A Conversation With Entrepreneur & Philanthropist, Girish Mathrubootham, Who Led Freshworks From Startup to a $Multi-Billion IPO on Nasdaq

A Conversation With Entrepreneur & Philanthropist, Girish Mathrubootham, Who Led Freshworks From Startup to a $Multi-Billion IPO on Nasdaq

Girish Mathrubootham is a renowned figure in the global tech industry, an entrepreneur who has rewritten India’s startup narrative through his determination, innovation, and entrepreneurial acumen. As the CEO of Freshworks, he has propelled the company to new heights, carving a niche in a domain that was previously dominated by established industry giants. A visionary, he set his sights beyond just commercial success, co-founding SaaSBOOMi and Together Fund. These ventures reflect Girish’s commitment to leveraging technology and resources to help the burgeoning start-up ecosystem in India, illuminating a path for countless budding entrepreneurs.

But Girish’s influence extends beyond the realm of tech and start-ups. His philanthropic initiatives paint the portrait of a leader who believes in giving back to society. His passion for nurturing talent is manifested in FC Madras, a testament to his belief in India’s potential on the global stage. Establishing this football club was a deliberate act of providing young Indian athletes the infrastructure, support, and opportunity they need to excel in their field. His life’s mission, as he succinctly puts it, is to “create world champions from India,” a purpose that unifies his roles in entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and sport.

In this interview, I speak to philanthropist & entrepreneur, Girish Mathrubootham. We discuss his journey as an entrepreneur leading Freshworks from start-up to $Multi-Billion IPO, what it takes to lead scale-up global businesses, and the power of philanthropy to create change.

Q: How did you start your journey in entrepreneurship?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: I’ve told this story, oh, about a thousand times, but it never loses its charm. This tale of how I founded Freshworks—originally known as Freshdesk—back in 2010, springs from a peculiar incident in my personal life.

Picture this: the year is 2009, and I’m in the throes of relocating from Austin, Texas, back to my hometown of Chennai, India. I was tasked with shipping my household goods back home, among which was my prized possession at the time—a slick 40-inch Samsung LCD TV. Fast forward two and a half months, my cargo arrives, and to my dismay, my beloved TV is broken.

Now, one would think, “Just contact customer care, make an insurance claim, and the TV will be replaced.” Well, it wasn’t that simple. Months of phone calls, endless emails, yet the insurance claim remained unpaid. In the early months of 2010, I took the unconventional route, penning my experience on an online forum. Back then, remember, platforms like Twitter and Facebook were not the monolithic giants they are today—social media was still in its early days.

On this forum, the very place where I found the shipping company, I shared my story, complete with heart-wrenching pictures of my broken TV. The response was overwhelming—the community rallied behind me, the president of the shipping company even issued an apology, and within a day, the insurance money was in my bank account.

This incident was a revelation. Here I was, a veteran of building four customer support help desks, and it was this fresh approach—publicly sharing my grievance—that yielded results. This was the germ of the Fresh idea, a novel help desk, one that could assist businesses in navigating customer issues in the budding landscape of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Q: What are some of the key pieces of advice you would give to individuals leading startups and scale-ups?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: The journey of Freshworks has been nothing short of a profound learning experience, a real-life study if you will. I’m sure most entrepreneurs would resonate with that sentiment. Reflecting on the lessons learned, hiring stands out prominently. The wisdom I’ve gathered over the years taught me to seek out individuals who have a sense of reverence towards the job at hand. Rather than recruiting someone who assumes they’ve mastered it all , we seek those who regard their roles with awe.

Undeniably, we hire experienced individuals. Their knowledge is invaluable, and we rely on them to troubleshoot issues for the company. But it’s essential for us that they are moved by our journey and mission, and harbor an eagerness to learn, not just contribute.

The second valuable insight revolves around recruiting leaders. My experience has shown me the importance of hiring problem solvers and builders, not just those who impose pre-established templates. We need individuals who can swiftly grasp the landscape, understand the business challenge at hand, and then apply their knowledge. The idea is not to forcefully superimpose their previous experience onto our company, but to adapt and innovate. These, I believe, are some priceless lessons we’ve acquired on this journey.

Q: Why has India become such a technology superpower?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: I’m genuinely convinced that the upcoming decade will be the era of India as a product nation. As we all know, India has been a frontrunner in IT services since the 90s, extending through the early 2000s. However, the product revolution has begun, what we’re terming as ‘India SaaS’ – the development of global SaaS products originating in India, not merely for the Indian market, but for the world.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for India, and you might wonder why now? Broadly, it’s a confluence of a few factors. First, the global demand driven by digital transformation isn’t limited to Fortune 500 companies. We’re discussing the Fortune 5 million here – from a small-scale apparel retailer, a neighbourhood restaurant to a colossal multinational, they all need to adopt technology for customer service, inventory management, and marketing.

In the past, software supply was dominated by powerhouses like Silicon Valley companies, or large European ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle, primarily catering to large enterprises. But to address this ever-increasing global demand, we need software that is right-sized and right-priced, opening up opportunities for companies worldwide.

Before I delve into India’s advantage, it’s important to note the shift in the ‘go-to-market’ motion. With buyer behaviour shifting towards online software purchases, the traditional practice of million-dollar deals through extensive sales pitches is receding. Customers are evaluating and buying software for as little as $50-$100 per month. This change in acquiring customers globally over the past decade has been pivotal in meeting this growing demand, which can be supplied from anywhere.

So, where does India’s edge come in? India boasts a robust workforce with nearly 5 million developers, a number that was around 3 million just a few years ago. We have a vast, young demographic, a burgeoning middle class, and a tech-enabled, English-speaking workforce. Add to that a growing pool of leaders, experienced in mega-corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, many of whom are eager to venture into startups. All these factors combine to offer what could be the opportunity of the decade for India.

Q: How do you lead a business across cultural boundaries? 

[Girish Mathrubootham]:  Every global company today must grapple with specific challenges. Firstly, when recruiting talent, the aim is to attract the very best. Secondly, as the captain steering the ship, it’s my duty to assemble the most effective team to navigate Freshworks to success. It’s like a strategic game, and the captain must always bring the best players to the field.

In our early days in India, we were a ‘learning-by-doing’ company. We couldn’t find people who had scaled a company to hundreds of millions in revenue. We did the next best thing: hiring bright, young minds eager to learn, and capable of thinking on their feet.

However, as we scaled up and prepared to go public, we realized that ‘learning by doing’ wouldn’t always cut it. We needed to bring in individuals with expertise and experience, those who had ‘been there, done that.’ With higher stakes, we decided to hire the right talent to help us become a world-class company that just so happens to have its roots in India.

While we are immensely proud of starting out in Chennai, our aspiration has always been to establish a global presence. Any global company must navigate the complexities of cultural nuances and differences. A true leader knows how to unify their team despite these differences. The universal truth is that people are always eager to work under leaders from whom they can learn.

Q:  How did you decide where to direct your philanthropy?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: I’ve been sporting my old FC Madras shirt today, which brings back memories of when I decided to get involved in sports, specifically football, back in 2016 or 2017. I used to take my younger son to play recreational soccer in Chennai on a vast school playground – just a dusty, mud field with no grass or artificial turf. There, amidst the heat and humidity of Chennai, you’d see around 60 to 80 kids playing, the dust rising with every movement, and they’d be inhaling it. The scarcity of grass fields or artificial turfs in Chennai, or even in the whole of Tamil Nādu, was startling.

As I travelled for business to the U.S. and Europe, I’d see enormous, well-maintained fields in every school, often empty except maybe for a father and son practising by the goal post. The irony of it struck me: where we had players but no fields, they had fields but a lack of players, often due to the cold weather.

The turning point came during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Iceland, a country of just 332,000 people, managed to qualify among the 32 teams for FIFA. In contrast, India, with its billion-plus population, was nowhere in the picture. Iceland’s story, how it chose to invest in football post the 2008 financial crisis, how it built indoor fields, got coaches from the UK, and ensured every school had a team, left a deep impact on me.

Interestingly, most of the players were not professional footballers but regular folks like dentists, teachers, movie producers, and actors. It made me realize that someone has to initiate change. While it’s not a single person’s job, someone needs to make a start.

So, I made the decision, acknowledging that India has immense talent among its athletes. I firmly believe that beyond a certain point, money should serve society, and I wanted to contribute. Although I’m not a football player myself, I understood that if you want a child to become an artist, someone needs to provide the paper and crayons. Similarly, my responsibility was to create the infrastructure for football in India, so I decided to do that.

Q: How do you apply your ethos driven approach to investment?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: Simon Sinek, in his book “Start With Why,” has eloquently expressed our philosophy at Together Fund. We didn’t initiate this venture to merely establish another VC fund – India certainly doesn’t need an additional one, given the abundance of capital already available. Our belief at Together Fund is that we can effect change through our current, first-hand experience, as operators who have scaled a company in this decade. Our knowledge is fresh and applicable, not outdated.

Our goal is to share our playbooks, impart our knowledge, and genuinely assist other companies in their quest for success. We advocate for the broader mission that India needs more product companies, paralleling the philosophy we uphold in sports. India possesses an incredible talent pool, and the younger generation, fueled by aspiration, is hungry for victory. We firmly believe there’s an opportunity to make a significant difference, and we’re committed to seizing it.

Q: Is entrepreneurship part of India’s DNA?

[Girish Mathrubootham]:  Contrary to the current trend, entrepreneurship wasn’t quite the rage a couple of decades ago. It lacked the allure and recognition that it enjoys today. Back when we launched Freshworks, the idea of start-ups didn’t quite carry the same cachet as it does in the present day. What catalyzed this transformation, I believe, was a shift in the mindset of young India.

Another significant factor to consider is that, two decades ago, India lacked a significant number of role models who were first-time entrepreneurs starting from scratch and achieving success. Unlike Silicon Valley, which had success stories like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook to draw inspiration from, India had only a handful of examples to look up to.

However, this landscape changed, and I attribute this transformation primarily to Flipkart. This B2C company, embarking on its e-commerce venture, served as a pivotal entity in India’s start-up ecosystem. The success that Flipkart achieved within a few years of its inception was inspiring, and it demonstrated to the entrepreneurial hopefuls that success was indeed attainable. Flipkart, Freshworks, and others alike instilled confidence in many, making entrepreneurship a viable career choice for India’s youth today.

Q: Why did you decide to IPO in the US?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: Our decision to become a U.S. Delaware C Corp has been in place since day one. The U.S. is our largest market, and it’s a hotbed for knowledgeable investors, particularly those with expertise in SaaS businesses. This kind of investor maturity is unmatched. So, in essence, it wasn’t so much a decision as it was an inevitable path. We never really considered any alternatives. Our priority was doing what’s best for Freshworks, and that was going public in the U.S.

My sentiment at the IPO was comparable to how an Indian athlete would feel upon winning an Olympic gold medal. It’s a gold-standard achievement to establish a start-up, nurture it over a decade, guide it through an IPO, and create our own currency. Now, as a public company, we’ve embarked on a different journey, and it presents a completely new kind of learning. The transition from a start-up entrepreneur to a public company CEO is exciting and full of fresh learning opportunities.

Q: To what extent does Indian culture influence entrepreneurship?

[Girish Mathrubootham]:  I am keen to delve into the cultural aspect of this topic. There’s a particularly thought-provoking point I’d like to raise about India, a nation renowned for its rich cultural heritage, faiths, and multifaceted beliefs.

Our country is home to a vast array of customs, rituals, and even superstitions. For instance, the marking on the forehead, temple visits, or the myriad rituals that might seem unusual to some. As educated individuals, we often accept advice rooted in science and logic, such as a doctor’s recommendation to walk for better cardiovascular health. Similarly, many practices in Indian culture, which may seem steeped in superstition, have an underlying logic to them.

Consider, for instance, the daily ritual of rangoli done with rice, essentially a means of feeding the insects. Or after a household event, some food is taken to a river or sea as an offering to the fish. Religious practices like making 108 rounds around a temple, paying obeisance to the deities, or the intriguing super brain yoga in front of Lord Ganesh are all part of this framework. These are good practices deeply rooted in our culture, but their underlying logic and benefit might not always be immediately evident.

This conundrum led me to a realization. Our understanding of modern science is only a few hundred years old. In contrast, Indian culture and its customs have been passed down through thousands of years. In order to ensure these beneficial practices were carried forward through generations, stories and belief systems were created around them. This was the most effective means available to pass down wisdom in an era that predated modern scientific understanding.

To conclude, I believe India’s ancient culture and history offer profound learning opportunities if we seek to understand the true purpose behind our age-old practices. It’s a captivating exploration that lends much insight into the richness of our traditions.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Girish Mathrubootham]: If I were to articulate my life’s mission at this moment, considering my roles as CEO of Freshworks, co-founder of SaasBOOMi and Together Fund, as well as the founder of FC Madras, it might appear as though I’m juggling four separate endeavours. However, a singular thread unifies them all: my commitment to nurturing world champions from India.

From an external viewpoint, these roles might seem disparate, but in essence, they are facets of my aspiration to unlock India’s potential on the global stage. We possess an abundance of talent here in India and all it requires is the belief and initiative to tap into it. So, my life’s mission is to foster world-beaters, to carve world champions out of the promising talent India has to offer. In this endeavour, my aspiration is to act as a catalyst, even if a small one, to make this happen.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.