How this 29-year old CA entered the startup world and now Financial Controller at a funded startup
- I am Jigar Vachharajani, a Chartered Accountant and start-up enthusiast passionate about business innovations.
- After qualifying as a CA, I struggled for close to 2 months to find an opportunity in my desired profile, Direct Taxation.
- Through a turn of events, I got into Indirect Tax and a few years later I started my career at a growing funded startup.
- Here is my story of how my decision to quit a traditional MNC job and be a part of the startup world paid off.
Deciding to become a CA at a young age
As far as the decision to become a Chartered Accountant is concerned, it was pretty much simple for me - My father was a practicing tax and accounting consultant and I have seen him working on multiple tax assignments since childhood.
Later on, he moved to the corporate world and was working as a Finance Director in one of the largest solar EPC Companies (A German-based MNC).
Watching him, I realized early in life that I wanted to pursue the Chartered Accountancy course and wanted to add the prefix CA before my name.
I still remember the day I enrolled for the CA course, there was an energy and enthusiasm with a certain fear of failure as well.
I did take a couple of attempts to clear IPCC (Intermediate level of the course) but apart from that, there were no hiccups.
In 2014, I qualified as a Chartered Accountant.
Struggling to find a job opportunity in the desired profile
Considering how the profile and opportunities for CAs have evolved and changed substantially over the last few years, my biggest question was - "What next?"
Today everyone is into specialization and it solely determines the career path of a qualified CA.
In hindsight, I was not certain as to what should I pursue further as a professional path i.e. Tax, Audit, corporate finance, forensics, etc.
I had only done audits for the entire duration of my articles. However, I was fascinated by direct & international taxation.
So, post-CA, I focused my job search on tax consulting and the Big 4 firms. Unfortunately, I could not find any job in this profile for close to 2 months.
A career in Indirect Taxation
One evening, I met Mr. Naresh Sheth (Indirect tax expert) who convinced me that the future is 'Indirect taxation' with the revamping of the entire tax framework and GST in the offing. GST was to be launched in India in 2017.
He then asked me to join his firm for some time and then decide.
With no job offers in hand, I joined his firm the very next day and started working on service tax-related assignments as a member of his indirect tax team.
Under his guidance, I learnt law and legal language and was given exposure to cream consultancy work. I am thankful and indebted to him for the guidance and mentoring he offered me.
I soon got an opportunity at Big4 and entered the corporate consultancy world for the first time.
Here I learnt finesse, presentation, client relationships, people management and communication which I feel are very important.
Desire to be a part of the startup ecosystem
At the Big4, I was lucky enough to be mentored by my seniors.
Life was great, however, during this phase, two things kept bothering me: 1) The limited scope of my current work profile i.e. Taxation, and 2) Not being part of the thriving start-up ecosystem in India.
I started reading books on start-ups and went ahead building connections on social media platforms. Many of my emails went unanswered, but I did receive some excellent encouraging responses.
I approached various start-up founders to voluntarily support them during their growth journey in whichever way I could (subject matter expertise or otherwise). I worked on a couple of assignments for some of them and it helped me learn and understand the ecosystem in greater detail. I did all this while working a full-time job.
All of my interactions with various startups convinced me that I should take a bold move and ride the startup wave, at a personal level I was enjoying it too!
Plunge into the startup world with Clear Tax
I kept interacting with various startup co-founders and if I came across any job opportunity I would apply for it.
Fortunately, around the same time, I got an opportunity from ClearTax - a Financial-Technology platform providing solutions for Income Tax filing, GST and Mutual Fund Investments.
Back then in 2019, it was a Series B start-up and had a decent enough name in the start-up world.
Before joining them, I inquired a lot about the role, the start-up, and received positive reviews.
The role was to head their managed services vertical. Though related to tax it was certainly broader than my current hardcore tax consultancy role and of course, I jumped at the opportunity.
Here I worked with some of the smartest brains hailing from varied backgrounds (right from technology to management consulting).
I worked with the sales team, category team, product team as well as finance team. (There was no formal or structured way of working but that is what start-up culture and learning is all about.)
Additionally, I was also given an opportunity to represent and speak at various CFO forums on Tax Technology. It was really an enriching experience.
(One thing which I would recommend every CA to do is to try working on cross-functional roles; there is a lot to learn and it helps in building multiple other traits.)
Moving to a Sequoia funded startup – Salesken
I kept on building my network and in the process, I came across Salesken (an AI-based SaaS company) who were looking for a Finance Controller for their company. They were a Series A Sequoia Funded startup.
I met the founders and had a discussion about the company, product, and future plans. I was definitely all excited about this role and decided to give it a try.
They soon gave me the task of completing one excel project determining Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) for over 5 years.
Now, this was the first time I was working on such kind of assignment. I did a lot of research. I analyzed the financials of various other software companies and tried to compute CAC using multiple ratios and projections.
The founders were quite satisfied with the CAC computation and workings. I was then asked to interview with their funding partners - Sequoia!
Luckily, I cracked the interview with Sequoia Capital and was offered the role of a finance controller.
Financial controller at 29 of an early-stage startup
Though I was so excited about being selected, I was also nervous. My mind threw multiple questions about the future and size of the company, professional growth, role challenges, and many more.
But after some thought and discussions with peers and family, I decided to take a risk and join the company. The role out here is very wide and quite challenging:
- Budgeting, MIS reporting and investor relations
- Developing and building multiple processes from scratch (being a Series A company many things and processes need to be set)
- Financial reporting & cash flow
- Compliances and taxation related work
- Banking, investment and cash management
- Negotiation and vendor discussions
- International / cross border compliances
- Other legal and trademark-related work
Role at current startup
The role is more challenging when you join an early-stage startup where everything is to be built from scratch.
The Finance Function of a company involves not only handling compliances and book-keeping but also cash flow, financing needs, investor relations, budgeting and multiple other aspects.
Presently, we have a team of 3-4 people in Accounts and Finance. Since we are scaling- up, we are working on streamlining a set of processes (be it procurement, sales, AR/AP, etc.) and make the function more robust.
The person taking care of the Finance function needs to co-ordinate with multiple external stakeholders, be it banks, various auditors, consultants, etc. Normally, we start our day a little early and finish banking-related work.
There are multiple other things that occupy the time during the day. There are various calls with external and internal stakeholders, commercial negotiations and daily team meetings to discuss the work schedule. Month ends are quite hectic with multiple deadlines and MIS submissions.
The biggest challenge working in a startup is that there is no structured work profile and one needs to support various cross-functional functions and work comes up all of a sudden and is often chaotic.
Sometimes, a finance professional finds it challenging to explain multiple statutory and legal nuances to the management if they are not from a finance background.
But all of this makes it interesting and creates great learning opportunities.
Questions I get asked often:
"Two cents on the Start-up culture/ecosystem vs MNCs."
As far as the role is concerned, it is pretty challenging and you have to deal with multiple issues daily.
You are sure to learn something new every day however, start-ups are not comparable to MNCs, be it policies, processes, or structure, however:
- Be ready to slog and work on cross-functional roles
- The risk and uncertainty of job security cannot be ruled out.
- There is a potential for fast career growth and is directly related to start-up growth. However, nothing is certain.
- Smaller the start-up - Faster the growth path – Higher the uncertainty
- As compared to MNCs, there is no formal hierarchal structure and standard formal processes and policies which may be difficult to deal with initially.
"Remuneration at a startup."
There may be cases where you do not get the expected salary and you may need to take a pay cut. It depends completely on the level of start-ups and negotiations. These days even decently funded start-ups pay you fairly well.
You also are given Stock options (ESOPs) as a part of your overall compensation.
One thing which I would like to highlight here is that while ESOPs may look fancy, you need to check the ESOP policy of the company. It normally vests in equal proportion over a period of 4-5 years, so there are chances of complete or partial lapse if you quit your job.
Negotiation completely depends on how much risk you want to take. You can negotiate for higher ESOP and lower salary and vice versa.
You can cash in the ESOP only when buying out events come which normally takes considerable time. There is not much negotiation room for evolved and established start-ups and bands are pre-decided.
“How did you learn about job opportunities at startups?”
Jobs are available on normal job portals and sometimes your passion and zeal would help you get a good role.
Do not lose hope, keep on cold emailing and keep building networks. You never know what may click and when.
“When should one join a startup?”
Joining an early-stage startup as a fresher is something I would not advise unless you have solid previous articles exposure.
The corporate experience will build a personality, character, and other traits that matter much more than technical knowledge. This will help you add more value to startups.
I am still thankful to my first manager at Big 4 – Mr. Ashish Modi, under whose guidance I learnt corporate finesse and presentation skills which helped me gain confidence in my career path.
It is completely a personal choice of whether to join a start-up or not. If you ask me, you should try working for a startup at least once in your career.
Personal aspirations and passion would be the key driving factors to make the right decisions.
If someone wants to enter into a managerial role and get a sense of business management, he should definitely consider joining a start-up.
You get to learn business functions in and out. It will give you a much broader perspective on how businesses/start-ups operate and will build multi-faceted relations and investor connections.
One piece of advice that I would like to give to all the fellow finance professionals in the fraternity is to keep learning and upskilling yourself. Try to be relevant and increase your visibility.
Increase your presence at professional social media platforms, attend various webinars, contribute articles / write-ups at multiple forums and journals. This will help increase your network and it plays a pivotal role in your career ahead.
Now It's Your Turn...
Would you want to join a startup? If yes why? If no why? Or have you applied to one? Would love to know.
(Article edited by CA Uma Krishnan and image by Ankit Lodhi)