Meet the Founders: Prakash Shah
StartupCFO is the UK’s leading network for CFOs and finance leaders in high growth companies. In this series, we’ll be interviewing the members to find out everything from their background to their highs and lows of leading some of the UK’s fastest growing businesses.
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In this post, we’ll be talking to Prakash Shah.
Careers are often one of the key drivers of lifestyle - the vast majority of people choose a lifestyle that fits their career, rather than the other way around. Every now and then, however, you’ll come across people who don’t live life by that principle. Prakash is one of those admirable people. His career choices since leaving the City are based on his lifestyle, not vice versa.
Change the world, don’t wait for the world to change
Prakash is currently Group CFO at uMotif, a patient-centric platform powering site-based to fully decentralised clinical, real-world, and post-marketing research. Designed with patients, the platform drives high levels of engagement and data capture, and robust and compliant cloud technology speeds trial timelines and reduces costs. By allowing patients and medical practitioners to track their symptoms in real time, it improves the data quality and therefore enables drugs to come to market much faster.
Innovation in the pharma industry is traditionally slow. It’s tricky for tech companies to break into the sector because of the high barriers to entry and complex regulatory requirements, and it’s these same regulations that slow down innovation in the existing players.
That’s why the COVID vaccine development is such a landmark moment. Everyone in the supply chain has worked together to get the vaccine through the process in just under 1 year. A normal vaccine, on average, takes anything from 2 or 3 to 10 years.
The result? Millions of lives will be saved. Developments like this are changing the world, and that plays a huge role in which companies Prakash choses to work with. It’s a common theme in the companies he’s been CFO for.
His day to day role is relatively typical for a startup CFO. It involves the business as usual activities such as managing and reviewing the operational side of finance, along with the big picture activities like venture funding and strategic work.
But, being a CFO is about much more than the day to day numbers. Prakash explains his job is about enablement and improvement. “The job of a CFO is actually very simple. You just need to keep asking ‘Why?’. If you find an error in the system, don’t just fix it. Ask why it happened then go and solve the underlying problem so those errors don’t repeat.”
As well as being involved in the numbers side, he’s also entrusted with a lot of HR and legal work, “you don’t need to be an expert to manage those areas, you just need to be able to see the wood from the trees. The accountancy training/analytical background often makes the CFO a good fit for taking HR and legal under their wing.”
A hedge fund manager with a work life balance?
Prakash took a slightly different entry route into tech startups. He spent a large amount of his career in various fund management positions, working in the world of managing pensions and hedge fund portfolios.
When 2008 hit and investment banks started making mass redundancies, Prakash found himself at a crossroads - “the easier option for me would have been to jump back into another hedge fund, but my son had just been born and I was barely spending any time with him”.
The idea of being a portfolio CFO was suddenly very appealing. “I would only work with 2 clients at a time so my work week was only a 3 - 3.5 day week. I would spread that across a whole week, meaning I could do the school runs in the morning and afternoon, and all of the after school activities, but fit my work in between.”
Progression is about performing above your job title
The key advice Prakash has for anyone looking to move up the ranks is to always be operating at the level you want to achieve. If you’re a management accountant, you should be thinking as if you were at the next level up. If you’re a #2 in finance, you should be thinking like a #1. That doesn’t mean trying to step on the toes of the person above you, but it does mean taking a keen interest in what they do and work out how to make their lives easier. Do that, and when your time comes to move up the transition will be much smoother.
Prakash explains how startups are a great place to do exactly that. You’re often having to pick up tasks that wouldn’t fit a ‘normal’ job description, or you may not even have someone above you so there is no option but to perform above your level.
This is one of the key factors in deciding whether you’d be better suited to the startup world or the corporate world - do you thrive in changing environments and are happy to get stuck into anything, or do you prefer consistency and refining your skills through repetition? The former is a startup, the latter is a corporate.
One of the most challenging things Prakash has done in his career is having to fire/make redundant good people. “Sometimes in startups you have to get rid of really great people because the needs of the business have changed. I have fired people in the past that I would hire again in an instant.” His top tips for this conversation? Be direct and be truthful.
If Prakash could have his time again, he says he would have tried to get into tech a lot earlier. It’s much more exciting than being in the city and he enjoys his work so much more.
Moore’s law, but for coding skills
Something that’s at the front of Prakash’s mind at the moment is how we’re going through a Moore's Law moment of being able to code. For those unaware, Moore's Law relates to the progression of chip development - it’s believed that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, hence the speed and capability of computers will increase at a rapid pace.
“Whenever I speak to children at my son’s school, they always want to know how to hack. I tell them to go away and learn how to code, because when they’ve done that, they’ll know how to hack”. That increased interest amongst the newer generation has led to many schools bringing coding into their teaching syllabus.
“That’s interesting because the number of people in the workplace who know how to code today is relatively low. But, in a few years, the majority of workers will understand at least the basics of coding, which should mean the level of development accelerates at a much faster pace than currently.”
Prakash Shah is group CFO at uMotif and co-founded the Startup CFO members group.