From Big 4 to a 3-time-CFO of Fintech Startups: The the CFO of a fintech with USD 46 million in funding shares how one should dream big

Transitioning from Big 4 to Fintech Startup

  • Jay Olos, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) actually wanted to become a Partner at a Big 4 firm. But when his entrepreneurial instinct kicked in, he decided to join a fintech startup in The Philippines.
  • Luckily that paid off and today he is the CFO at PayMongo, a Peter Thiel-backed Manila-based million-dollar payment gateway that has raised a total of almost $46 million in funding. 
  • Here is his journey from growing up in the slums of Manila to a thriving career. 

Growing up in the slums of Manila to studying CPA

From childhood until my early 20s, my parents and I ran a small carinderia (a food stall with a small seating area) in our neighborhood.

That is how I got exposed to entrepreneurship and strategy early on.

My mother has a finance degree, so I learned the basic concepts of banking and finance from her while my father taught me how to track sales, cash, inventory as well as proper bookkeeping.

In addition, my grandfather, who was a war veteran, taught me a lot about strategy, humility and trustworthiness as a teenager.

As an engineering consultant and contractor in his younger years, he was my very first capitalist partner when we started a lending business using his pension as capital. I guess that is my early taste of financial modeling.

Growing up in the slums of Manila and experiencing poverty, it was reading, writing and frequenting theatres that became my solace.

Honestly, I did not dream of being into finance or business. Instead, my dream then was to become a writer-slash-lawyer to help educate and defend my marginalized brethren.

My mother suggested to take-up accountancy as a pre-law course and becoming a CPA-lawyer thereafter.

I followed my mother’s advice and pursued CPA…. One of the best decisions which opened several opportunities for me.

From a Big 4 firm to the startup world

Passing the CPA Licensure Exams and being an A+ accountancy student made me a top recruit target of Big 4 firms.

Back then, people considered the local KPMG office the most elite, with high barriers to entry among all Big 4 firms.

After careful thinking, I decided to join KPMG as an Audit Associate. This was in 2006.

It was a great experience because I was involved in audit and due diligence work for big brands in various industries.

I am fortunate to have earned the trust and mentorship from some of the well-respected audit partners in the local Big 4 scene back then.

That is why in my mid-20s, I aspired to be a Big 4 partner too.

However, after a few years of working in the Big 4, there was a desire to build something of my own from the ground up.

I guess it was the entrepreneurial blood running in my veins.

I decided to leave KPMG for Unilab, the largest pharmaceutical company in the Philippines where I was tasked to set up the Risk Management and Controls Department. It was such a fulfilling experience.

While at Unilab, I established my sole consulting practice on the side, Vanguard Consulting so as to help small businesses. I wanted to add value to these small business owners and entrepreneurs with my rich corporate experience.

It was here that I got noticed by some of the venture capitalists (VCs) of Southeast Asia.

In 2014 they recruited me to help them build their portfolio of companies in the region as their first CFO, working side-by-side with the partners and their Managing Directors in every country.

MoneyMax, a fintech startup was one of them…. And here started my journey in the fast-growing startup world.

My transition to the startup world

As one of the early members of MoneyMax, I remember how small the team was back then, having one table and sitting across from each other.

My first task was to:

  • Establish the basics of finance – setting up the financial processes from Order to cash (O2C), Procure-to-Pay (P2P) lending, General Ledger (GL), financial consolidation, and reporting.
  • Creation and management of the portfolios, the company’s business plan to ensure the proper allocation of funding and strategic position for the next round.

Becoming a CFO of a tech startup was not easy as the tech scene was just starting in the region (I am talking about 2014-15).

As a CFO of an internet company, I was exposed to metrics a typical internet company usually tracks. These include website visits, conversion, monetization, and retention. I had to learn the various terms and see the impact they had on the startup.

In short, it required me to learn and relearn every single day.

Again, I was fortunate to get the hang of it and find mentors in some of the pioneer figures in the Southeast Asia tech scene.

Over the years, I built a solid career in the startup ecosystem.

Today, I am the CFO of PayMongo, a Manila-based million-dollar payment gateway that allows businesses to easily accept online payments via credit card, e-wallets, and over-the-counter.

PayMongo has now raised a total of almost $46 million in funding (as of Feb 2022).

My entrepreneurial instincts made it easier to switch from Big 4 to corporate, and finally, to startups.

Another thing that made the transition smoother was that I did not wear my titles on my sleeve. Instead, I am hands-on.

Also Read

How this CA and Co-founder of DUX- an edtech startup with an affordable subscription raised seed funds from Malpani Ventures. Here's how he did it.

Challenges as the CFO of a startup

Back then and even today, one of the biggest challenges we face is talent discovery and retention.

In fact, retaining good talent is a lot more challenging because of the enticing offers across. If you are a great mentor, chances are other startups will really try to poach your people.

The other challenge is the ongoing struggle to balance investing for growth versus financial sustainability.

They say gone are the days of growth at all costs but frankly, as a startup, there is nothing much you can do to go against your deeply pocketed competitors who are OK to burn more money to capture users which may not necessarily translate to sustainable revenue.

As a value-creating CFO, you must make smart moves out there to fulfill promises to your stakeholders while at the same time ensuring that you are not leading the ship to sink.

What does it take to become a CFO at a fintech startup?

Many of my Big 4 peers asked me how finance works in a startup.

I told them it was actually not too different from working in well-established companies. Same finance principles but different ways to execute.

You have to be creative, think out of the box, do smarter risk management, be entrepreneurial and most of all, have grit.

The Finance person in a startup has to balance the demands of a fast-growing company against the principles and requirements of financial frameworks, tax, and regulations, especially if you are operating in a highly regulated industry.

Decision-making is faster than in the corporate setting. There is no silo mentality too. It is a very inclusive environment.

Working closely with fintech startups and startups, in general, is really an awesome experience for me.

What worked for me is my diversified professional experience - From audit, financial planning and analysis (FP&A), risk management, control & governance, corporate finance, valuation, venture capital and building startup companies.

I took some downhills too along the way. Those skillsets that I built, mentors that I met and the downhills I underwent made me the strong tech CFO of today.

Here is why I prefer salary cuts in exchange for equity?

Salary negotiations in startups depend on the prospective employee.

If you are young and do not have many responsibilities yet, I would recommend taking a lesser cash compensation and more of equity because you have the advantage of time.

On the other hand, seniors have bigger responsibilities. A pay cut in exchange for equity, like an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) might not necessarily be an effective means to attract and retain them.

In my case as an entrepreneur, I am fine with pay cuts in exchange for equity, provided I really believe in the potential of that startup.

Most of the time, I put my VC hat on when assessing a startup’s future to see if it is something really worthy of investing my time and expertise into.

Also Read

Co-founder of a startup incubator who has helped over 500 startups tells us about fund raising and angel investing

Huge demand for finance professionals in startups

Every time I screen finance people for my team, I have the tendency to investigate the intangibles rather than the academic qualifications and achievements of the professional.

It is because past achievements, recognitions, school and titles are not that important in having a successful career in tech startups. It's really more on the attitude and mindset of the finance person.

Talking about the Philippines, the fintech startup ecosystem is booming. It is the perfect time to be in the game here.

So, if you have the right attitude and grit – go for it.

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