In building Freshworks, Girish Mathrubootham turned into a man on a mission that required patience, working from the bottom-up and a whole lot of humility.
Just before Freshworks listed on the NASDAQ, the company’s co-founder and CEO, Girish Mathrubootham, wife Shoba, and the couple’s sons Charan and Sanjay, posed for pictures at the NASDAQ podium.
With them was two-year-old Neo, the family’s pet Shih Tzu. “He’s the only one who can bring the family together,” Girish would later tell journalists, with a smile, “Whenever my two boys fight, it ends when Neo is around!”
On Wednesday evening, the Indian start-up ecosystem erupted in celebration when Freshworks became the first-ever Indian software maker to list on the NASDAQ. “Welcome to the NASDAQ family,” said an LED sign at the podium as the family and a small group of employees celebrated by ringing the opening bell.
Cheers and streams of confetti filled the air a moment later, as the company’s trading symbol ‘FRSH’ began flashing on the NASDAQ screen. At the centre was Girish, a quiet smile betraying the only semblance of emotion. “I never dreamt of this moment. Our first goal was to make a billion dollars in revenue,” he said later while addressing the media, “It feels like an incredibly proud moment; it’s our ‘Roger Bannister’ moment.”
The remark was a reference to British athlete Roger Bannister who became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, before other athletes would go on to emulate his achievement in the years that followed. “We are happy and excited about what this means for Indian SAAS start-ups, and I will be excited to see the next bunch of SAAS companies go public,” Girish added.
Halfway across the world in Chennai, the celebrations warranted quite the party as brightly coloured balloons, focus lights and big-screen TVs beamed visuals from New York into Freshworks’ home base. The jubilation was understandable. After all, it was only less than a decade ago that the Freshworks story began in this city.
Back to the start
I first met Girish Mathrubootham in January 2016 when Freshworks still went by its old name, ‘Freshdesk’. I had scheduled a day-long shoot at the company’s relatively new office space in South Chennai, for CNBC-TV18’s flagship show on start-ups, Young Turks. My crew and I were to spend a day with Mathrubootham and co-founder Shan Krishnamurthy, as we hoped to capture on camera, the story behind their recent success.
Months prior to our meeting, Freshworks had secured a $50 million in funding from Tiger Global. Sequoia Capital, which would later go on to become another marquee investor, had not yet come on board. With just $150 million in hand, and nowhere close to catching a glimpse of what the Unicorn club was like, Girish — or “G” as he was and still is known to several employees — still seemed to exude quiet confidence.
It didn’t matter that his company was located in a city not renowned for its start-up ecosystem. It mattered less that talent could be found in plenty 360 kilometres away, in Bangalore. To “G”, Chennai was home and this is where Freshworks would weave its magic.
“It’s true that Bangalore has a lot of talent but it’s also true that Bangalore has a lot of competition,” he told me, on camera, when we began our interview.
“You’re fighting with the Flipkarts, Olas, Microsofts and Yahoos for talent.” Girish’s choice was rather simple: join the start-up bandwagon in Bangalore, or walk the road less taken. He chose the latter.
“In Chennai, Freshdesk is fortunate enough to be the number one start-up that comes to mind. We don’t really believe in hiring people who believe in solving the same sets of problems on the same scale,” he added, “We believe in hiring smart people and letting them work on the job and get stuff done. We are willing to put in time to build the people we want, the way we want them to be, rather than expecting readymade talent.”
It was right there for everyone to see: in building Freshworks, Girish Mathrubootham turned into a man on a mission that required patience, working from the bottom-up and a whole lot of humility. Anyone who met him would testify to an abundance of that last trait, in particular.
“It seems like we’ve come so far, but it’s only the start,” he said in the same interview, “The fact that we have customers in 145 countries makes it look like we’ve grown. But the fact is in each of these markets, the contribution of our revenue is really small. So, the headroom for growth in each of these markets is so tremendous that we believe we just have to put our head down, and focus on work and execution.”
A new dawn
Thirty months after the ‘Freshdesk’ story aired on Young Turks, the company, now Freshworks, entered the Unicorn club. In August 2018, the start-up raised $100 million in funding led by Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners. A dream had finally come to pass, and the company was now valued at an excess of $1 billion.
By this time, the company had grown. Girish and team moved within the same campus to larger office space, while embarking on a hiring spree. Younger faces, better-looking graffiti on office walls, and cooler workspaces slowly began making a statement. Ask anyone in Chennai, and they’d bear testament to the notion that ‘Freshdesk’ was the start-up to work at.
These changes coincided with a major re-branding exercise in June 2017, as ‘Freshdesk’ became ‘Freshworks’. The newly christened company now began to net customers on a war footing. A strategy to this end seemed fairly obvious: offer more and better options. That is what Freshworks, Girish told me, he hoped would bring to the table.
“Customers can get into a suite of products that work better. They can now have sales and support software from the same vendor, and that brings synergies that take away a lot of pain for the customer,” he said in an interview with CNBC-TV18 at the Freshworks launch. “It helps us give more to our customers,” he added, “They deal with one vendor, and get one invoice.”
Some things, however, stayed the same — like Girish’s deity-like reverence for actor Rajnikanth, his quiet smile, the denims and sneakers that had by now become a staple feature of his dress code, and an undying love for football. In early 2018, Girish gave a TEDx talk on why he believed we could “find the next Messi from Madras”. He spoke to CNBC-TV18 about investments in FC Madras, a city football club he had started with the hope that it would bring greater love for and focus on the sport.
At the time of listing on the NASDAQ, Freshworks’ customer count stands at 52,000 spread across 120 countries. In 2020 alone, the company added 8,000 new customers, Girish said. The company clocks $300 million in annual revenue and is registering revenue growth of 45 percent while operating in two major verticals Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and IT Services Management (ITSM). The company says its total addressable market is a whopping $120 billion.
One wonders, and understandably so, what is next for the Chennai start-up and now NASDAQ debutant. To use an old cliché, for Freshworks, it seems reasonable to believe that the best is only yet to come. “Today is day zero,” said Girish just before ringing the NASDAQ opening bell on Wednesday. In the days come, there’s every indication that for Indian start-ups all over, the Freshworks story will be looked at as a model to emulate — a Roger Bannister moment, indeed.
(Edited by : Anshul)
First Published: IST