Through a deep dive into the Freshdesk backstory, Girish Mathrubootham, founder and CEO of the cloud-based customer support software venture, explains to us the defining moments of what is now one of India’s fastest growing startups
A walk through the Freshdesk office located at SP Infocity in Chennai will give you an idea or two about Girish Mathrubootham’s approach to building his venture. The walls are adorned with none other than the inimitable Rajnikanth, the superhero of Tamil films, and the caricatures are accompanied with a tagline: “Kanna… better get stuff done.” (The usage Kanna is typical Rajnikanth style and the usage is a colloquial version of the word dude).
As I was led into Girish’s cabin, I must have walked past about 100-odd engineers, marketers and product managers who were, I’m assuming, getting “stuff done”. The interiors of the Freshdesk office had character, passion and local flavor and yet had a clear message to employees. For people who know Girish, this comes as no surprise; on one hand, he’s known for his technology and product management prowess, on the other, he is the creator of his own style.
The world of technology has changed so dramatically that it is not enough to build great products; a company’s communication strategy, its user experience and design quality, its approach to sales, its understanding of customers and even its methodology to attracting talent have all become crucial. In this conversation with The Smart CEO, Girish explains to us his approach to building Freshdesk, the key moments in his pre-Freshdesk career that shaped his thinking and his priorities over the next one year.
In the journey
The Freshdesk story began in mid 2010. Girish, then VP of product management at Zoho, saw the potential to build a SaaS-based helpdesk software out of India and sell it to customers globally. The trigger was a comment he saw on Hacker News, a portal for developers widely read in Silicon Valley, where a Zendesk customer cribbed about the company increasing its prices by 60% to 300%.
At the time, Girish understood the domain of helpdesk software very well, thanks to his job at Zoho. Without wasting much time, Girish convinced his friend and colleague, Shan Krishnasamy, then a Technical Architect at Zoho, to join him as co-founder.
Girish says, “A key transformational moment in my career is that I understood the importance of riding a wave.” What Girish is referring to is the SaaS wave that was just taking shape in India. In a country filled with extremely successful IT services companies entrepreneurs were waking up to the idea of building global product companies out of India. Venture capital investors were actively tracking the SaaS space and Girish knew that funds could be raised if he showed early momentum.
By early 2011, Freshdesk had a six-member team, including three developers, 1 UI/UX person, 1 QA person who doubled up as a customer support rep. Within 100 days of its launch the company had 100 customers on board. Its first customer was Atwell College from Australia still a longstanding Freshdesk customer. The early traction at Freshdesk was because of some carefully orchestrated product positioning (as good as Zendesk, but cheaper and more intuitive), effective media coverage on how Girish started his entrepreneurial journey and leads generated through blogging. It also won US $40,000 in a Microsoft Bizspark contest, funds that were used towards a Google Adwords campaign to clinch more customers.
Girish had convinced his early team to work on salaries that were around 40 per cent of the market rate but he knew that couldn’t go on for too long. Traction both in terms of revenue and customer growth meant that raising money wouldn’t be too much of a problem. In Feb 2012, Freshdesk raised a Series-A round of US $1 million from Accel Partners, when the company had 350 customers.
“Every business is a growth business; you either add new offerings to the same set of customers or you build a new product for a new set of customers”
To put things in perspective, it was still a fighting game for Girish and team. At the time, Zendesk, the market leader in the customer support software space, had over 10,000 customers and over US $26 million in funding. But as Girish often repeated in our chat, “In the world of B2B software there is always space for multiple players.” Freshdesk had its own positioning, digital and content marketing strategy that ensured it would continue to grow in various markets across the world.
Since April 2012, when Freshdesk raised another US $5 million, the company’s growth has been nothing short of stunning. By December 2012, Freshdesk had over 3,000 enterprise customers, up from 700 in April 2012. Then, it reached 10,000 customers by September 2013, and today, has over 33,000 customers it serves in 120 countries world-over.
In some kind of twisted way, maybe Girish picked Rajnikanth as his company’s unofficial mascot, keeping these growth numbers in mind. The Tamil superhero is known for his on-screen rags to riches transformations in several box-office hits. In Girish’s case, the journey from 350 customers in January 2012 to 33,000 customers at present is nothing short of extraordinary. It was possible, of course, thanks to wonderful execution by his team wherein there were probably very few gaps between strategy and execution.
“We’re certainly not experts in the sales process. If at all, we have a wonderful product that we believe in”
Freshdesk’s positioning in India’s startup ecosystem reached another level when Google Capital decided to invest in the company. On the Google Capital webpage the company’s investment philosophy is clearly listed; the search giant wants to invest in the ‘most promising companies of tomorrow’. Freshdesk is the first Indian technology products company to have raised capital from Google’s investment arm, an achievement that Girish is very proud of.
To be sure, Freshdesk is not a one-product wonder. The company launched Freshservice, a SaaS-based tool for in-company IT support teams. Freshservice too is scaling up at breakneck pace touching over 1,000 customers since launching in early 2013. Girish says, “Freshservice is actually growing much faster than Freshdesk did in its early days. We hit a particular target run-rate within 7 months while the same target took 18 months at Freshdesk.”
When I met with Girish earlier this month he was deep in thought regarding the company’s next steps. He was, in fact, gearing up for an investor meet with Accel Partners in early 2015. Girish says there are three things he’s focused on right now. “One, to maintain the growth momentum in Freshdesk and build the right organisational structures to clinch larger order value deals from large-size enterprise customers. Two, scale up Freshservice to where Freshdesk is today. Three, scale up further the company’s operations in the U.S. and U.K.”
Girish also explains why it is important to understand the nature and size of the customers the company is planning to serve and build organisational structures accordingly. He believes that, often in the B2B software space, the margins are the highest in the large company segment. But this requires an ‘elephant catcher’ approach to sales wherein field sales staff is needed and the company needs to have the ability to wade through various touch points and even manage a longer sales cycle.
On the other hand, selling to the smaller enterprise customer can be done without a face-to-face meeting. Girish says, “In our early days, the whole idea was to create a marketing and sales process, wherein a sale had to be closed online or over the phone.” However, now Freshdesk is at a stage where the large-size enterprise customer with big customer support teams cannot be ignored and the company is gearing up to rejig itself for this.
Earlier in the interview, Girish mentioned that one of the defining moments that shaped his entrepreneurial thinking process was the importance of riding a wave. We delve deeper to find out more and he opens up about a short entrepreneurial stint from the past.
In 2001, Girish wanted to launch a training institute focused on teaching Java to students in India. However, at the time, students weren’t sure about the future of Java itself and there were very few takers. It was at that moment that Girish realised that it is, often, extremely difficult to go against the herd. If there was a Java wave in the country the training institute’s fortune would have been very different.
Girish also realised the importance of UI/UX for software products during one of his pre-sales stints while he was working on a telecom product. “Whenever I pulled up the screenshots during a demo, I would feel so bad,” he says now. This prompted him to focus on two important facets of design – aesthetics and usability.
Freshdesk is also now well known in the SaaS industry for its unique culture of offering freedom to its employees. Girish says, it was a book titled ‘First break all the rules’ that influenced him heavily on this subject. He explains, “The book taught me the difference between skill, knowledge and talent. The author actually says something like ‘you cannot put inside you, what God intentionally left out’. To me, this was an eye opener. People must be hired for the inherent talent they have. If someone is extremely excited about content writing or brand building, if you put them in those roles, they do very well.” Today, at Freshdesk, Girish focuses on finding the right talent for the various roles and gives them the freedom to do their jobs. This approach is at the core of the Freshdesk culture.
Selling with a smile
I first met Girish at a conference called InTech50, organised by iSpirt, where The Smart CEO was a partner. The conference was focused on bringing together entrepreneurs running Indian product companies and CIOs (Chief Information Officers) of various global firms from the U.S. and Europe.
The Freshdesk founder had a carefully crafted sales plan for the conference. I noticed that the company had created these mementos with hand-sketched caricatures of the various CIOs who attended the conference. Girish had also created a printed book called CIO2.0, which included a collection of articles relevant to the CIOs of today. It clearly was a well thought out approach and I am certain that Girish and Freshdesk would have made a lasting impression on them.
I quizzed Girish about his approach to sales and he simply said: “We’re certainly not experts in the sales process. If at all, we have a wonderful product that we believe in. Our approach here was that we want the people we communicate with to come out with a positive state of mind. I am totally against spamming and cold-calling, so we’re thinking of ways in which we can generate in-bound leads.”
Once the leads are generated, the company works on creating personalised mails, which will focus on the customer. Girish says, “Even if the customer does not switch, we get brownie points for the e-mail. When he or she becomes unhappy with the current provider, that’s when he or she will think of us.”
Freshdesk also recently launched a campaign called ‘CEO on Support’, encouraging company leaders to spend sometime on the support desk, chatting with customers and learning from the process. Girish himself regularly spends time on the Freshdesk helpdesk, simply because, he believes it is crucial to shape up the product roadmap of the company.
Putting out the product
Like any other SaaS company, agility in the development process combined with the process to listen to the customer and make changes accordingly, is crucial.
Girish says feature enhancements can come from various directions. It could be a customer request, the product manager’s idea, reaction to competition or just what the market demands.
For example, a few quarters back, developing the Freshdesk mobile app became a priority (originally, Girish thought he could get away with a mobile-friendly browser version). Another feature enhancement that often comes up is personalisation of the software for each enterprise customer.
Girish says, “It is very difficult to explain the process but let me give it a shot. The first thing we do once we have an idea is to start thinking about a prototype. First, the UI team is on the project, along with maybe an architect and a QA person. Only after the initial idea is thrashed out do we put a developer on it. We have very little documentation and do not waste time on writing product requirements documents (PRDs) and so on.”
One of the features that Freshdesk is famous for is gamification. Girish got the idea while he was getting his iPhone fixed with one of Apple’s customer support executives. He says, “The Apple guy didn’t fix the problem for me but he ensured that he wasn’t taking me on with a defensive approach. I went into the store with some irritation but came back happy.”
The gamification feature is simply focused on rewarding the customer support agents who solve problems quickly and efficiently for the customers. Clients can decide to turn on or turn off the feature depending on their context.
Girish says, the secret to good customer support is fairly straightforward: quick answers and right answers. The key is to implement it well across thousands of agents. “Our job is to enable that to happen,” he says.
Finding the right fit
Girish often asks his prospective hires, “What is that one thing you have done really well that prompted you to give yourself a pat on the back?” He says he has heard a variety of answers and it always gives him an idea about the kind of person he is interviewing.
Today, Freshdesk operates with a team of 350, a number that will scale with growth. Girish says, “One of our biggest challenges is to scale our culture.” He’s referring to identifying the right talent and matching them with the right set of responsibilities at the company.
There is no doubt that Girish has spearheaded the journey of one of India’s fastest growing SaaS product companies. As he wraps us, he says, drawing inspiration from a book authored by management guru Ram Charan, “Every business is a growth business; you either add new offerings to the same set of customers or you build a new product for a new set of customers.”
In Girish’s case, he’s implementing a combination of both – scaling Freshdesk even further from its 33,000-odd customers and bringing Freshservice to where the former product is at today. It sure will be an interesting journey to track.
Key takeaways from the conversation with Girish Mathrubootham
Which idea do I pursue?
Girish experimented with a brief entrepreneurial stint in 2001 when he wanted to start a Java training institute. But it had no takers and Girish realized that the primary reason for the lack of traction was that people weren’t sure if Java, as a coding language, would be relevant in the future. With the benefit of hindsight, Girish now firmly believes that riding a wave is way easier than fighting one. If you’re deciding between two ideas, answer this question for yourself: At a macro level, which wave should I ride?
Winning brownie points
For entrepreneurs, it is crucial to setup, fine-tune and continuously evolve a sales process that works. In this interview with Girish, he spoke about how he’s completely against cold calling or spamming prospective customers. The approach he adopts at the company is two pronged. One, do the right things to generate in-bound leads. Two, put a smile on the customer’s face through carefully crafted e-mails. The communication has to be about the customer, not about your company. “Winning brownie points from that prospective customer” is crucial.
Spotting talent, the key to building the right culture
In one of our earlier stories featuring Cognizant’s Lakshmi Narayanan, we wrote a little bit about building organizations with the right culture. Narayanan mentioned that it is the senior management team that defines the culture of any organization. A culture comes about by how the senior team is serious about setting goals and making sure people follow them. In the case of Girish, it is no different but he goes one step further. He says he wants to hire passionate, ambitious people who are really good at completing a particular task at hand. Once the hiring is done right, you give your people the freedom to just do what they love. Girish admits, “Scaling our culture as we grow is my biggest challenge.”
Freshdesk, a snapshot
Founders: Girish Mathrubootham, Shan Krishnasamy
Team Strength: 350
Offices: Chennai, Silicon Valley, Setting up soon in the UK
Investors: Accel Partners, Tiger Global Management and Google Capital
Funding raised: US $44 million in total, including US $31 million from Google Capital
Product USP: Simple, cost effective, intuitive online customer support software and IT helpdesk management software
GIRISH ON RAISING MONEY FROM GOOGLE CAPITAL
Freshdesk is Google Capital’s first foreign investment outside of the U.S. In addition to elevating Freshdesk to the cream of India’s startup ecosystem, Girish is convinced that advice and access to Google insiders as the company scales up will be crucial.
According to New York Times’ DealBook, this round was raised at a good valuation with a good multiple over the previous round. On the experience of working with Gene Frantz, partner of Google Capital, Girish simply says: “It’s been phenomenal working with Gene and his team. We’ve especially worked with them to study our inbound sales process through their lens and the experience was very useful and relevant.”