Dynshaw Italia, CFO at Soldo, talks to Harry Tolfree, Erevena Principal, about his journey from chartered accountancy through early-stage businesses to scale-ups hitting hypergrowth – and why experience in diverse roles ensures the CFO creates strategic value.
How did you start out in finance?
I did my schooling and undergraduate from India and came to the UK to do my chartered accountancy in 1991 in the middle of the recession. The degree I’d gained in India wasn’t recognised here, so I had to do a conversion course, after which I joined a sole accountancy practitioner on a trial basis. He could see that I was adding value to his business and so he applied to train me as a chartered accountant. It was the most rounded experience because I got involved in and learned so many things, from computerising the company’s manual processes to accountancy, audit, tax, fundraising and business modelling. We had two big clients, Cobra Beer and Flightbookers, which I’ll come back to later. After qualifying, I joined KPMG in their financial services business. I was involved in the auditing of big banks, so it was a completely contrasting experience for me.
How did you make the move into the world of start-ups?
The sole practitioner in my first company decided to partner with the founder of Flightbookers to set up ebookers. He contacted me one day and asked if I’d like to join them as their financial controller, taking their headcount to just five! We raised $70 million on the NASDAQ. Then, early in my career, I was pushed into the CFO role when my former boss and co-founder was taken ill. Luckily, he was later able to come back as the managing director.
From just five people when I joined, the business grew to 3,000 people and $1.4Bn in revenue with listings on NASDAQ, the London Stock Exchange, and Germany’s Neuer Market.
What did you learn from this early experience?
There were a lot of learnings for us all. We took the decision to keep the bricks and mortar part of the business as a customer-facing channel even though we were an internet company. This was in around 1999 and we felt it would give those customers who were not used to paying online the reassurance they needed as for a lot of them this would be the first time they would be using the internet on high value items such as long haul airfares. I was involved in 16 acquisitions in just 18 months. These were small companies that had the content and relationships with the airlines, hotels and car providers, and we would then bring them online and wrap our technology around this.
We had an amazing technical person who was so ahead of the curve in terms of building an entire platform. But this was a lesson for us because he was the only person able to maintain the platform, so within two years we were being caught up by competitors because we were not able to create the bandwidth for him to continuously innovate. Ebookers was eventually bought by Cendant Corporation, a US conglomerate.
How did you do things differently at Cobra Beer?
I joined Cobra Beer first as CFO and then adding COO to my remit in a dual role. It was a fantastic company that we built from early stage to it becoming a household name in the UK and then further afield. Culturally, Cobra was the best company I’d worked for. A lot of a companies culture are driven by the entrepreneur, and Cobra was all about innovation – doing the impossible, doing things differently and better and changing the marketplace for ever. For example, it was simple things like being the first to introduce the big bottle of beer into restaurants with the idea that it would encourage sharing and strengthen branding as the big bottle would remain on the table.
Even in finance we thought differently. For example, our working capital management was ground-breaking and we created a first-of-its kind trade finance product with Bank of Ireland with a credit insurance wrapper. This fantastic experience at Cobra taught me that you can raise money against every single item on your balance sheet! The company eventually became a joint venture (JV) with Molson Coors and we negotiated the JV set up in such a way that Cobra was not lost in the big company. I am still involved as a non-exec board member and try to bring the entrepreneurial culture that had characterised Cobra to the board.
What were your next steps in the world of start-ups and scale-ups?
I joined Bluewater Bio, a water technology company in start-up phase. I was attracted to the business because of the visionary and dynamic entrepreneur behind it. We built Bluewater Bio to become one of the largest independent water tech companies, acquiring complementary water technologies and building the largest waste-water plant in Bharain. We also operated in India and the US and I was involved in multiple fund raisings with different structures to fund future growth. Bluewater Bio was eventually sold to private equity.
From there I moved to Lebara as its CFO. The ownership was 100% with the founders of Lebara with no other shareholders. Lebara was the largest mobile virtual operator in the world and had been set up to offer affordable international calling options for the migrant community. I had a finance team of more than 100 across seven countries and we supported the CEO’s ambition to digitise products for customers. These include the launch of a VOIP platform like WhatsApp, as well as a Netflix-style media platform in 20 languages, and a remittance platform for sending money via mobile. The founders made all the decisions and the philosophy was not to give equity to employees but instead offer adequate cash compensation for success. Eventually Lebara was sold to private equity.
How did you make the move to Soldo?
After taking on a few different consulting roles, Erevena placed me at Soldo, which had developed a new spend management platform automating finance processes. When I joined it was March 2020 just at the start of Covid. I didn’t physically meet any of my colleagues except the CEO until after Covid. Once again, this was a company offering something unique. It’s a great fintech business selling a product used by CFOs and finance teams. So, for Soldo’s finance team and me as a CFO, this means we are not only performing our own roles but are actively involved in the product itself, which is something we’re not likely to get anywhere else.
What’s the most important thing you look for when you’re joining a company?
First and foremost, it’s about the leader. Businesses are fundamentally successful due to the leader. For example, when I joined Soldo, I didn’t know anything about the product, but its founder Carlo Gualandri convinced me that this was the place to be. I also look at the industry the company’s in. Is there ample opportunity to grow and does it have a large market that we can attack and be successful in? Trust between the CFO and founder is another vital factor. The CFO needs to be able to challenge decisions and have an open enough relationship with the founder to be listened to.
How has the CFO role changed over the years?
The role has become more strategic. There is a greater need to understand all aspects of the business and be involved in much more. For example, when I was looking for a new role before joining Soldo, one of the things being looked at on my CV was the breadth of experience I’d had in diverse roles. More than my CFO role, I’ve been head of HR and head of IT. As COO I’d also been head of production and of international business. All this experience is invaluable and has made me a more rounded CFO.
During my time at Lebara, my CEO told me that I needed a Chief of Staff. Although I had several team members I relied on, I was urged to choose the most competent and ambitious member of my team. That person would not only shadow me but also be the person helping me execute and follow through with the wider organisation. It helped me become more efficient and gave the chief of staff full exposure to the CFO role. I now tell anyone asking me how to move up to the CFO role to consider something similar to the Chief of Staff position and the broad remit that comes with it.
How do difficult times change the role of the CFO?
Generally, when things are going well, the finance department tends to be ‘there’ and carrying on in the background. When the business enters crisis mode, the department becomes more prominent and business becomes more focused and it’s all about cash. We saw this during Covid it was about how we change the budgeting model to a zero-budgeting model because nothing is the same as it was before. We have to be continuously forecasting and consider things like the impact on our cashflow of customers who can’t pay.
Your mindset changes and the idea that ‘Cash is King’ switches up a gear to ‘Cash is Emperor’ or ‘Cash is God’. Right now, companies aren’t in as bad a place as they were during Covid, but we are still in crisis. People are hurting with the impact of Ukraine, energy hikes and inflation. At such times, especially for a company like ours that is yet to hit break-even point, the cash runway becomes the most important thing.
What is the impact of a weaker funding market?
Soldo isn’t really feeling the impact because we raised funding at the right time, giving us sufficient funds to do what we want to do. However, our customers are feeling it. Only a year ago, there was ample funding for companies that were growing. Now, people are being so careful about where they invest. Profitable growth is the new mantra and there’s a huge change in the funding market with far less cash available. Of course, the good companies will always raise cash, but investors remain cautious.
What do you see happening over the next 12 months?
H1 will still be a struggle for many companies but inflation will come into check from H2 onwards. A lot of it depends on the war in Ukraine and whether a solution can be found. On a macro level, I believe the US will avoid recession, while China opening up will help the situation. In my experience when these two countries do well, the world does well. In Europe, I think the UK will do better than the rest of Europe – but we’ll have to see what happens!
What are your views on finance automation and how does Soldo help companies trying to better manage their finances?
In a fast growing business, change is continuous, In today’s world, you never stand still, you always have to adapt to survive and be successful. The only thing that is constant is change.
Everyone is and should be going through a big finance transformation and that is a mindset and driven by culture. It is the willingness to change and willingness to continuously adopt new tools, automation. This is driven by the inherent desire to keep improving and finding ways to become more efficient.
In my view there are 2 things that are driving this
- We live in an on demand economy where in our personal lives we expect things to happen immediately –eg taking a taxi (uber) – in fact we get impatient if an uber timing goes from 2 min to 4 min. In business we are moving more and more toward needing information in real time. In fact our Soldo product is all about finance transformation where we are encouraging customers to take more control of their spend and payments, automate the manual and cumbersome processes involved around spend management and providing real time tracking and visibility of spend.
- The second area that is driving finance transformation is the vast availability of data. How you deal with data – it is how you capture it, tag it, interpret it and how you visualise and present it so that it adds value and can enable decisions. And as mentioned this data needs to be available in real time.
Finance and technology transformation needs tools to deal with these two aspects of on-demand need and data proliferation – and Soldo sits right across both. It’s about spend management, cost control, real-time data availability, tracking, and more – with real-time data being the holy grail of CFOs. In addition Soldo provides customers with a much more efficient payment infrastructure platform.
What next for you personally – how do you top the amazing things you’ve done?
I want to be right here! In the current environment, cost control and spend management are very relevant and we’re not only helping companies manage their spend but also have a payment infrastructure to support finance efficiencies. We have the funding – which is unusual for me at this stage in a company’s growth – and now need to execute on our plans. This needs scale and I want to be part of the growth acceleration and path to profitability at Soldo.
So, for me, I am in the right space, in the right market at the right time.