More Than Just Reporting: How CFOs Can Be Key Strategic Drivers
CFO of Cameo Deb Schwartz on shaping strategy through KPIs, fostering healthy tension about risk tolerance and the importance of being aligned with the Chief People Officer.
Being an early stage founder means transitioning from tactical to strategic operations—and partnering with new and existing executives in this pursuit. Easier said than done. In the Around the Exec Table series, we feature tips, insights, and best practices, role by role. Keep up with new installments by following me on LinkedIn.
If you’ve hired a celebrity to wish your best friend a happy birthday, you might have Deb Schwartz to thank. Deb is the CFO at Cameo, a company which aims to create personal and authentic fan experiences through celebrity video shoutouts. Since joining the executive team a year and a half ago, she’s overseen the doubling of revenue, hiring of over 200 new employees, closing of the company’s Series C, finalization of its first acquisition, and global expansion.
“What we view as game changing within the entertainment ecosystem,” Deb says, “is that we’re democratizing the connections that fans have with the talent they love. And as the industry changes, with more people becoming famous and staying famous for longer, we’re helping to close the widening gap between fame and monetization.”
I recently had the chance to speak with Deb about her experience as CFO, what a leadership team needs to forge strong partnerships, and how CFOs might evaluate prospective companies before joining.
How do you define the role of a CFO?
I think of the CFO as the leader who helps develop business and financial strategies to achieve the company's goals.
Some of the things I think about are: How do we define the market opportunity? What segments, on both the talent and the fan side, are we going after? What are the KPIs we're managing toward? What guardrails do we need? How can we develop a capital strategy to achieve our goals?
There are parts of the CFO role that every organization needs, like having accurate and timely financial reporting, an accounting function, and a budgeting process. But beyond that, the role can take a lot of different flavors. Every CFO will put their own spin on how to elevate the function to operationalize the vision, whether that's business operations, strategy functions, investor relations, or M&A.
When is the right time to hire a strategic CFO?
There are two signs it’s time. First, the founder is starting to think about how to operationalize their vision. Second, they’re beginning to encounter harder, non-obvious decisions that will impact the company in the long term. They need help from someone who’s been there, done that, who has experience and has seen different market cycles.
Another factor is investors and the board. They might suggest the CEO hire a CFO to make sure there’s someone onboard to steward the new capital.
How would you, as a CFO, evaluate a prospective company around its business, product viability, and financial function before joining the team?
I spent about 50% of my career on Wall Street, with many years doing equity research at Goldman Sachs, so I think about taking on a CFO role through the lens of an investor.
I look at the market opportunity, the product-market fit, and the company’s current positioning, as well as how the business’s core health metrics compare to the industry. I'll look at the financials as if I’m making an investment decision, and I’ll ask: Is the financial positioning aligned with how I’d view the market opportunity developing? And then finally, I think about where I could add value, given my experience and interests.
After you join, how can a CEO or founder be a great partner so that you have the most leverage?
The relationship between a CEO and a CFO can be an incredibly strong partnership, especially if the CEO can articulate their superpowers and identify the gaps where the CFO can be complementary. This is especially important in areas that require both of their involvement, like fundraising. Investors back the CEO and their vision, but they’re also looking at the financial strategy and whether foundations are being laid for long term growth.
I’d also say, part of the CEO's role is facilitating a high functioning leadership team. How are decisions made? Is there clarity around decision making and how different functional leaders collaborate? Is there effective communication? A CFO's role can be really broad and so the more collaboration and knowledge-share between the CFO, the CEO, and the leadership team, the more the CFO is empowered to operationalize strategy.
Who else around the exec table needs to be high-functioning for the CFO to be successful?
The People leader. There's a lot of overlap between the two roles. A lot of the talent acquisition and talent retention are functional areas where the CFO and Chief People Officer will interact and co-develop strategies.
I agree—it’s critical to have alignment between the finance team and the company’s biggest asset, people. How do you think CFOs are misunderstood, or what are the biggest misconceptions CEOs have about the role?
In my experience, CEOs and boards seem to have a great understanding of the CFO’s role and potential impact. Within the company though, and particularly in tech companies I've worked with, there can be tension. Tech functions sometimes view the CFO as more for reporting than strategy. The more that all leaders view each other as drivers of strategic impact, the more effectively leadership can work together.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the role?
Figuring out where the company should be on the risk spectrum. Having different levels of risk tolerance is a healthy tension between a CFO and CEO, and it’s important they can compromise and move along the spectrum at different stages in the company’s lifecycle.
How do you know if you're winning as CFO? What’re your success metrics?
The CFO defines a lot of the KPIs and what success looks like, and so achieving those KPIs is the best quantitative measure. A more qualitative aspect is looking at how well you’re helping the company reach its objectives, which is a little bit less measurable but very fulfilling. For me, that means bringing in my experience and creative ideas and mobilizing different resources across the company.
Who's someone who's inspired you?
There are so many people, but one in particular is the former CFO of Groupon.
When I was transitioning from Wall Street to corporate, I ran IR at Groupon, which had been public for several years. My prior experience involved thinking about industries and companies from the investor standpoint. The CFO, Mike Randolfi, taught me how a well-oiled finance org works, what systems need to be implemented, and how they all connect. This learning experience was critical for me to take the leap to CFO myself.
What do you think is the most exciting trend at the moment?
Web3 and blockchain.
Favorite question to ask in an interview?
What do you love and what do you not love about our product?
And what attributes or skills do you look for in a hire?
Drive, a learning mindset, analytical skills, and humility.
Best advice you've ever received?
Be humble, stay nervous.
Favorite spot in New York City for a breakfast or lunch meeting?
Blog or podcast that you learned from the most?
Pivot. I love Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher.
Favorite book you've read in the past year, for business or pleasure?
Will Smith's biography. It was thoroughly entertaining, and I’d recommend listening to it on Audible.
Go-to stress release activity?
Favorite way to spend the weekend?
Great food in New York City.
And the best meal you've had recently?
One White Street. It was excellent.