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Every movement needs a hero — Freshworks and the dream of a Product Nation

It all started in 2005. More than 15 years ago.

In a boardroom with around 20–25 founders, we were discussing the vision of what India’s software industry could become. Suddenly, an elderly gentleman stood up and started questioning me and others at the table. His argument was simple: How do you want India to be positioned? Not,as coolies for these big companies, right, he asked.

Innovation is in our DNA, he said, and we should be building software for the world.

There was utter silence.

At the table there were only 3–4 founders who were building software products, the rest were services companies. This was at a NASSCOM forum for SMEs, which we had convened to vet ideas to help speed growth up in that sector.

This elderly gentleman was Anil Bakht, CEO of Eastern Software Systems. That was the first time I started thinking about evangelizing software products.

The dream of a product nation

In the years that followed, I worked alongside people like Sharad SharmaGanesh Natarajan, and MR Rangaswami to give shape to that dream of building India into a ‘Product Nation’ through initiatives such as NASSCOM Product Conclave and PNGrowth, activities that spanned more than a decade.

Many of these efforts were small and modest to start with. Given the state of the Indian startup ecosystem at that time, software products were still a dream, an aspiration.

All that changed when I met him — the man they called ‘G’.

Girish doing the keynote at SaaSBOOMi Annual 2020

A special beginning — moving from a dream to a goal

One of the volunteers at NASSCOM Product Conclave in 2011 was an excellent writer named Sairam Krishnan (NB: I owe a debt of gratitude to Sai for helping me become a bit of a writer myself!). Sai used to rave about his boss in Chennai, whom he would refer to as “Ji” — later, I got to know it was not “Ji” but “G”, and that it stood for Girish Mathrubootham, the founder of a small SaaS startup called Freshdesk. Sai had built an amazing picture in my mind about Girish.

So, on my next trip to Chennai in June 2014, I requested Sai to help me schedule a meeting.

When I reached the Freshdesk office, I was struck by the energy in the room — there was so much buzz and action, so much so that they simply couldn’t find a meeting room. Eventually, they managed to get two additional chairs in a room already occupied by 3 or 4 engineers.

I shook hands with Girish and he said that we could chat here. He made me comfortable, and in his usual style offered me filter coffee. Not sure if I was imagining it but the other folks in the room seemed a bit hassled — they were probably curious to find out if I was there for a job or to sell something.

Within the first ten minutes of that meeting, I realized that Girish was a kindred soul — we were individually talking about our dreams but the dream was the one and the same — building a Product Nation. Girish agreed to support some community initiatives that I had proposed and was happy to help fellow founders with his learnings.

Even in this short meeting, there was something special about Girish — it seemed that he would always remember you and he would do things that you’ll remember for life.

Post that first meeting, I was fortunate enough to interact with Girish closely on multiple occasions. But all of these are personal to me. Over this same time as I was getting to be close to him, he grew Freshdesk from a small single-product startup to Freshworks, a multi-billion dollar global behemoth with a full range of products. I saw, in real-time, how Girish grew as a leader.

There are very few leaders who scale well along with the company, and Girish is definitely one of them. Every time I met him in the last couple of years, I met a more evolved Girish.

I particularly remember one session which we did at Accel LaunchPad, where Girish was sharing his insights. When he walked into the room, he changed the energy and the vibe immediately. And this wasn’t a one-off. Every keynote session that Girish would conduct during events would leave the hotel corridors empty, every person would want to listen to him. Although people would hear him every year, he would mesmerise the audience with his storytelling and delivery. At the last SaaSBOOMi event in Feb 2019 that we had in person — the year before Covid forced us all to go online — Girish got a standing ovation from the audience.

But the most striking thing about Girish was that not only did he transform himself and his company into leaders, he also took the entire Indian SaaS community with him.

Building the Product Nation brick by brick

At iSPIRT, I was tasked with managing the Playbook pillar — putting together playbooks and conducting bootcamps around Sales, Marketing, Product Management for product companies. Girish was inevitably at the forefront, sharing his lessons and experiences openly and transparently with other SaaS founders, helping them avoid mistakes and in reaching PMF earlier. He was joined by others like Suresh SambandamManav GargAneesh ReddyPallav Nadhani, and Krish Subramanian who helped make this playbook format a valuable tool for founders to learn from other founders.

Girish sharing his learnings with other founders at the Freshdesk office. Stay Hungry…Stay Fresh!

The last couple of years have been an amazing journey of Indian SaaS companies becoming global, and today we boast of around 11 unicorns and probably 1500 startups who are building SaaS business for global markets. ‘Shaping India’s SaaS Landscape’, a report developed by SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey & Company this year, revealed how this dream of a Product Nation has the potential to create $1 trillion in value and nearly half a million jobs by 2030.

Freshworks is at the head of this trillion-dollar dream and I have seen them go from milestone to milestone quietly and confidently — spreading their joy with everyone else in the ecosystem. I was fortunate to be part of the celebrations when Freshworks became a $100Mn company and then getting to see them touch $300Mn. I found it fascinating to see how the brand got built and how every founder in the ecosystem talks about Freshworks and Girish proudly and with affection, seeing his victory as their own.

And it is now time to celebrate another milestone, another victory.

For a change, I wore formals to be part of the Entrepreneur award function organized by E&Y

The harbinger of this revolution is now going public

In the next week or so, Freshworks will list publicly in the US — the first Indian SaaS company to file for an IPO in the West.

Every movement needs a hero, and Freshworks is not just a hero, it is our hero — a wonderful exemplar of leading with humility, of paying it forward, of winning without taking shortcuts.

In a sense, this IPO signals that the dream of seeing India as a Product Nation is now reality.

In tech circles globally, Finland is known for Nokia, Estonia is known for Skype, Australia is known for Atlassian and from now, India will be known for Freshworks. Not just as a supplier of low-cost tech talent but as a global software product powerhouse.

There is a story that Girish had shared in SaaSBOOMi 2019 annual about the 4 min barrier — about how running a mile in under 4 minutes was considered impossible, but once Roger Bannister broke this mark, he was very soon followed by a number of other athletes who did likewise. Bannister showed the path and showed that what was earlier considered impossible was now well within reach.

From a software product perspective, Freshworks has emulated this for the rest of India’s SaaS community — it has shown the path towards becoming a global product leader. And now hopefully many more Indian companies will see similar success over the next few years.

It seems that the dream that many of us dreamt all the way back in 2005 in a small conference room has finally been realised.

With few friends in Chennai after a roundtable.

Another dream coming true

In addition to this shared ambition, there is another dream that is poised to become a reality — something that is a lot more personal.

A long time back when Freshworks was a small but growing company, I had a gut feeling that this startup would go public someday, and I had promised myself that I will be with Girish at NASDAQ when he rings the bell. Not so much because I had any personal ambitions for myself, but because it celebrates the coming of age of India as a Product Nation — a proud moment for many of us who have waited for this day.

For the first time in my life, I have undertaken a trip beyond ten days to be part of this milestone. Given the travel constraints imposed by the pandemic, I had to be in Mexico for fifteen days to gain entry to the US and make it on time for the IPO.

While I was apprehensive about spending so much time in quarantine and was worried about how I could manage, all through this stay I never felt despondent for a single moment — the exhilaration of seeing a long-cherished dream kept me going.

Girish has inspired and energized dozens, if not hundreds, of Indian SaaS founders. All these folks might not be physically present in the room when Girish rings the bell, but they will be with us in spirit, joining us to celebrate India definitively becoming a Product Nation.

On behalf of all these people, I would like to say: Thank you, G, and thank you, Freshworks.

Grateful to my friend Sai for editing this piece and another friend who remains anonymous 🙂