We interviewed Leen Li on how she helped scale the fintech unicorn by leveraging more than her finance skill sets.

Leen Li knows the importance of finance in a growing company and that scaling up requires a lot of work. The former CFO of Wealthsimple, Canada’s standout fintech unicorn that recently cemented a $5 Billion valuation after raising the largest private tech investment in Canadian history, knows that finance plays a huge role in a company’s growth potential and success. 

Founded seven years ago, Wealthsimple set out on a mission to use technology and innovation for Canadians to achieve financial freedom. Li, who has been a part of this incredible growth story as their first finance hire to eventually become their CFO, has leveraged her humble upbringing in rural China and her practical approach to money management and resource planning, to steer the company towards success, but not just in the traditional areas of finance that one would expect.

Below, the former CFO provides advice to other CFOs and senior finance leaders who are working in fast-growing start-ups and scale-ups on how to achieve breakout growth status.

1. Prepare to act as the COO in the early stages if your company doesn’t have one.

  • Build trust and an open relationship with the senior leadership team to lead in all the areas where they don’t.  
  • Keep the Founders on track and fill in their blind spots. 
  • Make sure the company stays afloat. Focus on running an efficient company, controlling costs and making solid investment decisions with limited capital.

"None of us knew which Wealthsimple products would grow the fastest, but we had a hypothesis. It turned out our bet paid off. Monitoring product developments and tracking the metrics on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis was exciting."

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2. Invest aggressively where there is value.

  • When investing in a new product, build a hypothesis and try to guess it right.
  • Invest in multiple products simultaneously, and make quick decisions using new data and technologies.
  • Make data-backed decisions to prove what areas of the company should be invested in and what areas should be scaled back.

3. Bring expertise outside of your technical domain and share resources.

  • Take on more leadership responsibilities beyond the company’s financial duties. Leen, a self-proclaimed people person, also managed the People team for over a year at Wealthsimple.
  • Develop a robust business model and key KPIs to evaluate the company consistently over time. Revisit these KPIs regularly and make sure they are shared across departments.

“From professional development, to management training, to making sure your existing leadership teams are scalable within a business’ growth, that's an area a company shouldn't be cheap on. People need to learn constantly in order to grow.”

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4. Don’t be cheap when building your teams.

  • Work backwards to see what you need right now by looking at existing team members and ask yourself: who can I invest in now?
  • Identify top talent early and invest in that employee’s development right away.
  • Invest in a finance team that can focus on operations and make quick decisions that don’t slow down or inhibit growth.

5. Take an Active Role in Building a Great Culture.

  • Don’t overlook team building in start-up culture, as it’s an important part of growing a company, and is equally as important as investing in operations and finance.

“Typical finance leaders are really good at looking at financial data, like KPIs, business cases, ROI and etc., but I think viewing people and building the culture side goes a long way. I recommend finance leaders become champions of the company culture and the people inside of it because that's not typical. If you can master that, it will give you a full view of the business.”

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After four successful years growing Wealthsimple, Leen has moved on to a new challenge, becoming the CEO of the Wealthsimple Foundation, a non-profit start-up aimed at helping kids from underprivileged families in Canada access post-secondary education.


Want to hear more great advice about how finance can fuel growth from the CEOs and CFOs of Canada’s fastest growing companies?