After Qualifying as a CA(SA) I Started My Career in a Startup (Not MNC). Was It Worth It?

The Finance Story

  • In the times of startups and disruption, a lot of young Accountants are constantly wondering what should they be doing. Should you work in an MNC and climb the corporate ladder or work for a startup or start your own?
  • In today’s article, Hiten Keshave is sharing with us his journey in starting his career in small organisations and start-ups after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).
  • Currently, he is the CFO of PRP Solutions, a non-executive director and personal mentor for various organisations (both profit and non-profit) and individuals. In the recent past he has started 3 successful companies; and implemented successful turnaround solutions and strategies, getting them to sustainable growth levels.

My Journey - Becoming a CA(SA) to Working in Start-ups

I initially wanted to be a doctor, but one of my strengths at school was Accounting and Economics. The CA route was naturally my second choice, of which I have absolutely no regrets!

It has been an interesting experience, from university till today. The theory learned and the “practical” working life is very different, yet interesting.

During the last 6 months of my final year in articles, I founded Africa’s Energy World. I saw the market opportunity in renewable energy in South Africa and found this a more appealing learning opportunity from a career perspective as opposed to entering the corporate world. My team and I introduced an IP product, which was bought out 3 years later.

I believe this experience of starting a business and going through the learnings as an entrepreneur resulted in my appointments into executive roles when I moved to Johannesburg in 2015.

And here started my journey in small organisations and start-ups…

Why did I choose Smaller Organisations to MNCs?

Depending on the type of route you follow, there are various options one can take on the CA journey i.e. traditional corporate roles, entrepreneurial (smaller business) roles etc.

I went with entrepreneurial roles to allow for versatility and a wider scope of responsibilities i.e. I am not limited to traditional finance but more engaged as a commercial strategic partner, therefore gaining wider experience in various aspects of the business.

Starting my own business, and subsequently working in smaller organisations and start-ups has helped me gain practical real-life experiences very early in my career.

This, in turn, has led me to assist large-scale organisations, other entrepreneurs, SMME’s and charitable organisations, to be sustainable for the future.

Transitioning from an article intern at a Big 4 to working in Smaller Organisations and Start-ups

The transition was not difficult. Here are a few learnings from working in a smaller organisation/start-up:

  • In a smaller organisation/start-up, you are naturally required to make decisions more quickly(and be more flexible), especially during the start-up phase.
  • Working in smaller organisations and start-ups immediately exposes you to “what works and what doesn’t work” from the perspective of agile decision-making.
  • It allows you to broaden your commercial acumen in business.
  • Unlike bigger organisations, your role and responsibilities are unlikely to be limited to only a finance function. This helped grow my operational, commercial, and strategic skillset in business. Examples of this include implementing CSI strategies, HR strategies, technology implementations, process improvements, etc.
  • It also allows for a greater sense of accountability, with regards to decision making.
  • Your impact as a leader is also a lot more notable, and therefore understanding your role and the effect/impact it has on other individuals is critical.
  • As a CFO for a smaller organisation, you very much play a co-pilot role to the CEO.

Having these experiences has helped me grow as a leader through a better understanding of emotional intelligence.

What Should You Look When Joining Smaller Companies or StartUps 

In a smaller organisation and start-up, you are provided broader exposure to business and will need to get your hands “dirty” from day one. Working in start-ups means “owning” your career from day one, but the rewards reap benefits depending on where you and your team’s vision is in taking the business forward.

In an MNC, more often than not, you are provided a structured career path, with some set goals and targets. You may (may not) be groomed/mentored by seasoned executives who have a wealth of knowledge; however, your broader skillset growth is not immediate – it takes time and climbing up the corporate ladder into executive positions may take longer.

 My decision to move into a smaller company/ start-up depends on the following:

  1. What is the culture of the business, and does it suit my personality?
  2. What opportunities are there for me to bring value and create a positive impact/change?
  3. Is there any career growth opportunity within 3 years, or is this likely to be a short turnaround tenure?
  4. What are the long-term gains and growth?

My decision to work for an organisation is based on: “Can I create value and bring meaningful change?”

As for advice to others, if you make the decision to work for a smaller organisation or start-up, ask yourself - how will working at XYZ “create value” on my resume? Naturally, recruiters often overlook the value working for smaller organisations, and therefore knowing how to sell yourself from your experiences learnt is crucial.

Challenges faced when working in Small Organisations and Start-ups

It is important and crucial to maintaining “differentiation” in the product or service you provide to clients, especially if you are looking to scale your business. The following is also key to successful growth:

  • Managing cash flow is also a crucial component in smaller companies, as this is what will drive investment in growth.
  • Internally, setting the right culture from the onset is key, especially when an organisation is still in the start-up phase.
  • Employee culture drives business success, and therefore paying attention to employee needs is critical for sustainability.
  • Making sure that everyone at an executive level has the same vision and values.

"How has the CA qualification helped in working in Smaller Organisations and Start-ups?"

Having the CA qualification has allowed me to grasp various commercial, governance and financial aspects. As I built my work experience, it also allowed for understanding transparency and ethical behavior in decision making. Key short-term benefits of the CA qualification for me include:

  • A better understanding (and managing) of the financial elements of the business.
  • As an entrepreneur, financial elements are critical to understand in order to maintain sustainability in (and grow) your business.
  • This includes Financial Management, Financial Planning and Analysis, Business Processes and Management Accounting.

I also studied for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), which today has helped me broaden my skillsets and knowledge from an operational and strategic aspect.

From a career perspective, The CA designation has opened doors for me in terms of job opportunities where organisations still place importance on the requirements of a skilled CA. An additional benefit is the opportunity to network off various CA platforms and events.

In Conclusion...

If you like being hands-on and searching for a versatile role, then choosing a smaller business may be viable. On the flip side, if you prefer a structured workplace and career pathway, then an MNC may be more viable.

The choice is completely yours!

Future Plan? I am considering spreading my wings should opportunities arise to head up bigger organisations in the role of a CFO/CEO/MD.

I do believe my experience gained in smaller organisations and start-ups will add value to bigger organisations in the future. I aim to be an Influential leader who will positively impact the lives of everyone

Key Takeaways from my journey?

  • Do one job well: MNC. You are often hired by an MNC to do one job and to do it well. This is good if you want to hone your skillsets and progress in a certain direction.
  • Be involved: Small Organisations/Start-ups: At small organisations and start-ups, you are expected to be hands-on, and assist in various parts (where needed) of the business. This means you learn a lot (very fast) and build a broader entrepreneurial skillset (rather than a specific skillset).

Now It's Your Turn...

Are you considering moving to small businesses or start-ups and need mentoring or guidance.

I am happy to help you by sharing more of my experiences and learnings.

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