Ep. 183: Casey Woo – CFOs are on a mission to grow
Today’s guest is Casey Woo, CFO of Landing, former Head of Strategic Finance at WeWork, and the co-founder of Operators Guild, a knowledge-sharing community for CFOs and other business “operators.” Casey and Adam analyze the multi-dimensional role CFO’s play as business partners focused on driving operations, innovation, and growth.
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome back to the Count Me In podcast. I'm your host. Adam Larson in today's guest is really interesting. Casey. Woo. Casey's been a strategic financial leader in Silicon valley for the past two decades, investing in an operating high growth tech and tech enabled companies. He is the CFO of landing, the former head of strategic finance at WeWork and the co-founder of operators Guild, a knowledge sharing community for CFOs and other business operators. And that's just what he is been up to lately today. Casey and I put the microscope on the CFO and how the role has evolved from being the sheriff of cost and budgets to now being a company-wide business partner, focused squarely on the most important metric of all growth. I hope you enjoy the conversation. Casey, thanks so much for joining us today on the Count Me In podcast. we're going to jump right into some, questions we're gonna be focusing in on the CFO. And so to start off, what are some common misconceptions or what is the hook's historical perspective on the role of the CFO?
Yeah, I think I'm probably not going to be novel here in my answer. There is a pretty classic stereotype of a CFO, to borrow a phrase from a friend, you know, there's CFO. No is basically one of them is Dr. No, the, you know, DBER, you know, the nickel and dimer, the no personality, the, yeah, the one that says no to everything in terms of costs and other words like the budget, right? The people think of, you know, my travel and expense reimbursements like that. That's when you get to real stereotypes of just don't you do my team reports, you know? And so, of course at the corporate level, you know, CFOs are, I don't know, misconception, hopefully this is a good conception, but they're the honest broker, right? They're the one who engages with the board as the air quote, pseudo check on leadership, et cetera.
So there's not some misconceptions, some that's true. Absolutely. You have that. A lot of it now is not true. Yes. We manage budgets and money and have that purview. But I think there's also, what's now called CFO grow rather than CFO know. And I do think there's a healthy way to manage in a very responsible way money, but also, and I think the word is invest, right? So they call it strategic CFO. Money is meant to be invested, I guess, saved as well. Right? So when you're, especially in high growth, VPs are not giving you money to sit on it. It's put it to good use and the word is good. Use, not reckless use. and of course you're going to balance a lot of things. So one is just a strategic minded investor mentality of where you want to allocate resources is I think more what's happening. and it's not just about nickel and diamond. there's also, you know, more personalities CFOs than people think it's very, cross-functional. Some are extroverts, most are not, but they can be a very friendly person who empowers ends a business partner rather than a police force.
So when we look at the space of a CFO as an operator, you talked a little bit to me about your operator's Guild. What personal experience do you have and what have you gained in this level of expertise?
Yeah, so, I mean, for those who don't know, the operator's Guild has been going on for eight years. It started as a eight, nine person friend group of operators that we support one another. Now it's about 600. I say this because there's a lot of conversations, there's a lot of learnings. So I'm only going to scratch the surface. A, few things. One, all of businesses, all of startup is, is a bunch of people who decide to get together at eight in the morning to build something, to sell for more than hopefully it costs that's all the businesses or a startup. Let's call it a startup call, whatever you want to call it, just, and notice it's humans, you take away the humans, computer's not going to do anything themselves. And that's number one is business is a game. So when things are crazy or stressful, it's like, no, one's dying here.
This is not real life and death. It's serious. Don't get me wrong. We are very competitive, but there's a lot of natural dysfunction when you toss in money, growth expectations and people, dysfunction is just basic. So that's kind of a learning. and, also work with good people. It just goes back to the business is just a bunch of people. It's not worth it. You can make your money elsewhere. If it's not with good people who respect you, who you respect them, shared values. It's actually very similar to a marriage it's just not intimate, right? But it's the same thing. Shared values. You go on dates that are called interviews. You get divorces, you know, it's because when things are not matching up, another one is don't let stereotypes or misconceptions tell you how you should act in your role, play your strengths, establish yourself as if you're gonna be a strategic CFO, be one that said, maybe you have a, stronger person who compliments you on the expense side.
Who's, much more, you know, doctor knows so to speak, right? That're all really, or, vice versa. You're someone that's extremely conscious. You know, you need to marry that with someone that's a little bit more strategically minded and growth minded. Just,, that's just an example, but, play to your strengths, be who you are and hiring is super important. Probably the key to everything, all things in start are just problems. All we're doing is problem solving every day. If you can put together the right team tools, resources, you can solve any problems. So those are kind of learnings.
Okay. No, that's great. I think that's really nice. and just thinking about the CFO, you talked, when we, my first question, you talked a lot about the misconceptions you knew. I think you laid that out very nicely with the Dr. No, and the Gilbert examples and stuff. but a lot of people tend to under underestimate what the CFO sees because because of this, these misconceptions that can be there. And if the CFO hasn't established himself as like a business partner, it can be very difficult to get a seat at the table. Can you talk a little bit about what the responsibility the CFO has to kind of get there so that they're not underestimated?
I think the first one is before you get married, you should establish that. I would question a company where CFOs not at the table, not, not because of CFOs, you know, all that. It's just because it's, too important of a function just like CRO or CTO. So that's just point number one, if you're fighting to get there. So something's already a little off and you need a question, how they value and what they expect from the function. If you're in the unfortunate seat of, you're not, don't have a seat at the table. I think it's a very clear, I believe in explicit conversation and communication. It's like, Hey, Mr. And Mrs. CEO, this is a function that's critical to the business. I'm not talking about myself. I'm talking about the function and for the sake of the business and our stakeholders, it's important that I'm in the room or whoever's leading a function. Would you agree or disagree if they disagree? I would seriously consider finding a place where you can make a bigger impact and, and be valued, because it should be a high impact role.
So you're you have the seat at the table, you know, , you're there with everybody. What does that look like? What does that, CFO's responsibility look like today? As opposed to, you know, the stuff we've already talked about, the misconceptions and the Mr. No's and all that stuff.
The, first thing is I believe all functions should be business. First function, second business, first legal, second business, first accounting, second business, first marketing, second. Everything is in service of the business. So I think that's the first mindset you should have. The second is there's a difference between tactics and strategy asking very important questions I think is actually something that people underestimate in terms of stirring conversation, getting to know the business better, and at a certain level. So I think when you're at that table, depending on your audience, you do need to operate and talk at a higher level and not get caught in the weeds at the same time to be at that table. You need to know the details. If you don't know them for details, they, you know, they just call you ivory tower. Right. You're just talking without really any true understanding of the business.
So it's both understand the business well, but elevate up and talk at a very strategic high level. in terms of topics of conversation, I think generally I like to call it non-linear so rather than, oh, we need more revenue. So I guess we need to grow the sales team. Like, okay. That's like tactical and sometimes obvious it would be if we have an asset heavy model, should we consider asset light? Have we tried to take this entire team and move them to a lower cost area? We do, you know, one idea that was awesome. Wasn't mine, but it's like, Hey, we, do host checkins. What about self-service checkins? So be a part of the business discussion, product discussions and all of them. When you think about it, just lead to better allocations of capital, right? People think capital allocation is, more of a budget product is a major allocation of capital where you said where you spend it, what types of products generate, what the return on that.
So that that's really where I think the CFO now sits. And of course there's fundraising, right? The most unique thing about a CFO is that they really help with the, capital needs of the business. So there's a whole bunch of strategy there there's risks. You take there's intentional risks, there's unknown risks. There's. And the last thing I think is preparing ahead, seasoned operators, the benefit they bring is they see six months, 12 months, 18 months, 24 months out because a lot of times the breaking distance on these high growth companies are so far, you have to be making decisions today to affect 12 months from now. And unseasoned people unfortunately find out when the brick wall is in front of their face and you're going at 700 miles per hour.
That's quite a visual there. what you've been describing, really kind of connects for me like the CFO, how important they are with things like strategy and data and understanding those things. And you present those things properly for the organization and, and giving the, the input that, that is there for the strategy when, determining those things and having the right data in place to, to support that, are there, can we maybe focus a little bit on tools because when you're a CFO, you need the right tools at your disposal. Are there some common tools that help drive strategy? And maybe you can talk a little bit about innovation there. and I think what's most important for our listeners is, you know, how do they go about getting their hands on these tools and learning from them and learning to use them? Because I think that's because you don't want to be that, that, CFO with the brick law, right in front of you going 700 miles an hour, you want to be prepared and get to that point where you will become seasoned. And that way you've described.
And the biggest change that I actually forgot to mention, but misconception is I think the office of the CFO will eventually become the business intelligence center right now. BI lives can be living under itself. It can live under a COO, it can live under product and engineering's very common. But when you think about a centralized organization, a CFO comes to mind. Why? Because we're finance. I think about like the nervous system nervous have to be everywhere. The bloodstream, it has to be everywhere, but it feeds nourishes and helps and partners with air quote, the organs or the functions of the business. So number one tool is data. So number one is having the data. Number two is clean data, which is the biggest and hardest one. After that it's systems and tools to democratize and extract decision making insights. That's what I think is where the CFOs headed.
And this goes back to, you know, my, I have a mentor who, made a famous analogy of finances like the weather there's three levels. And the goals that get to level three, which most do not get to level one is reporting the weather. What happened yesterday? It was sunny. It was cloudy. That's just called reporting. Not easy to do well, but you get that done after you get that done. Level two is forecasting the weather it's gonna be star. It's going to be stormy. It's going to be dark. It's going to be sunny translation forecast P and L the third is influencing the weather. I'd go. As far as I say, changing the weather, it's going to be stormy six months from now. We can do X, Y, and Z and make it sunny that's data.
The more data rich of businesses, the more complicated a business is the more power there is of influence there is to actually say, did you know that half our users are looking for this? So why don't we change our product to do that? You know, sounds easy, but those make all the difference in the world. Times a hundred of those. So the number one tool is business intelligence, which combines everything. It's not just about sitting on top of data. It's, not about a fancy system. It's putting it all together. And lastly, why is the CFO uniquely qualified or the office of the CFO? Most people work in a function, sales, marketing, engineering, their job is to focus and dedicate in one arena, the job of CFOs to tie it all together and help bring it all together. And then there's obviously, you know, other functions like that too. But when you have finance, that's a lot of data as well. People forget that accounting is a crap, ton of valuable data of all sorts. So the combination of accounting, data, forecasting data, customer data, sales data, product data is I think going to be the future. And it's gonna sit somewhere around the CFO space, obviously CEO space as well.
So as I think that's great, those tools sound very clear for the youth, for the CFO, as they're looking at that, you know, as we wrap up our conversation, I think, you know, I wanted to ask you, because I know that you're in a number of different ventures. Are there other opportunities out there for CFOs to connect with other CFOs, so that they can help, you know, build themselves up and just really, you know, get the knowledge needed at a time?
I mean, selfishly, the answer is the best one I know is called operator Guild. like co-founder did, like I said, as an innocent solved problem, I had about eight, nine years ago. It's a wonderful community and it's a great way to give back mentor mentee. So operators Guild is, is the place, in my opinion, for the most value of getting support, giving it learning, giving, and participating.
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