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Praveer Melwani on his journey from Dropbox to Figma and why the $20-billion acquisition was only his second biggest news of the day
In September 2022, Adobe announced that it was buying Figma, the extremely popular product design tool, for $20 billion. Since its founding a decade ago, Figma has become an indispensable part of the tech world’s product design toolbag, so the news reverberated across the Valley and beyond. For Figma CFO Praveer Melwani, it wasn’t a ripple compared to a much bigger wake rolling through his life. “It’s funny how timing works out,” he tells us, grinning. “My wife's due date was the same day we were scheduled to announce.”
Praveer is from Toronto and went to school at Western University in Ontario where he studied business administration. His dad was a dental supply salesman and Praveer always envisioned that he’d join the family business, but he had an itch to get out of Canada for a while before coming home. So, he applied for jobs in San Francisco, landing a role at Union Square Advisors in the summer of 2012. “It was just a little bit of luck and good fortune,” he says. Based on where it all went from there, that framing seems like more than a bit of an oversimplification.
Dropbox was scaling rapidly in 2014 and the Strategic Finance team was interviewing hundreds of candidates in an effort to hire the best handful of people to come join. Praveer wowed in his interviews and was offered a spot on the burgeoning team. “Rather than go through the standard venture, hedge fund, or private equity route, when the folks at Dropbox presented this opportunity that sounded like more than finance, I said yes,” he explains. “I had the fluency and understanding of what's going in the P&L so I could help drive some of the business-oriented tasks forward, but, ultimately, I was more excited to learn how this business ticked and moved. That's what drew me in.”
The StratFin team that Ajay Vashee had been tasked to build was designed to attract high-achievers who thought differently about finance. The mandate at the time at Dropbox was “get the very best people in the world to join,” as Ajay explained it, to keep the company on a best-in-class growth trajectory. It proved a perfect fit for Praveer. “I view my capabilities as someone who can come in as a structured thinker and help someone frame a problem in a thoughtful way,” Praveer says. “But I get excited about learning and I get excited about having a much broader footprint than just like the core spreadsheet and operating model.”
Eventually, that desire to expand his footprint led him to leave Dropbox for the Business Operations team at NerdWallet in September 2016. Ten months in, he was laid off. “Within six months, I was already getting to the place where I was itching to do something a little bit different. Soon enough, it was a last-person-in, first-person-out situation,” he says. “But, had I not gotten that kick in the pants to go and look, I don't know if I would have found Figma.”
He credits good luck for much of his success but does admit it’s not the whole story. “Timing, the relationships you have with the people around you, and your ability to react are what make you successful,” he says. “But I think so much of it — the majority of it — is luck.”
When Praveer was hired at Figma in July 2017, it was still a small startup. He was the first business ops hire; his role was amorphous but he quickly was tasked with managing finance and accounting. “My first set of projects was setting up our Stripe instance, making sure that the data was flowing in the right way,” he remembers. “We were using Gusto for payroll and so everything was on autopay. I was just hoping and praying that things were going right.”
Quickly, Praveer began thinking strategically — once a StratFinner, always a StratFinner — and began spending time working in concert with the team launching Figma Pro. “I spent a lot of my energy making sure that the data pipelines were really flowing between our financial systems and what we were seeing on the product side,” he says. That ultimately became my foray to drive conversation around how our users are navigating our funnel and what they’re doing once they're actually on one of our paid plans.”
That first bit of insight gave Praveer entry into high-level leadership conversations. “I found myself being able to provide insights and it actually informed some of the product decisions and the ways in which we structured our sales orgs.” It became clear to the Figma executives that Praveer could deliver strategic advantages if they let him build a finance team.
“Over the next couple of years, we then went from a one-tier company to having a couple of tiers. We went from purely self-serve to having a sales team,” he says. “The team that I was going to architect would tackle building the business infrastructure that would keep pace with the company as we were scaling.”
As he hired, Praveer would give applicants a “silly Excel test” — he figured: “If you understood the ins and outs of the financial statement, you can build a model.” Soon, he built out a team that could tackle any financial task that was thrown their way. “I still would say that today, I'm by no means an expert, but I have tried to hire around myself so that I can feel confident in the collective expertise at Figma,” he says. “I brought on Tyler Herb as our controller who previously was at Slack for a number of years. We brought on an audit committee chair on our board, Kelly Kramer, who was previously a storied and tenured CFO at Cisco. So, I think surrounding myself with the right people was essential.”
Praveer has always been curious to understand all aspects of the businesses he’s worked for and he stressed that same curiosity for his team at Figma. “I pushed my org to always have a pulse on the core sets of drivers and metrics for what is actually the heartbeat of Figma and how can we use that to help drive conversations with the product or to go-to-market teams,” he explains. “I’ve always had that desire and excitement to go and learn about an area that you may not necessarily need to know everything about for your core craft on the finance team. But if you do, that knowledge will make you that much more of an impactful partner, which is part of the core fabric of the culture that we built.”
His finance team was first and foremost focused on driving good financial accountability and hygiene, because “we had aspirations of where we wanted to go,” he says. “We felt that if things keep going, we're going to be in a position where we're going to have wanted to have the rigor a couple of years prior, so that we have a set of financials that folks feel are reliable and thoughtful.”
But that didn’t mean Praveer’s team focused solely on accounting. He’d created a culture where finance could be a motor for innovation and he always encouraged his team to explore every aspect of the company and see where they could lend insight. “And individuals were getting rewarded for it. They were seeing that the conversations that they were getting pulled into were really unique,” he says. “The experiences that they were having at Figma were materially different than they had in other places because they were pushed to do more.”
Early on at Figma, the team offered the service for free. As Praveer sees it, CEO Dylan Field and his team were craftspeople and wanted to keep tinkering until their tool was perfect enough to charge for.
But it was clear to the investors and the business side that Figma had found a pocket of users who knew their product design tool was indispensable. Everyone at Figma finally agreed that charging was the best way to make certain their business — which designers had come to rely on — would be sustainable for the long run. “Customers explained, ‘The only way that we can continue to invest in Figma as a tool for our broader design team is to know that you guys are actually charging for it because that's how we can know this tool isn't going to go away,’” Praveer says. “And so, part of our story is: if you've got something, charge for it, because people will know that you see value in it. They’ll invest in the solution you’re delivering and the system will grow as well.”
Figma took the lesson to heart. They knew their core customers were designers and they wanted to be as transparent as possible with them. They believed there was value in that trust. “We don't discount our product. What you see on the website is what you get. We're really transparent with it and we wanted to use that to our advantage over time,” Praveer says, explaining that their competitors approached pricing very differently than Figma. “We would lean on that transparency and then we’d put our money where our mouth is by delivering outsized value to the customer. That's been one of the core values that we believe continues to be true: we want to make sure that as we invest in the community of designers who ultimately will become our advocates. We want to make it feel like it's a no-brainer decision to pay for the tool.”
Praveer came to Figma when there were fewer than 30 employees as the first biz ops hire. Today, the company has over 1,300 employees and has announced a pending $20 billion sale to Adobe. So, how did Praveer grow in his role as his responsibilities and Figma expanded? “When someone asks me what they should do when they're new in a role, I always say: find that individual that you can ask questions to and not feel any shame. Honestly, no question is a dumb question, especially when you're trying to build something for the first time.”
He leaned heavily on peers from his days at Dropbox who had moved on and helped scale other businesses. There isn’t a situation he can think of when he took on a new task for the first time and didn’t make a call to someone to ask a question or two. It’s that network of expertise that’s allowed him to feel confident as he makes decisions on a larger and larger scale. “Being able to just pick up the phone and learn from folks, whether it’s an idea either for benchmarking or for the type of person to hire, I don't think I could have been able to do it without having folks in my corner,” Praveer says. “So, when given the opportunity to speak and share or have a conversation, I'm always in this like pay-it-forward mentality. I will have a conversation with nearly anyone because I also get a lot of energy from it, but I also think that's what's gotten me to the place that I'm in right now.”
So, yes, he’s been lucky. But clearly, good fortune is just a small part of the equation.