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Introducing Workstream: Changing the Analyst Game

Nick Freund
·
April 7, 2020

It was early 2010, and I was working as a Senior Financial Analyst at Tesla. 

Relative to our infamous, near death experience a few years earlier, the company was stable.  We had sufficient cash to pursue the next phase of the Tesla vision: bringing Model S to market.  The company had just closed a $465M loan from the US Department of Energy, the proceeds of which we would use to build the Fremont factory and develop our much anticipated sedan. Our IPO was around the corner.

Yet despite the financing and a bright future, Tesla was still a private company facing existential challenges. We fought daily, hand to hand combat to build and sell the first generation Tesla Roadster.  Early Model S development was underway, but our Fremont factory was years away from production.

I was sitting in a conference room at the original company offices in San Carlos, California. I had just taken Elon and other members of the Roadster team through my proposal to price the car in Japan. We should price the car aggressively, I argued, alongside the premium prices of other high-performance vehicles in that market.  

The room was silent, except for Elon. “That is a really, really, freaking stupid idea!” (Freaking was not the word he used). I froze, not knowing how to respond. 

I had just spent two weeks pulling comparable “supercar” pricing for the Japanese market. Using the pricing discount of the Roadster to those cars in other markets, I had calculated an appropriate price in Yen. This yielded a much higher—and in the mind of my finance colleagues—more appropriate price range than was indicated by a simple currency conversion of the US price from Dollars to Yen. Doing that simple currency conversion would be leaving a lot of money on the table, I argued. Cash the company needed.

I knew that I had been methodical, and that my analysis was sound. But, I also knew that Elon had an unrivaled understanding of every part of the business, and that he was pursuing a clearly defined strategy to build Tesla. As I looked around the room, I saw the team giving me dismissive, foreboding looks.

How had I put myself in such an obviously untenable position?

Reimagining the analytical project lifecycle

Developers have dedicated tools, from JIRA to Github and beyond, which they use to manage the software development lifecycle. Engineers leverage these solutions to manage and deploy their code, and coordinate their agile development process. Globally distributed teams of thousands can seamlessly contribute to a single code base.

But what happens when more than a few people attempt to collaborate in Sheets or Excel to iterate on a model, or build a dashboard in Looker? The project becomes a complete mess. 

While today’s analytical tools are more sophisticated than ever, even the most innovative teams are still forced to cobble together their projects using duct tape, email, and in-person meetings. Until now.

Workstream will unify complex, analytical projects. Our SaaS platform will integrate with existing analytical tools, and allow teams to seamlessly collaborate, and orchestrate their projects from start to finish.

The New Analyst Way

In the dozen years since I started my career, analyst roles have transformed.

Teams are increasingly using a diverse set of modern tools. In the 10th edition of their Business Intelligence Market Survey, Dresner Advisory Services reported that:

Nearly 80% of organizations have more than one business intelligence tool in use. 

Indeed, a Director of Analytics at a prominent public technology company told me that they used multiple EPM solutions to consolidate financial planning input, Excel to handle more flexible modeling and what-if scenarios, and Tableau to handle reporting. Google Sheets is an increasingly powerful Excel alternative.

Today’s analysts are thought leaders, are embedded within every function, and serve as critical decision making support for teams. In Preparing for the Next Level of Financial Planning and Analysis, the Association for Financial Professionals reports that

FP&A has transformed from its traditional accounting and budgeting role to become a forward-looking, strategic business partner with a seat at the decision-making table.

You will find analysts working beyond finance, on sales, marketing, CX and even engineering teams. But, while modern analysts are open to exploring new ways to run their projects and collaborate with their teams, they still lack a dedicated tool set.

In Workstream’s recent survey of 500+ analysts, 70% reported receiving feedback via email, 50% via in-person meetings, and a shocking 25% received handwritten notes.

A VP of Finance at a prominent unicorn recently shared: “Updating our corporate model takes months. We go through endless iterations, dozens of model versions and threads hundreds of emails long.” Enter Workstream.

“The answer is not in the spreadsheet”

When I had argued to Elon that we should be pricing the Roadster aggressively in Japan, was I correct? Mathematically, I would still argue yes. The numbers I presented were not miscalculated. 

But strategically, when you factored in the overall context of the business, and the strategy Elon was pursuing, I was dead wrong. As Elon would later tell me when I pointed at some numbers and tried to convince the business to change course: the answer was not in the spreadsheet. 

A fervent belief in analysis does nothing if the numbers are disconnected to the reality that business is operating in. Indeed, that critical business context can only be leveraged to tell an analytical story when a team successfully navigates the analytical project lifecycle.

Pricing the Roadster more modestly, or some of the more controversial decisions Elon made during my tenure — like insourcing stamping and plastics at the Fremont factory — made little financial sense when analyzed in the context of building just Roaster or Model S. But when taken in the broader context of Tesla’s journey to mass produce affordable electric cars, and to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, are strategic masterstrokes. 

I was too reliant on archaic feedback mechanisms, and had no roadmap for running my project successfully. There was no solution like Workstream that could guide me down a more successful path to managing and incorporating the feedback from my team.

The answer, indeed, is not in the spreadsheet.  Nor is it in the dashboard that is built, or the automated report that is sent out every week. 

Rather, the answer sits in the conversations that exist between people: sometimes controversial, always data-driven, and forever irreplaceable. The answer is Workstream.

“We are...normal users, and developers are like power users. They use computers differently. [But] we are all beginning to work and think like developers....the developer’s way is exciting because as we adopt and embrace these ways of working, it unleashes our ability to focus on the best use of time.”

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