Yulia Pukhova, CFO at Veesion AI, was involved in one of the first big exits in France whilst at PeopleDoc, and has had a diverse career both in startups and as a post-acquisition finance leader. She talks to Thibault Lalouette about her love of technology and the changing role of CFOs as they embrace AI and data analysis in finance operations.

First thoughts

  • I wanted to be part of a company that believed AI would be the next big tech revolution.
  • With the right processes in place, technology can get you working faster, smarter and more efficiently.
  • Our role as finance leaders is much more of an IT project manager that it was 10 years ago.
  • Education and training in data management will be key for finance professionals.
  • What really works in being part of a start-up is always seeing it as a people adventure.


What’s your background in Finance?

Mine is a pretty standard background for a finance professional in that I started out in audit for the first six years of my career. I really enjoyed being part of something organised and structured with lots of legal updates and processes. I was fortunate to join a smaller audit firm, where I was exposed to a range of customers, from small non-profit organisations to larger, publicly-listed companies. I worked in diverse sectors, including aeroplane manufacturing, the automotive industry and tech. I even audited gold mines in Africa for three years. It was an adventure for a young finance professional, while also being a great ‘people’ adventure. I am a big believer in the fact that a person can make a difference and this has been reflected throughout my career, including where I am today as a leader of our finance team.


How did you then get involved in one of the first big  exits in France?

One of my audit clients was a small startup called PeopleDoc. I joined them in 2014 and, at the time, they had just 35 people with €1 million of ARR and they had just raised $15 millions, which was big for the French environment. In fact, it was one of the largest in France at the time and the lead investors were Accel Partners. They created the first internal finance director position and asked me if I wanted to take on the role. I wasn’t entirely comfortable taking the big jump from auditor to CFO but agreed to give it a go and within four years we’d grown the business from €1 million ARR to €36 million. We opened in the UK, Germany and the UK, followed later by Spain. We raised €30 millions more with Eurazeo. And in 2018 we sold the company for US$300 million.

Can you tell us more about the acquisition of PeopleDoc?

We sold to US company Ultimate Software. They were based in Florida with mainly US operations, US$1 billion in revenues and 5,000 employees. The company was publicly traded on Nasdaq. I then stayed with the company for a further four years.

What was it like going from a start-up to such a big organisation?

I was keen to see how finance operates in a large organisation. It was an interesting four years, not just because it was a much bigger company than I was used to but because they were years of change. Within eight months of buying PeopleDoc, Ultimate changed from being a publicly listed company to a private one. They were bought by investors for US$11 billion in 2019 and a year later they merged with Kronos, which was about the same size and largely US based, although with some operations in Europe. Kronos also had a shared services centre in India.

So, my four years there were initially about how to integrate a private, start-up company with a public company. There were IFRS standards to comply with and GAAP declarations related to a purchase. Then we became private again and had to think about how we scaled operations.

Can you tell us more about the changes when Ultimate merged with Kronos?

In the latter phases, once we were private once more, we had to think about how to deploy the PeopleDoc business, which we started to call HR Service Delivery (HRSD). I was primarily focused on financial planning and analysis (FP&A) and my role was more of a regional CFO for the HRSD business unit. Within the four-year timeframe we transformed our profitability. At the time of the purchase, we had a little less than €40 million in ARR and were largely losing money, with a negative EBITDA of something like minus 200%. Within four years, we had €150 million in revenues – that’s revenues not ARR – with an EBITDA of +15%. This is the kind of the scale you get when you’re able to benefit from a sales operation that’s already up and running – you can sell much more rapidly and much more efficiently.

What prompted your move at such an exciting period in your career?

I was eventually involved mainly with alignment in terms of our accounting processes, operations, and how to transfer accounting operations from Europe to the shared service centre in India. That was an experience in itself as I got to understand the cultural and process differences, and work across different time zones. In the end, however, I found myself working on one-shot projects around things like process and compliance and felt I was now too far away from the business. Things became a little bit predictable with less to be done around business change and more around standard finance professional tasks. So, I felt the time was right for a change.

How did you end up back in the start-up world?

At the end of 2021 and in early 2022 all the start-ups were raising crazy money. My email box was full of requests from recruiters and I seized the opportunity to join a startup called PlayPlay in mid-2022. They were a Paris-based video creation company that saw incredible growth during and after the Covid years. When I looked at the financials, I could see that there was a perfect product-market fit, with the product selling by itself and very short payback time of  three to six months. All the KPIs were incredible and the business saw growth of more than 100% per year. It was an amazing growth story with great investors on board. However, when I joined in mid-2022 things were changing. A recession was coming and the growth story I’d been looking for seemed more like a scaling down story with a focus on how we put the company on a profitability path.

What impact did recession have on your role?

It was a little bit different but still interesting. The executive team that I was part of did lots of transformation activity led by the CEO. There were some hard but necessary decisions to be taken in terms of the company’s people plan. Crucially, we constructed a 24-month plan for profitability that was not dependent on fundraising. A year into this, with the company plan written, I felt my role had become less about the business drivers and more about the predictable finance activity, similar to how I’d felt before I left Ultimate. So, I decided to take a step back and chose that moment to spend some time with my very young family, which was something I’d never previously done in my career!

What led to your next career move in the world of artificial intelligence?

Taking time off was a great opportunity to reflect and reconnect with the tech world. I did some training courses and became more excited about AI and its possibilities for the world of finance. An MIT course on AI was an eye-opening experience for me. I realised that while here in Europe being early adopters of new tech is not typically in our DNA, my fellow students working for organisations in the US had been testing AI for around five years. They’d been integrating the technology in different levels of processes and during that time had been collecting precious experience in terms of what did and didn’t work. So, while in Europe we’d only been using the likes of ChatGPT for a year or so, elsewhere they’d been discovering more and more about AI projects and why they need to be managed differently from other IT projects.

It’s important that we use and test AI to draw conclusions. It may seem magical to many people but in reality, it is just mathematics. Your AI is as good as your statistics and your ability to learn from AI at every iteration. So, this brings me to my next career step. I am a huge fan of technology and how it can solve people’s problems. But, coming from an audit background, I’m also a big believer in processes and the fact that technology will only solve problems if you have robust processes. With the right processes in place, technology can get you working faster, smarter and more efficiently. With this background and a continually deepening understanding of AI, it is no surprise that my return to work was with AI-led company Veesion AI.

What attracted you to Veesion AI?

I wanted to be part of a company that believed AI would be the next big tech revolution. I wanted to create a new environment for finance where I’d be able to use AI in different stages and processes to accelerate and scale at lower costs. Of course, in terms of running your finance operations at low cost, you can achieve this with a shared service centre in India, but you can also reduce your cost through technology. And AI is the right technology. It’s perhaps not mature enough today, but the building bricks are there for us to test and keep moving forward. There are also open source bricks that we can implement with the right skillset internally.

So, I was fortunate to meet Thibault David, a big believer in AI and one of the founders of Veesion AI. The company applies AI to gesture recognition to help retailers, pharmacies and supermarket detect suspicious behaviour and prevent shoplifting. Having got its first product ready in about two years, Veesion AI’s initial MVP was then created very quickly and the company was soon at €1 million ARR. Then they tripled this figure and have been more or less doubling it ever since. I joined them as their CFO in February 2024.

Will finance professionals need different skills as AI becomes more prevalent?

I think we’ve already seen a big shift in terms of skills taking place over the past decade. Our role is much more of an IT project manager that it was 10 years ago. In fact, around half of my time at work over this period has been IT-project oriented. Looking ahead, with more AI and the way solutions are being structured, we’ll need many more data analyst skills. All the tech leaders, like the CEO of Nvidia, are saying our kids should be data analysts! And with AI being only as good as the data, you can see why people are saying data could be the weak link. So, you need to make sure it is accurate, exhaustive, and that nothing is missing, because if it’s not there, your foundations are wrong.

As we create more and more data in our business operations, education and training in data management will be key for finance professionals. It’s not just about buying an AI and thinking it’s some magical solution. If the data is not accurate, the results won’t be accurate. Nothing will work correctly if the basis and the data and the process around creating aren’t right. Because data is not fixed. In addition to this, it will evolve over time. So, for me, the key new skillset for finance professionals is all around data and its management.

Beyond specific skillsets, what character traits and team players does a modern CFO need?

While embarking on a new venture might appear risky, most finance leaders are actually risk averse. We’re more concerned with how we protect against risk. For me, what really works in being part of a startup is always seeing it as a human adventure and I feel that with the right team you can go a long way.

I’ve learned that you need a diverse skillset and different levels of experience. On the one hand, you want someone in your team who has the experience to see the bigger picture, not just within the finance function but across the whole company. Then, on the other hand, while I’m not looking for risk takers, it’s good to balance that experience with less experienced people who perhaps have a greater willingness to take bold decisions. Sometimes it helps if you’ve got people who haven’t seen what it ‘should’ look like and are more interested in what makes logical sense in a given situation.

On that latter point, it is all too easy to over-complicate things in finance and, to paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, the most complex task is to make things simple. So, for me, simplicity is one of my mantras. The idea that less is more applies to many scenarios in finance. For example, if you present people with less information, it can make finance facts and figures easier to understand. Or by having fewer processes to wade through, you can get to the point faster.

Do you have any final words of advice for someone building a start-up finance team?

There are three ingredients of success: people, process, technology. See it as a people adventure. Get the right people with the right balance between experience and the non-experienced with the right attitude. Any one person can make a difference. So, hiring the right person is key because your team is only as strong as your weakest link is. As a young finance leader, I made some hiring mistakes which cost me so much in energy. But we learn by making mistakes.

With sound processes guiding you, be open to new technologies and test them a little bit at a time – we would say ‘with parsimony’ in France. Each new technology ingredient is a bit like adding spices to your recipe, which you then adjust as you see how it works. This also keeps your people motivated as it makes things a little more exciting in their day-to-day work. Enjoy the adventure.


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Thibault Lalouette, Principal

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