Much of who Girish is, and isn’t, can be attributed to his nearly decade-long career at Zoho, the 17-year-old software maker for small and medium enterprises founded by Sridhar Vembu.
Over the past decade, a breed of SaaS startups from India, led by Zoho, have established the country as a destination in this domain, giving birth to rivals for Salesforce.com, Zendesk and other global SaaS giants.
In the late nineties, Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com triggered the “software-as-a-service” wave, enabling enterprise customers to buy software as part of their monthly subscription plans, without making a big, deep hole in their pockets.
Since then, Salesforce.com has forced bigger incumbents such as Oracle, Microsoft and SAP to not only embrace the SaaS model, but also increase their focus on selling more modular pieces of software applications. The change has been so dramatic that today Oracle and SAP’s business model from 9-10 years ago — of selling expensive software licences and getting third-party service vendors such as Infosys or Wipro to maintain the software — seems to be from another era.
India’s small but growing breed of SaaS startups led by Freshdesk believe they can be the new challengers in the multibillion dollar global SaaS market, especially for small and medium business customers.
Indeed, by 2025, Accel Partners and Google believe Indian SaaS startups will be worth $50 billion and will earn $10 billion in revenue.
And there are two ways of building a successful SaaS startup. There’s the Zoho way, and there’s the Freshdesk way.
Girish’s stint at Zoho set him up to build India’s fastest growing SaaS startup. Girish values the experience at Zoho more than the first funding he received from Accel Partners. “That experience is what helped me build Freshdesk,” he says.
Kumar Vembu hired Girish at Zoho and is his mentor
Kumar Vembu, Zoho founder Sridhar’s younger brother, was president and COO of the company for over six years. He’s the one who hired Girish and saw him evolve as a product manager. “Every time I talk to him I feel he has become bolder in terms of the risks he wants to take. As people climb up (the ladder) they become risk averse, whereas I find him becoming more risk-loving as he grows up,” says Vembu, who started his career as a software engineer at Qualcomm, Inc in San Diego.
After his 15-month stint at HCL Cisco in Chennai, and some 13 months at technology consulting and training company eForce Inc as a software engineer in Texas in the US, Girish found a job at Zoho, then known as Adventnet.
The year was 2001, and there were job losses all around, triggered by the dotcom bust.
“I always hated negative environments, and wanted to run away from them,” he says. By early 2001, he was back in India to start a training company called MindSphere — the company Rajsekar and his other friends put money into — but within a few months it was clear that the nobody was interested in computer science.
He needed a full-time job, desperately.
“Also, I wasn’t married back then, so getting a job was important from that point of view. Startups were not cool back then,” he says.
He gave interviews at Oracle and GE, but none of them worked out. Finally, a cousin’s friend who was working at Adventnet referred him to the company and the interview happened in July 2001.
“The folks who interviewed me liked me, but the HR people said the salary expectations were too high,” says Girish. He had asked for Rs 4.8 lakh a year.
“Where do you see yourself five years down the line?” the HR manager asked.
“Someday I will start my own company,” he said.
Vembu inaugurating Freshdesk’s new office
When the HR people told Vembu about Girish, he took a closer look at his resume and felt it suited a pre-sales role better. The role involved preparing pre-sales demos of Adventnet’s software solution for potential customers.