After earning your MBA at Wharton you took a role with BCG. Did you know going into business school that you wanted to work in consulting?
I did not. I went to Wharton to round out my business education. Consulting started to appeal to me mainly because I had never had formal business education before then. My prior degrees were in science and engineering. I realized that if I did consulting, I could learn all of the aspects of a business. I tried it for the summer and thought, “why not do this for two years?”
But you stayed at BCG for 8 years!
Indeed. What I really liked about consulting was that, at its core, it’s about problem-solving, and the problems you’re solving matter. So I was working on problems that mattered, with people I really enjoyed working with, and BCG was a really positive environment with so much learning and camaraderie and mentorship. So all of that came together and I said “okay, I’ll stay here awhile.”
Were you focused on one industry in particular, or were you more of a generalist?
First couple of years, definitely a generalist, and then I slowly migrated on two prongs: one was corporate development/corporate finance, working a lot with CFOs on their problems around shareholder value creation, M&A, due diligences, and all of that stuff. And from an industry perspective, I started focusing on financial services, and over time within financial services I narrowed down to capital markets.
When did you decide you were ready to leave consulting?
I was never actively looking. But I always had this philosophy that, if a recruiter called, I would definitely take the call and have a detailed conversation. I always tell consultants, even if you are very sure BCG is the right place, you should always have your ear to the ground just to see what’s out there so that you know what you’re saying “no” to.
Consulting was a great opportunity, but I had a very simplistic way of looking at the world of business: you have investors, and on the other side you have operators. Consultants, like lawyers and investment bankers, advise both sides and help solve the biggest problems for investors and operators, and never really have a stake in the game on either side. So I was always thinking, “do I want to get into investing or do I want to get into operations?” And then OANDA came along, and that’s what made my decision. Otherwise I would still be at BCG.
So you decided to leave in 2013 because of this specific opportunity. How did you come across this role?
OANDA was a client of mine, definitely at the smallest end of the spectrum of clients that we deal with. After the project, I kept in touch with the Board and some of the senior management. I talked to them frequently about how things were going in their world, and we were always engaging in discussions about what role I could play at OANDA. I kept thinking that OANDA was one of the most exciting growth strategy projects that I had ever done, and I really fell in love with the company.
As I evaluated it, I said, “If I want to go over to the operating side, this is a great opportunity. OANDA’s Board is phenomenal, and if I don’t go in with this team, I will not be able to find many other situations as appealing.” I knew there were some issues that needed fixing and that they need to drive growth more aggressively, or they wouldn’t have been recruiting me. But at the same time it felt like I knew what I was getting into. It felt like I was getting into a situation that was backed by people who had had huge successes in the past. These are the people that I wanted to work with for the rest of my career, so it made sense for me to move.
So you felt like you knew what you were getting into?
Well, yes and no. I really went in to be the Head of Strategy. It quickly became clear that there were going to be some major changes in senior management, including a new CEO. The new CEO started in early December, and that’s when I took on the role of CFO. Being a CFO for a financially regulated company is very exciting – it’s a lot of learning, but it also is something that I wasn’t really expecting to be doing. While strategy and corporate development are still under my purview, a lot of my work is focused on establishing the right financial controls, and setting up the company to achieve its future growth objectives. Being a CFO is a new challenge for me, and I had not envisioned that I would be doing that at this stage in my career. So that’s the unexpected piece. It is unexpected, but exciting and enjoyable.
How is your work-life balance?
Some of my friends would probably say I’m working too hard. But I am enjoying it. Someone told me this a year back, and I firmly believe it to be true: “I don’t believe in the concept of work-life balance. You either enjoy work you’re doing or you don’t. If you enjoy the work you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you think about it 7 days a week. If you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t be doing it.” So in this case, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing so it’s always on my mind.
Based on your experience, what are some things you would recommend others do during the interview process to assess an opportunity?
I think the important thing is to understand who is on the team: who are you going to report into. If I’m a manager at BCG, I don’t take you on to a case without checking with two other managers for whom you’ve worked, to ask how well you work in different settings. At the same time, you’d talk to some of the other consultants or associates and ask them, “Who has worked with Vatsa? How is he as a manager?” Seems like basic stuff, but when you’re looking for a job, I think people fail to do that.
I also think a lot of consultants don’t have time to breathe in consulting, so they take the first offer that comes their way. Most people leave because they had one or two bad cases in a row. They aren’t making a conscious, careful decision to leave. They’re all talented people, and then they get offered a job that is going to pay them more, at a pretty good company. When those companies say “you’re earning x and we’ll pay you 1.5x,” it’s very difficult to say, “I’m going to think about this more.” So take a step back and really assess what you want. Don’t just look at the dollar sign.
What advice would you give to people who want to go into startups?
If you want to work in the startup world, my best recommendation is to get comfortable with experimenting and uncertainty. Startups are fundamentally uncertain. They are always lurching from being the next unicorn to another also-ran, and there are a lot of also-rans. If you find something that excites you in the startup space, be prepared to jump into it, but look before you leap. Do your diligence and make sure you understand how stable the team is, how the investors are thinking about the company, what are the exit plans, et cetera. In this community, just because you worked in one startup and the company didn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t mean everyone will look at you and say “I’m not going to hire them because they were in that company that failed.” Pretty much everyone has been in “that company that failed.” It’s a very different mindset, and it can be very unsettling, including from a financial perspective. You’re going to make less money than what you made at BCG… how comfortable are you with that?
In some ways a startup is similar to BCG – like if a presentation blows up the night before it’s due, everyone, no matter how junior or senior, is going to sit down and split up the work. That mindset is valuable in a startup. On the other hand, consulting is something that attracts risk-averse people and makes them more risk averse the longer they spend time there. And in startups you need to thrive on risk. You need to be comfortable with the world changing beneath your feet all of the time. You may start at a company that is focused on x, but if you’re not getting traction, you may say “we’re rebranding, we are now a company doing y.” That takes some getting used to.
We are fundamentally changing the way we are thinking every single day, every single month. To a certain extent, BCG trains you well for that, but here you’re living with your decisions and living in a high-risk environment. It is important to be confident. Yes, a startup might fail, or yes, the first job you take may not work out. The key is to remember that you’re smart, and there is always a demand for smart people. You will land on your feet. And that requires risk-taking and confidence.
So with all of this newfound exposure, has your view of your own career path changed?
It’s so difficult to predict anything. I could have very comfortably stayed at BCG for another 10-15 years and been very happy. Twelve months back, I was sure I was going to help OANDA grow and develop new businesses in new geographies. Now I am both the CFO and the Head of Strategy. It sounds karmic, but my advice is to continue to work hard and be open to an opportunity when it knocks on the door.
So stay open to opportunities and don’t get bogged down by a plan.
Death and taxes, right? How much planning can you really do? Most of my friends have all changed jobs significantly. So all of that leads me to believe that as long as you don’t do things that get you on the cover of the Wall Street Journal for the wrong reasons, you’ll be fine. At least I hope so. Fingers crossed.