Finance insights 8 min read

The new CFO checklist: your playbook for the first 90 days

Patrick Whatman

Every new CFO has a steep learning curve. That's true whether it's your first CFO role or your 15th - you're walking into a high-pressure position in a new company. You're expected to meet, greet, integrate, learn, and perform - as quickly as possible

But there's only so much you can do in quarter. And you have the rest of your tenure build the perfect finance organization. 

Three months go by in a flash. You'll barely scratch the surface of your own and the company's potential in that time. So you need a plan. 

This article presents the must-dos for your first 90 days as a new CFO. Instead of trying to fix every system and set up countless new processes, start by ticking off these critical first steps. 

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What does a startup CFO do? 

The name “Chief Financial Officer” rightly suggests that the CFO is focused mainly on a startup’s finances. In most cases, the CFO enters a company at a specific milestone, usually connected to a fundraising round coming up or one just completed.

There are new and significant financial matters, so it’s time to find a CFO. 

But today’s startup CFO doesn’t only deal with the finance function. They’re ultimately responsible for a company’s corporate arm, including legal, payroll, HR, operations, and supplier negotiations.

Startup CFO responsibilities

Here’s a quick list of topics the typical CFO needs to deal with:

The finance function

  • Accounting and tax
  • Controllership (ensuring transaction data flows in and out smoothly)
  • Cash or spend management
  • Financial planning and forecasts
  • Reporting to the board, other executives, and the wider company

Human resources

  • Payroll
  • Internal processes like performance reviews and feedback
  • Office space
  • Employee wellbeing

Legal

  • Customer contracts
  • Contracts with employees, suppliers, and third parties
  • Data security (including GDPR in Europe)

Operations

  • Oversight of business critical software
  • Internal processes that employees can follow
  • Clear employee policies

Of course, the CFO can’t be hands-on with every one of these challenges. Instead, they’re expected to build the teams and find the tools to handle these topics for them. 

But ultimately these all fall under the CFO’s responsibilities, and you’re expected to be in charge. It’s a big ask, with a number of different starting points. 

So let’s now turn to the tangible actions you can take as a company’s new CFO.

CFO checklist for the first 90 days

cfo-checklist

So what are your tangible action items for the first 90 days? Because the CFO scope is so broad we’ve categorized these under certain key themes. 

We’ve also ordered them from more “finance focused” to less, but all are valid and important.

We’ll go into detail below, but here’s the checklist in a nutshell: 

  • Audit existing processes
  • Identify urgent needs
  • Get familiar with the financials
  • Set the roadmap
  • Build relationships
  • Comprehend the company culture

It’s worth noting that you likely won’t “finish” any of these within 90 days. Many - like building relationships and process design - will never truly be finished. It’s more than enough to walk away after three months with a firm grasp on all of the above, and a plan of attack for those areas that need improving. 

Audit existing processes

Before even looking at data and numbers themselves, you need to understand where they come from. Is the data reliable, complete, and up to date?

The biggest goal here isn’t even to make changes. That comes later. Today, you simply need the full picture of company processes you’re supposed to oversee.

Here are some key questions you need to be able to answer: 

  • What are the systems and software the finance function relies on today? (It may simply be Excel).
  • How do customers pay for our products and services?
  • How do we pay for operational costs and expenses? Is there a clear process and expense policy in place?
  • How do employees get paid? When, who processes payroll, and using which systems?
  • Who reviews supplier contracts?
  • How do we store customer data? Are we meeting our legal obligations?
  • What skills do we have in the finance function today?
  • What level of reporting is expected by the business and the board, and how do we achieve this today?

In the process of answering these questions, you’ll also be able to spot the red flags that need fixing most urgently. Which leads us to the next step.

Identify urgent needs

Particularly for the first CFO in a startup, you’re bound to find some red flags. You’ll also have your own priorities and goals, and then pressure from the CEO and board to help with strategy. So it’s critical in the early days to create a sort of triaging system

Build a simple matrix that balances the status of the problem with its urgency and impact:

  • Status: 1. Broken; 2. Will break; 3. To improve; 4. No issue
  • Urgency: 1. First 90 days; 2. First 180 days; 3. First year; 4. Future
  • Impact:1. Major; 2. Medium; 3. Minor; 4. Zero

For example, a completely broken payroll system - where people are not getting paid - is a “1” for all of the above. You simply can’t have a company where employees are not paid, and this needs to be fixed immediately. 

But suppose you’ve joined a company of 30 with a largely manual payroll system using Excel and bank transfers. This is frustrating and time consuming, but it works. And unless you’re in the midst of a major growth spurt right now, fixing it may not be urgent.

Depending on your philosophy, this might be a 3, 2, 2: To improve within the first 180 days, and will have a medium impact (because it affects the whole team). But you can live with it for now.

Likewise, you may want to hire an accountant to work next to you. But if you’re currently not processing many transactions, this hire will have limited urgency and impact.

The goal here is to acknowledge that you won’t have the corporate functions you want within the first year, most likely. So you need to start with the most urgent and impactful tasks.

Get familiar with the financials

Naturally, you need to understand the company’s financial position and unit economics. So you’ll have to get your hands dirty in the numbers. 

You have two main areas to think about: 

  • Historic actuals: Do you have clean and accurate records, including supporting documents like receipts and invoices?
  • Forecasts: Unless you’re currently fundraising, this is probably less important. But it’s likely that some sort of growth forecasts were put together before you arrived. And if they were done by non-financial founders - usually extreme optimists - you need to know what the board and other executives are projecting. 

Actuals - or “the books” - are the place to start. You need to be sure about three important factors: 

  • Cash flow. If you have liquidity issues or “ghost spend” (unexplained spending), these need to be resolved right away. 
  • Accounting procedures. Check with whoever handles the books today (probably a consultant or firm) that the company is following the rules and that there aren’t any major worries to anticipate. 
  • Audit headaches. Has the company been audited recently? Are you prepared if it is? It may even be a smart first step to actually bring in an auditor to look for issues and pressure test the business. 

Mostly, you want to understand the particular bright points and hurdles of your new company’s financial situation. What makes the company grow, and where do you have major work to do?

Set the finance function’s roadmap

Again, you won’t have the fully fledged finance function you want by the end of 90 days. But you can have your plan set with key milestones along the way. 

Most likely, you’ll need at least a 12-month framework, recognizing that hiring people and installing new processes will take some time. Your framework should include:

  • KPIs and performance markers. Like any business unit, the finance function needs markers for success. Given what you now know about the financial situation, you can set key goals for the quarters to come. 
  • Hiring. Often the CFO is a startup’s first full-time finance team member. Which means you need to build a team around yourself.
  • New processes. There will be key processes that the company has never had before. These could include legal review, revenue recognition, or 360-degree feedback.
  • Automation. Successful finance teams automation large chunks of their finance operations. Anything menial and repetitive needs to be automated, but it won’t happen instantly. So make a list and start ticking them off as you go. 

And of course you’ll have plenty more to add to your list, based on what you’ve found so far.

Build relationships

You’re walking into a new company as second or third in line behind the CEO. Employees don’t truly know why you’re there or whether they can trust you, and they do need to trust you. 

So early on, make a habit of meeting new people from different teams, bonding over the small things, and proving that you’re there to help. Understand their challenges and explain your expertise, so that team members know exactly why they should be excited to have a CFO on board. 

On top of this, begin forging relationships with key suppliers. You’ll eventually want to negotiate, so being close to the landlord, utilities providers, and other major partners will pay off. 

Finally, get to know the board and investors. They’ll certainly want to hear more from you as time goes by.

Comprehend the culture

Startups and small businesses all have their own cultures which can be hard to walk into fresh. Some team members were there on day one - their colleagues are their closest friends. This may even be the first job they’ve had. 

You want to understand and recognize the role they’ve had in building the company so far, and learn the rules of engagement. 

At the same time, CFOs are brought in at times of change. Probably the company is growing and the culture is changing already, so you don’t have to think only about “fitting in.” In fact, the CFO can help a young startup mature, and transition to becoming a more professional workplace

But you must at least grasp the existing culture first, to understand if and how it needs to change.

How to make it as a startup CFO

Hopefully this brief checklist has you on the right track in the first 90 days in your new position. To help make this transition even more successful, here are a few extra resources. 

First, you must check out CFO Connect. It’s a global community for finance leaders, where CFOs share ideas and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. They also host regular live events and meetups, with expert CFOs sharing their own strategies: 

CFO Connect - community - finance leaders - Spendesk

CFO Connect also wrote a free ebook dedicated to “making it” as a startup CFO. It’s full of specific advice and best practices, and is a must-read for anyone embarking on this journey for the first time:

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Patrick Whatman

Patrick Whatman is a content marketer and writer. He lives in Paris, loves music, and writes his own brand of cultural criticism for fun. Tweet him @mrwhatman where he mainly talks digital marketing, American sports and New Zealand trivia.