Startup CFO Member Interview: Julie Oey
In this interview, we spoke to Julie Oey, finance director at WeGift. Let’s jump straight in!
What’s your background - how did you get to where you are today?
I’m currently Finance Director at WeGift, an open API for gift cards and digital payouts based in London. It’s the smallest and earliest stage company I’ve joined, but at 50 people and hiring quickly, it’s a really exciting time to be part of the team.
My career to date has spanned 3 different countries and I’ve worked in both corporates and startups. My first role was in the finance team of an Australian investment bank where I learnt a great deal about finance in a regulated entity.
From there, I jumped on a plane to San Francisco and joined a 120 person fintech as a Senior Accountant. This was a great experience, particularly as I was involved in the sale process to a larger bank, rising to become Director of FP&A and Business Analytics.
After realising I loved the small company vibe, I jumped on a plane (again!), but this time landing in the fintech capital of London. I joined a fledgling challenger bank called Monzo as their third finance team hire and Head of FP&A.
Being the third finance hire at Monzo must have been a unique experience! What were the main learnings?
Working at Monzo was an amazing experience. I joined when there were just 120 people in the company. When I left, after 2.5 years, there were 40/45 people in the finance team and 1,500 people in the whole company.
One of the biggest challenges in that fast growth stage is managing conflicting priorities and having the ability to chop and change quickly. There are always trade offs to make and knowing what to prioritise is a key skill. In addition, the strong culture of kindness that Monzo is known for meant there was often a natural instinct to say yes to everything.
One of the key learnings from this was simply learning how and when to say no. If something was critical, then asking how fast it’s needed often helps sift out the truly critical tasks from those that just come across as critical.
Another thing that we did well at Monzo was having data scientists and engineers as part of the finance team. We developed a matrix organisation so data and engineering were still managed centrally and aligned on technical best practices, but as they formed part of our finance team they took initiative to learn about how finance works, and why financial controls are so important, while also sharing our goals and problems. That knowledge for them meant they were a key ally for finance when a project needed engineering support.
What are the key differences between your role at Monzo and your current role at WeGift?
Although I started as a generalist at Monzo, the fast team growth meant I quickly became focused on FP&A, primarily forecasting, fundraising and business partnering. Once the company got to 1,500 people, I was quite specialised in the finance function and decided I wanted to get some experience in a really early stage company.
I also have always worked in regulated companies, in the financial services industry, so I was keen to explore something different. When I met with WeGift, the company vision really intrigued me as there is still very much a complex fintech element (we deal with millions of pounds in cash movements weekly, across multiple currencies and geographies), but with a twist as we operate outside the existing mainstream finance or payments framework.
I also now look after the full finance team and, as you’d naturally expect at a smaller company, I get involved in everything finance and operations related rather than just FP&A.
The biggest difference between my previous companies and WeGift is that they’ve either been profitable or had a big consumer brand name to leverage. WeGift is smaller and as a B2B, isn’t necessarily a household name (yet!) so there’s opportunity to be more creative in competitive spaces like hiring strong talent. For example, to help attract candidates, we found it really helpful to create a public WeGift playbook to share more about the company, our values and how we work which really gives candidates great insight into the company beyond the usual interview process.
WeGift has grown 3-4x in the few years - what’s it like scaling operations to keep pace?
In startups that are growing this quick, it’s important to keep a very good eye on where the company is heading - not just where it is now. I always try to look at least 12 months ahead and see where the company will be, and therefore plan what finance needs to focus on building, so we both can scale with the company but also build the value-add muscle and not just be reactive to what is happening.
I’ll then look at the current team and capacity, and see where the gaps are, along with what triggers we should have that determine when we hire the new roles. I’ve been sure to get some engineering time given to finance like in Monzo so we can scale through processes and systems, rather than purely through people.
You’re currently recruiting for a number of different roles in the finance team. How do you sift out the good from the bad?
I’ve got three key tips for recruiting into a finance team:
Identify what you think the finance team needs in 12 months time, and hire for what you need then, not what you need today. Remember by the time you hire and onboard someone it will be at least 6 months down the track.
As finance people, we often have a bad habit of hiring someone more junior than the role we really need because it saves on budgets. Hiring someone who is capable of growing into the role is fine, but hiring someone too junior who may need more guidance and structure to grow into the role can be a risk, especially as startups also don’t have the infrastructure to onboard and train new employees the way a corporate would
Insert a technical assignment or problem solving workshop as part of the recruiting process, to see how the candidate actually operates and thinks through problems. Workshops are usually helpful in seeing how you would actually work together through a real issue, especially one that’s ambiguous and has no right answer
You talk a lot about identifying what you think the finance team will look like in 12+ months. What things do you consider when doing this?
As a finance person you’ll generally work closely with the founders and/or management, so will have a good idea of where the company is heading - look at things like geographies, products, volume etc. Using that knowledge, you can then work out how it feeds through to finance.
For example, if the plan is entry into a new geography or releasing new, different products in the next 12 months, it’s likely that your accounting will start to get complicated and that you’ll need a good Financial Controller to manage that. If you’re looking more at scaling sales and growth but with an existing or very similar business line, then you’d focus more on building a commercial function that can focus on analytics and partner with the marketing and sales teams. It really comes down to working out how the big picture thinking filters down into different areas of finance.
What things are you doing to build a team culture at WeGift?
I joined WeGift just before lockdown and hired about half the team during lockdown, so I appreciate the social challenges of remote bonding. Building a culture in this environment is a challenge because you miss the spontaneous interactions that come through being in an office - like conversations over coffee and the bonding that happens when you’re staying late to try and finish something important.
At WeGift we’re trying to have more general check ins - things like morning stand ups with time for general chit chat, weekly and monthly team socials so we have space to interact without being distracted by work, and encouraging a lot of 1 on 1’s so colleagues can really get to know each other outside of the group too. l. It’s particularly challenging for a company that’s growing so quickly; many of our employees joined during lockdown so are yet to meet their colleagues in real life!
And lastly… if you didn’t get into finance, what would you be doing instead?
Being paid to write a travel blog and eat foods from around the world - that would be a dream!
Thank you, Julie!