Ep. 88: Karin Baggstrom - How Has COVID-19 Accelerated Business?

Karin Baggström is the co-founder and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at STARZPLAY (www.starzplay.com), the leading subscription video on demand (SVOD) service that streams to over 20 countries across Asia, Middle East and North Africa. As the CFO, Karin has driven the development and implementation of the company’s financial strategy and operating model. She has played a key role in securing investments, from the first seed investment to the later rounds, through to its subsequent growth and expansion taking STARZPLAY to its market leading position with more than 1.7 million subscribers. Thanks to a sound financial strategy, STARZPLAY is now on the brink of profitability just over five years from its launch, a very short time frame for an SVOD service in an emerging market. Karin has spent the best part of the last two decades working with technology start-ups throughout Europe and more recently in the MENA region. Before joining STARZPLAY, she co-founded a taxi-app start-up that pioneered in Stockholm and in 2012 she joined the HBO Nordic venture, a joint venture between HBO Inc. and a Swedish technology services company. In this episode of Count Me In, Karin talks about how the digital transformation in finance and accounting has played a role in the STARZPLAY business model, explains how her company has reported an increase in the number of subscribers throughout this pandemic, and shares her thoughts on how difficult times can accelerate business. Download and listen now!

Contact Karin Baggstrom: https://www.linkedin.com/in/karin-baggstr%C3%B6m-9233a72/

STARZPLAY:
https://arabia.starzplay.com/

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Adam: (00:05)
Hey everyone. Welcome back to Count Me In, I'm your host, Adam Larson, and I'm excited to bring you episode 88 of our series. Our expert guest for today's conversation is Karen Baggstrom. Karen is a Founder and CFO of Starz Play, the leading subscription video on demand service that streams to over 20 countries across Asia, middle East and North Africa. In this episode, my cohost Rouba talks with Karen about how the COVID-19 pandemic has actually accelerated her business. During their conversation. Karen uncovers, how stars play as harnessing the power of technology to optimize the finance function and leveraging data analytics to enhance future growth. Even despite the current challenges. Keep listening, how amid digital disruption, recessions, and pandemics finance and accounting professionals remain ahead of the curve.

Rouba: (00:58)
So good morning, Karen, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Karen: (01:03)
Good morning, Rouba. Thank you for having me.

Rouba: (01:05)
I'm actually looking forward to hearing from you as Starz Play has been a really beautiful example of organic growth out of the middle East region. So kudos to you guys.

Karen: (01:15)
Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, we're excited as well, even though the whole of COVID  epidemic is of course, nothing that we would like to have, or see of course.

Rouba: (01:28)
So I want to dive right into it. has, I mean, as somebody who works in finance and accounting and you're the CFO of Starz Play, has the digital transformation of finance impacted the roles and responsibilities of today's CFO and what are the skills needed to maneuver during such trialing time, like you just mentioned now, in your opinion.

Karen: (01:51)
Sure. I mean, I think in general, moving to digital environment has changed and impacted many roles in, in businesses around the world, not just finance also, of course, however, I do think that in finance, the CFO and the finance department has a little bit stepped out of just being the accounting and reporting team from, you know, looking at the actuals, just comparing things to budget. Moving into this digital environment has allowed this team to become more part of the business integral part of the business, I would say, because back in the old days, the finance department was only always the one that was just looking at, you know, this is what happened, we'll book it in the balance sheet and the P/L, and then we compare it to the budget and then you send off a report. But now I think there's so much more involvement between the finance team and all the other teams and going digital of course, is a big part of this, because when you move into the digital world, you all of a sudden needs two different systems. And I also think that the finance team has become more analytical in their way that they work. They, you need to be able to analyze what comes in and not just take, you know, the cost as they are, and just look at them and say, okay, that's it that you're challenging the rest of the business, that your, you know, questioning the other departments in the business and saying, yeah, but is that really so, or can we change anything or why is that so? So I think that the finance team has become much more analytical in the way that we work and going digital is a big part of that. I was gonna say, I mean, for us, at Starz Play, we are a hundred percent digital. I mean, we work in the digital space. Our product is in the digital space. Everything is digital. So for us, it's natural and we have a lot of data around us all the time, you know, all this subscriber data or anything that touches our service, we have data on it. So, you know, I think from our point of view, we haven't gone digital as such. We are always work that's in our DNA. It's how we started this business. But no, I for sure, I see that my team, if I compare, you know, when I started in, in finance way, way, way back when now it's way more analytic, and the finance team is challenging the rest of the business much more, and that is a big difference.

Rouba: (04:47)
And you mentioned the breaking down of silos and the interconnectedness of it all with finance teams becoming more involved in other departments, and I'm sure that includes the likes of marketing and product development, what have you, and do you find that the lines between CFO and CIO for example, are also blurred and then what role does digital transformation play at Starz Play? I mean, it'd be curious to know how that's working since you mentioned it's a digital product by default and in your current business model, especially, you know, within the finance team spectrum.

Karen: (05:19)
Yeah. I mean, for a lot of companies, I do think that you will see a blurred line between the CFO and the CIO, especially in companies where you cannot afford to have a big C-suite where it does not make sense. You might have a CEO and a CFO and that's it. So you cannot have, you know, add on more C level people. So I definitely think that, and it makes sense from a certain perspective to do that. For us at Starz Play, we haven't really that structure because we're such an, you know, digitalized company. We have, we have the CFO and the finance team and we manage everything that has to do with finance and analytics and so on, and then we have a very big tech team and development team. And under that tech and development team, we have, data analysts. We have a big data analyst team, that is also working on, AI. So that kind of sits for us in our company. It sits under the tech team, but I'm definitely sure that in other companies, the blending of the CFO and the CIO does make sense for sure. And then your second question on how, you know, the digital transformation, what, how has this impacted us at Starz Play and add the business model that we have? as I said earlier on we, because we're a company within the digital space, we haven't really transformed as such, you know, from something being brick and mortar to transform, but what is happening is that we are evolving all the time. So we are, you know, we, we see that we need new tools to analyze certain type of data. We see that we want to go more granular into things, into information that we have, be it, you know, just simple, we get a supplier invoice and we want to be able to challenge what is that, you know, that data that is on that invoice and we can go more and more granular. So I think we didn't go from brick and mortar to become digitalized, but we are digitalized, but we're becoming more and more sophisticated.

Rouba: (07:41)
But I think it's such a model is yours was actually born as a result of the digital, disruption. You're a disruptor! So successful leaders around the world, pride themselves on being lifetime learners and the, and they say that this is the secret for ongoing success, you know, especially in this era where there's new ways of doing things every day, what is your view on the need for continuous upskilling and reskilling, and obviously wellbeing a lifetime learner, you know, and not just for you for also your team and how do you apply that as well?

Karen: (08:24)
I mean, I can only agree with that statement that, you know, you need to continue to learn as long as you live. You can't just say one day, sit down and say, you know, I know everything. I think you need to be, you need to be very humble towards what you don't know and, and it doesn't, you know, it doesn't matter where you are in life or what position you have. There's always so much more to learn.  And the thing that I find fascinating is when you learn from the younger people, for example, in our company, we have, you know, the marketing team and the team that is running the social marketing. They're a group of very young people, and they know exactly which apps is the app of the week, or, you know, what are the trends right now going on and, you know, all the different apps and they mentioned apps and things, and I'm like, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm learning. And, you know, it's a good thing. So you also need to be able to, you know, just sit down and listen to the young people because they have a lot to learn you as well to teach you. But no, for sure. I mean, learning is important. And I think the thing that you also need to, you know, be comfortable with is that learning, isn't just sitting in the school bench and getting a grade, you know, doing a long course or so. It can just be as simple as, you know, reading articles, reading blogs, watching lectures on YouTube, or, you know, any type of means is learning, but you need to continue to challenge yourself and, you know. Hmm, I don't know that I need to explore that venue, and then you go and search information on it. I think, and then also when you, you know, you know, how do we work as a team? I mean, that's something that I encourage my team to do, you know, find information or find something. If you don't know anything, go out and look for it. If there is a course in something, then, you know, we'll figure that out. But very often, you know, you can just go out and find information yourself, and then when you get stuck, then we get help.

Rouba: (10:35)
At least knowing your strengths and your weaknesses gets you, you know, halfway there. I know it's a very good at the view and especially keeping an open mind, I think, as you said, you can find that learning anywhere. It doesn't. So COVID-19 is, you know, the disruptor of the disruptors, the mega disruptor, and has disrupted so many different industries, but in some cases it's also accelerated them. So, I mean, we've looked at figures in the, in the middle East region and the Gulf specifically UAE, there were some companies that reported up to 800% growth during the pandemic and Starz Play was one of those that report that an increase in the number of paid subscribers. How significant was that growth and was your platform actually ready to handle such an increase in numbers of subscribers and transactions?

Karen: (11:27)
Yeah, so, I mean, we were, one of the fortunate companies, during this, this pandemic time, that actually has benefited, to some extent, and we did see a very big growth, especially here in the MENA region during lockdown. So during Q2, when, at least for two months, we saw everyone was under lockdown. We saw a huge increase in the number of new subscribers, but also even what we actually pride ourselves more in, in the, in the consumption, how much people were actually watching. So that's a measuring tool that we use and how much content, how many minutes are our viewers actually watching on our service and to give you a benchmark on how much it actually increased. So we manage in this quarter, we managed to triple the consumption with what we've done over the last five years since we launched. So, I mean, we were super happy with that, and, and to your question, you know, how did the system hold up? Because that was what, you know, our concern as well, because all of a sudden you see this massive spike in people coming into your service and wanting to view content at the same time. So everyone is pressing play and wants to stream at the same time. And the platform scaled perfectly. We didn't have any, we didn't have any outages or any issues. we, the way that we've built the whole technical platform that we have, which we've built, mostly in house, is that we can scale it very quickly. So the more subscribers we have, we can expand it, and then if the subscriber base  decreases slightly, we can decrease it A bit. And then, so we can expand and go back and forth depending on, and we see the seasonality, on a weekly basis. So, you know, consumption goes up Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and then it goes down again, because then it's weekdays, people are working. We see seasonality also that COVID period is, is exceptional, but normally, but normally areas we would see, you know, we have a higher consumption, when we  release certain box sets. So for example, when we launched Vikings, the new episodes for that season, we see a big spike in consumption, and then that drops down again, and then we launched another new series. It goes up again. So we're very happy with how, the technical platform scale during this period.

Rouba: (14:10)
Brilliant and looking at other businesses, because they're are obviously other, businesses in the region that are experiencing similar, exponential growth, and particularly those who are able to in time, convert their business from, or migrate their business from brick and mortar to e-commerce, which is a very difficult task obviously to do overnight. But do you think that they have the right financial reporting systems and data analytics that would enable them to kind of deal with this increased flow of revenue? And then what advice would you have to give when it comes to having that pillar of digital elements on the financial spectrum of their business?

Karen: (14:50)
I definitely think that some businesses, for sure, struggled with the scaling up or ramping up their eCommerce or their, their online presence, I should say, the companies that didn't really have an online presence before COVID-19, they would probably have struggled a bit more, but the, the ones that did have a presence, you know, they had an online store or any type of online service. as long as their systems could scale, they would have been fine. Of course, now reporting wise, that's always the tricky one, because if you're not prepared for the volumes, then the reporting can always be, you know, lagging or you actually don't capture everything, and did you bill all the customers that bought the product, which is, of course, as a CFO, the one that you're nervous about, did we actually build the customer? You don't want that to be the problem. And I do think that potentially some businesses did struggle a bit. I hope not too many. I hope most people, you know, had their, their fundamentals done. And the thing is that even if you, as long as the billing is done, as long as you did charge a customer and the customer got their product or their service, whatever they bought, you can always, after the fact, figure out the reporting, even though it's a big job to go back and try and reconcile and do all that, we know how reconciling is in finance, but you can always do that. But I do think that, you know, now the learning for a lot of businesses, or like, what's actually say most businesses that has some type of online presence is that you need to have these fundamentals in place, because by now people are so used to buying everything online. We did that before COVID as well, but more so now and much more so now, and even things that you might previously not have thought about as hardware, for example, like a hardware store, you would go to the hardware store and, you know, buy or garden things and so on, but now they also need to deliver, or you need to be able to go there and pick up, and there needs to be a proper online store. So I mean, the, my, the learning from this and the advices is of course, that if we've come to this place now in time, you just need to get all the fundamentals price. You need to make sure that you have a proper billing system in place. You, you need to know that your system can scale. It doesn't need to scale maybe to COVID measurements, but it needs to be able to manage increasing volumes. You don't need to build things in house. There are perfect third party services that you can, that you can get, but you want to make sure that, you know, the, the flow of the reporting, the flow of the payments and the flow of if you're shipping actual products that is actually working and that you've tested, and that you've stress tested yourself before you put it out to market.

Rouba: (17:58)
And especially when, you know, things like how data set, this kind of data informs your, you know, your future strategy and how you're adjusting to meet the demand. So, yes, I agree. It's vital, whatever it is, put it in place.

Karen: (18:12)
Yeah, no, I definitely, for sure. And the thing is also, as you mentioned, mentioned with data, I mean, the data is produced very quickly, but you also need to know how to read the data or to manage the data and analyze the data. So just having a lot of data on a server, it doesn't help your business and the hands and other skill is born. So you need to be able to decipher what that data is telling you. And that's a new skillset for a lot of businesses.

Rouba: (18:44)
Hence that the constant need of, you know, being the lifetime learner comes into play. It's a nonstop process. Yeah. But I, you know, I must say we're fortunate in a way to be in this era because there's so much, material that we have access to that enables us to, you know, perform better that imagine like 20 years ago, how, how slow the process is where compared to now, so amid all of this beautiful disruption, which I find really fascinating, recessions, pandemics and all of that, how can finance and accounting professionals remain ahead of the curve and continue to add value to their organization?

Karen: (19:22)
I think, you know, the finance team can add value by being proactive in what they provide to the business. So they need to, as I said earlier, the finance team has become so much more analytical than what it was, years ago. and the way that we put together data and the way that we present it to the business, and the way that we then can, you know, steer the business in a direction, which is positive, which is based on, of course it's, it's based on historical numbers. So we're not projecting as such, but we can at least say, you know, these are the trends, this is what we're seeing in the data that we're collecting, and this is how the finance team stays ahead, and, you know, continues to deliver. I just think that the world has become we're so data driven today. So pretty much any team that you have within the company needs to analyze data, correct. In one way or the other, it's not just the finance team. It's the marketing team needs to analyze data in their way the product team needs to analyze. So we're so data driven, and I think that for any business to stay ahead, you need to be able to understand, read the data.

Rouba: (21:00)
Can't agree more, Karen, this has been really insightful. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. And, look forward to connecting with you again really soon. 

Karen: (19:22)
All right. Brilliant. Thank you so much.
 
 Closing: (21:16)
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