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Alok Ajmera of Prophix Software: “Scale your team”

Scale your team. I often see founder-backed businesses scale on the sheer will of the founder. However, that’s not often sustainable nor scalable. Oftentimes what makes an amazing founder/entrepreneur is not what is needed in the growth phase of the business. You have to find ways to give up some control as you bring on […]

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Scale your team. I often see founder-backed businesses scale on the sheer will of the founder. However, that’s not often sustainable nor scalable. Oftentimes what makes an amazing founder/entrepreneur is not what is needed in the growth phase of the business. You have to find ways to give up some control as you bring on the right management team to help shoulder the burden of growth.


As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alok Ajmera, President and CEO, Prophix Software.

Alok’s mission is to ensure every customer, prospective client, partner, and employee around the world has a memorable and positive experience with Prophix. Alok joined the company in 2004 and has served in a variety of roles, leading to his current position as President and CEO. Alok’s energy and enthusiasm inspire everyone at Prophix to achieve greatness and exceed expectations.


Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Where most kids grow up on fairytales, my childhood stories were all related to the business ventures of my grandparents and forefathers. For example, my mother’s grandfather left school in India at age 10. He knew there was value in tobacco, so he began picking leaves and selling them to people who would process them into cigarettes. At age 12, he realized he could eliminate a layer from the supply chain if he bought a warehouse to store the leaves himself. A year later, he saw an opportunity to eliminate another layer from the process if he dried and processed the leaves himself.

My father’s side of the family are all engineers who build massive infrastructure projects like dams. My cousin founded and leads a software company with 4,000 employees. From an early age, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and it was natural for me to gravitate towards technology and software because of the family entrepreneurial narrative that’s been instilled in me throughout my life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’ve made so many mistakes in my career and while most of them haven’t been “funny,” they’ve all been great learning experiences. The biggest take away for me has been to Fail Fast. Don’t let your ego get in the way. If you find yourself going down a path and it turns out to be the wrong decision, cut bait and iterate. It doesn’t matter what your team or others think. The continued performance and health of the organization is what matters most.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. A mentor recommended this book to me early in my career. Over the years, I’ve gone back to it many times to rebalance and refresh my thoughts. The book has several key elements that have shaped my leadership style and influence how I build organizations. At its core, the book is about building learning organizations where groups of individuals, focused on a shared vision, can collaborate, communicate, share, and learn together. This approach enables leaders to rapidly adapt and propel the organization towards its goals and vision.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the things that excites me the most is the work Prophix is doing to introduce technology innovation to the office of finance. The world of corporate finance and the way most finance people work is rooted in technologies and methods that are decades old, going back to the late 80s and early 90s. The finance industry hasn’t experienced a tremendous amount of innovation or technical disruption to date. But all that is poised to change in the very near future. New technologies are being introduced that offer the opportunity to fundamentally change how people work in FP&A. These technologies will empower finance leaders to reshape the perception of their roles from “bean counters” doing mundane, spreadsheet-centric activities to strategic contributors to the business who evaluate data, translate, and interpret information in a significantly more meaningful and thoughtful way.

Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?

Prophix believes deeply in the value of “purpose-driven businesses.” “Purpose” creates a cause around which employees, partners, and customers can rally. It enables individuals to be part of something bigger than the simple dollars and cents of the business.

At Prophix, we believe many corporate finance & accounting processes are flawed.Our vision and purpose is to fundamentally change how FP&A professionals work. Prophix’ solutions enable finance staff to be freed from the day-to-day, mundane tasks so they can focus on supporting organizational growth through sophisticated financial planning and insights.

In addition to Prophix’ organizational purpose to serve our customers, we also believe in creating an environment that allows our employees to rally around a purpose to drive change in our communities. We aim to create a lasting impact on the global community, through meaningful programs and projects.

Driven by Prophix employees, our approach to Social Responsibility started as a grassroots movement to now supporting worthy causes around the globe. We’ve aligned our bonus structure with corporate giving and forged an employee culture that promotes volunteerism and giving. For instance, for every quarter in which Prophix hits our corporate objectives, we donate 25,000 dollars to a non-profit organization that’s making a difference in the world. Employees can nominate causes they are passionate about and the final project is chosen by popular vote. This allows us to support a wide variety of charitable initiatives that matter deeply to our employees.

For 12 consecutive successful quarters now, Prophix employees have leveraged our business success to build schools and orphanages, buy hospital equipment for underprivileged communities, support a children’s hospice, and build animal shelters, to name just a few of our initiatives.

Yes, we want to grow our company and careers — but we also understand our success can be leveraged into a broader public impact. To us, that is the definition of purpose-driven business.

Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?

My number one principle is “Do the Next Right Thing.” It’s a mantra you’ll hear in all of Prophix’ executive and board meetings. For instance, when you’re going through ups and downs in the business, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and to lose perspective. The “Do the Next Right Thing” principle helps us stay focused, keep the end state in mind, and take the next step.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I believe there are no short cuts to good, qualified leads. It’s a combination of knowing your target audience, measuring everything, and continuing to iterate.

More specifically, I’ve always believed in having a rich digital content strategy. Develop really thoughtful content, get it to your target audience, and make it easy for them to come to you to consume more content. In doing so you create a deeper connection with your audience.

If a fellow CEO would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?

First off, there is no right or wrong answer here. It really depends on the market dynamics, your conviction to the busines and your risk/reward profile. In my general opinion, I think the technology community has been trained to think the only way to build and scale a successful business is to raise VC capital. I’m here to assure entrepreneurs that you can bootstrap for a long time.

When weighing whether to bootstrap or accept venture capital investment, there are some things to consider. These include:

How much control are you willing to give up?

Are you the type of business leader who can survive, while working under a VC? Often founders don’t last.

Is the fundraising for capital injection into the business (and if so — how much do you really need)? If there is secondary involved, is this for risk mitigation?

Can you execute without the capital?

We’re all trained to think it’s better to have a small piece of a big pie. That’s not always the case. Often having control and a lion’s share of the equity is worth more in the medium- to long-term.

What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?

Each industry will have its own unique measurements of how to value a company. If you boil it down, there are really two profiles: High Grown/Low Profit & Low Growth/High Profit. The goal is not to be in between (e.g., Low Growth and Low Profit).

Philosophically, I recommend leaders NOT optimize for enterprise value (EV) and exits. Leaders should focus all their energy on doing what’s best for the business — which is to build a strong and healthy company. EV and exits will take of themselves.

What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I’ve seen this firsthand. Early on at Prophix, we went through an amazing stretch of growth where we doubled or tripled revenues for the first 4 or 5 years of operation. Then we hit a stretch of about 3 years where growth slowed to the low/mid double digits.

During that slowdown phase, we did a lot of ‘soul-searching’ and re-tooling. We came out of that 3-year period better prepared and returned to more aggressive growth. My thoughts on “restarting the engines” include:

Remember, what worked in the past will not always work going forward. Often when a business is growing aggressively, you don’t have the time, energy or foresight to be preparing for the next phases of growth. Each growth phase requires a discrete strategic and tactical plan. Don’t get stuck doing the ‘same-old’ and hoping for past performances to repeat.

Scale your team. I often see founder-backed businesses scale on the sheer will of the founder. However, that’s not often sustainable nor scalable. Oftentimes what makes an amazing founder/entrepreneur is not what is needed in the growth phase of the business. You have to find ways to give up some control as you bring on the right management team to help shoulder the burden of growth.

What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Here are some quick mistakes to avoid:

Know your Balance Sheet. Too much focus is on the P&L. The balance sheet often tells a more thorough story.

Avoid putting yourself in a situation where you NEED to raise capital. It will be painful, and you are likely to be left disappointed.

Debt can be a friend and an enemy.

Build detailed and multi-year operational and financial plans/budgets. Make sure you run several scenarios, including downside plans.

OK, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.

At a macro level, I advise finance professionals to embrace the technologies of today…and prepare for the technology disruption that’s coming tomorrow. Here’s what I mean by that.

Data has become the key to everything in today’s business world. That means there’s a new imperative for financial leaders to collect financial and operational data points as the basis for gaining meaningful insight into not only the current state but what will happen tomorrow. I’ll say it again: collect data! Too many finance pros aren’t even collecting it now, which is putting them on a collision course for business failure.

The sheer volume of operational data is making it impossible for financial professionals to rely on antiquated technologies or paper-driven processes. Organizations today are producing terabytes of unstructured data, some of which is qualitative and other quantitative. The finance industry must begin leveraging more modern analytical techniques and technologies to make sense of and extract insights from this massive volume of data.

Collaboration has become a new imperative. The office of finance must consider itself an “internal service bureau” in partnership with various business functional areas or partners like the bank. These functional areas are the finance department’s “clients.” And just like any good service provider, finance needs to sit down with its clients — these functional leaders across the organization, understand how they can speak the same language, and what finance can provide that will help the business make better decisions. Finance can then leverage more modern technologies to derive insights they can provide in a meaningful way to its business partners, collaborate with them to identify trends, support the business with modeling and scenario analysis to understand what these trends mean, and demonstrate how the business can capitalize on opportunities and mitigate risks. This all sounds basic and intuitive, but it too often doesn’t happen across the organization since the finance/business partnership isn’t done meaningfully and isn’t appropriately valued.

Going back to technology: if a finance pro is living in a world of paper and spreadsheets, they’re already multiple generations behind what’s coming fast down the pike. Take artificial intelligence, for instance. AI is a buzzy phrase and too many finance pros roll their eyes and think it’s not real when it comes to business applications — it’s just the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. But at the core, finance doesn’t properly understand the essence of AI technology. Legitimate AI technology is quickly emerging in business applications. Finance leaders need to understand AI, embrace it, and prepare for it. They shouldn’t be terrified by AI; it may change their job, but it won’t take their job. The same is true for natural language. Too many people think it’s gimmicky or that Siri is kind of useful, but not really so. Two-way natural language technology is the model for tomorrow’s way of managing a business. It’s faster and more efficient to speak and be spoken to than it is to spend hours manually inputting data into reports or crunching numbers.

Lastly, accounting skills are becoming less important for tomorrow’s finance leaders. As businesses collect huge reams of data, machine learning will be key to unlocking cross functional insights. Finance teams need to augment their capabilities with people who bring data science expertise to the table and understand how to analyze and translate data. It’s shocking to me that even in billion-dollar companies, finance teams are living in the world of spreadsheets and printed reports. We’re about to see a massive shift as a new generation of employees join finance teams. These are people who have never owned printers or a paper notebook in their lives and who are fluent in working in the cloud. Finance professionals need to get ahead of this shift to a more modern approach or risk being unable to catch up.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I see entrepreneurs and founders who are carrying a company, driving it forward exclusively with sheer will power. The key to avoid burn out and successfully get to later stages of growth is for a business leader to understand their strengths and weaknesses and complement those by surrounding themselves the right executive leadership team. Every leader has a particular skill set. For instance, they may be great at getting a company successfully off the ground but struggle to move the business past a certain growth phase. You must know and respect your own limits.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My message to entrepreneurs is, it’s not only about the money. There’s only so much money you can spend, and so many things you can buy. It’s equally as rewarding and important to make a broader impact on your community at large. Small- and mid-sized businesses can be massive drivers of innovation, and job and wealth creation. But they also have the opportunity to make a real difference on issues such as the environment, education, and equity and diversity. If you align your business to support causes that matter to you and your employees, you’ll end up attracting and retaining better people and you’ll do good in a way that’s broader than the business you grew.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/alok-ajmera-93896617/
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