Lessons from a CFO and ex -founder of a fintech startup who called it quits and returned to the corporate world... gracefully

 CA shares learnings from failed startup going back to corporate.

The startup route may look shiny and optimistic, but looks can be deceiving.

Suneel Kumar is a Chartered Accountant (CA) and Ex-Co-Founder at Mera Cashier, an easy-to-use Digital Ledger App to help small merchants.

While working closely with the technology team in CARS24 he found the inspiration to build something of his own.

The Finance Story reached out to him to learn about his learnings from his brief entrepreneurial journey. It’s hard to call it quits on a business venture... but it can be done gracefully. 

Excerpts from the interview:

How did your career in finance take off? What were the early learnings of your career journey?

I come from a small district named Baghpat, located in Uttar Pradesh, India.

When I was in 9th standard one of our class teachers started discussing career options such as CA, Company Secretary, law, etc. Since our board exams were nearing it was kind of expected.

I don’t know why but I got greatly attracted to the job profile of a CA.

After coming home from that class I started reading into it. We didn't have ‘the internet’ at that time, which is why I used to look through newspaper articles related to CA.

I moved to Delhi after my graduation to prepare for the CA exams. After 4 years of backbreaking grind, I finally qualified as a CA in 2005.

From the very beginning, my heart was set on entering the corporate world. My career got a head start with Future Group, the popular Indian conglomerate.

Over the course of more than 5 years, I created MIS reports, got to learn how to utilize SAP, understood the P&L statement of Future Group's numerous subsidiaries, their margin structure, business forecasting, and whatnot. 

It was such an interesting role, which helped me understand how businesses worked in real life. 

When did you decide to make the transition from large organizations to startups? Was it a planned move?

The startup boom had just started during the mid-2010s. 

Around the same time in 2012, I got an offer from Aristotle Consultancy, which was in charge of handling the Finance & Accounts of many startups.

The founder gave me the responsibility to build a finance team for the same. It was a turning point in my career.

One of our clients was Jabong.com.

Since I was working closely with Jabong (which started up in 2012) they offered me an opportunity to join them full-time.

There was a desire to help startups scale, so I took up the role of Deputy General Manager, of course in Finance. Howevermy role was not restricted to that department only.

I was looking into other areas such as purchasing, technology, implementing ERP, and business expansion among others.

After Myntra acquired Jabong (for USD 70 MIllion) I took a tough call and quit Jabong.

In 2018, I moved to CARS24, an eCommerce platform for pre-owned cars. 

Joining CARS24, was an interesting career move and I enjoyed my time with them. 

My task was to automate the entire car payments, and vendor payments process. I had the opportunity to work closely with the tech team, improve customer experience through feedback, etc. 

Seeing the tech team build the system, (which is a fascinating process btw), I started dreaming of starting up! 

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How did you make the leap from CARS24 to being a startup entrepreneur? Can you take us through the process of building Mera Cashier?

When you work with a startup, and that too very closely with the technology team, you are always trying to think in terms of "what problem can I solve with tech." 

While living in Ghaziabad, India, I had a regular Kirana store (small grocery shop) where I used to buy my daily essentials.

The shopkeeper used to manage the accounts receivables and payables on a physical register. One day I noticed that he was unable to reconcile the general ledger properly.

I kept thinking about it on the way home and the next day discussed it with a colleague from the tech team in CARS24.

I proposed the idea, “What if we built a Digital Ledger App for small merchants?” He encouraged me, by saying that it was a completely viable concept. 

After getting positive feedback on my digital ledger app idea, I decided to find a solution. 

The retailers told us, that they needed an app free of cost, and easily operable, as they weren't large enough to get a hold of a computer or other transaction management solutions. 

We started building the app and added a unique feature that no other apps in the same space had added before; a QR code for recording transactions.

Customers could enter their transaction details by scanning the QR code, which saves some valuable time.

We did our pilot testing at a milk shop, which was a success... It made me extremely happy that we were genuinely helping people.

I was blessed to have had 5 of my ex-seniors and 5 ex-colleagues invest in my idea. We raised an Angel Round from some ex-seniors and angel investors. We also got $150k from Sukhbir Singh, the Bollywood singer.

All of this doubled my confidence and Mera Cashier was launched in July 2019... after almost 14 years of working in the corporate world. 

How was it running a startup? As a finance person were you only looking at the financial aspects or even beyond?

Building anything from scratch is an experience that can’t be compared to any other role. Running a startup encompasses more responsibilities, than working at a startup.

As a founder of Mera Cashier, I had to take charge of certain things that I had never done in my previous jobs. 

As a non-tech guy, I had to look into product designing, new feature building, and exploring partnership opportunities with external partners for lending and other services.

I learned about the market, investor sentiments, customer onboarding, customer feedback, and the due diligence process in depth. 

Overall starting out with Mera Cashier was all about new learnings and opportunities.

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At what point did you know that you have to discontinue Mera Cashier? 

Till January 2020, things were running smoothly.

But as soon as Covid hit us, the following lockdown brought about our downfall.

Businesses started shutting down which started impacting Mera Cashier.

At that time we were trying to raise capital for our startup. We talked to 100+ investors.

Unfortunately, the investors had become watchful of where they were investing in. They were inclined to invest in startups that were already generating revenue.

Startups that started a year before us raised a huge amount of capital at the pre-revenue stage itself. Whereas when we tried to raise growth capital, there were no positive results.

For two years straight three of us founders didn't draw any salaries and financial challenges started coming. It was tough for us to run our family and provide for them. 

We finally resorted to exploring some acquisition opportunities. We talked to several founders and advisors about acquihire opportunities but still couldn’t get a deal.

After three years with Mera Cashier, we called it quits on August 2022.

How did you start all over again in the corporate world? 

It was a tough call to leave the dream project but we had to take it.

Returning to the corporate world wasn’t much of a hassle as I had already acquired over 14 years of industry experience before starting up.

Very recently in July 2022, I got appointed as a CFO in Teeela, a Kuwait-based Ecommerce Company.

So if you are looking at joining a startup as a Chartered Accountant, go for it. 

I have seen many finance professionals and Chartered Accountants managing roles beyond finance.

Finance professionals are good at making estimates, business plans, and other relevant analyses. They are in a position to help management take calculated risks.

What matters is your business sense and how much you are willing to help the startup founders in their mission and vision. 

Lastly, what are your views on ESOPs? Do you think it could work as an incentive to join startups?

Startups are now offering ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) to their employees. It is a great source of wealth creation for multiple parties. 

You might think that if the startup doesn't get listed you won't make any money, which is not entirely true.

Many startups are starting to buy back shares from their employees. It's become a lot more popular in the last decade.

CARS24 had offered me Employee Stock Option when their valuation was nearly at $250 MN. But the vesting period was two years. As I left CARS24 in less than a year, to start my own venture, I couldn’t exercise my rights on my ESOPs. Had I continued it would be a big win for me as they bought back shares with INR 75 Crores in early 2022. 

That is why if you stay with the startup for a longer period of time it will be beneficial for both you and your company.

But don’t fall for the ESOPs without reading the terms and conditions. Read it carefully and also look through the vesting conditions of the ESOPs.

All I am trying to say is, it is not necessary to start your own... negotiating a good ESOP structure at a startup can be a great idea as well. 

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