Ultimately, it comes down to automating the mechanics of the FP&A process to allow people to spend more time in the actual analysis itself and telling the story behind the numbers.
“One of the big challenges around FP&A is not the FP&A work itself. It's the mechanics around the FPA process.”
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