How Fivetran’s VP of Finance Helped Raise a Unicorn
Kalor Lewis joined Fivetran as the first finance hire in 2018. Since then? The company has grown ARR by more than 10X and achieved unicorn status. See what challenges he faced and how he overcame them each step of the way.
Founder and COO
From 80 employees to over 400. And a SaaS valuation of $1.2 billion as of June 2020. This has been Fivetran’s hypergrowth journey since 2018.
There’s no one person responsible for Fivetran’s success. It’s a true team effort. But on the finance side of things, Kalor Lewis has been at the heart of it all.
Lewis was a finance department of one when he joined Fivetran in July 2018. Since then, he’s navigated each stage of the company’s hypergrowth to raise the newest unicorn in data integration. Here’s how.
He Built a True Finance Function in Month One.
Lewis’s first task at Fivetran was to build a true finance function and gain control of the company’s numbers. Before hiring Lewis, Fivetran didn’t have a formal process for handling their financials. And in the company’s early days, that wasn’t a problem. But their board pointed out that if they wanted to start fundraising, they’d first need to bring someone in to get a stronger hold on their budgets.
He recognized a common problem right away. “When a startup is small, the CEO might be able to look at bank balances and project costs for immediate plans,” said Lewis. “But that breaks once you hit a certain scale.”
Lewis’s first step to building a true finance function was creating a formal budget. He projected how much cash Fivetran would spend based on their growth plans and came to one conclusion—it was time to raise some money.
Lewis helped close a $15 million Series A within two weeks of starting at Fivetran. To do that, he needed more than just a formal budget. He had to create the company’s first real financial plan.
Key conversations when preparing for the Series A included:
- What are the hiring plans behind our overarching business goals?
- What should our sales plan look like if we want to hit growth projections?
- How will we execute and measure our go-to-market motion?
- How much money do we want to raise, and how will we spend that money?
The financial plan had to answer these questions while also providing a robust reporting package for potential investors. The solo finance function was responsible for all that, plus implementing new systems, improving data integrity, and building initial financial processes.
But the biggest challenge for Lewis as he built Fivetran’s finance function was getting a strong enough understanding of the business to create an accurate financial model:
The hardest thing about the early stage is that building an effective financial model requires a really strong bottom-up understanding of the business. You can’t just go to investors and say ‘revenue growth is going to be X, so that means expenses will be Y.’ It doesn’t work that way. You need to know what the sales capacity model looks like, how the marketing team spends its budget, and how the company makes money. Getting that understanding requires deep collaboration with leaders across the company.
He Kept Spending in Check After a $44 Million Series B
Lewis had to keep incremental spending in check so that Fivetran’s hypergrowth didn’t go off the rails as the Series A poured fuel on the company’s fire.
Fivetran tripled its revenue following the Series A and increased its headcount from 80 to 175—all leading up to a $44 million Series B less than a year after the Series A. That’s all great news for the company. But it introduced new challenges for Lewis and the finance function.
The main challenge at this stage of growth is just handling the momentum. It’s so easy to get caught up in incremental spending that causes hypergrowth to get out of control. You want to pour even more fuel on the fire, but you have to keep things in check.
Heavy inbound investor interest gave Fivetran an opportunity to raise more money sooner than anticipated. And while that money enabled the company to grow faster, Lewis notes that “just getting more money doesn’t mean you change the plans.” Keeping spending in check meant making sure newly hired leaders didn’t overextend the influx of cash.
That’s never easy, though.
“It’s really hard to have an annual plan for a sales org that’s expanding every couple of months,” said Lewis. As the company expanded with new leaders, he had to maintain close communication to stay on top of their evolving plans and make sure everyone was setting realistic goals.
Leading up to the Series B, Lewis brought on one additional finance hire to take over the accounting side of things. With those day-to-day operational tasks off his plate, Lewis could focus more on strategic finance.
He Took on an Increasingly Strategic Role
Lewis had to take on an increasingly strategic role to meet the challenges of later-stage hypergrowth. Following the Series B, he continued to build out his finance team so that he could spend more time on strategic financial tasks, like resource allocation, product planning and pricing, and financial planning.
After increasing ARR by more than 2x between May 2019 and May 2020, the company raised a $100 million Series C round and officially reached unicorn status. Lewis notes that unicorn status comes with this idea that “you have unlimited resources at your disposal.”
That idea can push some companies to grow too quickly. But part of Lewis’s strategic role is making sure Fivetran maintains strong financial fundamentals even as growth continues to skyrocket.
“If we can justify rapid growth and all the cash burn people ask for with really strong unit economics and planning, it’s justifiable,” said Lewis. “But there’s a lot of evaluation, reporting, and collaboration that has to happen not only with the CEO, but with the entire leadership team.”
At the Series C, Lewis noted that “the plans we discuss with investors have become much more real” compared to more long-term, theoretical projections at the Series A. Now, the primary focus is effectively measuring every business decision against the plans you put in place.
One of Lewis’s toughest strategic challenges at this stage was helping Fivetran change its pricing model in March 2020. “It’s really hard to make a major shift from subscription pricing to consumption-based pricing when you don’t have any historical or empirical data to work with,” said Lewis. Without that data, he had to make a lot of guesses to forecast how the shift would impact things, like sales commission plans and the predictability of revenue, cash collections, and burn.
The truth, according to Lewis, is that “a decision like this throws a wrench into the entire financial process.”
But by measuring the pricing model change against metrics like deal velocity, total revenue per customer, and other basic SaaS fundamentals, Lewis has helped Fivetran get out ahead of challenges and generate positive results.
What Would Lewis Have Done Differently?
The two things Lewis would have done differently if he were starting the hypergrowth story over at $5 million ARR? Hire more people sooner and focus even more on building partnerships across the business to solidify a strategic finance function faster.
Lewis notes that the “easy answer is to hire more people sooner because there’s a lot of work in keeping up with hypergrowth.” Having more people on the finance team would have helped Lewis focus more on planning, socializing, and collaborating with business leaders from other departments. However, their headcount planning would still have to fit into the overarching financial plan for the business.
There will always be tradeoffs when you’re managing this kind of hypergrowth. But when you focus on strategic finance from the start, you’ll be able to make decisions that keep your company’s growth plans on track.