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  • Meet Abhishek Salunkhe, a young CA from Bangalore, India.
  • Unbeknown to him, he found himself joining a tech start-up at 25 years old. He never thought he would be working at a start-up but an opportunity knocked at his door.
  • Like any other person he had apprehensions but he did a SWOT analysis to help him make his decision.
  • Three years later, he is on an accelerating career trajectory. In fact, recently, he was a part of the fundraising team which managed to procure $82 million in financing! 
  • This is his story, of how he found his way.

From humble beginnings and an uncertain path 

Growing up in Dhule, a small city in India, life was simple and peaceful. My family comprised of doctors and engineers – neither profession really interested me. (Perhaps, it was the massive engineering textbooks my father had that deterred me – little did I know that the CA curriculum wasn't going to be much different.) Instead, I dreamt of becoming a commercial pilot. However, this dream never materialised because it required me to take science after grade 10 and I definitely did not want to carry on with science! As an average 15-year-old student with no clear direction in my career yet, I was at a crossroads as to what next, when my uncle suggested Chartered Accountancy. He was a CA and he started to help me understand the potential of a career as a CA! Soon with his guidance, I decided to pursue the CA designation! Right after class 12, in 2009, I enrolled for the CA course from ICAI (The Institute of Chartered Accountants from India). 

To finding my own way 

In 2008 - 09, the entire family moved to Pune (a larger city) to support me whilst I furthered my studies and chased my CA dreams. Moving from my hometown (Dhule) where everything was within a radius of about 10 kilometers to a city where I needed to travel 25 kilometers a day to attend college courses – was intimating, to say the least. More than that, my dad decided to retire when I started college. There was an immense amount of pressure on me to pass my exams and start working. I completed my articles at a mid-sized firm where I gained experience through statutory and tax audits of small private companies and partnerships. Fast forward, through several challenges and ups and down I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2015.

Starting my career as a CA Fresher

During my articles, I really enjoyed income tax and strategic financial management. In fact, I had made up my mind to pursue a career in management consulting. However, I soon discovered that management advisory firms are obsessed with CA rank holders, and since I was not one, I did not stand a chance. After qualifying, I applied to Deloitte for a position in their Transaction Advisory department, however, ended up receiving an offer from Bajaj Allianz General to work in their Finance MIS team. Even though I had never really been too interested in insurance before, I relished the opportunity and very quickly developed a nuance for insurance. I have to mention, I was influenced by Warren Buffet and the Berkshire Hathway Story where Buffet built a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy into the largest insurance company in the world in a span of 50 years!

Opportunity knocked at a funded Insuretech startup

After working at Bajaj Allianz General for almost 3 years, as a young CA, I was looking for more than a stable career. I wanted to explore the potential that this qualification was supposed to come with. This was when an opportunity knocked to join a start-up, Digit Insurance. Even though I had never planned to join a start-up, this was a chance for me to grow with the company, from its very beginning. It would give me an opportunity to contribute to the initial design and implementation of systems and controls necessary in any finance department. I would also be able to apply myself more than at an established corporation. In 2017, I joined Digit when the company was busy applying for a license to practice insurance in India. So, in a sense, I have been there since the beginning. Working at a start-up was perhaps more than I bargained for - often I'd need to work late into the night, most Saturdays and even some Sundays but I strongly believed that this time and energy would be worth it! 

Behind the door of opportunity

I have been with Digit since 2017 even before we got approval from the insurance regulator to carry on business. So, my role at Digit has evolved from being an executor to a strategist. I have had the opportunity to learn programming languages, such as SQL and Python because excel can't handle the amount of data that we work with. Now, I am overseeing the financial budgeting and planning, financial and regulatory reporting. I have also needed to develop skills to manage investor relations. In January 2020, I was part of our fundraising team which managed to procure $82 million in financing! (One can imagine the kind of learning I am exposed to!) In the 3 years that I have been part of Digit – I feel like I have already gained a lifetime of experience and this is only the start. Questions I get asked often:

“Start-up salary cuts – truth or myth?”

Well, really – it depends. Many people think that if you join a start-up, you'll have to take a pay cut. Fortunately, I did not have to, however, I was so focused on the learning opportunity that I didn't even negotiate a salary. In the tech industry, start-ups are often well-funded but by their nature, they generally need their initial funding to get going and build traction in the market. In my view, one should select ESOPs considering long-term wealth over a short-term reduction in income. If the company’s mission and values are solid, management is capable, then there is no upper limit in appreciation of ESOPs. If the business that the start-up is doing is viable, the start-up will grow and as it grows, the people associated with it will also grow financially.

“What to look for when considering joining a startup?” 

  1. Mission and vision of the start-up
  • Understand the mission and vision of the startup when considering whether to join a start-up.
  • The mission and vision of Digit align with my personal goals and mission – which is another reason why I have been willing to put in extra effort where needed.
  1. The management of the start-up
  • You should be looking out for solid management capabilities and perhaps even consider, employee stock ownership plans over a higher salary in the beginning.
  • In my opinion, you join a start-up with a vision to see it grow and as the company grows, your personal financial position will likely grow with it.
  • Do a thorough check on founders, the management team, the industry the start-up is working in, and their mission statement.
  1. Be ready to put in the extra hours
  • If you want to join a start-up or any company for that matter, consider whether you are willing to go to work without well-defined working hours, willing to put in effort without knowing whether those efforts will yield the intended results.
“Joining a startup – is it risky?” No job is ever safe, no matter how established the company is or seems! So, take the risk whilst you are young, you have more time to recover. Start-ups are often the most vulnerable companies during difficult times, however, having a solid team that is committed to the same goal is what will take you and the company from strength to strength during difficult times. It is for this reason, that it didn't even cross my mind whether I might lose my job during the difficult seasons. I trust myself and my team to pull together.

In closing, 

Working for a start-up I have learnt to be agile and flexible. These are two critical skills you need if you would like to join a start-up. Agile – idea generation, testing the idea, next project – you need to be able to move quickly and easily between projects and ideas. Flexible – learn to navigate between the many tasks that you may need to perform and be willing to adapt to positions or responsibilities that the company may need you to take on. The experiences that I have had, have re-focused my direction to become an entrepreneur – I want to build a business from the ground up, to be a socially responsible company, a gold standard organisation. I am not entirely sure that I would have had that same dream and drive, had I simply stayed at a well-established corporation with a safe salary. So I encourage you, to be agile and flexible, to look out for opportunities and consider them even when they are in places that you least expect to find them. (Article edited by Catherine Belle Edmunds and image by Ankit Lodhi)

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