We continue with the #AccelInsights Podcast series, and on this edition we have Girish Mathrubootham, Co-founder & CEO of Freshworks. Freshworks scaled from $1 million Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) to $100 million ARR in five years and two months, making it one of the fastest growing companies in the ecosystem, and one of the first VC backed software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies in India to achieve this milestone.
In this podcast, Anand and Girish discuss Girish’s early life, and the series of events that led to starting Freshworks. They speak about how Girish’s ability to translate even the most mundane stories, his product training, and focus on culture has helped build a successful organisation poised to grow even further.
Girish talks about his upbringing, and about how he was an average student in school and college. But he really loved to learn; just not in a classroom environment. He attributes most of his learnings to after college as he could learn through practice, not confined to tests and a specific set of topics. Teaching is something close to his heart, and he is always looking for innovative ways to teach or communicate. This has honed his storytelling ability.
His learnings from Zoho, and his ability to tell stories has helped him immensely as he scaled Freshworks. This is especially so when it comes to hiring (Helpdesk is very boring, he says), and selling his vision for the company to a new hire.
His motto for fundraising is very simple and is something he’s been meaning to tweet for a while: “Data is your enemy, story is your friend”.
Girish further delves into how he got into products at Zoho, and later how business models influence products and not vice versa. Company culture is very close to his heart — Happy “work” organisation is his motto, and he’s always had an eye on how to build the organisation’s culture. The importance of culture fits within your organisation, and gearing the organisation to stay true to its values is further highlighted.
We end the podcast in true Girish fashion, discussing the next leg of growth for Freshworks — the jump to a $1billion business, and how he believes that Freshworks is not an aberration in the Indian product space but is just the beginning of India producing great global product startups, with a simple, yet intriguing story.
Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.
Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Girish.
Girish:Winning or losing is not something that motivates me, but learning is something. So, even if I learn and fail, or if I want to do something new and I don’t know anything about it, I will learn and try, but if I fail, I’m okay. I start with ‘I play to win’, but I’m not afraid to lose.
Anand:Hi, welcome to the Insights Podcast Series from Accel. I’m your host Anand Daniel. Today, I have as my guest, Girish Mathrubootham. I traveled to Chennai to visit Girish at Freshworks. I also had a chance to chat with some of his leaders on their perspectives of what makes Girish tick. We talked about a lot of things, but three things stood out for me from my chat with Girish as well as his leaders are: his ability to learn and teach, his amazing storytelling abilities, and the beautiful culture that Girish and team have built at Freshworks. Let’s dive right in.
I’m super excited to be in Chennai with none other than our own superstar, Girish Mathrubootham. Freshworks is a very special company for Accel. We’ve been involved from the early days. I still remember the first time I heard the Freshworks (at that time Freshdesk) pitch. Girish, I don’t know if you remember the first time you pitched in public, it was at ‘Unplugged’ in 2012.
Anand:2011, is it? Okay, 2011 Unplugged. Do you remember the opening and what you shared there?
Girish:Yes, of course. Happy to be here, Anand. I think I can still remember standing alongside with all the startup entrepreneurs who were finalists at the Unplugged 2011.
Anand:Which was a big competition at that time.
Girish:For a startup who wants get noticed by investors like you, definitely it was big. That was your deal flow. I think I opened with the Rajini dialogue which is “Naa late aa vandhaalun, latest aa varuven” . I said that in reference to being in the Help Desk product category so many years after the Help Desk was invented as a category, but —
Anand:What does that mean “Naa late aa vandhaalun, latest aa varuven”?
Girish:‘Even if I come late, I will come with the latest whatever it is’. I think it was in reference to showcasing that the opportunity in SaaS was actually latest at that time. There was still an opportunity to build something. I think that was the plug-in of that Talaiwar’s (Rajinikanth’s) dialogue to get the interest of the audience going.
Anand:I still remember.
Girish:I think what I still remember about that is, I think we were going third (on stage). The first company to go on stage was InterviewStreet. HackerRank was called InterviewStreet at that time. I think Vivek or Hari, one of the co-founders were going and pitching interviews then. The second company was 99tests. I remember opening with telling the audience, “Okay, you saw a great story by InterviewStreet which will help you hire great programmers, who will then write awesome code. Then you saw one of the great ideas from 99tests where you can make your product completely bug-free with an army of QA folks. If your product has awesome coders who can write bug-free code and you ship it then all’s good. For those of you who still have problems with products and you need to support customers, that’s where we come in with Freshdesk.”
Anand:It was so well received, I still remember that. You almost got standing ovation in a competition setting. That’s the whole reason to do this podcast series, to get out stories like this, mainly to learn more about founders that people can’t easily read about, and what has helped them scale as founders. You’re an icon now in the startup ecosystem. I want to go a little bit deeper into: as a founder, how have you scaled in the last seven, eight years. We can go back to your childhood or college or wherever, we can start from that. I want you to talk about some of the things that you feel have helped you become successful as a founder.
Girish:I’ll start with what I’m feeling right now as you’re asking this question. I feel I’m really lucky and where I am today is something that I’ve never dreamt of in life. I come from Trichy, my father is a retired officer in Bank of India so I had a very normal middle-class childhood and I was always an average student. I have never failed in exams but I was also not top of my class. Most of school and college went by. I’m not Ivy league, Anand, like you.
Anand:Thanks for pulling my leg.
Girish:I used to call myself ‘Aam Aadmientrepreneur’.
Anand:That was an amazing introduction to who Girish is as a person. I want to switch gears now and hear from one of his colleagues, Arvind, who heads marketing for FreshWorks. He was recruited fresh out of college by Girish more than 13 years ago and has been friends with Girish ever since. Let’s hear what he thinks is the secret to Girish’s scaling.
Arvind:Girish, I’ve seen him in different stages of his life when he was a project manager to VP of Product Marketing and Product Management and then as a SaaS startup CEO and then a Unicorn’s CEO. What makes Girish different is he’s always adapting and evolving. (From) the guy who I saw 13 years back, he’s been constantly evolving. He’s never in his comfort zone. He always improvises. I think that’s what makes Girish different.
Anand:Let’s hear from Girish how he developed this appetite for learning and trying out new things.
Girish:Two or three years into FreshWorks, I went to the US. One of my friends in college came to me and asked me, “Girish, in the four years of college I have never — “ He’s talking about himself. “ — I have never watched a single movie. I used to be very studious and study all the time and you have never missed a single movie. [laughs] You had so much fun and it doesn’t seem to matter because you are where you are. His basic assumption was, he studied well, I didn’t study as much but I still managed to be something in life. What I couldn’t tell him that day because I hadn’t articulated it in my mind but later on I thought about it was that all my learning happened after college. Fundamentally as a country, we all respect classroom learning. We all respect degrees a lot. There’s nothing wrong with that.
That is definitely a great way to learn but I think there are also used cases like me where we have had the opportunity to learn from life, learn by doing stuff, lucky enough to discover what we love and that learning is also valuable. That’s been my biggest learning in life and I think probably to answer your question of how I have scaled, I think as a student it’s not that I did not like learning. I did not like learning the way we were supposed to learn at school and college.
Anand:To prepare for exams and do the rote thing.
Girish:Yes, probably I think I came back with vengeance and started learning more and more and one of the things I love to do is teach. As much as I like to learn, I really like to teach to people. Even in college the way I used to study for exams is I would actually teach my friends. Everybody would come to my hostel room and sit around and ask me to teach. I would construct the whole thing, say boring subjects like Field theory, I’ll try to construct it as a story flow so that they can remember. I think when you’re studying only for two days and you have to go and write the exam, that (strategy) worked and we always got somewhere in the 60–65% mark.
I think that aspect of teaching has shaped who I am. I think if I really think back throughout my life at least in the last 15 years of learning and teaching, if you want to consistently teach you have to learn more. I think that is what I would say has played a big role and even today what I really enjoy doing is, getting out of the comfort zone and learning stuff that I don’t know. Winning or losing is not something that motivates me, but learning is something. So, even if I learn and fail or if I learn, I want to do something new and I don’t know anything about it, I learn and try. If I fail, I’m okay. I start with ‘I play to win’, but I’m not afraid to lose.
Anand: Got it. Everyone who knows you notices that you’re extremely good at telling interesting stories like the one we started all with. Many people teach, but they don’t make it interesting. How did you develop that? Was it natural to you or you consciously developed that?
Girish: I think, broadly, when you look at teaching, there are teachers by chance and then there are teachers by choice. I think I am a teacher by choice. I want to teach. I actually had a Java training institute. What happened was some of my friends wanted to learn Java, I told them to go and talk to many institutes. I told them go and talk to the instructor, ask questions, and not fall for the fancy marketing. Make sure that the person who is teaching really knows the stuff.
My friends went and did all that, but then they came back to me and said, “Girish, we want you to teach and we’ll pay you a fee. Only then you will be serious and only then we will be serious.” The training institute actually walked into my room. Basically, my friends brought some of their other friends and so six people came and paid me 3,000 rupees. With 18,000 rupees I went to Saravana stores, purchased some chairs and a white board and we rented three computers. This was 1998 or 1999. That’s how I started teaching Java.
To answer your question, now, how do I make it interesting. When you are teaching something like Java, one of the things for me, whenever I am teaching anything, I always pay close attention to whether what I’m saying is resonating with the audience or not. That is important to me. I cannot go on in a room full of people where I’m not making sense to people. It demotivates me.
Anand: Reading the audience.
Girish Yes. Reading the audience feedback, knowing whether I’m connecting to them or are they just doing their own thing. This forced me to improvise. I can tell you that my toughest thing to teach was interfaces in Java. Many people who are new to Java, some of them if they had any program experience they will have C or C++ experience. At that time what I felt was, how do you explain this abstract concept of an interface in Java to somebody who knows C++ and make them really understand what’s the difference.
I had to really improvise again and again and again to make them get at it.
Anand: Yeah, that’s very good.
Girish: I think that idea of improvisation later on helped me even in my career when I moved to pre-sales. I think another aspect was, I don’t like doing the same thing again and again. Pre-sales is a job where you’re going to do a demo again and again. It’s actually quite boring. In order to make my work more interesting for me, I started to improvise on pre-sales.
Meaning, I won’t give the same demo to the customer even if it’s the same product. Everyday when I’m doing a demo I’d actually try different versions of the demo. I would try to take a completely different path to seeing whether I can impress the customer with a completely new script. I won’t have a script, so improvisation actually helped me figure out some techniques of making it interesting.
Basically, I think those techniques are also very simple. If you have heard me speaking a few times, it’s all about giving good examples, giving analogies and anecdotal stories so that people can easily remember and talk about it. Anytime, when you do a PowerPoint with a lot of gyaan slides, I think people have sat through enough sessions with PowerPoint gyaan. Even when they come for conferences, I think that is where, my simple stories seem to be interesting, I think I need those PowerPoint Gyaans to bore them to a point where —
Anand: [laughs] You come and make yourself interesting
Girish: So, somebody is coming and speaking in simple terms with simple stories but they’re getting the message. The point I’m trying to make hopefully for the listeners is, we don’t have to give the gyaan, but you have to make sure that the gyaan can be inferred from the stories that you are saying.Everybody loves to hear stories of other people, like if you see all the TV series why they are so popular?Because people like to take a peek into other people’s lives.If you dig startups also, look at the best top leadership content that’s coming from other companies, it’s when companies share things about what’s happening in their companies. Because that is something you can’t read about easily.
Anand:Learning and teaching are two aspects of what makes Girish a great leader. Let’s hear it from STS who moved back from Silicon Valley where he was running a team of more than 2,000 people at Walmart Labs to join as Head of Engineering at Freshworks, what does STS think are the key skills that make Girish a great leader?
STS Prasad:There are two aspects to it, I think one aspect is his finding out what you are passionate about and letting you work on your passion. Not so much of him saying that this is what needs to get done. Therefore, let’s all rally around and get it done. It is about finding out what are you passionate about. “Yes, you’re part of Freshworks, we do have shared goals, we do want to get to a certain point in time but, also what are you passionate about, what do you want to do?”
Anand:What makes you happy?
STS:What makes you happy. It’s something that you are looking to accomplish in your life. Can you do that at Freshworks? That is something which is very strengthening, empowering and energizing in terms of people, when they know that they are working on what they are passionate about. They are just doing things- we’re literally talking about people operating 2X, 3X of what they would do. We should tell them, “Okay, this is what you need to do let’s go out and do it.” That’s one aspect of it. which is how he really wants to get people to work on what they’re passionate about. The second aspect is presenting the vision for Freshworks. Saying, “Folks, this is where we can be. This is what our potential is. This is what we can accomplish as a team.” Letting people get to identify what is it that they want to do, to help towards accomplishing that vision. As opposed to breaking it down and saying, “Here are the things that need to be done to accomplish this vision. You go do this, you go do this, you go do this.” Share the vision, share the big picture and let people step up to say, “Okay, I will take that part of the puzzle and work on that piece.”
Anand:As STS points out, Girish is an amazing storyteller. Let’s hear it from him on how he uses the skill as a founder.
Girish: That’s one of my strengths, so I’ve probably used it everywhere. Definitely, in terms of hiring. In the early days when you’re trying to attract talent, people need to understand what we are doing. It’s very hard to get people excited about Helpdesk. It could be that it’s one of the boring subjects in the world. How do you construct the real purpose of what we are trying to build and tell it as a story which they can relate to and they want to be a part of.
Definitely in fundraising, so you have to tell great stories. In fact, I even have a tweet that I haven’t posted, in my mind, which is “data is your enemy, story is your friend, when it comes to fundraising.” If I think about the last few years, getting the company aligned on where we want to go, getting the team rallying behind a common cause, all of this requires story telling. In a fast-growing company, a lot of times things have to change. You have to create new structures, new ways of working, bring in new people.
All of this creates a lot of chaos and un-structure. People who are working, like employees, may sometimes feel that their role is being disturbed. They may have a frustration with something that happened and it’s very natural for an employee to feel that, “Oh, okay, I spent four years here and now they’ve changed it, so I should move. I should go on.”
The reality is, there are no villains here. It is just situational and this could happen in any company. If the employee goes to the next company, it could happen there also. Really talking to the employee about what is happening, and this is factual storytelling meaning, to tell them about, from the CEO’s vantage point, “Hey, why are we doing this change and why is it necessary for us to take us to the next level? Why what worked for us three years ago is not going to work for us, say, three years from now.”
For example, let’s take SMB to mid-market movement, we need to understand that if we are to grow to 100 million, maybe what got us here was enough, but for the next five years of our plan, we have to make these strategic shifts. I think even there, storytelling is important. Maybe I’ll give you another fundamental example. What I have learnt in hiring leaders and making them successful, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, as I sit and think about, “Why are some leaders — “ See, all the leaders that we hire, we put them through six or eight rounds of interview. The senior management team actually interviews them. They all come with very smart backgrounds, so, obviously, they’re all accomplished people. We select them after these interviews because we believe they’re the right people for the job.
Now, after this process, “ — why does somebody not actually fit in and become successful?” That was fascinating for me because you’re dealing with top talent. Hiring leadership is not like you’re making a bad hire. When you hire this kind of top talent, why is it that some people are successful, and some people are not? When I look at my own learnings, first I’ll tell you my learnings. See, when a leader is not working out and they quit the company, it is also very demoralizing for the employees. It impacts morale.
Like we put in a new leader, give them a big role and they spend six months, one year in the company and then they leave because it’s not working out, the team is wondering, “What’s wrong with the company?” It’s a big thing. We need to educate the employees also that, “Hey, it’s not like why this happened?” I’m just using this one case of what I learned and how I could tell it to employees and other startup founders. I came up with this simple story of, “Which cow, which ditch?”
The story starts with the old village fable where if a cow falls into a ditch, the conventional wisdom is you first take the cow out of the ditch, then you fill the ditch, and then you worry about how to prevent cows from falling into ditches. The most important thing is, the sequence is important. That is the old fable. Now my story is when you’re hiring a new leader into a fast-growing startup, a successful leader should understand that a fast-growing startup is a place where 100 cows have already fallen into ditches and people are trying to lift cows from those ditches.
A good leader will actually ask the question, “Which cow, which ditch?” Which means he’ll pick the top two or three problems, go and help those cows out of the ditches and then, finally, figure out, “How can I prevent cows from falling into ditches.” What happens sometimes is because the leader comes in with a lot of experience, they have worked in a big company where everything works smoothly, they come and start changing processes because they’re going to stop cows from falling into ditches. None of the employees can relate to it because they are all busy with the cows in the ditches.
That has been my learning. For any new leader, now I actually tell them, “First 60 days or 90 days, just absorb. First, find out which cows are falling into ditches and then ask the question, “Which cow, which ditch?” Meaning pick two or three problems and come and talk to me. I will tell you if it’s worth solving or not. Then go and fix those problems. Then, later on, once you have earned enough trust after three or four cows, then you can really figure out how to prevent cows from ditches.
Anand:Prevent cows from falling. [laughs] That’s great.
Hope you like those stories about cows in ditches from Girish. Now let’s hear from Suman who’s the head of HR at Freshworks. She’s an industry veteran in HR and was about to take up a role as CHRO outside of India. She walked into Freshworks to have a chat with Girish and without the intent of joining them but ended up joining them anyways. Mainly, it was because of the culture of Freshworks. Let’s hear from her more about this.
Suman Gopalan: If you ask me what stood out for me with Freshworks, versus a lot of the other startups, actually three things. One was just the founder himself. Not only so articulate, but very passionate about the kind of organization he wants to build. It wasn’t only about building a successful business. For a lot of founders, it can be about validating their business idea and building a successful business.
To me, what stood out in my conversation with Girish, was his thought about not just building a successful business but building a great organization. That was very different from a number of the other conversations that I had had, which was my reason number one for actually jumping at an opportunity like this. The reason number two was just the business itself and how thoughtfully we had grown the business and not just gone for growth for the sake of growth, but really being thoughtful for, “Is this the right way to grow? Is this growth sustainable? Do we have a view to being profitable at some point?”
Because when you want to be a large organization, you have to demonstrate that you can sustain yourself as well. It’s a solid sound business as well. The third one which is the most unique part of it, is the thought around what kind of a company do we want to build and what kind of a culture we want you to build? Girish as all of you would know by now is a person with a heart. I think he does a lot of it more from the heart than from the head. If he was conflicted, he would go with the heart and that shows in the kind of organization he’s built.
Anand: What is culture at Freshworks? When did you start thinking of that in here?
Girish: Before starting to talk about culture, I will also talk about something that we fundamentally believe.I think even before I started Freshworks. When I was in Zoho, I was very happy with my career, but I used to meet some friends and cousins who used to always crib about their work. I used to wonder, “If you’re so unhappy with your work, why don’t you just quit and find another job.” Why would somebody continue to spend years of their career being unhappy? This was a sub-conscience belief in my mind when I started Freshworks. I wanted Freshworks to be a place where people can be happy, and happy about their work.
That is our first culture value, which is ‘happy work environment’ with the double quotes on work, because anybody can create a happy environment. Let’s say, you have a lot of games, flexi-timing, free food. The environment can be very happy. The happiness I am talking about is, people really feeling that, “Hey, I’m playing to my strength. The job that I’m doing is really tapping my potential. It’s giving me an opportunity to learn. I’m working with other smart people. I have a manager who’s a role model.”
These are all the things that is what is important for an employee to be happy in the company. Nothing else matters.
Interestingly, you see, I don’t look at salary as the only thing that will make somebody happy. If you hire that kind of employee, the culture is going to go for a toss.
Anand: Good. What are some non-negotiables when you’re hiring from a cultural perspective? Because that gives an intuition into what you’re looking for.
Girish: Fundamentally, when I interview, I always look at: There’s almost a feeling when you’re talking to a person- do you see them as your colleague or no? Did you walk out of the conversation feeling good about the person?
Sometimes you may meet technically solid folks, but you didn’t feel really good about the meeting and you can’t actually point it out to any particular flaw, but there’s something abnormal. For me, simple rule is, when in doubt, it’s a no there. Because it’s okay to lose a good candidate, but it’s never okay to hire a bad candidate. The other thing is if somebody is a team player. I always look for: have they played any team sport or how do they work with teams because I believe that the days of the individual superstar are over -pun intended and all. [laughs]
In building a company you can’t have one superstar, you need a great team. When somebody talks about their accomplishment as if they did everything by themselves that’s a strict red flag for me. People have to understand that the chest beating is definitely not a part of our culture. When I am interviewing I would also look at humility, down to earth (nature). Can they put down their head and work? Anybody who thinks they’re going to help the company by joining the company I will not hire. For me, I want to hire people who look up to the company. They have to be inspired by what we’re doing and come. They should be aiming to learn from the company and contribute. Someone comes in thinking, “I am great and I am going to help this company grow.” I think that is something which has never worked out well.
Anand:Even from early days?
Girish:Even from early days. We consciously do our hiring strategies like that. For example, when you hire from a BPO to a customer support role in Freshworks, people actually look up to it because in the BPO they don’t have ownership that it’s their product. Whereas here that ownership makes it feel better but if you hire somebody and directly ask them to work in the US shift, for example, they may think, “This night shift is bad or I don’t need to be here.”
We don’t disagree with that. That goes back to their happiness. Our whole vision at Freshworks is to enable every team to deliver moments of ‘wow’. What I mean by that is, this is tied to their happiness. If you think about happiness, there is another saying that I like which is, “success is in the big things and happiness is in the small things”. When you deliver moments of ‘wow’, you think about customer support. In your life think about any time when you bought something or you had an interaction with the company, somebody did something which made you feel happy for that five minutes or two minutes and that forms your opinion and perception of the company.
You love a company because — When you use an Apple product there is a small joy delivered. It comes with the product. When Gmail says you said attachment but that you didn’t attach anything, that’s a ‘wow’. When you eat a restaurant, and somebody actually remembers what you have that’s a ‘wow’. Happiness is actually delivered in these small doses. That is our purpose. So when you look at our office, you say it’s a great office. We do not have to spend all this money. We can make a boring office which is not colorful. Artwork is a separate project. So painting all the walls is not part of the Architect’s contract. We have somebody else who comes and paints all the walls. Why do we do all these things? We want to go the small extra inch to make it a special place. I don’t know if you noticed the coffee. Every office has coffee machines. We have live filter coffee because we want to give the greatest coffee to our visitors so that when they go back to their office next day, they should remember our coffee today.
Anand:Yes, I’ll remember it for sure.
Girish:This vision is not about only products. We are in customer support but think about a salesperson who can quickly solution with the customer and find a deal or a recruiter who can close a candidate by giving them an offer on the same day. ‘Wow’ can come or happiness can come but you have to understand the emotion of the other person. If a candidate is coming for an interview, they would like a result on the same day. Now, can we build something that can enable and foster collaboration because many times companies take days and weeks to actually communicate the result.
I think even at Freshworks we used to have in the early days, when you come for an interview, you will walk out with an offer or you will know that you’ve not made it on the same day. I think at scale we are struggling a little bit but I would like that to be the goal setter. Let’s say in any deal, people like to close and move on. Enabling every team to deliver ‘wow’ is a company-wide philosophy. Whether it’s our legal team or HR team, our product teams, I think that fundamentally goes back to “Life is short.” It’s worth celebrating. Being happy is important. Those small doses of ‘wow’ is what’s generating happiness so we like to be the happiness quotient.
Anand:Nice. What would be a couple of your other passions of working in —
Girish:I think it all goes back to happiness. I spoke about how happiness was important for everybody in the company. It includes me. There’s one decision that I’ve taken in my life several years ago, that no matter what, I will be happy. I’m not willing to give the remote control of my happiness to anybody else, it doesn’t matter whatever happens, because at the end of the day, I think it’s in the mind. If you have reached wherever you are, you can choose to be happy and choose to be unhappy. Now with that I will answer your question on what are some of the other interests? I fundamentally believe that you only die once. Which also means, you only live once so I would like to enjoy and be happy and do whatever I want in life. I love soccer. I don’t play but I’m a Chelsea fan and now my other passion is FC Madras where we have created a grassroots facility. Full Academy with residential, food, training, education, everything for kids. We have 38 Kids.
Anand:This is for soccer. Or football?
Girish:Yes. Okay, football is the real football but for the US audience it is a soccer.The football that we play with our foot.
Girish:FC Madras is actually for under 13 and under 15 kids. We recently inaugurated full-size FIFA artificial turf. Basically again, it comes back to the same belief. If you look at India. For a country of billion plus people, we don’t even have one team to qualify for the World Cup. If you look at the last World Cup, Iceland which has a population of 3.3 lakh people, so 330,000 people is the population of Iceland, they’re able to assemble a football team. Most of the players were actually not professional football players. They have other careers like dentists and bankers and teachers, now if they can come together, practice and qualify for the world cup.
I think we have to really think hard about, “Don’t we have the talent? What is lacking?” So, I think how building a global product company out of India is hard but possible. Same way building a global football club from India has never been done but it should be possible, so we want to try and that’s the belief from FC Madras where we believe the next Messi can come from Madras.
Anand:Awesome. Would love to hear. What’s your vision going forward? Maybe for not only Freshworks but a message or a story for the community that’s the entrepreneurs who are listening in?
Girish:I never imagined we would be where we are today. I know that there are many entrepreneurs who, when they start the company, they want to conquer the world, change the world make a dent in the universe, I didn’t start like any of that. In fact, I used to tell Shekhar also that I like to dream in installments. When we started, we chose a help desk because that’s what I like to do and when Shekhar invested, we had $2,000 in monthly recurring revenue and he asked me where will we be at the end of next year.
I just thought about it and said, “Okay, as a product manager who is building a global product, if you’re not at a million dollars, then that’s not — “ My dream was to get to a million dollars. We actually hit it one month late and whenever I dream about something, I feel very happy that we are living to see the dream. Realizing the dreams is one of the greatest joy. We are actually being celebrated as one of the successes for an Indian startup, in the SaaS space, was founded in 2010, launched product in 2011 hit 100 million. The journey from one million to a hundred million was five years and two months. One of the fastest. We didn’t plan for being one of the fastest, all of that is good.
What excites us even more is, and this also comes back to the learning that I talked about, for me, I don’t want to be celebrated and rest when we’re at 100. When I look up and I see all the great companies that are there in the US, companies which have crossed a billion dollars, not valuation but revenue and say five billion revenue and 10 billion revenue. I think we fundamentally believe that we have a shot, we have a very credible shot as probably the first Indian SaaS startup to really build a global business and establish Freshworks as a global brand.Clearly, I’m again out of my comfort zone because in my previous career I had built a very sizable, scalable business. similar to what we’ve done in Freshworks, and that journey helped me. With all the learnings that I had, I was able to take Freshworks to where it is here. This 100 million to wherever this journey takes us, this is completely new, uncharted territory. Now, while we are saying this, I would also like to say, one of my passionate dreams is India as a product nation.
Now, the fact that Freshworks has come to 100 million and has crossed 100 million, is actually making the world look up and take notice. Scaling a SaaS product company within a short span of time completely starting as a VC-funded startup, has not been done before. Many people have asked me and this is also being discussed in boardrooms of multi-billion dollar companies like, “Is Freshworks an aberration or are there more people that’s going to follow?” I am a strong believer in the India as a product nation dream.
I would like to probably share a story which will be apt for this situation. The story probably some of you may know, which is the four-minute mile story. I think for a long period of time in the history of running, no athlete had actually run a mile under four minutes. That became a big talking point and a big challenge, and a lot has been written in the media about who will be the first athlete to actually run a mile under four minutes. There are also lots of sports consultants who are actually predicting when this record will break and how would it break, under what conditions would it break.
Like they said, it will happen on a dry day, on a hard surface with 10s of thousands of people cheering the athlete to break it. It so happened, there’s a person called Roger Bannister who picked a cold day and a wet surface, and with a few thousand people cheering him, he actually ran a mile in under four minutes. That’s not the story. As soon as he did that, I think in the next 46 days there was another person who did it under four minutes, and beat this record by a second. Within the next few weeks or months, in the same year three other runners beat this record. In the subsequent 50 years, thousand runners broke that record.
The reason I’m saying this story is, I think at Freshworks we have run the zero to hundred journey, but what we are seeing with all the new SaaS startups coming in. I think this will be the biggest opportunity for India, for our entrepreneurs, for our startups to really take the lead, break this record and actually get hundreds of more startups that are crossing this barrier and taking over the world as the market.
Anand:On that inspiring note, and hope you cross your next four minute mile which is your next 18 month installment. On that note, thank you very much Girish.
Girish:Thanks, Anand. It was a pleasure.
Anand:That was an inspiring story indeed, about learning and teaching, about storytelling, about building a company with an amazing culture, importance of building an organization versus just building a business. These are some of the lessons we can take away today from hearing Girish’s story on how Freshworks is being built and how Girish has scaled as a founder himself. Hope you like the podcast. If you like the podcast, please do leave us a review. Also, please do check out insightspodcast.in and do tweet us @Accel_India with thoughts and comments and how we can make this podcast a lot more helpful to you as a first-time founder. Thanks for joining.
Anand:For those of you who are still listening, these are some outtakes. In particular, this section has some belt of wisdom on Girish on how he became an excellent product manager and how that has helped him as a founder. Listen on.
Anand: There are other questions which is on the products side. How did you develop that? Again, like the product thinking? You’re one of the strongest product founders.
Girish:Okay. I’ll start with the brutal honest truth. In 2001, when I started at Zoho, I started out as a presales engineer and then I had a brief stint in marketing. I did not even know what the term product manager meant in 2001. I thought the next move in my career should be a project manager. There was a certification called Project Management Professional something, PMP certification.
I along with all of my colleagues, we thought we’ll study for that exam and we downloaded all the books. I hated it when I looked at the table of contents. It talked about risk mitigation, and estimation of project work and resource allocation and none of that made sense. At that time (I met) my boss and mentor Kumar Vembu — I think I was getting a little bit frustrated in marketing. I went and talked to —
Anand:This is your first year in Zoho or —
Girish:Yes. After 12 months, I think it was probably second year.
Anand:Second year, okay, yes.
Girish:After a year in presales, I was given marketing. We had the US teams also doing marketing and I was doing marketing from India but I had to go to US for review and so on. I talked to Kumar about my frustrations in marketing. I asked him to give me independent control and rest of the world marketing for certain products and so on. Kumar just took me out for a chai and tea [laughs] When we were just having the chai, he was actually telling me, “Girish, you know what is the problem? You are an authoritative person. Marketing is a consultative role. That is the problem. You should think about being a product manager and building a product.” In one of my presales trips to Korea — I had some feedback from resellers so I came back to Kumar. I had a little talk to him about building a network monitoring product. He said, “Why don’t you consider building something in that line, like building a product?” Actually, Kumar said, “Think about it.”
As we were having the chai, I told Kumar “there’s nothing to think about, I will take it.” That’s how I decided to be a product manager and then I came back to my desk and googled for product manager. Then only I started reading about roles and responsibilities of the product manager. I started liking it because it talked about everything from understanding customer problem to working on pricing and owning marketing and sales. It was almost like, I can really own my territory and do whatever I want. That’s how I became a product manager.
I didn’t know anything so I started learning. One of the things I can tell you is, when I was a presales engineer, my first product was OEM product. It was sold to developers. The UI was an afterthought. It didn’t have great UI, but as somebody who’s going and training, I took on training as part of my presale job because I love teaching, I told you. When I went to train customers like I used to hate the UI but it was my internal feeling.
One of my first things that I wanted to change when I became product manager was, we took the same OEM product and we started building end-user products but really wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the UI. I focused on really getting the aesthetics right and the usability right, making sure all the buttons are polished, the pixel perfect. I got obsessed with good UI and good design.
I think till this date I like that. Basically, one of the aspects of product management is, “How do you really think about design and usability also? according to me. There are a lot of things I didn’t know because we’re sitting in India and building for the rest of the world, a lot of this figuring out was happening after we released an early version of our product, I went and took it to customers and met customers and then I realized what problems are worth highlighting and what features customers won’t really pay for. My first network monitoring product in fact, I remember the first banner had network servers, switch router, desktop monitoring solutions, so we can monitor everything.
Then when I spoke to customers I realized network monitoring is a problem that they really want to solve and server monitoring is another problem but nobody cares about printer monitoring or switch monitoring. Those are all not categories by themselves. When I realized that then I came back and changed the copies. I think it is all by trial and we also stumbled upon a google adwords account that somebody had created in the company in 2003 and put $50 into it.
For an on-premise product, we started putting money on Google getting the downloads and we actually hosted the on-premise product for an online demo on the website. We removed the forms, we said, “Let people try the product and no forms, no white papers, no PowerPoint, no sales person going and talking. It’s just the customer and the product.” That’s all. We had an optional form where we said, “I want free technical support.”
The customer can fill the form, if they want, even otherwise we’ll allow them to download the product. We moved from a hundred downloads per day to thousand downloads per day to thousands of downloads per day. It was just phenomenal. I’m talking about 2003–2004, where the rest of the world was using India as a back office so we were actually doing everything from Chennai like building a product, engineering, QA, sales, support.
The only reason why we needed somebody in the US was for the trade show, we wanted someone to set up the booth and then we would fly from here to do the demos. We really pioneered this building global product from Chennai and a lot of that was also trial and error. The business model was discovered by trial and error because we priced our products at $795, $1,500 and our salespeople in the US were really making 150k, 200k. It was very simple business decision at the time. 150k salesperson selling a $795 product doesn’t make sense because in those days again I think we probably had WebEx but all this inbound marketing and all of that stuff hadn’t really taken off.
We were actually doing all of that. We were getting people to come to our website and download the product themselves. It was a good design, they could figure it out by themselves and they didn’t have to meet a salesperson. They can call and we’ll work in the night shift from Chennai and close the deal. $795 you don’t really need an ROI calculator.
Our competition was building ROI calculators and white papers, we were just closing the deals [chuckles]. What we saw was larger companies also started coming. Even though initially we tough it would be a lot of smaller companies, but because anybody could try the product for 30 days, and I’m talking about pre-SaaS. On-premise product we had a 30-day trial. I think the whole point is there was a new business model discovery like how you can use our advantage and strengths.
Today I can actually articulate it as when you are building from India, you can actually have a business model disruption advantage where you can build great products, acquire customers online, sell and support from India to the long tail of global SMB mid-market customers. I think that’s really worked well.
Anand:That’s what freshworks is doing across categories
Girish:I was on the front lines figuring this out. I think if that is my learning at Zoho, I would clearly say this was the opportunity to play and do this and figure it out, was a great opportunity.
Anand: Product and business model innovation, but on the product side, you’ve talked about design, UI and all that and you also talked about customer empathy or really understanding the customer. Anything else on the product front that you developed in this period?
Girish: Business model shapes product. If you’re selling to large enterprise, there are two or three fundamental differences. Number one, the user is not going to see the product until the company buys it, most of the time. Then the implementation is done by consultants, or the company’s professional services team, and so on, because in a large company, there are multiple teams and somebody has to project manage the whole thing. When somebody else is implementing stuff, it doesn’t need to be really intuitive. It’s a small team of people who will continuously do it.
That’s why if you look at large enterprise software, it’s usually hard to implement because not everybody in the world needs to implement. What we discovered when we were selling from Chennai through online, somebody coming on the website and signing up for a trial, within the first 20, 30 seconds, they have to like the product, that’s why it needs to be aesthetically beautiful.
They decide that they’re going to spend the next week or so to evaluate it, so they have to feel that, “I’m able to configure it on my own.” They should be able to click and see the admin and settings and actually go and do it themselves. If they don’t feel that, they’re going to close the browser and go away. This fundamental difference in business model of which customer you’re targeting, actually changes the dynamics of how you think about product.
Anand:You were talking about how the product ties into the business model and how the business model shapes the product. You said, fundamentally, you have to get both of these right.
Girish:I think one of the ways I have operated, one of the things I’ve seen this, when companies are building product teams, there are actually two models to build, one is what I call the authoritative product manager or product manager as CEO of the product. The other is the consultative Product Manager. I think there are companies which do both models, in my opinion, I would prefer the authoritative product manager, but there is enough argument to do both.
What I mean by that is, the entire product team reports into the product manager, and the product manager takes the final call on all business decisions like running support, running sales or basically almost like a PNL owner. The problem that we also realized is it’s basically two roles combined into one, it’s having a product CEO versus having some other person as CEO.
I think if you can find that, it’s great, but lot of times we can find great product people but who are not great business people, they don’t like owning the PNL. In those cases, what we have done is we try to thought play to in-the-box, there’ll be a product leader and there’ll be a BU leader.