“What the Finance?” with Jenny Bloom, Zapier CFO
Zapier is a technology that allows you to connect 1000+ apps together and automate as much of your daily busywork as possible. Their tagline is “Zapier makes your happier.”
So what makes Zapier happier? Remote work.
It certainly seems to be the case for Zapier’s Chief Financial Officer, Jenny Bloom.
“I would never go back.”
That’s Jenny’s answer when asked about her transition from traditional office-based employment to the wild west of working remotely. Though apprehensive at first, she quickly acclimated and grew to love the freedom, flexibility, and intention that remote work brings.
Jenny doesn’t just like remote work, she’s had great professional success with it, too. Some impressive names reside on her resume. Starting out as a CPA, she freelanced for DocuSign. She was at MailChimp from the beginning, keeping the books and managing payroll to start, then growing with the company for six years. Though freelance or remote, these roles were akin to VP of Finance and CFO. Stepping into the CFO role at Zapier didn’t feel too different.
It’s important to note here that her CFO role is not only about minding the numbers. Yes, Jenny is head of Finance, but also People, Operations, Recruiting, and Training & Development. She wears many hats and is able to run all of these teams in a distributed structure.
The entire team consists of 150 employees across 15 time zones in 17 countries. How does she do it?!
How Zapier runs a remote finance team
If you’re looking to start a distributed finance team or to transition your existing team to a remote structure, below are Jenny’s pieces of advice on how to manage it successfully.
1. “Everything is paperless.”
Running a company’s finance operations remotely is a breeze, thanks to modern cloud-based tools. Jenny and her team use tools such as Quickbooks, Google Docs and Sheets, and file sharing through Box. They use Slack for one-on-one communication, and video call software like Zoom or a Zoom alternative for group conversations to work through issues.
There have been only a few cases where paper and real-life human interaction were necessary, such as when she needed to go into a bank and physically sign something.
2. “You can’t do partial remote. It can’t work.”
Jenny says remote work structures have to be all or nothing. If part of the team works remotely and other parts are clustered in an office, tied to a certain set of hours, the imbalances of flexibility, availability, and communication speed can create more difficulties and tension.
3. “Be intentional.”
Jenny advises being intentional about relationships with colleagues, by using your time and choosing your words wisely. To create fruitful working relationships despite the distance, schedule time with people and have a focused intention for how to spend that time. Jenny spends at least an hour a week with each direct report in a 1:1, entirely devoted to their development.
Also, since much communication happens asynchronously via chat, be intentional about what you say and how you say it. In your message, you should provide all the necessary information, anticipate their questions, and be polite.
4. “Keep it transparent.”
Everything is transparent at Zapier except salaries. To help manifest this transparency across 15 time zones and 17 countries, every Slack channel is visible to everyone. This creates both trust and accountability, within and across teams, within and among individual colleagues.
It’s important to note that a widely remote team is logistically easier for Zapier right now because all non-US employees are contractors. There aren’t yet enough employees in one place to warrant setting up shop as a legal business in any of the foreign countries. The contractors bill monthly, and Zapier doesn’t have to manage foreign income tax, health insurance, benefits, etc. As Zapier grows and encounters more legal liabilities, processes will change and evolve. More on that below!
Main advantages of a remote finance team
“I feel closer to my team here than I ever have in an office.”
Jenny says. In an office setting, she never had weekly one-hour sessions dedicated to each direct report. “In an office, you see them all the time and just assume you get enough time with them, or that you can talk to them later.” Because everyone is intentional about the relationships and communication, there’s a more personal bond between teammates. Jenny thinks people are also more themselves, relaxed in their chosen environment. “People are at home, in a T-shirt and shorts or with no makeup, just real people.”
“My writing skills have gotten so much better.”
Written communication skills must be stellar to succeed in a remote environment. “Our communication is better, more intentional, more direct,” she says. Team members are more in touch with what they need and can articulate it well to their colleague.
Main challenges of a remote finance team
Human or technological error with the tools
Though not a huge challenge, there can be issues with synchronizing work and deliverables. Best way to avoid it? Make sure people are using the tools as intended! Something as small as forgetting to save changes in Box can lead to turmoil. For example, you think files are synced but the internet hiccups. You don’t realize that your work hasn’t uploaded, and so a teammate is left hanging.
Jenny admits that asynchronous communication and crazy time zones can be frustrating. Something might take multiple days to resolve, whereas in person it would have taken a few minutes. Good preparation, organization, and communication can usually minimize such delays, though.
Some automation doesn’t exist yet
Jenny and her team are still searching for certain tools and processes that simplify some manual processes of finance, like billing hours from Zapier’s numerous non-US employees.
What’s next for Zapier’s remote team?
A lot is in store for Zapier in 2019 and beyond. The company is looking to hire 160 people, which means Jenny is focused on scaling. She knows current systems will start breaking, so they’ve begun to reevaluate and redesign processes. As CFO that oversees so many arms of the company, Jenny lets her team do most of the evaluating and designing. She guides the team, points out issues, and makes suggestions.
An example of such a process is how Zapier records the billing hours of all the people working on research and development. These records are necessary to collect the US Research & Development (R&D) tax credit. Currently, it’s completely manual. The finance team contacts all the managers throughout the company, and inputs the hours into an Excel spreadsheet.
That simply will not fly once Zapier doubles in size! The labor of compiling those records would outweigh the benefit. “We need an automated tool that can record the hours, to make it worthwhile to get this credit,” Jenny says.
Expanding the team and growing their customer base means there’s another challenge on the horizon… international sales tax!
Dealing with sales tax as an online, remote company
Thanks to its growth and success, Zapier is now on the verge of tax liability. Jenny and her team are currently figuring out how to handle the US, since the Wayfair decision revolutionized how online businesses are liable for US sales tax.
Eventually they will tackle the international element, too. However until Zapier makes all the hires mentioned above, they don’t have enough team members to research the various VAT and GST laws around the world. That’s alright for now. Jenny believes Zapier’s sales are still below the various tax registration thresholds, though that might change in the upcoming year.
By the way, we simplified the tax research for you. Here’s an at-a-glance look at digital tax laws around the world. And if your company is facing the sales tax/VAT/GST maze at home or abroad, let us automate it for you. Try Quaderno for free for 7 days.