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28 Ada | With Long Dinh, VP of Finance

Long Dinh, VP of Finance at AI chatbot startup Ada, built a world-class finance team from scratch. He says the only way to grow is to preemptively build the systems and processes for where you expect the company to be two or three years from now.

Notes

Episode Summary

When Long Dinh joined Ada as the company’s first finance hire, he was thrilled to build the finance function and kickstart growth for the pre-seed startup.

Fast-forward three years and Ada has become a powerhouse player in the customer experience space. In this time, Long has helped grow Ada’s employee base by more than 10X and raised over $200M in funding. 

According to Long, the most important factor in being a successful finance leader is the ability to understand not what the business needs immediately, but what it will need in the quarters and years to come. 

Long argues that the only way to enable growth is to preemptively build the systems and processes needed to support large-scale operations. That’s why he prioritized getting the right technology implemented and building out a specialized finance team from the beginning.

This forward-looking lens served him well when the unimaginable happened: COVID-19. The start of the pandemic stalled growth for companies everywhere and like many finance leaders, Long had to make some tough personnel decisions. As Long and his team buckled down for the hard road ahead, he created multiple financial models which he reviewed and modified monthly.

Ada exceeded expectations. Rather than stalling, however, the AI chatbot company took off as more businesses needed to scale remote customer support operations. In May 2021, the company announced a $130M Series C financing round. 

In this episode of The CFO Playbook, Long shares how he broke into finance, his main considerations when building out a finance team from scratch, and his top two pieces of advice for finance leaders early in their careers. 

Guest Analysis

Name: Long Dinh

What he does: Long is the VP of Finance at Ada, a Canada-based software company that enables businesses to personalize up to 80% of brand interactions at scale with no-code AI. 

Key Quote: “Think about what the business needs two years from now, and build the team and the infrastructure today in service of that longer-term goal.”      

Where to find Long: LinkedIn 

From Long’s Playbook

Three ingredients for building a world-class finance team.

When asked how he built his rockstar finance team, Long points to three key factors: people, systems, and processes. First, Long suggests thoroughly understanding the financial needs of the business. When Long first joined Ada, the expectation was for one person to know a bit about all aspects of finance. He quickly realized, however, that this was no way to scale a business and began building more specialized functions including a dedicated AP manager. 

Another key factor is getting your tech stack in order. For Long, it was important to have the right technologies in place in order to maximize team performance. Lastly, Long discusses how finance leaders must establish processes with their employees in order to scale finance’s impact. 

Don’t get distracted by the immediate needs of the business — think long-term.

It’s easy for leaders to get caught up in a business’ current challenges. But doing this keeps your finance team from acting as strategic partners to the business.

When Long thinks about how best to grow the business, he plans at least two years into the future. Rather than focusing on solving one present problem, Long envisions how that problem can be solved by a larger framework. Then, he gets to work creating the systems necessary to propel the business forward. For Long, this means getting the right team together, implementing technologies that will help him grow finance, and establishing scalable processes for faster decision-making. 

Every crisis has a silver lining. 

When the pandemic first hit, Ada went into extreme cost-cutting mode, proactively laying off 20% of its employees in an attempt to mitigate costs. But then something amazing happened. Instead of slipping, sales at Ada soared as more businesses began relying on technology to fuel remote operations.

Ada rehired as many employees as possible and grew from 100 employees at the beginning of the pandemic to over 350 at the time of this interview. Ada’s fast growth also helped the company land $130 million for its Series C. 

Automation can help your finance team do more with fewer resources. 

As an early member of Ada, Long took advantage of technology to help him scale finance operations with a lean team. Long sees technology as the key to unlocking more value from his team by virtually eliminating time spent on tasks like manual data entry and reporting. 

Though finance automation has historically lagged behind sales and marketing, Long predicts that it will become a new standard for finance teams — especially in a hybrid workplace. Not only does technology enable finance leaders to make faster decisions, it also empowers them to partner with the business by focusing on high-value activities. 

Episode Highlights

Why SaaS is a solid bet — regardless of the economic climate

“What the whole world learned throughout the pandemic is that enterprise software is really recession-proof at this point in time. Regardless of what’s changing, now we allow people to work remotely, and we allow people and brands to interact digitally. So that is something very powerful. And I feel like that will actually continue to last … even after the pandemic when we go back to normal life.”

Be honest with leadership

“That was the first time I learned how to close the month, how to close a book … My strength is in finance. I'm more about insight, forward-looking [planning], and fundraising. So I was very upfront with the CEO and the team at the time.  I said this is not my strength. I can come into [accounting] and learn how to do that and I can automate these tasks for us, but where I can provide the most value is how we think about setting up metrics.”

When in doubt, model it out

“What I've learned is always have multiple scenarios for the business to monitor closely. And then advise the team on how to be ahead of what potentially may happen … so that we can be in a proactive position instead of a reactive situation.”

Happy employees are better for the business

“The employees are the most important assets to Ada. In the next 6-12 months, things will continue to change. So for us, we have to listen to our employees’ feedback, look at leading and lagging indicators — including employee NPS scores and our ability to achieve our goals — and constantly change our policy in the best interest of how we can make people’s lives better. And then, as a result, we see better business results.” 

Ensure equal opportunity regardless of location

“I think in today's world, many people when they join a remote company may fear, if I'm not close to my manager, will I still have an equal chance of getting a promotion? That's why we made a very clear decision at the leadership level that any strategy for the company must be met digitally, where we have everybody in the virtual room to contribute to this decision.”

Empower your employees with a decision-making framework

“When I think about building a team, I ask ‘how can we build a system and a decision-making framework where each team member can make a decision on their own without their manager or leader becoming a bottleneck?’ Then we meet with the team and we all align on our decision-making framework: company first, team second.”

Two pieces of advice for finance leaders

“What I have learned so far is actually two things. Number one: think long-term ... As long as we build with long-term thinking in mind, we can allow the company to scale and succeed in the long run. And the second one is always seek advice and learn from people who’ve done that before. So for me, I am very fortunate to have mentors and coaches who are successful CFOs from public companies. And I have a monthly call with them. I book them all the time just to learn more.”

Top quotes:

“But the missing piece for me was that I wanted to build something. I wanted that operating experience … Fortunately, I had a friend who introduced me to Ada which was a seed company at the time. We were about to raise our Series A. We had a small team of 30 people and I was very fortunate to join the team. Now, at year three, we are a 350-person team distributed across eight different countries.”

“For me, it's really important to understand and be aware of what the company needs at different stages of its life cycle.”

“The way I think about  my team and how we build software is we need to move away from data entry and then unlock our time to actually review the information and provide more value and guidance to the business.”

“Having diverse opinions and having a diverse team allows us to make better decisions and research shows that. So I encourage other companies to do so as well in terms of, Hey, let's open up the opportunity for everyone to join the company and treat everybody equally.”

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