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
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
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 ;-)