Q&A

Leading Finance at an AI Unicorn: Stephane Berthier

"Retention is not just about money; it’s about opportunities. Do employees feel connected to the leadership? Do they believe in the company’s vision?"
Vincent Ryan
Vincent Ryan
April 4, 2022
Leading Finance at an AI Unicorn: Stephane Berthier

Stephane Berthier knows about handling exponential growth. As a Silicon Valley partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, he’s worked with pre-IPO tech companies for 20 years. You might recognize some of the client names: VMware, Splunk, ServiceNow, Crowdstrike, Databricks. 

Fourteen months ago, Berthier moved to the other side of the conference table, becoming CFO of Uniphore Technologies. Uniphore sells artificial intelligence software for analyzing voice interactions. The company recently introduced Q for Sales, an AI platform that assists salespeople in video and digital interactions.

Uniphore doesn’t need to sprint toward a public listing: Last month, it closed a $400 million Series E funding round led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA). Another investor is former Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, who acquired a 10% stake and sits on the board of directors. 

Over Zoom, I talked to Berthier about the Great Resignation, maintaining a startup culture, and what Uniphore needs to be IPO-ready.


Stephane Berthier

CFO, Uniphore Technologies

Company founded in 2008; artificial intelligence software for analyzing voice and video interactions

Previous job:

  • Partner, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Silicon Valley

 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VINCENT RYAN: Uniphore wants to grow its employee base to 1,000 by April 2023. That sounds like a daunting goal in this jobs market. How are you going to do it?

STEPHANE BERTHIER: It used to be tough to find engineers; now, it’s tough to find anyone. But we’ve been growing and have many opportunities. Do you want to work at a larger corporation like Google or Facebook, or do you want to work at a startup where you can create something? Our company is attractive also because there is significant financial upside. Equity is an essential component for us from a compensation perspective. We cannot compete on cash [compensation], but the stock’s upside helps sell the company to [job candidates]. We’re also making “acqui-hires” — small acquisitions that allow you to get 10 to 15 people in one block.

You also have to make sure you don’t lose too many existing employees.

BERTHIER: Retention is not just about money; it’s about opportunities. Do employees feel connected to the leadership? Do they believe in the company’s vision? Is the company offering a growth path? In finance, we have weekly meetings and bring in people from all departments. They talk about the product vision and expansion into new markets, for example. Employees have to feel we’re all working toward the same goal. It’s as important if not more important to retain the people you have, your high performers than it is to bring in new people.

“As the company grows, you don’t want to become overly process-oriented because nothing gets done. It takes forever to make a decision.

How do you maintain the startup feel when a company grows so fast, assuming you want to?

BERTHIER: Part of it is the people you hire. In our leadership, we bring in people with big company experience to take us to the next level and get ready for an IPO. But we also have leaders from the startup ecosystem. A typical profile would be an executive who sold their startup to a larger company, worked at a big company for a while, and then came to us.

As the company grows, you don’t want to become overly process-oriented because nothing gets done. It takes forever to make a decision. Maintaining [a startup culture] requires being very deliberate. You have to think about it every day.

Employees and job candidates may want to hear that you’re going public within a certain period. What do you tell them?

BERTHIER: I was interviewing a candidate in Europe this morning, and his question was, “Walk me through the path to IPO.” My response is always the same: We are gearing up for it. When the market is right, we’ll go. That could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months or longer.

Frankly, there is some benefit to being private. I don’t need to worry about what happens next quarter. I can have a more long-term vision. The only thing we’re lacking is the liquidity of the [shares]. This move is not in the immediate future, but we could create liquidity. When a company has strong investor interest, it can find investors that are willing to buy shares in the secondary market. If an employee has been with the company for more than “X” years, for example, we could permit them to sell a percentage of their stock — [a partial] exit. That might make them more willing to wait for an IPO.

Is there anything you need to improve before becoming a public company? 

BERTHIER: As CFO, the number one thing that matters is the predictability of the quarterly revenue stream. We are chasing very large customers, so the sales cycle is very long. The shorter your sales cycle, the more predictable the revenue stream. Right now it can skip one quarter, so it’s tough to predict at this point. I need more scale to be more predictable. That requires new investment in sales and marketing and more feet on the ground. The leadership has made predictability its priority this year. If you’re not predictable, being a public company is too risky.

How do you shorten the sales cycle?

BERTHIER: You look at sales from start to finish, from the lead to when the customer signs the contract. Where are the friction points? You try and remove all those. It requires a surgical approach.