Leading Finance In The Eye Of A Storm

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Nitesh Sharan, CFO of SoundHound, on what it’s like to be head of finance while your company undergoes a $2 billion IPO—and the skillset that will get you through.

SoundHound, a Santa Clara, California-based company that offers a conversational voice-assistant AI platform, is scheduled to go public via a $2 billion SPAC deal this week. The company’s current state of hyper-growth is presenting unique challenges for the finance team headed by CFO Nitesh Sharan—but they can handle it, he says.

Sharan spoke with StrategicCFO360 about what it’s like to be in charge of finance for a fast-changing and growing startup, why it’s important not to be a perfectionist and the most important trait a CFO can possess.

What is the biggest challenge you face as the CFO of a rapidly evolving company?

Imagine you are running a marathon up a mountain that scales to 15,000-feet, at the top of which sits the most pristine views this world has to offer, yet you are required to do so in continuous 100-meter sprints and, every once in a while, a blizzard pummels down upon you. That’s symbolic of the biggest challenge—staying tenaciously invested in the long-term journey because the mission is so meaningful, while navigating short-term complexities and urgent surprises that, simply put, come with the territory.

SoundHound is moving at hyper-speed to deliver value to our customers and shareholders with agility and focus. Being able to drive growth and scale while navigating the current market volatility, the dynamic journey of going public, and the inevitable fire drills that pop up now and again is not abnormal for companies at our stage. In my humble opinion, though, we have the added challenge that we are doing this while establishing a new state-of-the-art voice AI ecosystem, building transformatively new customer interfaces and educating the public on why this future we are helping create is better. I’m excited to be part of this journey and to navigate it with such an outstanding team.

What steps have you taken to overcome this challenge?

Everything that I have been involved in or initiated is still very much a work-in-progress, but we are already getting good traction on many of the foundational aspects of setting ourselves up for continued success.

First and foremost, it’s critical to gain full alignment and buy-in from leadership and our teams about the strategic direction. We need to all be moving together toward the same goals—one voice, if you will. Next, we have prioritized expanding our teams to get the right talent in place to support our efforts.

Hiring the right team also means creating an environment where they will thrive and grow with the company. Finally, we are establishing common units of measurement—KPIs and metrics—to hold ourselves accountable to deliver against and toward a common vision across the company.

We are establishing standards, processes and controls while fueling growth and driving differentiation. While there is not a lot of room to worry about perfection, we must progress without compromising on our high standards or core values.

What kind of skills are needed to help scale a founder-led company?

I think there are four critical skills needed by anyone hoping to join and scale a founder-led company: agility, tenacity, curiosity and integrity. Agility is like riding a soundwave, moving to the top to assess progress against the vision, and then riding the wave back down to the pragmatic, execution level to deliver all the detailed steps that guide us forward.

Tenacity is required to continue to read the situation and react quickly and decisively. It can be challenging to move swiftly from strategy to execution in a rapidly changing environment where taking your eyes off one task can cause major impacts to another. In a smaller organization that’s growing quickly, the future is just around the next corner, and you need to be ready to respond and do so balancing long-term implications with near-term realities.

Curiosity and a thirst for learning are needed to ensure personal scaling happens in lockstep with company growth. Integrity and never compromising on core values are most imperative. It requires the least explanation but may hold the greatest importance of any trait or skill a CFO can possess.

What advice do you have for other CFOs who are focused on participating in a private to public hyper-growth environment?

Above all else, you need a passion for the mission, vision and the team you will be joining. You have to want to work with a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty, embrace the unexpected and enjoy the ride. Those skills of flexibility, agility, resilience, tenacity, curiosity and integrity will be the things that help you navigate the many challenges.

Additionally, you can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. Instead, you need to establish a mechanism of “check and adjust” to be willing and able to flex with your environment and the demands of the situation. That said, never lose sight of the long-term.

Joining SoundHound meant that I was not only going to be involved in watching a company catapult from one growth stage to the next, but also that I would be involved in being a part of a technology that is transforming how humans interact with computers.

Our mission to voice-enable the world around us means we have to first educate consumers and brands, then productize the technology and finally, integrate it into businesses across industries. Again, we are approaching this from several angles: disrupting the incumbents in industries where brands have already adopted a voice AI strategy and introducing the power of voice AI to those who are just becoming aware of how voice AI can bring their products to life.

It’s an amazing ride, and I am learning every day. I remind myself regularly that while the summit view that we are marching toward will undoubtedly be fantastic, it is the journey itself that I am thoroughly embracing because it has so much to offer me personally and professionally.

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