In his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that people turn experts after 10,000 hours of pratice at whatever they are good at — which is about five years of eight hours daily practice five days a week. He narrates the story of Bill Gates, and how his high school in the early 1970s was the only school back then to have a computer. By the time Gates turned 20, he already had 10,000 hours of computer programming hours behind him.
“A big part of who I am today was shaped by multiple factors, much like the story of Bill Gates in ‘Outliers’,” he says, referring to something different from his technology expertise. He’s talking about how his emotional self was put through the wringer in his early years and how it made him stronger. “Life wasn’t easy for me as a child. It was ok till I was 10, 11 years old… Then my father remarried and it transformed me as a person,” he says.
Born in March 1975 and named Rathnagirish Mathrubootham, Girish spent his time like any other kid in his Trichy neighbourhood. At seven, his favourite toy was the “bambaram”, as a top is called in Tamil. “There were eight coconut trees, five mango trees and a papaya tree in our house,” he recalls. “Only monkeys ate papaya back then. But now, thanks to my diabetes, I too have to eat papaya.”
“We used to have ‘street cricket leagues’ on Ramarao Agraharam street near my Trichy home,” he says. Super Mario games at a local video parlour were another draw.
When he was seven, his parents got divorced. Their separation became the first and perhaps the most influential event in Girish’s life.
Three years later, his father, a retired banker, remarried and kept his son with him. For the young Girish, it was too much change, and too soon in his life, to cope with.
“Let’s just say we didn’t get along well,” Girish says of his stepmother, staying away from detail. “I couldn’t understand relationships; I couldn’t accept someone else as my mother.”
“What was basic for others became a big fight for me and it helped me develop survival instincts,” he tells me matter of factly. “In a normal family, you can be assured of a meal when you go home at night. For me, that wasn’t there at all.” I step back and don’t ask more.
Apart from survival instincts, Girish’s childhood experiences also taught him lessons in emotional maturity.
In FactorDaily’s Outliers podcast interview with him, he advises entrepreneurs to be emotionally detached from the startup idea while building it. It’s a lesson he applied much later while fighting rivals such as Zendesk, who accused Freshdesk of being “a ripoff”.
“While arguing at home, I always lost the battle when I reacted to any provocation. Then I started ignoring things, and discovered that it made me calm. I could choose to respond or not,” he says.
While these early experiences turned Girish into a self-made, self-taught professional ready to take on any challenges, they also took away his ability to emote.
“My biggest loss in life has been the ability to show love. Usually, where do you get the ability to show love? From parents. I am better off now, but for a long time I was incapable of showing love,” he says.
His wife Shoba agrees and explains how painful it was for her initially after they got married in October 2002.
“Even after the kids (were born), sometimes I would sit down and cry, wondering how to handle them all by myself. Gradually, I realised, this is how he is — it’s not that he didn’t care, he just couldn’t express himself. Even now, it’s mostly like that, but now I know what he means. It took me years to understand that,” she says. “A mother plays an important role in the life of a person; there needs to be a woman in everyone’s life. He never had that. He didn’t get that affection (of a mother).”
The couple has two sons — Charan (13) and Sanjay (11). Both Girish and Sobha are very particular about how they are raised, and they don’t let them feel any sense of entitlement. Girish learned early in his life that parents who take all the decisions on behalf of their kids end up making them adults who are weak in decision-making.
“I remember some of my friends whose parents used to even decide what will they eat at a restaurant. Today, they are always asking others before making any decisions,” he says. “For me, there was no choice. I had to make my own decisions.”
Perhaps, more than his fair share of decisions. “I was a complete rebel child,” he says. He ran away from home twice. “Once I went and stayed at my school friend’s home. I don’t remember the second time.”
Girish found love in his aunts who lived in his Trichy neighbourhood, especially Seetha, who once took him to meet his mother. He was 20 years old when he decided to make the toughest trip of his life — meeting his mother in Coimbatore, a five-hour bus ride from Trichy.
“I was feeling really nervous; it was an emotional bus journey,” he says.
Seetha, who travelled with him to give him moral support, says Girish had to make the trip at some point in his life, like the character of Karna from the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’, who goes seeking his mother.
Girish’s aunt Seetha with her husband
“He couldn’t have continued in life without knowing his mother; I knew him well. So, I took him along to meet her,” she tells me at her first floor residence in Chennai’s Velachery area where we met in January this year. The Coimbatore meeting was not a happy one, and did nothing to heal the scars in young Girish’s mind.
Engineering college happened in 1992. His father took a loan of Rs 75,000 to pay the “capitation fee” — a fee taken by private colleges to auction admissions — at Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology and Research Academy at Thanjavur.
In college and hostel, Girish faced real-world challenges and learnt how to cope with them. “I believe every kid should be exposed to hostel life because you see real people — some of them will be selfish, others short-tempered, some genuinely nice, talkative or reticent. There is competition for small things like who gets to bathe first and so on, and the damages were small — the risk of failures weren’t big,” he says.
During his engineering and later during his MBA at the University of Madras from 1996 to 1998, Girish made lifelong friends. Two of them — Rajesh Rajasekar and Ravi Raman — backed his failed education venture MindSphere in 2001 before putting money in Freshdesk. The Rs 25,000 each of them put in 2010 in Freshdesk, would now be worth over $2 million (they have sold some parts of it).
Rajasekar, Girish’s friend of 25 years since college, wasn’t in a position to invest money when Freshdesk was launching. His father had passed away a month earlier and there were huge hospital bills to be settled. He was also finishing his executive MBA from Georgia State University. Moreover, he had lost money in Girish’s earlier venture, and all his friends advised him against investing in the new venture.
“Finally, I found a way, I took out money from my 401K (the equivalent of provident fund in India). I don’t know anyone has done that before, taking money out of 401K and investing in a startup. I am very glad that I took that risk,” says Rajasekar.
“He takes high risks, bets everything, goes for big even when we were playing ‘3 cards’ (a poker game). I’ve been with him during his low and high moments; the way he learns the right lesson from each is amazing.” Rajasekar now works at Freshdesk in the Bay Area, San Francisco, US, as director of customer engagements.
Another friend and batchmate, Ravi Raman, too became an early investor in Freshdesk. “I really wanted both of them (Rajsekar and Raman) to put their money in Freshdesk, so I could make it worth their while for they had done for me before — backing my failed venture,” says Girish.
Much before Freshdesk happened, Girsh learned to earn money fast, and splurge it too. He lives life king size, without any sense of guilt or embarrassment.
His first job was a ‘member technical staff’ with HCL-Cisco in February 1999 where he lasted one year and three months. However, his first big, fat cheque came from a training gig with Chennai-based Polaris Software, just before joining HCL-Cisco. The 15-day assignment involved teaching Java (a programming language) to a bunch of product managers at Polaris. The payment: a cheque of Rs 28,500.
“I splurged 26,000 on my entire bucket list of aspirations — Rayban sunglasses, a Casio digital diary, Levi’s jeans. I took my friends out for pizza, and for many of them, it was the first time they’d had pizza,” chuckles Girish. “We also bought two crates of beer and partied all night.”
Girish doesn’t hold back from splurging, whether it is to sate a long-term desire or a business need. For instance, early in his days as a Freshdesk founder, he won $40,000 prize money after winning Bizsparks, a Microsoft startup contest. He spent that, and a little more, on campaigns across LinkedIn and other platforms to acquire new customers for Freshdesk.
“So what if he likes nice cars. I don’t think it matters,” says Sharad Sharma, a founding member of software product think tank, iSpirt. “Girish selflessly spends time on iSPIRT Playbook Roundtables and bootcamps. He pays it forward despite being so busy and riding a tiger.”
Girish has a binary view of these things. If an entrepreneur is always thinking of the next month’s salary, kids’ school fees, house rent, and so on, his or her entire view of work and life will become constrained, he says. “All of this weighs one down and can make one risk averse. Then the decisions will all be aligned towards protecting what’s there, not taking any bold steps to explore and experiment,” he says. Founders need to unlock wealth to achieve financial freedom.