- Programme: Financing the Entrepreneurial Business
- Nationality: British
- Job Pre-programme: CFO/COO Mendeley
- Job Post-programme: CFO Stratajet
“When you’re playing with experts, you need to know the rules of the game”
Stratajet is the only place in the world you can search and book an exclusive jet with the click of a button – it’s the UberLUX of private jet planes. CFO David Lee is central to the finance strategy that helped rapidly grow the venture, which he joined in 2015, from just six people testing the platform’s capabilities to the international business it is today.
Lee caught the tech and entrepreneurial bug when he worked at peer-to-peer betting marketplace Betfair (2008–2012), which went from fledgling start-up to multi-billion IPO firm in just 10 years. Post-IPO, Lee was determined to join an early-stage venture so he became the CFO of high-tech SaaS start-up Mendeley. He built the finance function, closed £3 million in funding and completed an exit deal for the “right price at the right time”.
Despite being an experienced start-up CFO, Lee spotted a gap in his skillset: deal-making. “No matter whether it's an exit or investment deal, as a finance guy, you're probably completing one a year. The odds are stacked against you when you’re up against investors who are doing 10 times as many deals as you. When you’re playing with experts, you need to know the rules of the game.”
So in 2014, Lee studied London Business School’s (LBS) Financing the Entrepreneurial Business (FEB) programme, led by John Mullins and Martyn Williams, to learn the tips and tricks of the game.
Securing win-win deals
“Start-ups are the extreme sport of business,” says Lee. “Being the only finance person in an entrepreneurial business isn’t like being a finance professional in a corporate firm.” Until a business proves itself it begins life with a high-risk profile, often making losses, adapting and learning along the way. “That level of responsibility gives me an adrenaline rush,” he says.
Lee, a knowledgeable CFO who studied chartered accountancy, says new ventures need their own jargon-busting guides. “Start-ups have their own terminology and financials. I'd never come across some of what Martyn and John taught me,” he admits. “They put everything through the lens of real-life case studies.”
One of the tricks Lee discovered was how to strike a win-win deal. He says: “You have to start by understanding the person opposite you. Who are you doing business with? What are their incentives? Then, use numbers to model different scenarios and reach a great deal for everyone.” Lee soon realised that he was playing a relationship game – and not a numbers game at all.
After completing the programme and joining Stratajet, Lee was able to put the win-win concept to work. “Stratajet was small when I joined; we hadn't yet closed funds. Since then we’ve closed £10 million of venture capital. I think FEB helped and directly informed how we did it: it helped us secure the best deal.”
Breaking free of the isolation bars
Being a tech start-up CFO can be lonely. Lee’s solution to this problem was to launch a trusted network of 100 finance directors prior to taking FEB. After the programme, Lee invited some of his classmates into his exclusive community.
“It can be tough without having a big corporate team to bounce around ideas. I found that despite my classmates being in different industries, our challenges were similar. Finding peers who can help with advice, contacts or solutions means you can get your job done better and faster.”
As well as adding high-level connections to his network, Lee benefited from high-level ideas. “John was publishing his book on the customer-funded business at the time of the programme. Starting a business with working capital was a real eye-opener. This is an example of advanced, sophisticated thinking.”
Stratajet’s search engine technology is so sophisticated that it’s capable of making upwards of 2.5 million calculations in 10 seconds to return real-time flight results. Now, Lee’s got the network, ideas and philosophies to match.