You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward

Nicolas Christiaen (Cashforce), what is the origin/founding story of Cashforce? Where did it all start? What

was initially the problem you set out to solve?

Nicolas: While I was working in PE, we looked at the Business Intelligence space and we discovered

several unexplored areas, which were working capital and cash flow automation. Very quickly,

we understood that the cash forecasting process for enterprise clients was complex and

inaccurate, and there were a myriad of entities, banks, currencies, and ERP systems that they

had to work with to get oversight over their cash flow. With Cashforce, we decided to connect

these data sources, clean and enrich the data from those sources, and provide useful insights to

our clients to improve their cash flow process.

Frank Maene (Volta Ventures) : How and when did you get in contact with Cashforce and what sparked your initial


Frank: My former colleague was the one who initially got in contact with the Cashforce team. We both

found that Cashforce was headed by a very entrepreneurial founder. Additionally, we saw an

upward trend in the market, there was an increasing focus on cash flow awareness and cash

transparency, as well as a need for an aggregate view of individual Treasury Management

Systems (TMS). Lastly, there was a momentum of rising adoption of financial analysis in the

cloud. It was the combination of the above that led us to move forward on the deal.

Nicolas, in building Cashforce what worked, what didn’t, what fell flat?

When we eventually raised the initial round, we had € 1 million in the bank account. This was

frightening at the start: we did not have a perfect PM-fit, we didn't know fully yet how to spend

the money wisely, as we did not have all the information yet to make our strategic decisions.

However, very quickly, we became laser-focused on repeatable sales, shortening the sales

cycles, and building a sales team. We initially thought we needed to hire more experience in the

industry / the financial space in order to sell, but in reality, we built the required experience

through our network and in-house. All in all, we were able to sell well.

As we focussed on sales, we overlooked one (important) flaw: the technical architecture or tech

stack. Volta and the board brought it up already, but as it goes in startups, you are running and

solving many small issues on the go, so it became a second priority. This almost resulted in the

end of the venture.

In this context, I would like to include my first book recommendation: The Phoenix Project. In the

beginning, we underinvested in operational fundamentals (that allow us to scale), proper

product management and R&D processes, security, and compliance. The longer you keep going

without it, the longer it takes to correct it. To all early-stage founders out there, invest in these

operational fundamentals, especially if you have to sell to enterprise customers, it will pay off!

Frank, How did Volta offer support as the first VC on board?

We are there to advise, but not to run the business (which is a concern many early-stage startup

founders tend to have). We like to position ourselves as a confidante of the CEO and the

founders throughout the entire journey. Also, with the more difficult steps along the way we try to

help the team strategize on how to handle situations. We have seen startups succeed but we

have also seen startups fail over the course of years. We try to learn from these experiences

and adapt those experiences to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis. In quite a few

founding teams, one of the founders leaves. In the case of Cashforce, we helped with the

process of a co-founder's exit.

Human capital is one of the core pillars we offer support on, both on a strategic hiring level and

hands-on recruitment. In the case of Cashforce, this meant that we saw a promising graduate,

paid for his growth hacking training. He was initially hired as growth hacker by Cashforce early

on, and grew to become Head of Product. Michel Akkermans, one of our LPs and a close

advisor to Cashforce and investor, helped Cashforce find a very solid COO.


Nicolas, What was the identified growth opportunity to raise a new round?

In 2018, we found great door-openers for our business: the banks. The banks wanted to be

more attractive to their clients, the corporates. And we leveraged that momentum to close

partnerships, the first one was BNP Paribas - later others as Citi, Bank of America followed. We

eventually converted 50-60% of our leads through indirect sales.

While the focus was on sales and growth the communication between departments (such as

Product & Sales) was getting less streamlined. At some point, we were selling so far ahead of

the roadmap that it led to a lot of disruption in the company.

Secondly, we bumped into other operational challenges. The technology stack was (still) a

blocking factor, customer success capacity was limited, as well as the resources to lead

onboarding. Also, the necessary corporate IT and security still needed to be fully implemented.

So, the opportunity to scale sales through the banking channel, as well as the investment in

R&D and resources triggered the next financing round. Immediately after that round, we hired a

great COO, who helped to get things on the rails again, and re-invented our technology stack.

Frank, when the new round needed to be raised, how did Volta help in the fundraising


One of our core tasks as a VC is to ensure that you are ready to raise the next funding round. At

Volta, we advise startups to not put all their eggs in one basket when fundraising, the same

goes for thinking about long-term strategy. In both cases, you want to keep your options open.

In the run-up to the fundraise, we review the deck, listen to dry runs of the pitch, provide

feedback, help to set up both the long list and short list of VCs to reach out to, and send out the

intros to the VC funds to get the initial conversations going.

One of those introductions was to Inkef, who joined Cashforce in their Series A.

Nicolas, what was the rationale to bring corporate VCs or venture arms on board? What did

they bring to the table?

In our case, the banking partners were strategic to our growth and at the same time, banks saw

an alliance with a FinTech (like Cashforce) as a strategic move too. Because banks are

interacting daily with our clients - the corporates, we could help them at the exact right time (and

speed up the sales cycle).

Frank, did you anticipate pitfalls in working with CVCs and how did you avoid or mitigate


It depends on the specific corporation. Most are quite beneficial: they give confidence to

prospects to work with you and they can be a great partner channel. Some, however, export

slow decision-making and risk aversion to board meetings, which can have a negative impact.

Depending on your company and market, a corporate VC can be beneficial or not. In the case of

Cashforce the decision-making was very fast, it yielded increased credibility, and above all



Nicolas, how did you manage to scale your team and create and maintain alignment in the

team as you scale?

In the beginning, when scaling the team, we needed to balance high-potentials and senior

people, as the young high-potentials can also slow down your growth. Next, developing good

onboarding processes helped to maintain internal efficiency.

As I mentioned before, internal (inter-departmental) communication and alignment started to

become a challenge when we started to scale. And, just as we wanted to scale heavily, covid

broke out.

We used the covid crisis for a complete turnaround: we built a completely new product and

reshaped the business by taking into account all of the learnings of the previous platform/

organization, and making ourselves ready to scale. While going through this transformation, we

wanted a new, fresh culture to emerge... As you can imagine, that wasn’t straightforward, given

that people were not in the office anymore (so everybody was less acquainted with what his/her

colleagues were doing).

This is where the second book comes in, ‘No Rules Rules’, which I highly recommend reading. It

describes the Netflix culture. We implemented a variation of that, and focused on the context vs

control principle. Simply explained: a lot of organizations are controlling top-down

decision-making entities. They make little use of contextual leadership, where leaders set the

context and everyone else has the freedom to decide what they want. Everyone who hears this

will say “this makes a ton of sense, you just give the freedom to the people, you let them be

‘empowered’”. The reality is not that easy. Changing your own behavior and your team’s

behavior is an exercise that took months of nurturing.

Finally, we introduced a new value framework during covid: it made a big difference. Clearly

communicating these newly defined values, and leading with them, allowed everyone across the

different teams to take independent decisions based on them. It ensured that we could keep our

culture together in the hypergrowth environment.

Nicolas, when did you start considering internationalization and how did you structure the

initial steps?

When starting our business, we were selected to participate in the Techstars program, hosted in

New York City, which gave us the US perspective immediately. Also, due to the nature of the

business, as we sell to international corporations, we were an internationally-oriented company

from the start. We focussed on the main cities where our clients are: London, New York,

Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Zurich, Geneva... Of course, you need to test out things in your

home market (an important step!), but it didn't take long before we hired a Salesperson in the

Netherlands and one in the US.

When you take the initial steps in internationalization, it is important to take into account cultural

differences in selling, purchasing solutions, and services. Our extensions were mainly sales offices

and salespeople. The biggest challenge there is keeping them in touch with the rest of the team,

across time zones. What helped us at times, was to share experiences with start-ups/scale-ups that

were having the same internationalization challenge.


Nicolas, when did you decide that you wanted to pursue an exit?

After the COVID crisis, which we used to build a completely new product & organization, we

closed a couple of incredibly nice deals, such as Kimberly-Clark, Hitachi, Unilever, Kellogg’s etc.

This led us to an all-time high in terms of sales momentum and we hit all of our targets. Given

the consolidation dynamics in our specific industry, we had a choice to partner with another

player or to proceed as a stand-alone entity. We were a very niche solution in a market of big

whales. After receiving an offer, a lot of other parties showed their interest. In the end, the option

to go for an exit got more and more attractive.

Frank, in what way did Volta guide Cashforce in the exit process?

We always advise our companies to implement optionality, this means they are always in

contact with potential follow up investors and possible exit candidates, this way you keep your

options open and when an exit opportunity comes you are prepared.

We use a structured exit process we help implement to prepare companies for the exit process

as soon as relevant. Also here it is important to keep your options open: having multiple

candidates, if possible, but also being realistic that these things take more time than expected

and sometimes do not materialize. It is important to have backup scenarios. Also, when

negotiations become difficult, it can be great to leverage your VC as the bad cop.

Frank, what do investors focus on in the exit process, once a potential acquirer has been


In the exit process, it is very important to assess the likelihood of success; what are the realistic

chances of the deal actually closing: If not so great, it may be better to look into another

possible exit candidate. It should be a fair deal for all. Furthermore, it is important to minimize

earn-outs (as you have no control anymore on what is invested in the business after the exit,

and who the leadership team will be) and the escrows. We focus on alignment in the

shareholder group to ensure we have a clear message to the acquirer and the group doesn't

slow down the process.

Nicolas, can you recall any advice or insight in particular from Volta that helped you a ton?

As a person, I tend to be quite modest, (a bit too) realistic, and I don’t like to overplay achievements

(anxious that one day, you might run into bad luck). I remember when Frank advised me to be less

modest in presenting our achievements & aspirations ;-)

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