While the coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected businesses across sectors, some have managed to survive and thrive in this crisis. As organisations redesign themselves to adapt to the ‘new normal’, they are adopting new and emerging technologies and tools that will enable employees to efficiently and seamlessly work from home.
To discuss how technology and SaaS companies can help achieve this ‘new normal’, Girish Mathrubootham, Founder and CEO of Freshworks, joined us all the way from San Mateo, California.
On this episode of Money Matters with Shradha Sharma, the entrepreneur — who has taken India’s enterprise SaaS story to the world — shares insights on building a global business, charts his journey and success, and explains why happiness can be found in the small things.
Learnings from COVID-19
Girish believes that the pandemic has been a great period of learning. He says, “This crisis made me realise how important it is to communicate with employees. The biggest problem is not business; it’s the mental health of employees and how people are going to cope with it.”
In the beginning, like everyone else, Girish too believed that the pandemic would get over in a few weeks. He admits that in hindsight, this was ‘stupid’. “People were right to be worried,” he adds.
Every week has been a wealth of knowledge, says the entrepreneur. “Who would have known that staying home is a cure against a virus? That this is the only defence strategy,” he laughs.
For Girish, this lockdown has become a time for communication and connection. He explains, “I’m spending more time with family. I’m not missing my jet lag and travel. I’ve connected with so many of our employees and different teams.”
According to him, being a cloud-native entity, Freshworks was able to transition to “working from home” without a lot of difficulties as it had little to no on-premise data.
The team has taken the crisis as an opportunity to connect with each other, using various tools to share customer wins, industry news, and learnings every day. In the first few days of March, the management team met daily to discuss how to reorient the business, build strategies, and more. At present, these meetings take place once a week. But the intent is clear — sell in the new opportunity, enable customers better, retrain teams, be empathetic to customers.
“We were going into 2020 with a big growth plan of revenue, a hiring plan for more than 1,000 people, and suddenly in March, we had to throw away everything and come up with a new plan,” says Girish, who adds that he is proud of his team, and how everyone has been able to take these changes in stride.
When it comes to customers, the directive inside Freshworks is simple — you cannot be tone-deaf in these trying times. It is following a model of ‘reassure, reconnect, redesign’.
Girish says that while it is crucial for any business to be able to sell in order to tide through this time of crisis, it can be done with authenticity and empathy.
He adds, “The message I shared with my team is ‘solve; don’t sell’. During a crisis, we have to reassure and reconnect with our customers before you can help them redesign.”
The team reached out to all customers to offer assurance and support, sharing how Freshworks is coping up the pandemic, and also offered relief in any form needed — from payment relief to new technology — to help them redesign their businesses while saving costs.
Staying ahead of competition
In 2010, when Girish launched Freshworks, he solidified India’s position as a B2B SaaS destination. Today, the startup has a valuation of $3.5 billion, with a team of about 3,000 people across 13 offices around the world.
“The opportunity for India is to go after the long tail of the SMB market globally, and that can be serviced from anywhere in the world… Any country can do what but we have the talent pool and the know-how,” he says.
According to Girish, the plan at Freshworks was always to target “red ocean” markets — compete in existing markets, beat out the competition, and have a key differentiator.
“In a red ocean strategy, you win through product, execution, and design,” explains the founder.
Freshworks began in large markets, starting with customer support, then venturing into CRM, IT services, and so on. Seeing that enough people were searching for these services online, the startup decided to leverage the internet for customer acquisition.
This had its own set of challenges. You needed to build your channel (website) in a way that anyone could access your products and try them without any barriers. Hence, the company’s site has no cumbersome forms to fill or layers to dive into before a potential customer can try out a certain product.
“There is no hidden pricing or add-ons; it is what you see is what you get,” says Girish.
According to him, the whole model works only when you make it easy for people to try and the products are designed to be intuitive and self-sufficient. “It has to be aesthetically good,” he emphasises.
Girish explains, “When an average SMB customer — we’ll call her ‘Browser Girl’ — searches for a product, lands on our page, and signs up for a trial, she needs to feel that the product is aesthetically beautiful and intuitive. She needs to believe that she can play around and configure it herself.”
Saying that the average SMB customer would not call for a system integrator to set up a piece of software, it is critical to be able to capture a customer’s attention and imagination or Browser Girl may close the browser in two minutes.
“In two minutes, she has to like the product and in 20 minutes, she has to feel at home in the product. It is like the consumerisation of enterprise software. This power of closing the tab and going away puts a lot of pressure,” says Girish.
Adding that he has the “curse of the layman”, the founder believes in testing a new feature or a new product by himself — without direction or help, similar to what a typical Freshworks customer would.
“If I cannot figure it on my own, that is the feedback I will give to my product team,” he says, emphasising that this need to be simple and intuitive is a crucial element of the startup’s playbook.
After the startup perfected its strategy of being able to close international deals from India, leading to the even split of the business into two go-to-market motions, and two playbooks.
Secret to happiness
A believer in surrounding himself with “good” people, Girish’s motto is, “Success is in the big things; happiness is in the small things.”
He runs a grassroots football training programme charity FC Madras, and says that the main drive behind the initiative are the “amazing people”.
“I just draw a lot of energy by being around with good people. That is enough to make me happy,” he adds.
The entrepreneur believes that one doesn’t need money to be happy. The pleasures of life, time spent with a good friend, and more. For him, happiness lies in the little things — a game of tennis, a beer with a friend.
What is the joy of life? Girish recalls, “One day, I was with a big investor, who had taken me on a private jet to watch the India-Pakistan match in Manchester during the World Cup. Two days later, I was home in Chennai, outside my apartment, at a small shop which sells sweets, eating a small bonda. I derive more happiness from that small shop eating something that I enjoy than going in that private jet right.”
According to Girish, his humble background makes everything he’s accomplished today a “big win”.
He says, “I want to go and accomplish bigger things, but it doesn’t mean that I have to. Even if I’m taken out as the CEO of Freshworks tomorrow, I will still be happy that I have been able to come so far, and I will talk about that and do what I can with my friends and I’ll be happy.”
Last but not least, the entrepreneur adds, “Being happy is a choice, and I have made that choice several years ago in my life.”
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