Startup or a Big 4? This CA did his articles at a Big 4, received offers from corporates but chose to traverse the startup world

From Big 4 to Startups

  • Hi, I am Prateek Nahar, a Chartered Accountant (CA). I lead Corporate Strategy & Business Finance for Indonesian startup CoLearn.
  • In 2014 after completing my articles at EY, a Big 4; I gave up an offer from Vodafone to join the startup space with Flipkart.
  • I took a salary cut to join the fintech sector with ClearTax.
  • Foodtech was next, and I joined Swiggy. 
  • Currently, I am exploring the edtech space with CoLearn.

Moving to Mumbai to begin my tryst with numbers

I was born in Kolkata but completed most of my schooling in Hyderabad and Nagpur.  

Growing up, I was not so studious, as my passion lay in sports.

I toyed with different kinds of sports, but in the end, could not master even one of them.

I decided to follow the advice of my parents who placed education as a top priority. The common refrain from Indian parents, as we all know is, “Padh lo (study) and then become something in life.”

Why CA? While I was still in school, our family friend was opening an office in Nagpur. It was a small office but for a city like Nagpur, it was a big deal. People were proud of his achievement. I asked my mum what he did for a living – her answer was that he is a CA. I was fascinated.

A few years later when it was time to decide on a career path I opted for Commerce and eventually CA. I was also inclined towards numbers so it all made sense.

I decided to move to Mumbai, the financial capital of India and start my CA journey.

I ended up doing my articles at a Big 4 firm EY and eventually qualified in 2013.

Becoming a CA does not mean you have achieved anything big, yet. That's the only start of a journey. 

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Switching from the Big 4 to the startup world                                                                                                                                      

After qualifying, I continued with EY and was promoted to Audit Executive.

But the irony was, soon I discovered that audit is not my cup of tea.

I waited for the ICAI (The Institute of chartered accountants of India) campus placement program to begin in March.

I received several offers from renowned companies, but they were mostly core accounting jobs. I wanted a finance role however every interview I attended I was not getting selected. It turned out they were only screening rank holders. 

Flipkart had also come to recruit.

Around that time, e-commerce startups had already started making quite a buzz in India. Even Flipkart had become an $11 billion startup just then, raising $700 million. I was intrigued to join them.

Instead of sitting around, I reached out to the recruiters from Flipkart and handed them my CV.

I politely asked the lady who was shortlisting candidates, “Is there something lacking in my CV? What do I have to do to get recruited into your company?” She did not expect that.

Later that day, she reached out to me and got me an interview.

They selected me. I was literally over the moon.

But the twist was that I also got an offer from Vodafone.

Compared to Flipkart, Vodafone was a relatively stable organisation. But I wanted to be a part of a company where I could significantly contribute to its growth and grow my career in the process.  

That is how I shifted from the Big 4 to the startup world.

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The chaotic world of startups 

At the Big 4, I mostly interacted with finance guys and the conversation revolved around finance.  But when I joined Flipkart, suddenly we were discussing, “How can we grow the business by ten times?”

I interacted with the delivery guys to see how the business worked, how last-mile delivery happens, how to look at margins, the pricing strategy of Flipkart and more.

These types of discussions fascinated me.

It made me wonder, “If this is what the startup world looks like, then I would rather keep working in a startup instead of a large organisation.”

Fast forward to July 2015, they promoted me to finance business partner for the supply chain category after I completed my management training.

I had an amazing three-year stint at Flipkart, and I am genuinely grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to work with them.

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Taking a salary cut and moving to the fintech space

After three years in the e-commerce sector, it was time for me to explore the fintech space. I joined ClearTax.

One of the reasons I joined ClearTax was because of my manager at Flipkart, a great mentor. When he decided to move to the fintech startup, I was quick to follow in his footsteps.  

I took a significant pay cut while joining them.

Why? Because at the end of the day, ClearTax was a budding startup, that had a promising future.

When you are at an early-stage setup, you cannot only put on your finance guy hat - you have to get involved in the areas such as content, and marketing, and continuously upskill yourself.

As a key account manager and retention head, I was responsible for creating a 50-100-member team and managing them along with the operations guy for customer onboarding and success

It was a completely new responsibility, and to be frank I never thought that it would be possible.

But eventually, I did it. Not every task is going to be the same as before; you must learn on the job to succeed.

The three years I was with ClearTax, taught me how to make decisions by being in the shoes of a finance guy, a business guy, and an operations guy simultaneously.

Another move to the foodtech space

I learned in-depth how a fintech company works, and how early-stage startups operate.

Next, I wanted to explore the food tech space and in 2020 I again took a bold decision and joined Swiggy.

Here, my roles involved improving customer experience and managing business finance.

The learnings here were unique.  

At Swiggy, I learned how to have a structured thought process, how to implement new processes and procedures one after the other, and how to meet certain Annual Operations Plan (AOP) targets among others. 

Swiggy was one of the most well-funded startups in India back then, which is a good thing but I was still confined to a certain vertical.

I craved a challenging environment.

I wanted to not only have core finance responsibilities but also have responsibilities related to strategy, optimisation, growth, etc.

What next?

Taking a leap and joining an early stage Indonesian edtech startup

Early-stage startups seemed like the perfect place for my curious mind.

Right then, an opportunity from the edtech sector came up. CoLearn, is an Indonesia-based e-learning platform that was just founded in 2020.

Pretty much every month new unicorns were emerging, whereas Indonesia was just catching up with the trend.

It was a tough call.

But all my doubts were cleared when I met the founders of CoLearn and heard what they were working towards.

The job role was also multi-faceted, which was exactly what I was looking for.

I joined them at the peak of the pandemic.

One of the best things about this startup was its work culture; it drew me in.

As a remote-first company, we had employees from Indonesia, India, and the UAE. The only way we could interact with each other was via Hangouts, Zoom, and such media.

Despite that, I felt at home.  

I got to handle the fundraising process in both ClearTax and Swiggy but not independently. Handling the process as part of a team and handling it independently are two very different scenarios.

Work in a startup, you won’t regret it 

A lot of people think that the role of a finance professional revolves around handling money. That is certainly not the case. We also need to look at things from a business perspective that is why it is called business finance.

In today's world, if you are planning on becoming the head of finance or a CFO, you must act as a partner to the CEO and say, “Hey, I think we should invest here”.

And startups give you that learning curve to make decisions and learn about various verticals.

Even employees from big organisations such as Hindustan Unilever Limited, and Johnson and Johnson are joining the startup wave.  

ESOPs are also an important factor when it comes to joining a budding startup.

ESOPs must be in such a way that if it grows, your reward is also higher. So technically, you are taking a risk and if it is off, it’s a big start.

Whenever you are joining a startup, you should make decisions based on the risk-reward ratio.

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