How Kruze Consulting is specializing and automating, leading the way in accounting & finance for startups

Scott Orn, COO at Kruze Consulting

Scott runs Operations at Kruze Consulting, a fast growing Startup CFO Consulting firm that works with over 160 startup clients. Kruze is based in San Francisco with clients in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York. In addition to his Operations responsibilities, Scott runs the Venture Debt Consulting practice at Kruze.

In his spare time, Scott publishes the Founders & Friends Podcast, which interviews Startup CEO's, Investors and Other Service Providers in the Startup Ecosystem.

Connect with Scott on LinkedIn

Show notes:

(2:05) Learn how Scott made the move from investment banking and venture debt, to accounting & finance for startups. 

(5:23) Scott shares what makes his firm, Kruze Consulting, a leader among providers of outsourced accounting services. We also discuss the importance of standardizing processes so that you can move away from being just another “high hourly rate” expert and build a business that can scale. 

(11:05) Venture Debt Fetch, Kruze Consulting’s new automation-assisted tool to analyze term sheets and connect startups to the best banks and lending funds, is a great example.

Transcript:

Cloud Accounting Podcast E39: How Kruze Consulting is specializing and automating, leading the way in accounting & finance for startups

What it really comes down to is you either need to make a choice: you're gonna be a high hourly-rate person, conceptually, and just charge a lot for your services, and be kind of a lone wolf, or a small firm/small headcount, or you need to really standardize, drive adoption, drive process, driving improvements, become a bigger firm.

We've chosen the process-centric approach in scalability, and investments in software to make ourselves big, but, if you get caught in the middle, you just drive yourself crazy ...

Welcome to the Cloud Accounting Podcast, a show for accountants, and bookkeepers using cloud technology to make their jobs more strategic, and impactful. I'm Blake Oliver-

And I'm David Leary.

Our guest, today, for this bonus episode is Scott Orn, of Kruze Consulting. Kruze Consulting is a fast-growing startup CFO-consulting firm that works with over 160 startup clients. They're based in San Francisco, with clients in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York.

In addition to his operations responsibilities, Scott runs the Venture Debt Consulting practice at Kruze, and in his spare time, Scott publishes the Founders & Friends Podcast, which I am so honored to have been a guest on. You should definitely subscribe to that, as well. Scott, thanks so much for joining us today.

My pleasure, and that was an awesome intro. I wish I could record that, and then just play it for every new prospect I talk to on the phone. I'll be like, "I'm introducing my very special friend, Blake Oliver, to start the pitch, here," and then, I'll just come in with the nuts and bolts of Kruze Consulting.

It's going to be recorded, because it is a podcast, so you could totally just play the podcast on every phone call. We're totally down with that.

I love it. Well, we've been friends for a long time. I've been looking forward to this. You were an awesome guest on our podcast, and I want to return the favor. I also wanna say, just up front, Blake writes a really good weekly newsletter on Cloud Accounting. I've probably been a subscriber for like three years, and I really like it. I read it every week. It comes out Sunday nights, so, definitely check that out. You're doing a great service to the community, Blake.

Well, thank you so much, Scott. Thanks for taking the time to join us today.

My pleasure.

Scott, I don't think you and I have ever met, so, it's nice to meet you, finally, in person. I just have quite a question: how did you get to where you're at? I look at your bio, and you're in this consulting VC thing, and you're ... Was it like, "Hey, I built an accounting firm and it became practice, first, and I concentrated on startups. I worked my way up the ladder, and then I got really into the startup scene, and now I'm managing an investment fund, etc., etc.," or did you come from that background, first, down into the accounting/bookkeeping world?

I have a good little story, I think. It actually all starts with my wife, Vanessa Kruze, whose Kruze this whole thing's named after. She actually started Kruze Consulting six years ago.

Her background: she was a Deloitte tax CPA, controller in a startup that went from five to 20 million in revenue in two-and-a-half years, so, she lived the crazy startup growth curve. That company was bought, so she started Kruze Consulting. We only work with startups, and that was Vanessa's design, from day one.

I had been working ... I watched what she was building. She is really the one who built Kruze Consulting. When I joined three years ago, we had something like 60 clients that she was servicing, with one other person. She's really amazing. She's like an accounting savant, and a tax savant.

She really laid the groundwork. I'm the classic ... When you're starting a company, or joining a startup, you either wanna start the company, cuz you have a great idea, which is who Vanessa was in this scenario, or you wanna find a really good entrepreneur to piggyback on, and that's me.

I had been working in investment banking, and venture debt for nine years. Worked my way up to partner at Lighthouse Capital; did about $100 million worth of debt deals - Angie's List, Elance, ZestCash, Serena & Lily, Impossible Foods, J Hilburn - tons of companies.

I didn't really find it fulfilling. It was okay; it was good; I learned a lot, but I really wanted to build something. At the time, Vanessa was my girlfriend, and I had watched her build the foundation of Kruze Consulting. I jumped in, three years ago, as the fourth team member. Then, fast-forward three, I think it's three-and-a-half years ago, now, we're at 40 team members, and we have 170 monthly recurring clients.

Really, this all was fueled by my desire to build a company. I'd always wanted to do that. My mom was an entrepreneur. Obviously, my wife was an entrepreneur. I wanted that kind of ...

For better or worse, I wanted the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, and I've received it. It's been ... 90 percent of it's been awesome, and 10 percent of it's been really hard, and difficult. Sleepless nights, and in the conference room at 2:00 in the morning, and things like that, but I wouldn't trade a minute of it.

Scott, you have an MBA, which, I think, is always good when there's at least one MBA running an accounting firm, because you know the fundamentals of business. I've always felt connected with you, and I know, now, why. It's because you have an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University, and I was a music major there.

I remember. I remember the first time we met, at ExpensiCon. You were telling me you were an undergrad at Northwestern, and then, you started your accounting practice out of undergrad.

Yeah, and actually, you were there, doing your MBA, when I was an undergrad.

We had a couple rough winters there. That's what brought me back to San Francisco.

I'd love to get your take, as a business guy, who has gotten, now, into the world of accounting services ... What are you guys doing that makes you different, in a business sense, from a traditional accounting firm?

Yeah, that's a great question. Two things. First, actually, again, it comes back to Vanessa's fundamentals. We recognize ... You did, too, Blake. You started on Xero, right outta college, I think, starting your accounting practice.

Vanessa recognized that cloud-accounting software was gonna completely disrupt the entire market. I'll never forget, when I was still at Lighthouse, still working in venture capital, she came home one day, and was like, "I just met this company. They're gonna do payroll in the cloud, and they're gonna save me two hours per client, every two weeks. It's amazing. It's the coolest company I've ever seen. You should invest in them.".

Of course, she was talking about ZenPayroll, which became Gusto, at the time. I think that was six years ago. I think Gusto's valuation was $5 million. It was a three-person company at the time. You guys probably know they just closed a round at $2 billion, so, of course, I am an idiot, and was like, "Who cares about payroll? That's so boring. I'm gonna invest in some internet thing."

She saw it right away. She was getting Gusto their first clients. She was getting Expensify their first clients. She was getting Bill.com some of their early clients. When you go with Vanessa to all these vendors, our payroll, billing, all these guys, she's like a freakin' celebrity there, because she's one of the people that made them successful. I think you did the same thing at Xero. You were one of the people getting Xero a lot of clients in the early days, in the US.

To a slightly smaller extent than where you guys are now, with 40 employees. It's really cool.

Yeah, but it's the same continuation of the same exact trend. To answer your question, the first thing is that we recognized that software can bring the total cost of servicing these clients down, and also, help us provide better service, because it's standardizes so much. It gives you such better workflows, and the clients really respond to that, especially our client base. They freakin' love it, because most of them are building something to make some industry a lot more efficient.

The second thing is Vanessa is very, very talented at building business processes. As I've watched the business processes, and the monthly review, and the tax process, and our state registrations, and payroll, all these things evolve. Everything has a redundancy built into it now. Everything is designed to make sure we deliver 110-percent service, so that no mistakes fall through the cracks.

As you guys probably know, especially Blake, cuz you've operated, accounting is one of these industries, which is so tough, because the clients often don't understand what we're doing. It's kinda like being a doctor. They really rely on you for your expertise, and your diagnosis, and make sure you're doing it correctly, but they do ... They will notice the one mistake out of the 1,000 things you did, so there's this error rate of like ... Maybe it's 0.1 percent, or 0.01 percent, but, the client will often notice that, and that's all they focus on.

We really tried hard to get that error rate down from maybe ... Maybe it was 2 percent in the old days, before cloud-accounting software, and before someone like Vanessa could build off some processes. Now, we've got it down to probably 0.1 percent, and we're still trying to push that. We kinda wanna be like a telco that's always up, always working. Whenever you click Power on the phone, you get a dial tone. That's how we wanna be.

I think, for us, it's ... Yes, I have an MBA. Yes, I understand business. Yes, I understand operations, and things like that, but, really, I've learned almost everything just doing it here. I was operating at Lighthouse, in venture capital, at this super-high level, and, again, it wasn't that fun for me, because I wasn't ... I had kinda done that, and I understood how that worked, and it wasn't ... I wasn't really learning.

Joining Kruze, and seeing what Vanessa has built, and being a part of that, has been really, really fun. We just keep doing the same thing. The crazy thing is we just keep working on automation. We just keep working on better training of our employees, and better servicing of our clients, and it just keeps working. It's really fun to have kind of found the formula, and now, we're just in super-execution mode.

Yeah, it sounds like you're kinda starting to appreciate the process, I think. I've started to see this with people, more, and more, where it's fine doing your own firm, it's fine to do this, it's fine to have all this flash, but really digging in, and automating, and creating your processes, and training your employees, that's the grind. If you can appreciate that grind, it really makes a huge difference, and I think you've discovered you like it. It's fulfilling for you.

For sure, David, and you make a great point. I have a lot of people, and Vanessa has a lot of people. We always joke that her old Deloitte classmates always email her, and are like, "Hey, how did you do this?"

What it really comes down to is you either need to make a choice, you're gonna be a high hourly-rate person, conceptually, and just charge a lot for your services, and be kind of a lone wolf, or a small firm/small headcount, or you need to really standardize, drive adoption, drive process, drive improvements, and become a bigger firm. We've chosen the process-centric approach in scalability, and investments in software to make ourselves big.

If you get caught in the middle, you just drive yourself crazy. We've had a bunch of people basically reach out to us, and say, "I can't do this anymore. It's driving me crazy. I need to get out of the accounting profession." We look at those people, we feel bad for them, but what we're really seeing is someone who got caught in the middle, and either didn't go hourly, or high hourly, or build a scalable company.

Let's talk about building a scalable company a little bit. Now, it sounds great, implementing technology, and standardizing processes, and stuff, but it doesn't happen overnight. Kruze Consulting was small for a while, and then, you started growing fast. How long did it take you to really nail down, at least to a minimum viable product point, the service delivery?

Yeah, it's a great point. It's kinda like building a house. You're doing all this foundational work that no one really sees, and you're only kind of three feet above the ground, but you're doing all the things that lay the groundwork for you to grow faster, and get bigger in the future.

I was actually just talking to our VP of technology, today, that we had actually probably two or three of these time periods, where we were foundation-laying, and then, all of a sudden, we have this, like, add 10 team members in six months, or whatever kind of growth, and add tons of clients.

We're actually in one of those modes right now, and one of the things we just launched is something called Venture Debt Fetch, which is basically breaking down, or analyzing term sheets for our startup clients, from the debt providers. I used to do that work, so it's easy for me, but it would be easy for me to go out ...

To our previous conversation, I could go charge a super-high rate, and probably make plenty of money, but it wouldn't be scalable. If you go to Venture Debt, on the Kruze Consulting page, or just type in Venture Debt Fetch, you'll see that we've automated a big part of this process. We've automated the portion of connecting you to lenders, and we're working on automating the actual term sheet analysis.

It's a really good example of like, for the last three to six months, we've been working on this foundational layer for the debt process that no one really knows about, and no one even sees on our website. Then, now, it's ready to go, and now, I think I'm doing five venture debt deals. When I get off the phone with you guys at noon, I'm on a board call for a venture debt deal.

That's a good example of, like, you're kind of servicing your clients, and perfecting your processes. Then, you see a growth opportunity. It might take you six months, or a year to really get after that growth opportunity, figure out what you need to do, and then build the product, or service around that, that can automate, and institutionalize it.

Once you do that, then you experience the second leg of growth, or third, or fourth leg of growth. That's, I think, the fun part for us, now. That's where it's getting really, really exciting.

That's awesome. I love that example of that service; such a niche offering for a niche audience that you have.

Totally a niche, and it's something that confuses every CEO. Most of the boards don't know what's going on, even though they think they do. By the way, there's a recurring theme, here. Guess who was the person who told me we should do this? My wife, Vanessa.

I was the dummy, who was doing the high-dollar-amount consulting, not scalable, and she's like ... Looked at me one night ... It was a couple of years ago. She was like, "Well, you should just automate this, and make this like a ..." and I was like, "Oh, you're pretty smart. I'm gonna do that."

Are you fixing the fees on this type of service, or are you doing it hourly?

We're gonna do a fixed fee, yeah. Right now, we're in beta, because I'm trying to figure out how much to charge. I know you've written a lotta stuff on how do you charge appropriately, and how do you charge a fixed fee? We're doing kinda loosely fixed-fee, but I'm still tracking my hours, and still reporting back to clients on that stuff.

It's really an exercise, right now, in customer development, and figuring out how much we're supposed to charge, but, I can tell you that we can do it very, very efficiently. I'm super-excited. I know we'll be able to undercut the rest of industry by 50 to 75 percent. Now, it's just kind of pricing it, so that we make it a credo to Kruze Consulting, but, also, no sticker shock for our clients. You know what I mean?

You're doing it in pieces, which you can't just roll something like this out, immediately. You've kind of figured out what's the service offering? What's the marketing around it? How do I sell it to my customers? Now, you're gonna figure out, realistically, given how much effort this takes, what is it worth, right?

That's exactly it.

Rather, it shouldn't be based on your effort. It should be based on the value to them, right?

That's exactly it. It's providing ... I can drive the cost ... I can probably save clients anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million in interest, depending on how big the deal is, and I can save them a material amount of points in their company.

An average venture debt deal probably results in maybe 50 basis points for the lender, in the form of warrants. The lender's gonna make a high-interest loan, or a risky loan, and they're gonna charge a healthy amount, but, it's very valuable for the startup, because they get runway extension, and don't have to raise more equity, right at that very moment.

There's a really nice kind of everyone-benefits type of situation. The lender usually gets 0.5 percent to 1 percent ...

Just like yesterday, we were finishing a deal, and the CEO wasn't super-focused on warrant coverage, but I was like, "Hey, you're giving up like 1.25 percent of your company. Let's at least get that down to 1 percent, so I can sleep at night.".

Sure enough, we went back to the lender, and they accommodated; pretty much because I knew exactly how to ask that lender, and point out the metrics, and how they were getting a really sweet deal. Sure enough, I saved that guy 0.25 percent of his entire company with one conversation.

Wow.

The valuation on that company is, I think, $40 million, right now. That's, what, $100,000 of value? That stock is gonna go up in value, quite a bit, I think, over the next couple years.

It's just things like this, where you're an expert, and if you can ... The challenge is I know I could do that over, and over, again. It's just how do I automate it, and make it so I can serve 100 clients, and not just five clients. You know what I mean?

What you just did there, saving him that 0.25 percent, you can't look at that in terms of hours, in terms of value, because if he becomes the next Gusto, you've just saved him millions of dollars.

Yeah, that's exactly it. The CEOs get that, especially when it comes to equity, because they're the ones raising the venture capital, and they see the price of their equity, over time, and they know how valuable it is.

I really like it. I'm having ... You can probably tell my wife, I'm having a really good time. Like I said, it's hard. We also had a baby, seven months ago. I think I saw you, Blake, when we had just had the baby, and I was getting no sleep.

Yeah.

Now, thankfully, we're sleep training, and we're getting a lot of sleep; although, we had a rough night last night, so, I may be bouncing around too much. We're just living the life, but it's fun. We're blessed to have really great clients, and a really great team, and things are all going the right direction.

I'm sure you experience this in your practice. You can get derailed slightly, in one area, and you gotta spend some time, and fix that. Usually, we look at that as an opportunity, because usually, what's happening is we've gotten big enough, where a manual process, or something that wasn't very clearly defined was working well enough for us.

Then, that breaks, and then, because of the extra volume, or because of the extra demands, or because the clients are getting bigger, or whatever it is, then we see we can actually automate this, or we can build a better process around it. At some level, you're kinda running around, putting your finger in the dike that sprung a leak. What we try to do is build a second level, or second layer on that dike, and make sure that's gonna withstand 170 clients. Hopefully, next year, it'll be 300 clients.

It's not super-clear, I think, for people listening, but this is truly a niche story. It's not clear, like, "Oh, I just do dental offices, or breweries." I look at what they've done with Kruze Consulting, and they're focused on startups, which is their niche, but, because of that, they were able to get into that higher level that ...

I talked about this in some of my presentations, before. You're getting that higher level, where, because you're niche, you're an expert, now, you're getting to ... You're extracting value from clients, but you're providing more value, and you're getting into new opportunities that didn't exist.

You could not be creating this whole new product offering, if you're just an accounting firm that was a general [crosstalk].

I totally agree.

You wouldn't even know that this opportunity exists. I just think, if you go back, and really listen to your story, think about it that way, in the niche sense. You were totally a niche story, it's just it's not obvious, because you just say startups, right?

I think you nailed it, David, and that was ... We realized that early on, and by ... I think you kinda kindly downplayed it, but we provide a tremendous amount of value to our clients.

One of the testimonials I just got was from one of the CEOs, who raised a nice big up around, was, "I didn't get a single question on my financials, after I sent them over to the VCs for diligence. They were just nails." Can you imagine?

When you're closing a venture capital term sheet, there is a tremendous amount of stress, and not having to worry about your financials being accurate, and actually presenting a positive picture of the company, instead of apologizing that you used a bookkeeper off of Yelp, or Craigslist, and now it's totally screwed up, and, "By the way, I haven't filed my taxes in two years ..."

We just provide a ton of value, and it's fun because of that. Our clients actually really like us. Everyone has a couple of clients that are difficult, and I hear stories, when I get together with other accountants, about how difficult their clients are. When you're providing value in the way that we're fortunate to be providing it, a lot of those things kind of solve themselves.

Awesome. Hey, Scott, thanks so much. That's all the time we've got today. If people wanna learn more about Kruze Consulting, or connect with you online, where's the best place for them to do that?

KruzeConsulting.com, Kruze with a K, Consulting dot com. If you're interested in Venture Debt Fetch, you can just type in Venture Debt Fetch into Google. This thing called Google, I think it's gonna be pretty big, or you can just go to our website, and at the top of the thing, one of links is Venture Debt. Just click that, check it out.

Again, we're automating the venture debt process. We connect you to lenders, if you want to talk to more lenders. We know them all. Then, we also analyze the term sheets. It's fun. This is my baby, as you can probably tell. So far, it's working pretty well, so, we're excited.

Well, good luck to you, and your wife on the two babies that you have: Kruze Consulting, and your little one.

Awesome. Thanks, Blake. David, thank you so much. Great to meet you. Again, for the audience, I really recommend Blake's newsletter. It is really good.

Thanks for the pitch.

Cool. Bye, guys. Take care.

Hey, thanks, Scott.

Bye-bye.

Let's do it real quick. You guys are gonna laugh, because I'm recording in the elevator shaft of our ... We are out of conference rooms, right now, and I have eight smiling faces staring at me, as they wait for the elevator to come, so they can go to lunch.

This'll be the funny story. Are you still recording?

Yeah.

You were looking for a funny story, right? You guys wanna hear it? Let me take the headphones out.

Hi!

That's awesome.

That's amazing.

On that note, we'll call it a day. Hey, thanks a lot, Scott.

Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for squeezing me in, guys.

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Blake Oliver

Los Angeles, California, United States