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Behind the curtain of Alan’s lean finance machine

... or how we foster growth and excellence with minimal bloat.

Behind the curtain of Alan’s lean finance machine
Updated on
5 January 2024
Updated on
5 January 2024
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In this article

As Alan, we turned 7 years old earlier this year and (metaphorically) looking around I definitely see that we’re not a start-up any more.

  • Present in 3 countries (with more to come!)

  • Operating via 6 subsidiaries

  • Generating over €280m of ARR

  • Over 500 passionate and driven Alaners

"Big" should not mean "bloated"

When comparing notes with fellow finance professionals, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to evolve into:

  • A comparison of who has how many direct reports

  • How many dotted lines of oversight feed into the finance team on the company org chart

  • How many different sub-teams each finance department has

It often feels like a contest of who has the biggest team, the most reporting lines, the most oversight, the widest managerial reach.

As Charles Munger famously said, “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome”. If managing more people is perceived to equal more power, you’re going to enter the bloat zone mighty fast.

Sidebar: It’s not a surprise that as companies are laying off 20%+ of headcount a common initial feedback is “we feel much lighter and more efficient”.

At Alan, we’ve always done things differently. How differently? We’re a finance team of 5️⃣ people. For a company of our scale, people normally assume we’d be 15-20, or more.

Our special sauce for efficiency

How do we do it?

Four essential cultural pillars on top of a foundation of pragmatism and a unique hiring approach.

Our Fintastic Four™️:

  • Distributed ownership

  • Asynchronous and written culture

  • Radical transparency

  • Automation mastery

1. Distributed Ownership

At Alan, we firmly believe that the person closest to a problem is the one best placed to deliver the solution. Putting this at the center of how we work eliminates nearly all of the bureaucracy where a pyramid of “middle managers” needs to approve something that they are increasingly distanced from. It also means that just because a problem involves numbers (eg. negotiating a software contract), “finance” does not need to be heavily involved. We provide the tools and support to make sure that the person making the decision is well equipped to do what’s best for the company.

By empowering and equipping Alaners to make financial decisions relevant for their role, we have eliminated the need for dedicated people in finance to act as gatekeepers (and bottleneck creators).

2. Asynchronous and Written Culture

In a “normal” company, it’s not unusual for finance members to spend most of their days in meetings providing the “finance perspective”, making it hard to be productive. The default solution often becomes to hire more people so that while some are in meetings, others can work; until they themselves get dragged into more meetings meaning the headcount needs to increase again.

Most people that have heard of Alan have heard about our “No Meetings” policy. In the Finance team, we leverage this approach to maximize our efficiency and output in two complimentary ways.

1. By embracing an asynchronous style, we empower our team members to work at their own pace and maximize productivity. Large blocks of uninterrupted time allow for deep work and creative thinking, replacing the distractions of a calendar packed with meetings.

2. The written culture creates the superpower of being able to communicate, share information and make decisions without having to be in a live meeting while also being able to follow numerous topics in parallel. This eliminates the dead time of having to sit through hour-long meetings when only a 5 minute contribution is needed.

What that means in practice is that our days are a combination of deep “individual contributor work” plus reading and contributing to the work of others.

Fusing that with distributed ownership means that rather than having a siloed top-down workflow, we are an interconnected mesh network. Relevant Alaners from across the organization are contributing their expertise at their own pace but within the required time.

3. Radical transparency

If information is in a silo and nobody sees it, does it even exist? In Finance, everything we are building, discussing, and iterating is accessible by all Alaners.

Raising our Series E in early 2022? Follow along on the why, when and how. Please also feel free to contribute your ideas, concerns and challenges.

By working completely in the open we are able to harness the creativity and intelligence of all 500+ Alaners. The “critical mass” needed for a team to “get it done” reduces materially when the entire company is informed and pulling in the same direction to deliver.

4. Automation Mastery

Finally, we are obsessed with leveraging our tech stack to automate, automate, streamline processes, and automate. If something needs to be done regularly, we make sure that it can be done with minimal intervention from not only the finance team but also any Alaner.

By automating repetitive tasks and fully integrating our financial tools, we are able to minimize the time spent on “run tasks” like financial reporting and treasury management while maintaining the highest levels of accuracy. This frees us up to focus on value added cross company strategic and financial initiatives.

For instance, other finance teams are often surprised that there is no ‘accountant’ in Alan even though we produce our financials in-house. We achieve this by building tools to automatically translate business operations and transactions into accounting entries. The outcome is more consistent financial production, that is easier to analyze and audit, and that can be easily leveraged by anyone.

Strong foundation of pragmatism…

Focus and time allocation are critical to ensure that the day to day mundane (but necessary) “run” tasks don’t displace high value add “build” tasks. In our team, we remain pragmatic with the 3D approach. Delete, Distribute, Do.

  • Delete: By thinking from first principles rather than following the wrong expertise, we have eliminated “usual” run tasks (eg. various committees) entirely and reduced others such reporting to its essentials (no 100+ page board packs or monthly reports), without sacrificing quality.

  • Distribute: Leveraging our distributed ownership culture we empower Alaners closest to the problem to own the preparation, decision, and benefits of the solution rather than jumping in ourselves at the decision stage.

  • Do: If it’s essential, creates equity value and the Finance team is best placed to tackle it, we get it done! We know that most decisions are two-way doors (reversible) and feel comfortable proceeding with “80%” of the information and learning/course correcting along the way.

We strongly believe that pragmatism fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation within the team and the company. It drives us to find efficient ways to achieve desired results with less resources.

…and hiring

We hire people not roles. We screen for superpowers in specific areas but that’s not enough. A successful candidate will combine a super-power with a strong desire to keep learning, growing and trying new things. We over-index on “no-ego doers” that are happiest working in partnership with other members of the team to get “it” done.

With our 5 strong person team, we’ve assembled a puzzle where everyone’s strengths are complementary and unified by a desire to plug any gaps through learning and working together.

The benefits

  • Keeping a hyper lean team allows us to focus on building instead of managing.

  • Team members are close and invested in a project rather than being managerial layers away from the action.

  • Not being a silo, we have the resources and support of the entire organization pushing for success.

  • There is always an exciting opportunity to build something new or solve a tough problem. Boring stuff tends to get automated, rather than hired for.

Published on 14/06/2023

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