Posts tagged Chennai
Posts tagged Chennai
I have met many entrepreneurs in my life, including my husband who I have seen through three start-ups. I’m always excited listening to their ideas, feeling their passion and their hunger to achieve success. But I often find it hard to figure out who will eventually succeed, or even go past their first or second round of funding. Most times, especially in India where the market is ripe for any number of products and services, success or failure happens because of the entrepreneur. Not every founder transforms into a good entrepreneur and leader, but the few who do end up creating enormous value for themselves & their stakeholders, and oftentimes, transforming the very industry they operate in.
When I met Girish Mathrubootham, Founder/CEO of FreshDesk recently, I felt in my bones that I was sitting in front of one such entrepreneur! Girish is everything but a stereotype of a tech-entrepreneur that most of us would expect - He has no fancy degrees from fancy Institutes like an IIT/IIM/Stanford/UPenn. No Debonair looks. He has never worked in any blue chip MNC. Worst of all, he has no “airs” as the CEO of a recently funded startup:)
But you hear Girish talk, and you quickly realize that he is in a league apart. It shows in the way he has taken different career decisions in the past; it shows in his straight-forward, honest, and no-nonsense communication style; it shows in the way he has built his team; and above all, it is there in the calm confidence that he radiates.
Girish’s first foray into entrepreneurship in ‘01-02 was a classic failure. He had given up a nice job in the US to return to India, and start a Software Training School. The training venture struggled due to the very negative sentiment that prevailed in India towards software jobs during that time (hard to believe now, but even colleges were finding it hard to fill up Comp Sci seats that year!). People were losing jobs, and very few firms were recruiting. Girish took a wise step - he decided to close his company down and get himself a job. I say ‘wise’, because knowing when to give up is a very important trait in an entrepreneur, and he had his clearly articulated reasons, like:
1. he strongly believes that a startup succeeds when it rides a wave (I couldn’t agree more)
2. he does not enjoy working in a “negative” environment
3. nobody would give a bride to a struggling entrepreneur (Haha!)
As luck would have it, Girish landed in Zoho (AdventNet, those days) in a pre-sales engineer role. But very soon, he morphed into a Product Manager largely because his boss, Kumar Vembu, spotted his talent. As he says it, Kumar Vembu took him out for a chai one day and told him that an ‘authoritative personality’ like him should be a Product Manager, and the role was his if he wanted it. Girish did not wait to think; it sounded interesting and he signed up immediately, even though he had no clue as to what he was expected to do! But this transition surely was a very important fork in Girish’s career, for it introduced him to a “product”, “innovation”, “global market” scenario that most people working in India never get to operate in.
Girish’s first strategic move was to focus on building a strong User Interface (UI) for the product, as he knew what a pain it was to learn/use products with bad UI from his training days. No wonder then that this product, OpManager, took off when launched at InterOp in Las Vegas..with users raving about the easy-to-use, friendly interface! And this was way before the iPhone/iPad days that have anyway brought UI to the fore in all apps today.
Girish learnt his next lesson - on pricing and positioning - when a senior executive from AMEX came to his InterOp stall and inquired if he had a “better functionality” for a higher price for high-end enterprises like Amex! He realized then that it was critical to have different bundles at different price levels for sme and enterprises, because they want to be treated differently.
His product primer got its third entry when he went to meet a potential customer for his Networks Operations Management product. The customer was using an asset management product from a competitor and could not stop raving about it. He was impressed that the product was being “sold” so intensely by the customer. He decided that, henceforth, any product he put out in the market had to be so good that his customers would do the selling for him!
So when Girish got ready to launch off on his own, he knew much of what he needed to do as he had already built 7/8 successful products at Zoho. No wonder then, that when he came across a Hacker News post on ZenDesk’s product pricing strategy, and on how the market was ripe for a better product, he could not let the opportunity pass. He roped in his colleague and friend of several years , Shan, as a co-founder.Very soon, he felt like he had to strike out fully, at the risk of giving up his pay check, as the “idea virus” was buzzing 24*7 in his head. And FreshDesk was born! (You can read all about it in his own words in his blog -http://tinyurl.com/79xrksb).
Girish says his first team was all of people who had worked for him earlier.. And why not? Engineers by nature like to work for bosses who are “what-you-see-is-what-you-get”, and the opportunity to build a world class product out of Chennai does not come every day! So, how does Girish manage his team… especially now given that they are seeing a lot of action in the field with product launch, customer ramp up, funding and red-hot growth?? He says his philosophy is simple - People need to feel happy about coming to work on a Monday. They need to like their job, and they will only like it if they are good at it. So his job is to figure out what they are good at by moving them around if required, or hiring them into the right role…a la Kumar Vembu, his erstwhile boss and mentor? He gives the example of how he hired his digital content man from a retail store where he was handling supply chain, his first job after completing MBA. Girish read his blogs, researched, and realized that it would be a win-win if he got him for managing Digital Content. Today, if you go read the FreshDesk blogs, Twitter & Facebook posts, and all the cool marketing content that comes out from them, you will know what a good hire this has been! I was happy that I met a founder/CEO who does targeted hiring, and hires based not on brand value but based on potential…a theme I oft repeat to my clients when I hear them lament that it is so hard to find the right person for a job. Girish then went on to say that he believed that there was no such thing as work-life balance!!…that there can only be work-life integration and that you have to like your job enough to carry it home with you! Gotta agree, as I have been doing it all my life:). He also does not believe in appraisals where you tell people where they passed, and where they failed. Instead, he believes in Achievement Reviews where he can discuss what they have achieved and what more they can do. Forward looking HR stuff that you don’t get to hear much in India, especially in companies at this stage.
Girish, I enjoyed meeting you. You are one positive person, and they say positive energy is viral. No wonder FreshDesk is blazing on many fronts in just a year, with customers across 40+ countries. Now with mainline VCs like Accel & Tiger backing you, there is no stopping you! Go for the moon, guy!
I first heard of BankBazaar from Rajesh Subramaniam, who invested in them from Walden Ventures. He mentioned that they offered you the option of getting the best interest rates on loans, on-line without going place to place, something like what E-Loan does in the US. My interest piqued, I have been following up to see how they are shaping up since then. So when I got a chance to reconnect during my recent visit to Chennai, I went across to their office and spent a good couple of hours getting to know the company, and Adhil Shetty, their Founder/CEO.
Adhil Shetty impresses you with his sincerity and his sense of mission. Those surely help to take your attention away from his boyish looks that are accentuated further by a mop of incredibly curly hair!
Their nicely done, well appointed office in the heart of Chennai’s CBD also does its bit to make you feel that Adhil means business - that he means it when he says he is out to be the “Make-My-Trip of the Financial Services World”!
Interestingly, Adhil’s cofounder is his own younger brother, Arjun. Just a year apart, the brothers share a very similar background - schooling at DonBosco, followed by Engineering at Anna University. The similarity doesn’t end here, as both studied and worked in the US, and decided to return to India in 2007-08. No wonder then, that they joined hands to set up BankBazaar. Curious to know more about the working dynamics between the two, I prodded Adhil to tell me more. Does Arjun follow what Adhil does?? Who does what within BankBazaar? Do they talk shop at home too?
Contrary to what one would think, Adhil says that it is he who follows his brother at times! At work, Arjun handles the operations, technology and customer service while Adhil handles Sales, Business Development, Finance, HR and Investors. They avoid stepping on each other’s toes with this clear demarcation in responsibilities. It is Arjun who brings the domain expertise as he was handling the Co-branded Credit Card Program of Amazon, and knows how well online financial offerings could scale if done correctly. Adhil is on the road most of the time getting in customers, and says he hardly gets to meet his brother more than once a month! He may not realize it yet, but given how lonely it gets to be in the CEO’s chair, he is very lucky to have his brother around to share the highs and lows.
BankBazaar, interestingly, started out as a B2C portal offering online access to loan products from major players like Axis Bank, HDFC etc. It virtually shepherds a customer through the entire loan application process by taking the customer details, shopping for the right terms with competing banks, presenting the options and finally, getting the selected option to approval stage. However, the team was smart enough to realize that the B2C model will take time and substantial marketing to ramp up, as Indian consumers do take long to warm up to any online model. This was true even for ticketing and shopping, categories that have moved online over a decade ago elsewhere in the world. So, they decided to white-label the platform, and offer it to Banks to enable them to give an on-line access to their customers. This brings in the needed cash flow, and allows them to time the market correctly. This could be an excellent strategy, as we all know that online traffic will pick up eventually, and the underlying market is indeed very big.
Adhil is very proud of the team that they have built this far. His motto, while hiring, is to ‘go for the best’. They have had some good experience hiring from IIT (Kharagpur) and swear by it. Kharagpur to Chennai - sounds like a national integration theme :-). Unlike many founders I meet who think they can do everything themselves, Adhil really believes that his job is to recruit the right people, and let them do their job. He takes hiring very seriously, which showed in the quality time he spent with me despite having gotten back from a business trip just a couple hours ago. They have set up a development center in Bangalore just to attract the best engineering talent - takes guts to do this at this early stage in the company!
So why is he doing all this? The idealist in him answers that they want to build a world class innovative product, generate good returns, and share it with all stakeholders - employees, investors, customers and business partners. More Power to him!
I stepped out into the ever-sunny Chennai outdoors. Something tells me that these guys will do what they have set out to do - they have a razor-sharp focus which is half the battle won in any start-up.
Sanjay Parthasarathy (http://about.me/sanjaypat) is back in India, this time in an entrepreneurial avtaar in Chennai. Last I had met him was in a totally different mode, when he was setting up Microsoft operations in India in the 90’s. The energy is still the same…rather more, considering that this is his own start-up! He has been working on it for over 2.5 years and is now at a take off point with a nice team in place. Indix looks all set to ignite some sparks in the Chennai/India product universe with its offering in the “Big Data” space.
I’m excited about Indix after visiting their office in the brand new IIT(M) Research Park. Orange Sofas greet you at the reception, and of course I’m totally partial to orange!
Then, there’s the nice coffee machine on the counter inviting you to take a cup of steaming coffee and sit down to take in the quaint charm. A quirky poster on the wall has the Ice-Cold-Water stand that you see on the streets of Delhi, bringing a smile to your face. Then your eyes take in the other posters on the walls, and soon you get the picture - this is one interesting place, with a strong stamp of identity, one which wants to do things differently, right from its walls!
Sanjay tells me that they have three women out of a total of fifteen full time employees in their team, and an additional four women as summer interns, with one coming all the way from Durgapur. Like it that they are trying to get the balance correct right from the start. The team is in the process of hiring some highly pedigreed leadership (don’t want to spill out more!!), all right from inside of Chennai. Just proves my point that there is always talent available for the right opportunity.
Sanjay says he is looking for some exceptional Data Scientists - you know what to do if you are one and looking to work in a cool company with no hierarchy, no cabins, no bosses and a founder with a sooper track record. They have even done away with visiting cards and that totally won me over! Boy, do I hate carrying those, knowing fully well that they will be lost in receiver’s pockets!!