Does Size Matter?

You are a CFO with a corporate background but want the opportunity to work for a start-up?

In hiring for high-growth start-ups, we regularly hear of the following feedback. Firstly, founders of early stage firms, who are seeking their first CFO, are in need of candidates that have the badges of having worked within a start-up and scale-up. Secondly, candidates who apply to our positions, that may be from a FTSE firm or corporate, try and counter this by explicitly highlighting how they have been “hands on” despite working for a corporate and that they can add value to a start-up. Therefore, if you are a CFO, desperate to work for a start-up and have no start-up experience, it’s worth considering the following to either reinforce your desire or reconsider your approach.


There are perceived to be differences between a corporate and start-up, in terms of complexity of structure, amount of employees, bureaucracy, hierarchy, and salary + benefits offering. However, the biggest concern we have from founders is that a CFO from a corporate background will not be “hands on” enough and therefore will struggle to adapt to the “start-up” culture, with the need at times to be a receptionist as well the strategy driver. Within a corporate structure you may have a big team that you can rely on to achieve particular deliverables, however when you work at a “start-up” you are the only person with possibly one other person, that will close the books and provide robust financials so that the founding team can make formed decisions. Within a corporate, a decision could take days/weeks to make as it goes across the firm, before you can action anything, however within a “start-up” you will get a decision the same day from the founder, which means the pace of work can be very different with the need to action things more immediately. The other most common perception we have from founders, is that a corporate CFO is familiar with clean processes, systems and controls, so query how will someone cope with a chaotic and at times disjointed operation which requires a lot of building up from ground zero?

How to present yourself to Founders

With key differences outlined, the next natural logical thought process to consider is, how can you bridge that gap and convince a Series A Founder to give you a chance?

Probably the most over-used term in recruitment history is “hands on” (already used twice), but sorry to say, it is quite relevant within a start-up! It’s key to highlight how your achievements have impacted the business cross-functionally and provide evidence that you can build processes from scratch. A cv that reads, pure finance improvements, suggests a very silo remit, which will not help your cause in trying to highlight that you can collaborate and impact other parts of an organisation, which of course is part and parcel of the CFO’s role within a start-up. For example, a CFO of a start-up not only needs to drive home proper accounting processes but also be able to drive the business commercially, so can you provide examples as to where your ideas led to a business successfully executing on a deal or even better, leading to growth in revenue. If you are a personality, that likes structure and a predictable workflow, then a start-up is not for you. A founder wants a personality that can very quickly adapt to a changing landscape from one week to another, and can be nimble to come up with solutions to a new challenge on the spot. You will not only set the stall for the finance function, but also be heavily involved in steering the culture of the firm, being one of a few senior hires within the firm and at times being the right-hand person to the founder, so you should be armed with examples as to where you have created a “high performing” culture and held employees accountable.

As a Founder why you should consider a corporate CFO in addition to those that have got the “start-up” badges.

It may be a risk to take on a candidate that is not tried and tested, but shall we look at the upside?

CFO’s trained and that have learnt their trade within a corporate environment, know what good looks like from a process and procedural perspective so can put in place robust measures that will allow you as founder to scale-up in the most efficient yet compliant manner. Typically, a CFO of a corporate, has worked within a very high-pressured environment, typically operating long hours, so they do not shy away from rolling up their sleeves as well as having a great work ethic. It may be that the CFO has worked within a smaller business unit of a corporate, so they work almost within a SME and influenced operations in addition to having more of a direct impact on revenue as well as building an entrepreneurial mindset. Finally, what should not be underestimated, (because it is a common place), is that candidates from a corporate background, are keen to get out of that environment, because of the bureaucracy, the lack of creativity that’s encouraged and the fact that they do not have an influence over the wider business, so these candidates are hungry for the opportunity to prove themselves within a “start-up”!

Written by Dav Masaon| Co-Founder @ Zanda

As an expert in partnering with early-stage tech start-ups, feel free to reach out to us if you require advice or are keen to hire that first or even second person for your finance function. or

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

Originally published at on October 13, 2020.




Recruitment firm supporting high growth startups. Specifically focused in supporting Tech Founders, CFO’s & VC’s.

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Recruitment firm supporting high growth startups. Specifically focused in supporting Tech Founders, CFO’s & VC’s.

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