Speed and velocity are never far from Girish Mathrubootham’s mind. If he could grow Freshworks as fast as he could drive his Bentley Flying Spur W12—626 bhp, 0-100 kmph in 3.8 seconds—he probably would.
But talk to him today, and there is a more measured exterior of the CEO of a public company that is in a dynamic balance with the hands-on product manager inner child. And his comments reflect the newly minted public status of India’s first Nasdaq-listed SaaS (software-as-a-service) company, albeit headquartered in Silicon Valley.
“I am enjoying the learning journey. We are a new public company. The markets are down [referring to the fall in tech stocks], but Freshworks is doing really well and we are excited about 2022,” says Mathrubootham.
Freshworks—that makes cloud software for help desk and IT services management—recently crossed the $400 million annual revenue run rate milestone, and is growing upward of 40 percent. For employees old and new, especially in Chennai, where the bulk of the company’s 4,000 or so staff are based, it has been an epic journey.
Old lessons, fresh take
Mathrubootham distills his top lessons from the decadal effort. “I think, believing in employees is the number one thing,” he says. When Freshworks started in 2010-11 in India, nobody had done it at scale. Not even Zoho—from where Mathrubootham, his co-founders and founding teammates came.
They hired talented, young freshers and believed in the idea of learning by doing. For a software products company that was starting out in Keelkattalai, a nondescript suburb of Chennai, there was no other option.
For example, Freshworks’s core development platform was Ruby on Rails, but right up to employee number 69—Mathrubootham remembers the exact number—none of the programmers knew Ruby on Rails at the time of joining the startup. Youngsters joined, learnt on the job, and it worked out well.
But the ambition was always there, says Kiran Darisi, distinguished engineer and vice president of engineering, who was employee number five and a founding team member. “We wanted to build a world-class product, even though we were working out of the suburbs of Chennai. Girish had built three help-desk products before Freshworks. This was the first SaaS foray, though,” he says.
Mathrubootham was willing to do whatever it took. For example, he went along with Darisi to negotiate house rent for him. At Freshworks, for the first nine or 10 months, Mathrubootham did not take any salary, and the others took a basic one in the range of ₹25,000 to ₹40,000 to cover expenses like house rent. “And the idea was that we won’t say no to VC (venture capital) money, but we will not chase it,” Darisi recalls. The plan was to release a product in five months and take it to about $100,000 in annual revenue “and then take market salaries”.
Another lesson was that they focussed on their strengths, and “while we were getting good at what we were doing, we were not afraid to experiment”, says Darisi. A simple example is they first had built a good ‘inbound engine’ that customers could use, but also did not lose much time in beginning to experiment on an ‘outbound engine’.
When they only had a customer support team, and had never attempted a proactive customer success effort, they put one together. And the person responsible for it was Annapoorna Venketaraman, who is today head of customer advocacy and community.
“Our customers like the customer-centric approach we take… we are trying to put them at the centre of everything we do,” says Anna, as she is known. She joined the company as a 21-year-old computer science graduate, who, in 2012, did not want to join the IT services sector; she wanted to be in a place where she could make a difference.
In 2015, customer success was not a well-known function in India in SaaS companies, she says. She saw that many larger companies in Silicon Valley were doing it. She did not have any prior experience, but that did not stop her from walking up to Mathrubootham and saying “we should do this”. She conceptualised the idea, developed a framework and took it to Mathrubootham, and became the company’s first customer success manager.
“You can try and experiment without the fear of failure, that’s the best part of Freshworks. I’ve had my ups and downs, but there’s no fear about experimenting. That safety net is there and that’s the vibe we need to project to youngsters who join as well,” she says.
Up to around 2015, the company never had a data team that could dive into business analytics, but they made a start that year. Today, Mathrubootham asserts that Freshworks is strong in data-driven decision making.
That cycle of building on an area of strength while adding new projects achieved repeatability, and eventually, in 2017, Freshworks—which had started out as Freshdesk, with one help-desk product—got its current name, because it was beginning to build a suite of products. Today, new products are emerging, including for human resources management, and sales and marketing support.
The third lesson is the importance of not just the company’s culture, but one that can be scaled, as the organisation becomes bigger. “Companies don’t scale as long as you can create a scalable culture. And if you have a scalable culture, the culture manages people,” says Mathrubootham.
There are also sophisticated nuances that he imbibed successfully. For example, he recognised and acted on the idea that a company’s ability to scale is much faster than an employee’s ability to keep up. And Freshworks communicates this to its staff proactively.
Therefore, on the one hand, people are always treated fairly, and hard work is rewarded, but “your first salesperson cannot become your chief revenue officer or your first developer cannot become your head of technology or your first HR recruiter cannot become your global HR head”.
That said, there are still many employees who’ve been there from the beginning and have seen “tremendous growth personally and financially”, Mathrubootham says. His strength is his ability to take people along by convincing them that if the company needs to evolve and grow, they have to make way for the people who can help Freshworks do that.
This understanding was tempered with genuine empathy towards staff, says Parsuram Vijayasankar, a senior principal engineer, and another founding team member. Mathrubootham is able to break down and explain a problem in a way that everyone understands. “Back then, the empathy was there, but the delivery is lot more mellow and mature today,” Vijayasankar says.
For example, recently, one of Vijayasankar’s team members was looking to quit, for reasons including being dissatisfied with his pay package. He emailed Mathrubootham and wasn’t expecting a reply. But he was surprised to get a response from the CEO that empathised with the young executive’s circumstances, but also explained the constraints of not being able to set a precedent or make an exception.
“Understanding the ‘why’ is one thing that G is the best person to articulate,” says Vignesh Vijayakumar, HR manager, and self-appointed historian of Freshworks, recalling the 2019 town hall in which Mathrubootham explained to his staff in Chennai why he was moving to the US.
Mathrubootham is repeatedly able to push himself out of his comfort zone, Vijayakumar says. Even as late as 2016, Mathrubootham would be “visibly upset” if he wasn’t able to personally go along with his recruiters to college campuses. But he got over it because the time had come to delegate such work.
All this effort is in the service of one thing—building enterprise software products that customers love to use and have an affordable ‘total cost of ownership’. That’s Freshworks’ competitive advantage, but it’s a combination of two or three things, Mathrubootham says. The products are not necessarily designed for the 500 biggest corporations of the world, but more for the top five million companies.
“We take pride in designing for the frontline user, the salesperson, or the support person who is using the software, and our software is designed for rapid time-to-implement as opposed to traditional enterprise software that takes several years to implement,” Mathrubootham says. Therefore, on the products front, “part of our culture is to be a true friend of the customer… crafting world-class experiences for our customers”.
“Think of it like this. If you design a chair, you could make the most exquisitely well-crafted chair, but if it is not used by the end user, the purpose is lost,” says Bharath Balasubramanian, senior director of design. Mathrubootham’s ability to get even pure design specialists to think in terms of business value and usefulness of the end product has played an important role in how Freshworks has built its products, he says.
The holy grail here is what Mathrubootham used to call the iPhone moment of enterprise software. The idea is that just as the iPhone and Apple’s App Store allowed people to do multiple things in one device, businesses should be able to do more and more on some kind of a unified platform, Mathrubootham says.
“We are close, we’re starting to see the lines blur between sales and support. So businesses are wanting to have conversations with customers. They want to understand everything about the customer. So what we call as the iPhone moment is about not having technology silos,” he adds.
In the enterprise context, companies should not be worrying about sales software, marketing software, surveys, telephony, social media, and chats and so on. That’s the case today because customer data is siloed and experience is broken. But Freshworks is getting there, he says. With the Freshsales suite, there is a marketing sales chat and telephony all integrated under the same underlying unified customer data. “And we know that if we move Freshdesk also on that unified customer vision, customers will get more value, so we are working on that,” he says.
Change is the only constant
The Covid-19 pandemic has made that work a tad more complex. On one hand, Freshworks’ products became even more relevant, but on the other, Freshworks, like every other organisation, is grappling with people working remotely. Mathrubootham’s take on this is that the world will never go back to the way things were before Covid, and a hybrid work environment is a given. That means building as well as adopting more tech to help people collaborate better, and giving them secure access to whatever they need to do their jobs.
In all this, one thing that Mathrubootham misses is “being hands-on and building products”. Being a CEO of a public company is more about the larger vision and managing compliance and so on. “I’m a product manager at heart, and as a startup founder, I took a lot of pride in building our products. In the early days, I worked on every feature, looking at the UI design, contributing to that and collaborating with developers and designers. I definitely miss that.”
The flip side, of course, is the reward of seeing Freshworks grow, as he chases the next milestone of becoming a billion-dollar revenue company. And Mathrubootham has no plans of taking his eyes off of the road. As a public corporation, the guardrails are better-defined, but the stretch ahead will certainly be commensurate with the billion-dollar revenue aspiration. Pedal to the metal.
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(This story appears in the 25 March, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)