November 24, 2020

Meet the Actor That Pivoted Into CFO of a Hot VR Startup


Empathy, infrastructure for scale and the future of virtual reality. What can we learn from someone that began their career as an actor and is now CFO of a hot VR startup?

What is Roto VR?**

“We make chairs!”, says Brad Channer, CFO of RotoVR. But these are not just any chairs, these are chairs that make you believe that you are actually in a virtual reality world, in a way you have never experienced before.  One of the biggest challenges with VR, Brad tells us, is motion sickness. Right now, most people do VR standing up and they start to get sick after 40 minutes because their head moves and the game moves, but they stay still. And we want to solve that.

Brad says that RotoVR is a chair that spins 360°, vibrates, rumbles and moves everywhere, to correspond with the VR game you’re playing. So when you move, the chair moves with you! And that obviously makes the gaming experience a lot more fun. We haven’t started the interview and we already want to try out one of these.

If that wasn’t enough, the CFO claims that their chairs are for more than gaming. Apparently, RotoVR chairs are so innovative, they’re being used by the military. This may be our most fun interview ever!

How to start a VR business from zero: the early adopters tactic**

How can you be sure that people are going to buy a product that never existed before? That is a good question. And it is exactly the question that the RotoVR founders Elliott Myers and Gavin Waxkirsh had to solve. Because even though the idea sounds amazing, how could they know it’s going to sell if nobody did it before? They needed proof.

Brad tells us how they handled that, and it’s quite fun! They used the early adopters tactic. So even though they hadn’t started production, they advertised their chair and let you pre-order.  The results were fantastic - “Within the next nine months, we sold 780 chairs! And our early adopters were very happy with it, despite the waiting, which is really amazing. That’s the beauty of it: being able to predict the future. ”

How acting has helped Brad become a better CFO**

Before being a startup CFO, Brad Channer was an accomplished actor, having studied Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, one of the most prestigious academies in Britain. And he says he loved it, and that everybody should study an acting degree. Let’s see what he says, we are intrigued.

“I’ve always said there is no difference between acting and business. It’s all about communication.” Brad says that acting, like economics, is the study of people and that he has found invaluable experience by thinking like that. If you are playing a character, he says, you have to work out what that character would do, why and how. And it’s the same thing in business. “I use my acting skills all the time!”, he says.

“You need to be able to know what the other person’s objectives are, what language they speak, and then you will be able to achieve objectives of your own.”

He is very confident about this. He explains to us that he prepares for meetings as if they were acting scripts. “You need to be able to know what the other person’s objectives are, what language they speak, and then you will be able to achieve objectives of your own.” That’s an interesting point. And he goes on: “I think everyone should study an acting degree because you learn how to communicate. And that, in the startup world, is the biggest key.”

He exemplifies this by talking about how accountants have a whole different language that you need to dominate to effectively communicate. “And the same with founders”, he says. “During these years, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of brilliant people behind startups, but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate. And my job is to do that effectively.” So it looks like acting helped a lot in the end.

Startup CFOs are so much cooler than public companies**

”It’s a special skill to work as a CFO in startups”, Brad says. He tells us how bored his friend gets at work because he is a CFO for a public company. “He is a star at making budgets, and that is what he does. But you ask him a question about Xero and he can’t answer that”, he adds.

Brad says that the most important thing about a CFO when it comes to tech companies is to be able to do a bit of everything and about building infrastructure. “Here, you are talking about scalability and growth, and it’s key that your early infrastructure is good enough to scale the business.”

He focuses on infrastructure, “everything from implementing a SaaS platform to building sales infrastructure is the most important thing. You don’t want to build structures that can’t grow with the startup. Because ultimately, what we are trying to do is accelerate growth. That’s the most important part, and that’s the job of the CFO.”

Brad is one of those startup CFOs that, regardless of what his job title says, he is confident that his job is financial and non-financial. But he tells us that “at the end of the day, it all comes back to the numbers and to the cashflow.” Because cash is king in startups and is always the one thing we never have, he says with a laugh.

At last, he says that once the infrastructure and the strategy are there, a CFO spends a lot of his time in change management. “We are so agile that we need to be able to move very quickly, depending on what comes in our way. And we need to do that while maintaining a strong structure.”

So three key learnings: infrastructure, cash and speed.

What is your advice for finance professionals that want to become CFOs?**

“Start a business”, he says without doubting for a second. Brad has not stopped to surprise us in this interview. “My first startup was a big disaster and it was wonderful. For me, everything going wrong in that first business was the best thing that could happen to me. I learnt so much from the things I didn’t do right”.

There is a phrase that sums this up really well, he says: “If you haven’t got the scars, you haven’t got anything”. But besides that path, which we understand doesn’t suit everybody, Brad gave us four top bits of advice:

Communication: learn and listen to how other people communicate. And ask yourself why are they saying that and what are their objectives. Maybe study acting?
Planning: plan things four to five steps ahead. Having foresight of what’s going to happen in the future is very important, he says. Always plan.
Patience: everything in a startup is about rush and speed, and then when you get your work done, suddenly it wasn’t that important. He tells us that you need to be patient because startups are special places to work. It’s much better than getting frustrated, we think.
Acceptance: be able to realise that you are not the smartest person in the room and know when you are wrong. Also, he says, surround yourself with better people than you.

Top challenge for a CFO?**

Juggling, Channer says. “There are so many balls in the air. You have to be great at Excel, at Xero, you’ve got to be able to work with your accountant, with your sales and marketing department… But, on top of that, you need to be able to adapt fast and learn very quickly.”

As a startup CFO you haven’t got a team so you need to do it yourself, he says.

Favourite CFO SaaS tools**

“That’s interesting because, before this interview, I didn’t think we used that many SaaS tools.”

That sounds very familiar, Brad is definitely not the first CFO to tell us that. “But then I started thinking and I thought hang on, that’s a SaaS tool, that’s a SaaS tool, that’s another SaaS tool... And suddenly I came up with a list of SaaS tools that we use! But, for me, it’s especially Xero.” As a CFO, Xero is where all happens. It’s a CFO’s backbone. “For me, it’s all about getting other tools that I can use with Xero to make my life easier and quicker.”

And he adds something else SaaS tools must have for him: “The idea for me for a SaaS tool is that it helps me scale as a business. If it doesn’t help me scale, it’s a hindrance, so I get it out the way.”

“And a good example of that is Cledara. That’s what I like about it. It meets my two criteria: it integrates with my finance structure - Cledara integrates to Xero- and it helps me scale.”

But Cledara is great for tech startups for something else, he says. “Tech startups are great at signing up to a million SaaS platforms, so no one knows what they signed up for. They’ve got four versions of Adobe, three versions of exactly the same thing... and nobody has ever bothered to keep track of it.” Because for startups, Brad says, if you need something you get it.

Xero and Cledara - the CFO's Cloud

He tells us that taking full control of that and being able to manage it on one screen was a winner. “Because managing your budget quickly and easily without messing it all is really a winner for me: cash is king, remember”, he says.

My biggest worry as a CFO**

Brad has a theory for SaaS companies. He claims that the reason SaaS companies do so well is that people sign up to these and then forget about it, but they keep getting charges every month. “Cledara is the worst enemy to SaaS platforms because you can’t do that anymore is you are a Cledara user.“, Channer says.

He goes on to say that as a CFO of a tech startup, SaaS is his biggest worry. “My biggest worry is wasting cash. When I come to a startup, the first thing I do is rip the spending to pieces, because cash is king.” “SaaS platforms are my biggest enemy. I literally unsubscribe to everything and then if somebody complains, I then let him have it again.”

Even though that worked for him, he tells us that he is very happy he can now do the same thing in a civilised and easy way.

Future of VR: productivity, gaming, military...**

We were really looking forward to this one. Brad says that one of the things they’ve been working on is workplace productivity. He assures us it’s the thing that their R&D spends the most time on. “Especially now that COVID started, it’s going to be about office productivity. In other words, how to increase our productivity from home using virtual reality.”

“We also sell a lot to military and MedTech companies. There is a lot of work to get done there because it’s going to keep growing”, he claims.

And of course the increased experience in gaming, he says (finally!). He continues: “because now you can still feel that your body is being tricked to make you think you are in another world. But we want to get rid of that to make you fully believe that, emotionally and physically, you are into that game. And that is going to be possible soon, because the headset tech is getting so much better, and that combined with our chair gets people very close to believing that. And it will only get better.”

We will patiently wait for it. Meanwhile, we have already taken a look at their chairs.



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