Interview With Steve Coulson, CFO Of JustPark

'The end goal should not be to run out of unknowns to prove'

30Jan

The idea of prowling the streets for a parking spot, glaring desperately into the faces of strangers for any indication that someone might be set to leave their spot, really should be redundant in 2018. And Parking App JustPark is attempting to make it so. They are reinventing parking for the digital age, digitizing a £50 billion industry through their app and website to help you find, reserve, and pay for parking in seconds, wherever and whenever you need it. JustPark's platform helps over 20,000 property owners to maximize the value of their parking assets - from underused driveways to parking at offices, spare land to commercial car parks - and connects them with its user base of over 1.5m drivers.

Last year JustPark launched another equity crowdfunding campaign following its record-breaking £3.5 million raise from over 2,700 investors in 2015, adding £2.8 million in funding.

Dealing with the financials in such a growth business is a real challenge. We sat down with Steve Coulson, CFO at JustPark, ahead of his presentation at the FP&A Innovation Summit, which takes place in London this April 25 & 26. He works with teams to ensure time and money are invested in the best opportunities. Previously he worked at UBS Investment Bank and PwC in their Strategy team. He has a Masters in Economics from the LSE.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in finance and what first sparked your interest?

Having studied a BA and MSc in Economics at Durham and the LSE respectively, I started my finance career in investment banking. After a stint in strategy consulting, I then joined JustPark and built our finance function - which has evolved significantly as the business has grown. I was (and am) drawn to the role finance can play - pulling together disparate data sets in order to make forward-looking decisions with teams in a business.

How has the finance function’s role changed over the last decade? What do you see as having been the main drivers behind this?

In my view, I believe that finance has had to adopt a faster pace, higher degrees of flexibility and a mindset shift regarding business model testing. The continued rise of start-up and scale-up business has put increasing pressure on traditional budgeting methods: businesses are learning too quickly to be held rigidly to a 12-24 month plan. As an example, rather than having an annual marketing plan signed off, it is becoming more common to have a marketing testing budget, with flexibility should those tests be successful. Finance cannot just hold the purse strings for the departments in a business, it must partner with them to find value.

Do you think executives’ perceptions of finance leaders as accountants still prevent them taking up a role as a strategic partner in their organizations? If so, how can they overcome this?

Having worked as a consultant in the past, I have seen a variety of finance functions. In my view, leadership skill is the defining factor of how strategic the function is, as opposed to the make-up of the leader’s CV. Finance leaders need to look beyond their management accounts and engage with all areas of the business regularly to find and drive value. The role is becoming necessarily more creative and visionary, as the more process-driven elements are being automated.

What do you see as being the most important thing to consider when forecasting during a period of sustained growth? What else can finance leaders do to drive growth?

Forecasting should always start with understanding the vision of the business, identifying the unknowns in the business model, building strategies around learning - with the team leads - to fill the gaps, and investing in areas which are delivering growth. At JustPark - our growth is becoming increasingly forecast-able, as we have proven out more of the unknowns in our business model. However, I believe that the end goal should not be to run out of unknowns to prove - this leads to a vision or model that are not ambitious enough.

What new technologies do you see as having the most impact on budgeting, planning and revenue forecasting in the future? You often hear solutions providers make disparaging remarks about Excel, but does it still have a role to play?

In the same way that whiteboards will continue to help us conceptualise and discuss aspects of business which cannot be fully quantified, Excel will continue to be a way to flexibly represent business model decisions. Where Excel is being used to regularly report on metrics/perform repeatable analyses, data science tools will take over - however the cost of automation is high, and so when something remains flexible and conceptual, whiteboards and Excel will remain.

What do you foresee being the major risks you face at your company in the near future? What do you think presents the greatest challenges for finance leaders over the next year? Do you have strategies in place to overcome these?

Scaling up brings a host of challenges to us - processes become more important because you cannot rely on interpersonal relationships to fill the gaps as the team scales. For us, finding the right amount of process, which supports and guides creativity as opposed to squashing it, is our major challenge this year. How we are doing in this regard will be measured through maintaining strong lines of communication throughout the departments of the business.

What will you be discussing in your presentation? Is there anyone else you are particularly looking to hear from?

I will be speaking on how Data Science and Finance are converging in some ways, and will remain poles apart in other ways. These functions have evolved significantly at JustPark over the last few years, and I am looking forward to sharing the successes and challenges of this.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing Julie from Monzo speak - and to learn more about their rapid growth journey.

You can hear more from Steve, along with a host of other industry experts, at the upcoming FP&A Innovation Summit. View the full agenda here

BONUS CONTENT: WATCH Matt Armstrong, Director of FP&A at Expedia, discusses the role of FP&A in a crisis:

 

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