In this interview with Julie, you’ll find out the good, the challenging, and the headaches of rapid growth.
Eight years from a traditional accountancy graduate route at Macquarie to Director at PENSCO, a jump over the pacific and then across the pond to London – Julie Oey is now at home in startup hypergrowth territory at WeGift.
But what was behind this leap to the world of startups, and where is Julie in this journey?
Julie was initially attracted to the infrastructure fintech challenge at WeGift, where there was an opportunity to plan and work with the CEO on future strategy.
“I really wanted to experience early-stage startups, which I hadn't cracked yet, so I spoke to companies specifically around that kind of phase and found WeGift. I had the opportunity to bring my knowledge from other companies, so now, two years in, I've built up the finance function, and I’m leading a team of about 16 people.”
Teams aren’t the only thing growing at WeGift either, “when I got started, I think the company was processing about three and a half million pounds a month – a few months in, six million – two years on and it’s 30 million a month,” Julie told us.
Upscaling at speed is an exhilarating experience that Julie knows well, but when asked about her greatest success – her answer is unequivocal – it’s actually the people. “It’s super exciting to me to hire people better than me,” Julie said.
Julie is a generalist, which is extremely useful when you are working in an early-stage startup and responsible for pulling everything together – but hiring specialist talent as a company grows is not only essential but also exciting.
Seen as a key to success, Julie’s top tip is: “Start with hiring some generalists and then quickly hire specialists. At WeGift, we quickly hired technical specialists and project systems specialists. You need to hire ahead of time and don’t underestimate the value of a good hiring process and manager training.”
But hiring people isn’t without its learning curve, as Julie told us when explaining the hypergrowth recruitment trap – where you hire someone the company outgrows rapidly.
Julie said: “How do you hire someone that’s right years, not months, down the line?“
“When things are really busy, we don't have time to think. I fall into this trap on and off again, and I have to remind myself – I can't think about what we need next quarter – I need to think about what the company needs in two years.”
“I know there's a trade-off because it’s a startup, so who knows what’s going to happen in two years. So it’s about understanding what stage of growth the company is at, how fast you’re growing, what the company strategy is, and getting that input.”
Julie added, “As the company grows, it’s easy to forget at the middle layer there is no training and support – especially for first-time managers. Manager training and a good hiring process are critical.”
We asked Julie what she is most proud of – what’s her biggest success?
“I’m most proud of the areas where I’ve been able to have an impact on other people’s careers,” Julie said.
Julie balances at pace execution with ‘critical reflection’ – over and above critical thinking, looking at practices and ideas, taking a step back and examining the lay of the land by asking key questions.
When it comes to the challenges and hiccups, Julie says, “I’ve learned to be explicit about when I have my departmental hat on and when I have my accountancy hat on.
“As a finance person, you are very aware of the money in the bank; I shortcut conversations in my head – if it’s not in the budget, we can’t ask for it. If I was a department lead only, what would I do? What would I ask for? So, I have that conversation first and then come back to my finance hat.”
The reflection doesn’t stop there, as when it comes to challenges in a whirlwind of fundraising and metrics, Julie recommends “Ruthless prioritisation and the appropriate level of communication from leadership to managers working day-to-day. Try to see the trade-offs and ask how do we balance operations and strategy at different levels? Having manager round tables is also part of our regular cadence at Wegift, allowing us to ensure this level of knowledge sharing.”
In addition to growing minds, there’s also the challenge of outgrowing systems.
We asked Julie what processes and tech stacks have had to be rethought – Julie quickly added: “We're working with 15 to 20 different currencies, so we have an intricate banking system, our in-house systems and various other third-party systems.
“We realised very, very quickly in the early days that the tools we had at that time were only great for one currency – and were not the right tools going forward.”
“So we've actually upgraded all the finance systems at this stage.”
Systems can often be the biggest issue when a business is in a rapid growth phase, and Julie says that it can be a huge operational challenge – “Payroll, for instance – if people don’t get paid, it causes headaches.” Thankfully, that was one headache that Pento had the remedy for – a new payroll system.
We also placed Julie in the spotlight one last time to ask the gritty questions:
1. What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your career?
“Remember that the systems aren’t there in startups. You need to be conscious of creating a support structure.”
2. What’s the biggest surprise from your experience at WeGift?
“You bring knowledge from previous experiences – even if that’s planning for the future.”
3. Hire fast and fire fast – do you agree or disagree?
“Hire fast but respond quickly. Use critical reflection to ask, “what can we do”? Hire for strength, and if someone isn’t working out for a particular role, ask if they have strengths that are better utilised elsewhere in the organisation. Startups need a lot of generalists, and retaining knowledge in a company is very useful.”
4. What’s the single best decision you’ve ever made as a leader of a growing business?
“Hired ahead of time.”
5. What’s the worst thing you can do when a business is in a rapid growth stage?
“Do everything by yourself. There are a lot of people that burn out, so you need to admit when it’s legitimately too much work for one person.”
6. Is there a person that you would recommend following for inspiration and guidance?
“Sabrina Castiglione, COO at Pento. It's helpful to see Sabrina’s journey from CFO to COO. It’s also inspiring to see how she has adapted and tackled problems.”