The CFO of Housing.com shares his Digital Transformation journey and the evolving CFO role
- Meet Vikas Wadhawan, a Chartered Accountant from India, and CPA from the USA, and the Group CFO of Elara Technologies which owns PropTiger.com, Makaan.com, and Housing.com.
- In 2011, he joined PropTiger.com as a CFO as part of the founding team. With his results-driven leadership in the digital industry and sharp strategic vision, he has made a mark for himself as a CFO of a leading digital real estate player in India. (Since its inception, the PropTiger.com team has facilitated sales of over 30,000 homes worth nearly Rs. 20,000 crores.)
- As a part of The Digital Transformation Series powered by Dell Technologies, we spoke to Vikas to understand what it is like being a CFO of a leading digital real estate company and how technology has led to the evolution of his role as a CFO.
Multiple stakeholders have their own perspectives on Digital Transformation. What is digital transformation for you?
For me, digital transformation is the reimagining of a business or process with the use of technology.
Digital transformation starts when you challenge the status quo and push for finding new ways to solve the same old problem through the use of technology / digital means.
It is a fundamental shift that can bring a lot of efficiency within the existing business or processes and give a completely new avatar to the business or the process.
How has Elara Technologies evolved and adapted to the digital wave in the last 5 years?
Before I go ahead, let me share a little more.
Elara Technologies formed realty portal PropTiger in 2011 and later acquired Makaan in May 2015 and Housing in January 2017 to create India's largest full-service online-to-offline real estate platform.
PropTiger is into the housing brokerage business and helps developers sell flats available in the primary market, while Housing.com is a classified platform for both developers and brokers who need to buy a package for listing their properties on the website.
Makaan is a free marketplace where brokers list properties for buy-sell as well as renting.
Earlier the property developers were selling the properties using the brokers on the ground. They weren’t using technology for sales.
When we started PropTiger.com, the plan was to use technology not only in the digital marketing of projects but also in the sales journey to give a best-in-class experience to the customers.
So, when we talk about our organization, we are a ‘digital organization’ and ever since we started PropTiger in 2011, our strategy has been to use technology to change the experience of customers in their home buying journey.
That is why whenever we have to find solutions for any problem, we always think of technology as the first thing. For a digital company like ours, it is not a transformation but our way to operate.
For example, when we started in 2011, the entire operation was very haphazard. Organizing that was a big challenge. So, we took that challenge and I worked as a pseudo product manager with the technology team to automate a lot of processes internally.
We had the entire backend systems over a couple of years built into our internal CMS tool and that’s the foundation of our PropTiger business.
Similarly, we have best-in-class technology and products on Housing.com so our customers have the best experience in their home buying journey.
Our AR / VR marketing tools are world-class and are loved by all our developer and broker partners to market their properties on and off the platform.
For us, technology adoption is an ongoing process as we continuously identify the problems on the ground and see if there are technological solutions available that works to solve a problem.
What new Technologies has your company adopted during the nationwide lockdown?
In the last year, we have further extended our full-stack services to the customers on Housing.com by launching some of the best-in-class products which include:
- Rent Pay - where a tenant can pay rentals to their homeowners through the click of a button using digital payment means
- Digital Rental Agreement - homeowners and tenants can create digital rental agreements and sign the same digitally on the go
- Home services - customers can avail of home services which span from cleaning, electrician, plumber and movers & packers on Housing.com from our trusted partners
- Mortgage services - providing a choice of multiple banks for providing mortgage services to our customers
In addition to these, we are also reengineering a lot of our internal processes to make the entire experience more efficient and highly secured.
Our Digital DNA since inception always helped us in being agile and open to adopting changes in the business requirement and technology.
Can you tell us specifically what was it being a CFO in 2011-2016, 2017-2019, and what is it being a CFO in 2020-21?
I have been working in tech start-ups for the last 14 years and have seen this space evolving quickly.
The initial few years at PropTiger were more into the setting-up of the finance function, controls, governance, and process.
A lot of time had gone into understanding the business and its nuances and building processes with the use of technology to scale the business and also at the same time implementing governance and controls.
Since 2015, things have changed very rapidly internally as well as externally.
While we were growing rapidly organically as well as inorganically, the external environment was also changing very fast on the back of Demonetization, Goods and Services Tax, and Real Estate Regulatory Act which impacted the real estate industry and all its constituents significantly.
So, Tech innovation has increased significantly in the finance domain in the last decade which has made the regular controllership or financial planning and analysis work of a Finance Leader comparatively easier.
I no longer have to worry about how to prepare a cash flow, analyze data or prepare MIS’ because those analytics are all available at the click of a button.
For instance, let’s say my team has to do forecasting for the next 5 years. They’ll of course rely on complex models which are available technologically and can do much more precise forecasting than one can do in the absence of these technologies.
This gives me time to partner with the business and work with them to strategically grow the business.
In simple words, with technology, the focus has shifted from a transactional or historic data-focused CFO to a forward-looking strategic CFO.
What is the difference between you as a CFO of a Tech company and a CFO of a large listed company?
As a CFO of a large listed company, this person would be much more competent than me but the biggest shift which this CFO would need is agility.
In our organization, we make decisions on the flat and that’s what a typical tech company calls for. The simple mantra is: fail fast, learn fast. So, you do not have the opportunity of debating about a project for six months and then working on that project for the next 2 years and wait for the output 3 years down the line.
In a tech company like ours, we think about a project today, start executing it in a month, deliver that project in six months and then start looking at whether we have achieved the objectives or not.
As a CA who is a CFO of a Tech company, do you have a role to play in technology-related decision making?
Absolutely yes, not only as a CFO but also as a business leader!
In our organization, there are two pockets - One is the entire core product building of our platforms like Housing.com, Makan.com, Proptiger.com, and then the IT infrastructure namely the networks, our internal servers, the machines, and systems.
The IT infrastructure is my responsibility and our platform building i.e. Housing.com, Makaan.com, and Proptiger.com fall into the bucket of our CTO (Chief Technology Officer) who directly reports to our CEO.
So, overall, my role in technology-related decisions is small since most of our investment goes into our platform building. But, as far as investment decisions or budgetary allocation are concerned, being a CFO, I have to play that role and oversee those responsibilities.
I communicate with the CTO to understand what the product need is, what is the problem we are solving, and understand how this helps us in improving the key business metrics. If that justifies the investment, we go ahead and do that investment.
If we can demonstrate that ROI and track it over a longer period of time, we can justify those investments and budgetary decisions.
At the end of the day, we need to question “what is the ROI that we are expecting from these investments?”
How do you update yourself or learn about the technology?
To understand the technology, I have to rely on our CTO to be very candid.
He is an expert on deciding which technology to use, how to build a particular product, scalability of that particular product, etc.
But in terms of understanding what is the need for a particular technology or how different tech products can help us in our day-to-day operations, I participate closely in those discussions and make decisions based on the data available on the ground.
I do study the use case that a particular technology is going to solve for me.
There are times where I don’t understand what’s going on but I still participate and ask questions which helps me learn over the period of time.
So, my only advice is to participate in those meetings, ask the right questions, do not hesitate about asking something when you don’t understand the concepts. Don’t think about whether people will laugh at you or you’ll look foolish.
As a CFO of this tech-based large company, where tech is in your DNA do you have a difference of opinion with say, your CTO?
There are always situations when we have differences in opinion and those situations need to be solved.
There could be a situation when our tech leader believes that a particular technology/product is very important and I may not be fully convinced, in times like those, we solve it through clearly defined objectives and prototyping.
When adopting technology, one should clearly define what the objectives are, identify the business problems that they’ll be solving and how it is going to improve the existing processes or help them optimize cost.
As far as possible, try and do pilots at a small scale to test the grounds. So, that’s how we make decisions in our organization.
Every project is not a success and every investment doesn’t yield positive returns. Even if a project is a failure, that’s fine because there’s learning behind it.
Everyone is talking about Cloud Support: What does cloud mean to your organization and your finance team?
Currently, in our organization, we have both cloud as well as on-premises infrastructure.
All our platforms - housing.com, makaan.com, proptiger.com are fully on the cloud. Our internal tools and some of our accounting data are on local servers but clearly, we have a roadmap that we will be moving 100% to the cloud.
Post-COVID, I don’t think our staff would be coming to work 5 days a week. If my staff is not coming to the office, my local servers won’t be capable of handling the load of people accessing it remotely, so I have to go to the cloud.
I feel that the cloud is the way to go. This space is evolving quickly and the business requirements are becoming dynamic gradually.
If I need to build an internal infrastructure, frankly, I can’t plan for the next five years neither can I make the internal investment today. Therefore, Cloud is the feasible option since it gives me the flexibility where I can scale up, scale down, shift to the next version of the technology very quickly and easily.
In terms of dollars, I might be paying a few extra dollars today but if we do a cost-benefit analysis keeping all these benefits in mind from a long-term perspective, I think cloud infrastructure is the way to go.
Lastly, over the years have you seen a shift in what the management expects from the CFO? Did technology create a shift in your role?
The expectations from a finance professional or the CFO have evolved.
It’s no more number crunching or looking into the asset custodian churning out data, custodian facets, analyzing data.
Those will remain of course, and as a CA we have an edge because we learned those as a core competency.
The expectation of any business today, from a CA or a CFO is how can one partner with the business in the strategy or the growth opportunity of the company so that they can deliver value to their stakeholders.
The other big part is digital adoption. I cannot be a successful leader if I am not open to a change or the adoption of technology. If I won’t consider how digital changes can impact my business positively or negatively or don’t reimagine my business, then I am not doing my job.
So, digital adoption is another big pocket which as a Finance head or a CFO, you are expected to deliver those expectations, especially in an ever-changing dynamic business environment.
The other important expectation from a CFO is responding to the risk, whether it’s a business risk, cyber risk, or operating risk.
So as a CFO, you are always seen as the risk champion in the organization. You always have to be on your toes in terms of identifying what the risks are and what are the mitigants that you have implemented in the organization to mitigate those risks.
The risks are changing. So, the risks that were there 2 years ago may not be a relevant risk today because your business has changed, your environment has changed, and even the competition has changed.
In my humble opinion, if you look at these three different pockets and stay focused, you’re definitely going to do well.
Now It's Your Turn...
What do you think is the future role of a CFO in this continuously evolving digital world? Comment below and let us know.