by Ashley P. and Wendy W. from AbstractOps
Three months ago in mid-2021, a couple of members of our team embarked on a journey to answer the question: "What's the best FP&A tool out there for early-stage startups?" Somewhat naively, perhaps, we thought this would be a relatively easy determination. The winning selection would be one that promised a cost-effective, easy-to-learn platform that required minimal onboarding and offered abilities to handle complex modeling as a business scales.
After talking with, experimenting, and researching over a dozen products, we've landed on a few conclusions:
- The type of business you operate (e-commerce, SaaS, etc.) should determine the tool you use.
- The complexity you want should guide your purchasing decision — some might prefer more boundaries and structure, while some want a more open-ended tool.
- The services offered by the vendor should be taken into serious consideration, especially for teams without a dedicated Finance person.
Our expectation is that this guide saves you time. In keeping with our beliefs at AbstractOps, we do the hard research work so you, our clients and friends, don't have to. Read below for the how, why, who, and all the other things you should know.
Should we use a Fractional CFO?
Even though the world is well-saturated with mature Finance functions, FP&A analysts, and CFOs, you do not need a fractional CFO in the earliest stages of your company — specifically through the Seed stage or when your Finance function is still generally simple. In fact, we don't recommend since CFO services are expensive, inflexible, and siloed. As an example, they will charge you $10-20,000 to build a model that only they can understand and modify. That means, you're either locked in with them forever or will have to make a clean break and start from scratch once you scale out of that CFO or hire someone internally.
Cheapest Option for Earliest Stage Startups
Depending on how new and financially simple a company is, it's viable to have a CEO, COO, or other leader building and updating the financial model in Excel or Google Sheets. There are templates out there to make lives easier for simple modeling needs. For example, these templates from Kruze Consulting and Tomasz Tunguz can help early-stage startups project revenue and expenses.
When Should a Startup Upgrade to an FP&A Product?
As financials become more complex, headcount continues to increase (often the biggest expense of any company), and revenue streams multiply, finance work becomes harder to manage solely on tools like Excel. Let's say a company wanted to track expenses on an accrual basis (e.g., a laptop purchase to be spread out across several years of use) — it'd be hard to do this on a typical spreadsheet because there isn't enough structure in place. Put another way, for the amazing flexibility Excel and Google Sheets offer, the risk of human error is greater as boundaries are virtually endless.
FP&A products, which only entered the market in the past few years, bring huge value to growing startups. They reduce human error by automating traditionally manual processes, such as scenario planning and entering in data from your balance sheet (BS) or profit & loss statement (P&L). They pull directly from Quickbooks online via API vs manual entry required with Excel. AbstractOps has narrowed our top choices down to three vendor recommendations, held up against the below criteria:
- Industry: Can the product meet the modeling needs of the startup's industry?
- Target Fit: Is the product scalable with the business?
- Differentiating Features: Are there features of the product that save user time that other tools don't offer?
- All of the recommended vendors offer intuitive: rolling timescales with month/quarter/year customizations, pre-built formulas, revenue planning, 3-way forecasting, scenario planning, automated budget vs. actuals, drill to transactions, and custom reporting and dashboards for KPI/Financial Metrics.
- API Integrations: Which integrations does the product currently have?
- Cost: Is the cost structure competitive with other products in the market?
We've loved getting to know Pry — so much so that we tested our own AbstractOps company model within Pry's platform. Their product is smart, out-of-the-box, user-friendly, and, importantly, the Pry team has chat and email availability. Given Pry's primary focus on being a well-rounded financial planning solution, it's no surprise that they make it super easy to set up and view baseline projections. With more in the works, Pry boasts several payroll and accounting integrations at a competitive price point. They currently have a free plan for early stage companies and plans ranging from $50-$400 per month for later stages, and AbstractOps clients get $50 off here.
But, could Pry fit our company needs?
- Industry agnostic although SaaS startups are best fit
- Pre-Seed — Series B, <100 employees fit
- Financial Analysts to assist model building (*included in Pro Plans)
- Growing library of tutorials, including formula guides
- API Integrations: QuickBooks Online, Xero, Gusto, Rippling, Justworks, ADP, TriNet, Paychex Flex, BambooHR, Paycor, Paylocity, QB Payroll, Square Payroll, Zenefits, & more via Finch, Stripe, major US banks & credit card providers via Plaid
Causal has been another favorite of ours. Like Pry, the team first tested our own model within Causal's platform. Causal caught our attention because of how modular and flexible the tool is (we were reminded of the best parts of Excel). If what you're looking for is the flexibility of Excel and the power of a multi-dimensional planning tool, Causal is your go-to. With commenting and version control management, chat availability, and an in-house FP&A team to help with initial builds and ongoing support, Causal's business plan starts at $1,000 per month with white-glove onboarding (including a 10% AbstractOps client discount). e have an in-house FP&A team to work with our clients on both the initial build and on-going support. Given the high price point, users can start a free 14-day trial here.
But, could Causal fit our company needs?
- Industry agnostic — best for businesses with multiple products, customer segments, cohorts, and other categories
- Typically Series B, >250 employees, main user should be financially-savvy
- In-app, real-time visual creations from input and output calculations
- User-friendly to view changes over time and ranges of time
- API Integrations: Quickbooks Online,Xero, NetSuite, Google Sheets, Run by ADP, Stripe, Gusto, Rippling, BambooHR, Square Payroll, Run by ADP, TriNet, Zenefits, data warehouse, CRMs, and others at a higher price point
Jirav stood out to us largely because of their white-glove, hands-on services team. The tool performs as expected, offering strong forecasting and planning abilities. Being a bit more market-tested than Pry or Causal, with over 2,000 customers, Jirav is able to offer exhaustive user education via managed services and a help center with articles, videos, and tips. Jirav's plans start at $150 per admin per month and increase to $750 per admin per month for more detailed capabilities.
But, could Jirav fit our company needs?
- Industry agnostic
- Series A+, ~5-250+ employees
- Dedicated implementation team for added cost
- Ease of importing non-financial metrics
- API Integrations: QuickBooks Online, Xero, Excel, NetSuite, Sage, Gusto, and more
OK, my Gears are Turning. Now What?
Long story short, we love Pry, Causal, Jirav, and many more (we're not kidding, see below). But even beyond the vendors highlighted here, cloud-based FP&A tools offer high user security and make it easier to automate actuals, report forecasts, toggle between different scenario plans, and more. It's clear — the benefits of using an FP&A tool outweigh any potential downsides.
When the time comes to transition from Excel to an FP&A solution, we encourage teams to approach it with a phased crawl, walk, run strategy:
- Crawl: First, use the tool at a high level to capture fairly standard items (e.g., expenses planning) and keep track of inputs. In this phase, some may prefer to keep revenue planning basic with main inputs, while still using an Excel sheet to do more complicated analysis.
- Walk: Once comfortable with a tool, start modeling with drivers on the revenue side.
- Run: Set up additional automations as needed, layer in all the revenue forecast planning needed, and sunset Excel spreadsheets.
Ultimately, the decision to move information out of a single person's brain and into an accessible tool will help you scale your business that much faster. Now, let's get to running.
Other Vendors Reviewed
OnPlan, Finmark, mosaic.tech, Cube, Anaplan, Planful, Adaptive Insights by Workday, OneStream, Vena, runway.com
Note that many of the above products are fantastic. They are not listed in our top three as they focus on other industries or business maturity that is not ideal for the standard US-based tech startup.
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Note: Our content is for general information purposes only. AbstractOps does not provide legal, accounting, or certified expert advice. Consult a lawyer, CPA, or other professional for such services.