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Episode 41: BrainBox AI | With Francis Trudeau, CFO

Francis Trudeau recently took on the honor and challenge of being the first CFO at BrainBox AI, a tech startup that’s helping to fight climate change by making buildings smarter and more efficient. Coming off of a recognition at COP26 as the winner of the “Tech for Our Planet Challenge,” BrainBox is a leader in leveraging technology at scale for the greater good. 

Francis came to BrainBox after his first tenure as CFO at a more mature company, Logibec. For this new venture, Francis is tasked with building the operational and technical foundation for the finance department, while also acting as a strategic partner to the CEO and other areas of the business. Francis has jumped into the opportunity with passion for the mission of the company and an entrepreneurial mindset, both of which he looks for in hiring new recruits for the finance department.

With valuations for tech companies at an all time high, Francis takes a measured approach as a CFO to ensure he’s able to deliver value to investors over time. With years of experience in corporate development and M&A, Francis brings this expertise to his role as CFO. For him, an integral part of sustainable growth is investing in the right technology and talent upfront.

On this episode of The CFO Playbook, Francis Trudeau, CFO at BrainBox AI, talks about estimating company value in today’s hyped up market, outlines how BrainBox are fighting climate change through intelligent heating systems, and emphasizes why automation was a key mandate when starting his latest CFO role.

Guest Analysis

Name: Francis Trudeau

What he does: Francis is the CFO at BrainBox AI, a tech scale-up fighting climate change by bringing artificial intelligence to the built environment, making buildings smarter and greener. As the first CFO, Francis is focused on building the finance team, prioritizing automation, and feeling optimistic about 2022. 

Key Quote:  “The mindset of management is, ‘we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’…We know we’re not perfect even in finance areas but we want to improve and we need to demonstrate that we’re improving and we’re getting better. That’s our goal right now.”         

Where to find Francis: LinkedIn

From Francis’s Playbook

Trust the market

Because investors are flooding the market with capital and high valuations for tech companies at current, Francis shares that it’s normal to feel wary but that ultimately you need to trust that the market is doing its job. That said, he stresses staying true to your business goals. Some investors are taking a high risk portfolio approach and accepting great losses, which means there’s more cash out there to feed growth. But great CFOs stay disciplined.

Prioritize sustainable growth

Francis recognizes the importance of keeping a long eye on growth. In a competitive and very high valuation market, there’s a lot of pressure to make short-term strategic decisions that make investors happy, but Francis stresses that it’s the CFO’s job to make sure you’re ensuring sustainable growth that won’t burst. He also says that most investors accept cash burn so long as the long view projects growth. It’s up to the CFO to strike the right balance.

Build the finance department with automation in mind

As the first CFO at BrainBox AI, Francis is charged with building the foundation for the finance department. He says that the link between finance and Information Services (IS) in implementing automation is key. So in hiring, Francis looks for recruits who have experience working with IS and interacting with other departments.

Let go of perfectionism if you want to scale

Coming from being the CFO at a large, established company to BrainBox AI, Francis appreciates the flexible mindset of management. When you’re “building the plane as you’re flying it,” Francis says that it’s ok to make mistakes so long as everyone is focused and working towards the same direction. In their case, that’s customer success, technology success, and building a foundation for finance. 

Episode Highlights

Accept costs early on

“You need to first demonstrate your value proposition to the market. And even if it leads to losses, it’s rare for a company to break even…So you need to accept this phase. And as a CFO we’re risk averse and we’re having a hard time understanding that period. It’s our role we’re pushing on management, on the CEO trying to find that balance. But I think from what I’ve seen, this period of growth is critical for future success and you should try to sell your future to your investor for them to understand your value proposition.”

Focus on building a strong technology foundation for finance 

“You want to create strategic value but you need to establish your base…That is the key. And again, I’ve worked with more established companies, it’s all rolling and you realize that there’s been a lot of people before you that built those and you don’t realize how much work it was when it’s a mature system and mature tools and you press a button and you get your report and your dashboard.”

Advice for CFOs at larger companies moving to scale-ups

“Align the company interests with finance interests and be open to that. Your goal should be to propel those divisions and those internal clients and bring them value so that they go to you and they utilize you and they see that it’s fun to work with finance. And it’s great because they help me in my day to day.”

Managing a global launch during period of uncertainty

“Cash forecast is more frequent, but we also make sure our communications with all our parties, like our stakeholders, whether it’s our employees, our business partners, our clients, are as good as possible. But in terms of financial success or financial impact, we’re very optimistic and we’re looking forward for next year.”

Top quotes:

“The mission and the purpose of the company from a greater good, standpoint – it’s very appealing and it’s fun. And I want to make sure my people, my team, they feel part of this and that mission and they find a way to contribute. And that they feel like a shared service function that cannot bring value to the greater good, which we all do in a sense. So that’s also very important for me in terms of engaging the new people that are joining us.”

“I would encourage the CFO to try to understand the value proposition, understand how we could go to market and how we could generate value with the business more than thinking cashflow and managing cashflow accordingly and communicating that we might need an other financing round at that stage. And that’s, to me, more important than making sure we’re breaking even.”

“I loved my previous company. I could have stayed there a very long time. but it was more mature. It was established. And the BrainBox CFO opportunity was for me the first time to jump into a more startup mindset, international growth. So that was very attractive.”

“Be open because it’s intellectually very stimulating. You have a lot of decisions to make on a daily basis, from finance operations to strategic one. So try to use all your areas of expertise and make sure that you’re not trying to protect or prevent the company from going for example, or stop projects. Sometimes you have to stop projects, but try to understand why people are doing it and try to be in solution mode.”