Millennial CFOs: Why this CA quit his Big 4 job to become a CFO at age 26 of a bootstrapped content studio

  • Meet Saajan Thakkar, a Chartered Accountant and the CFO of Supari Studios – an integrated content studio garnering 120 million views.
  • From working at Deloitte Haskins & Sells LLP to undertaking the role as a young CFO, Saajan has gained insight into the workings of different sectors and fields due to his insatiable passion to learn more
  • With the onset of responsibilities and expectations, we spoke to Saajan to understand his journey from working at a Big 4 and assimilate his key learnings along the way.

Tell us about yourself? 

Right after class 12th exams, I enrolled for the Chartered Accountancy course. This was in 2008.

Hailing from a family of experienced Chartered Accountants, I had some guidance from them in terms of the career options and the prospects. One thing that excited me about pursuing CA was the experience of learning.

Another option that I had considered was pursuing an MBA after my graduation.

So with an open mind, I decided to give CA a shot.

Fast forward, all worked out well and by 2013 I was a Chartered Accountant.

How did you start your career as a CA fresher?

The questions of starting something of my own and going into practice crossed my mind at various junctures. However, I wanted to work somewhere before to get some experience in the field.

So, after qualifying as a CA, I joined a Big 4 firm Deloitte Haskins & Sells LLP. I would say it was a ‘right call at the right time’.

My role here gave me an opportunity to interact with the key management people and gain insight from working in the different industries and sectors.

After joining Deloitte, I realized that we are dealing with large corporations, the set of problems that come your way prepare you for the far-fetched struggles in the corporate world.

Why quit the Big 4 and take up a CFO role in a bootstrapped content company?

By now I was in my mid 20’s and had spent close to 4 years at Deloitte. I soon realized that maybe audit is not my forte as the entire work culture was transitioning towards an extremely monotonous zone. I was looking forward to a career path change in my life.

Luckily around the same time I got in touch with Advait Gupt, one of the co-founders at Supari Studios - a content studio that helps brands create differentiated, relatable, and scalable video content properties for Gen Y & Gen Z audiences online.

They were hiring people to head their finance function, especially to administer the role of a CFO. I knew this would be a great learning opportunity and I joined them in 2018 and since then, it has been a great rollercoaster ride for me!

What factors did you take into consideration while embracing your role as a CFO?

I will say do your homework before even considering any such decision but once you have decided, have a strong belief and passion to pursue your story.

The success mantra “try early, fail early and try again till you succeed” comes from many renowned names in the corporate world and I too count on it.

Following were the few key factors that I had to put my head around (without any priority order) while I made the decision for myself:

  • Is it the role that excites you? Do you enjoy responsibilities or succumb to them?
  • Do you know what you are getting into? This question is mainly towards an understanding of the industry and business. Ask for some historical data around company performance, growth, key clients, markets, etc. if it’s not publicly available.
  • Do I know enough about the founders or the management with whom I am going to work closely? If not, then do your basic research or ask questions.
  • How aligned you are with the vision of the founders or the management? I understand it's a little difficult to have an answer to this, initially, but there should be some clarity around it.
  • What if this doesn’t work out? Be prepared for this scenario.

Did you consider this move to be risky?

Not at all. Trusting my abilities and dedicating my time towards my growth really molded me into what I am today.

I always knew that I wanted to take the entrepreneurial path and for a long time, I was waiting for an opportunity to come my way. 

I knew that in case things did not work out well, 3-4 years down the line I could always recuperate.

Also, Audit as a function will still continue and it will not cease to exist in the long run.

The fact that it happened organically and there was someone who was willing to trust me for this role, was a matter of me believing in myself.

How do you live up to the challenges of being a CFO at a young age?

Moving from a Big 4 to a complete startup, was a challenging experience for me.

Initially, the pressure was there, and it took me a year or so to get the right structure in place and set up the financial and legal team. However, over a period of time, I adjusted really well.

Since I am a young CFO I might not have a lot of practical experience handling complex challenges. So I try and discuss my challenge with others (wherever or whenever you can) - Be it professional or personal. This not only distributes my load but also gives me various perspectives around the same thing.

I end up receiving certain suggestions that may not be useful for me but it is always good to have a problem of plenty.

What are your key learnings in the last 4 years as a CFO at Supaari Studio?

I will touch upon some key learnings that I have acquired over the past 3-4 years:

  • Having a long-term vision broken down into short-term goals that are measurable. This becomes a good roadmap to pursue your Vision. We have adapted this OKR framework in Supari for the past 2 years now and it has helped everyone in the organization.
  • Planning always helps. It’s good to Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Covid-19 did force me as a CFO and everyone at the organization to redraw and relook at these plans these scenarios to ensure sustainability. As a startup, you may not have an exhaustive Business Continuity plan, but a rough framework should definitely be in place.
  • Defining a problem statement. This may sound very basic but, most of us do not even think about this when we casually talk about our problems. Most of the time, what people end up defining is not a problem but an outcome. For instance: We were not able to achieve sales of XYZ in this quarter” or “We did not reduce our costs by xyz% in this year”. These are not the problem statements but an outcome. To identify the root cause of a problem is by repeating the question "Why?". Each answer forms the basis of the next question. 
  • “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Got real-life experience of this during last fiscal. April 20, COVID-19 was on the rise, and lockdowns were imposed. Had zero clarity around how things are going to pan out in the coming months. Immediate criteria were to ensure that everyone in the organization remains safe and everyone is trying to help each other to the extent possible in these tough times. We call ourselves a family at Supari and we acted like one. For a startup that is bootstrapped, we did not even for a moment think about layoffs when there was news of some big names of the startup world downsizing their staff. And we survived it and came out successful, together. We had our best financial year in terms of every operational and financial metric.
  • It has made me believe in the power of a team. And, that the learning never stops.

Do you think that prior experience at a Big 4 prepared you for the CFO role?

Having Big 4 experience helped in developing my communication skills and getting my practical experience from varied industries. It helped me gain the requisite skills for communicating with conviction.

Learning how to lead a team and making sure that everything was communicated to the members was another key learning while working at a Big 4. It helped me boost my morale in terms of public speaking and confidence.

A day in your life as a CFO?

A normal day for a CFO starts at 7:30-8 depending on if you want to work out or not.

40-50% of the day gets consumed in meetings whether it is with a business team, clients, vendors, or their own team.

The rest of the time goes into analyzing the data and numbers. That’s how the work gets divided.

It primarily depends on keeping a conscious touch with each aspect.

I have realised that to operate in a CFO position, you need to keep abreast of everything in the business. How one function can impact the business in a certain manner?

I think, as a CFO, we need to build that communication with every function of the management. People who have no prior experience are more susceptible to voice their opinions. Communication plays a key in the role of a CFO’s routine.

How did early leadership roles contribute to your journey?

Considering that I got into a bootstrapped startup it has been an amazing experience to build the base and start from scratch. 

When I laid down my career plan, I always wanted to lead the finance function at some point in time.

I was very lucky to get this role at an early stage in my life. Since then, the role has been helpful in terms of my learning growth.

Working at a startup in a leadership role is an experience no MBA can match up to. The practical difficulties that I had studied in theory, I am facing in everyday life. Living through the worst slowdown in the economy, I am proud of myself for surviving this and I hope I continue to grow in the future.

Everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

If you had to start your career all over again, what would you do differently?

My current role as a CFO forces me to read more books on these topics however for the initial few years, my learning momentum just slowed down.

So, if I had to go five years back, I would start reading more books and material around the key areas and laws that impact us in any particular field.

Now It's Your Turn...

Want to connect with Saajan and ask him career-related questions? Comment below and Saajan will get back to you. 

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