“Tech startups and growth stage companies require a commitment to the grind and teamwork like no other type of organization. Embrace it. Raise your hand to do more and learn something new every chance you get."
Nicole Kennedy is a trailblazer in her industry and is one of the youngest female CFO's in Colorado. She has found a niche in high growth technology companies and currently serves as part of the executive team at FluentStream, a private equity backed cloud-based communications company. Nicole has also led finance at ThrivePass, Wishlist and Zen Planner where she oversaw the successful acquisition from Daxko.
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You’ve been involved in several tech companies now, what’s the appeal? Why Tech?
Truthfully, I never had a specific goal to enter tech. My first tech experience was with Zen Planner which happened to merge my personal passions of health and fitness with my professional skillset in accounting and finance. That was about the depth of thought that went into it. I could do something I was good at, at a company I was passionate about, and wear yoga pants to work every day. Win-win! What developed from there was an understanding of a SaaS product, and how you can grow and build a cutting edge and profitable organization. I find SaaS and tech fascinating in the ever-evolving solutions presented to customers, as well as the ability to scale. Once I got into it, I was hooked.
You were at Zen Planner for 4 years and were heavily involved in the acquisition with Daxko. What was that like and how did it all come together?
Going through a sell side transaction was a defining moment in my career. It was brutal! And fascinating. Stressful and glorious. All of the possible emotions wrapped into one. The most amazing part was being able to tell our story, show our prospective buyers what we had been working so hard to build for years and watching the excitement in their eyes. It was a fast process, approximately 3 months from initial prospective meetings to closing the deal. I learned so much about the due diligence that goes into buying a company. It really comes down to knowing your operations, owning a clean set of data, and an organization of supporting documents and reports. Negotiations can be difficult, but if you’ve structured your position with data supporting the value of your company, you are steps ahead in the game. Ultimately the deal closed as a fruitful partnership between Daxko and Zen Planner.
What was your biggest lesson from that acquisition?
The biggest lesson is one I’ve coached other CFOs and finance professionals on since – run your business as if you might enter a sell side transaction next week or next month. Be disciplined about documentation, organization, data, and reporting. Be ready. You may not get an offer out of nowhere, but the moment you are approached for a possible sale you will have proactively positioned yourself for a smooth negotiation process.
You’ve had a quick rise to your first CFO role, what would you put that down to?
Enjoying the grind. Plain and simple. I started my career as an auditor at KPMG in NYC which gave me a great opportunity to cut my teeth in a grueling environment alongside some great friends I have kept to this day. It was hard, but we loved it and forged a bond from it. I’ve brought that to each of my roles since.
Tech startups and growth stage companies require a commitment to the grind and teamwork like no other type of organization I have worked for. Embrace it. Raise your hand to do more and learn something new every chance you get. Put your head down and grind until someone taps you on the shoulder with a promotion. And enjoy that process. I’ve developed so many amazing skills, experiences and relationships from embracing the work that goes into building something great. And I believe that has most contributed to my quick rise to my first CFO title.
At both Zen Planner and now FluentStream you’ve overseen a lot growth. What do you think has been the biggest catalyst of that growth at either company?
Having a mission and the discipline to set objectives to achieve that mission. Set stretch goals for the company as a whole. Then tie those goals to specific objectives for each function and then for each team member so everyone at the company knows how their day-to-day actions directly relate to the lofty goals of the organization and how those lofty goals work to fulfill the mission.
And culture – culture is a foundational must. Find yours, define yours, and hire the people that will live it and enhance it.
In your opinion, what’s the CFO’s #1 priority?
#1 is ensuring the back-office function of accounting, finance and compliance is running smoothly and effectively while producing timely and accurate financial and operational reporting. But a close #2 is supporting your CEO to allow them the time, space, energy, and margin to think big. If you get #1 right, you have the space to make #2 happen and are halfway there by allowing your CEO to not think about payroll, invoices, insurance, etc.
Are there any mistakes that you look back at and are thankful you learned from them early in your career?
Mistake is a tough word for me. Most of my failings have led to valuable lessons and improvements so it’s hard to call them mistakes. I’m an experiential learner, for better or worse. Startups have taught me that usually it’s okay to fail fast, learn, and pivot (I say usually because of course there are honor and ethics violations that should never be an option).
But maybe that actually was the mistake – learning that lesson a little later than I wanted in my first tech role as Controller at Zen Planner. Because failure crushed me early in my tenure there due to my type A perfectionist nature, and it took me too long to get back up and try again.
Luckily, I learned from that within the first 6 months, but it would have been nice to naturally know how to bounce back quicker. Now I feel confident in owning my trials and failures, while coming back from them with speed and energy.
As a CFO, what are you not afraid to spend money on?
I have a personal and professional answer.
Personally – self-care and my hobbies. Taking care of myself and feeling fulfilled by my hobbies (skiing, biking, traveling, etc.) makes me a better professional.
Professionally – cultural adds. These won’t be the same for every organization. For example, some companies thrive off in-person culture events, while others love a stipend to reimburse employees for learning something new. Find what makes your people tick, and what will make them feel supported and fulfilled. Then invest in it…(Assuming it fits in your operational budget of course).
What’s been the most helpful thing you’ve read or done for your professional development?
Invest in executive coaching. I was lucky to work with a CEO who understood the dividends that would come from this investment and was willing to make the initial one for me. Since then, I have consistently had someone in my corner that sits outside my organization to coach me and mentor me through experiences both good and bad. Having that neutral safe place to be yourself and share your fears and excitements is priceless. Save up for it or find a mentor who’s willing to mentor you for free. It’s worth the time, effort, energy, and money.
You obviously have a lot going on, any productivity hacks or organizational methods that have been most helpful to you?
My productivity hacks and organizational methods have proved to change based on the various seasons of my role and career. And embracing that sometimes those methods need an update has been critical to forward progress. Currently, a tool I’ve enjoyed using for a few months now is called the Monk Manual. It’s been a way for me to be able to prioritize both my professional and personal priorities while promoting my desire to live with purpose and fulfillment.
“Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the future and live in the only moment of time over which you have any control, now” -Denis Waitely
Any parting advice?
Stay curious, and just start. Curiosity will allow you to continue to grow and stretch and welcome new experiences. And sometimes that curiosity will bring experiences that might scare the sh*t out of you. When that happens, just start. Find the right next step or action that will move something forward. And take it. That action should lead to the next step, then the next, etc. Usually all it takes is that initial step to get you on your way to learnings and success.