In conversation with The CA Story, Amit Agarwala shares with us his journey becoming a Chartered Accountant, working in San Francisco for 5 years before quitting to start his career all over again in India.
Amit also charts his journey of how he started a freelance consulting practice in a smaller city in India for clients in Bhutan, Sikkim and North East India before venturing into Stones2Milestones, an Edutech StartUp.
My Journey becoming a Chartered Accountant
I grew up in Siliguri, a small town near Darjeeling (India). Although I was not a brilliant student until my 9th grade, I was always in the top 10.
Doing well in my grade 10 exams gave me confidence that I should do even better in class 12 exams. I gave my best and topped the 12th board exams and got into SRCC (considered to be one of the best colleges in India).
While doing my undergrad, I wanted to do an MBA from the IIMs (considered as the best B- Schools in India).
My Interest in an MBA from a top tier institute was driven by a notion that it would help get exposure to the very best the corporate world has to offer.
But as luck had it, I was not able to get through any of the top 4 IIMs.
My uncle was also a CA in my hometown (Siliguri) and it was a big deal back then. So I knew that Chartered Accountants garnered a lot of respect and of course opportunities.
So the next best option was to pursue Chartered Accountancy from ICAI with articles at a Big 4 Accounting Firm.
Fortunately, I got through PwC, Delhi (India) through campus placement in college and from there started my CA journey.
During articleship, we had long working hours and a lot of outstation clients. Having a calm mind and not getting flustered with work and personal ups and downs helped me.
Studying regularly instead of just at the end is cliché but still very true. I was a voracious reader as a child which helped that my comprehension was good and I did not have to do much rote learning.
After 3 years of articles and lots of challenges, I managed to clear the exams in the first attempt, which was a big feat at that time.
Moving to San Francisco
After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in 2003, I continued working at PwC, India for almost a year.
I then quit PwC in 2004 and moved to another company, EXL. It was almost like a start-up then and I made some great friends and learnt how to work when the systems are not as structured as in a large organization.
Around the same time, I was also preparing for an MBA abroad. I appeared for the GMAT, scored 720 and got an admission to the Johnson School of Business at Cornell University.
But as luck may have it, at the exact same time, I got an offer to join PwC, in the Bay Area (San Francisco, US).
I was again torn between choosing an MBA or a well-paying job in the US and I chose the latter.
In April 2005 I joined PwC, San Francisco. I also completed my CPA in 2006, which was a cakewalk having just done a CA.
Working in the US was a completely different experience. I got on to one of the most prestigious and largest clients for PwC in the US and handled a critical area.
Within weeks I was in front of their Global Controller highlighting a $30M error which had been continuing for years.
Within a year I got promoted and the next year received the Chairman’s award. It showed me that I could excel at the highest level.
Life was good.
Moving Back to India and Starting a Freelance Consulting
I worked in San Francisco for over 5 years before deciding to move back to India.
My son was born in Nov 2009 and we had seen that once children grow up in the US it becomes very difficult to move back. It was a conscious decision and something which we had always planned for.
It was a difficult decision and some people did advise against it as well however, there were certain personal reasons which took precedence over anything else.
When I moved back to India in 2010, I joined my previous company EXL. But a few months there and I realized I couldn’t sail on two boats i.e. wanting to do something of my own and work in a company.
I decided to quit my job, pack my bags and move back to my hometown (Siliguri) which was a place I had grown up and my parents still stayed there.
Starting a Freelance Consulting Practice
After quitting my well paying US job and moving to my hometown (Siliguri), I worked with my uncle in his CA practice.
I realized soon that having my own CA firm was something I never wanted to get into. The core CA practice in a small town like Siliguri was never my domain especially after coming from a Big 4 background.
Instead of starting a CA firm, I decided to take freelance assignments. I began working extensively with companies in Bhutan, Sikkim and North East India.
I picked up consulting assignments with the Royal family of Bhutan, M&A of an Iron and Steel company with cross border FDI, helping set up a private investment fund for an HNI, consulting with a large conglomerate, etc.
And never got into the audits and tax filings or anything of that kind.
I was careful in selecting assignments and only picked up what I could do well in a limited amount of time. It is also important to know what your core skill is that is not readily available in the market.
I did not have a team so it was largely me except for maybe some interns when needed. You need to maintain quality so can’t outsource work and if you work full time you might as well take up a job.
Starting as EdTech StartUp Stones2Milestones
Stones2Milestones was started much earlier in 2008 by a very old friend of mine, Kavish. He was an I-Banker by profession but had started this to fuel his desire to give back something which had helped him do so well, i.e. Reading.
For the first 8 years, till about 2015-16 it was being run as a research and pilot company where an accomplished academic team was leading the effort. However, he was not full time involved.
It was only in 2015-16 when he decided to get full time into it and scale it up.
Around the same time, I moved out of my hometown (Siliguri) to Gurgaon (a bigger city) as the freelance consulting and other projects I was involved with as they were not scalable.
So in a sense, the journey at S2M started in 2015-16 when Kavish, Nikhil, Aditi and me came together as co-founders and decided to build a scalable Edtech company out of the 8 years of research that had gone behind it.
What is Stones2Milestones?
- Basically, for any language learning to happen effectively, there are 4 components – LSRW (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing).
- While each of these skills is important, what is most critical is the ability to read and comprehend text with fluency and comprehension.
- Today children are poor in Math and Science because they don’t understand what the question/text means or is asking them to do.
- They get so used to memorizing questions and answers. This creates a big learning gap when they go to higher grades when they go for professional exams and finally when they enter the work-life because reading is something which continues life long.
The basic premise of S2M is that children going to English medium schools are not able to read with comprehension and fluency at grade-appropriate levels. This creates a life long gap in their ability to learn and do well in academics and professional life.
Stones2Milestones provides an adaptive tech-enabled solution to help each child grow in his/her reading journey.
Today we are present in 20 plus cities in 200 different schools.
Funding our venture
Fundraising is a critical aspect of building a venture. Some ventures are completely bootstrapped so it is a personal choice.
It is always about managing the costs well and staying lean. Knowing how long is the runway so that there is enough fuel.
Having another source of income to manage the basic costs is always very important.
We had a set of early believers who joined us as angel investors. We were later joined by a couple of institutional investors as well.
At the ideation stage, there may be some people who would be willing to come on board. It is important to guard equity at every stage and not dilute too much earlier on so more can be retained for later rounds.
Also, important to identify what metrics are being shown and the traction that is achieved on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.
Learnings and Mistakes in my Entrepreneurial Journey
When we venture on our own, we must be fully aware of what we are getting into and have our expectations right.
Sometimes as CAs we are so risk-averse in fact, I have been the contrary. Have been very extravagant, to the border of being reckless in my decision making. But then no journey is complete without mistakes.
When you are starting your own business even if you have savings, they can fizzle away quickly if you are not prudent. I did have a fair idea of how I was going to manage my finances but things don’t always work to plan.
When you are on your own, you feel inclined to try out multiple things, you get many ‘free ideas’ on ventures that can be started/invested.
Likewise, I tried my hands (and burnt them) at several ventures but in hindsight, it has been a great learning experience.
Without the right mix of exuberance and prudence, these can tend to be a drain on the liquidity which it did in my case. When some investments do well, there are some which don’t so it is important to be able to take them in your stride.
So be wise in your decision and take well thought out risks.
Every day is different. In a startup, you are always trying to fight the daily fires and trying to find a sense of the long term plan. There is never a clear answer.
I read it somewhere – All happy families are the same but all unhappy families have different reasons. However in business, it is the opposite – all unsuccessful companies are the same while successful companies have their own success stories.
So each story is different so build your own.
So before quitting your job to start your own, know what you are getting into and know that with patience and persistence you can make it. Write your own story.
My CA qualification gave a belief that anything is possible. People management and having my priorities clear were some key lessons that I learned during my articles and CA journey in particular.
The rigor and discipline it builds is very important for any work. It is also very important to not consider oneself limited by it and explore other avenues.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Have you considered quitting your job and starting your own?
Or have you already done something like it?
Comment below and let me know.
You can reach me on LinkedIn at – Amit Agarwala.