When we got off the flight at the Tuticorin Airport, almost 650 Km south off Chennai, little did we know that we were going to one of the most picturesque and charming places in India. Our destination was still a three hour ride from this domestic airport, which cannot accommodate more than one flight at a time.
Along our way to Tenkasi, our final destination, which was a small town located in the foothills of Western Ghats, both sides of the road were covered with a green blanket — with thick fogs hovering over the hills a few meters away on our left. The beauty of this idyllic place was in full view as we neared Tenkasi after travelling around 100 Kilometres.
After refreshing at a small resort in Tenkasi, I along with a couple of other journalists was on my way to the only rural facility of Zoho, a multi-billion dollar customer relationship management (CRM) company that was originally born out of Chennai in 1996. When we stepped in to the modest-sized office that can house 150 employees, a 40-plus-looking person, dressed in traditional south Indian ‘mundu’ and a green half-sleeve shirt, was chatting with a couple of staffers in the corridor.
As we entered the small conference hall to witness the new product launch of Zoho, which boasts of more than 160,000 enterprise customers across the globe including Daimler, this level-headed man came in and greeted the audience.
All eyes were on this unpretentious man as he started speaking. He is Sridhar Vembu, CEO of the company, probably the only Unicorn in the world that has developed a world-class enterprise product from a remote rural village that doesn’t have a bank or ATM in the vicinity.
Zoho Desk, made in rural India for the world
“Zoho has challenged the conventional wisdom so many times in its history. We built the first software products from India when IT services were the rage and established them in the global market. We are now showcasing something that has never been done earlier: the first software product created in rural India, world-class in its refinement, competing with the best,” he said as a video of idyllic Tenkasi played on the screen behind him.
“What started out five years ago as a small team of three engineers has blossomed into a team of over 150 people, located in beautiful rural surroundings near Tenkasi. In an industry where companies have come to believe that the only location that matters in the cloud is a few square miles of downtown of San Francisco, we are proving that a determined and sincere group of people can build path-breaking products. We believe rural talent should not have to leave home to find opportunity. Our broken urbanisation model creates severely overcrowded and polluted mega cities and denudes rural areas of talent. That’s why Zoho Tenkasi matters,” he added to the wide applause of the gathering.
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Zoho Desk is a context-aware product that helps companies deliver the right solution at the right time. Its clean user interface packs innovations like ‘Work Modes’ that help agents send context-aware responses, ‘Headquarters’ dashboard that provides the visibility managers need to make better decisions, and ‘Team Feed’ to help the entire company participate in customer service.
“When companies started providing online customer support, they did so through email. As a result, even today, most help desk products look like personal email inboxes. Customers have evolved from just needing their problems resolved to expecting more transparency and quicker responses, but software hasn’t kept up,” said Vembu, who started Zoho in 1996.
“Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity for the company to grow. With Zoho Desk, we aim to provide companies with the context, understanding and tools to focus on customer happiness in every opportunity,” he added.
You don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to build a world-class product
When ZOHO decided to build an office in a remote village in Tenkasi, also known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, it was completely disconnected from the outer world — barring some pilgrims who came to get a dip in the holy water in the water falls a few Kilometres away. While other companies in the world are looking to migrate to the metro cities across the world, Zoho went into reverse gear and set up a facility here.
The firm developed local talents through its own university, Zoho University, recruited engineers through campus placements, then trained and mentored them.
“Some local residents wanted us to build an office here because they thought their educated children will get employment not far away from home. Zoho Desk was totally designed and built by our employees in this office,” said Vembu, who is originally from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
“In this business, our biggest competition is in San Francisco. They think that a world-class product cannot come out of rural area. We have proved them wrong. The product, soft-launched a few months ago, is currently used by thousands of our existing customers,” he said.
Zoho is a single cloud platform with all the necessary applications to run a business entirely from the cloud. Businesses can acquire and manage customers using Zoho’s marketing, sales and customer support applications — Campaigns, CRM and Desk — and can then empower employees to create, store and distribute content on the cloud with Zoho’s productivity and collaboration applications — Office, Mail and Docs. Additionally, businesses can run their own operations on Zoho’s finance and human resources applications – Books, People and Recruit.
More than 20 millions users around the world across hundreds of thousands of companies rely on Zoho every day to run their businesses. The company, headquartered in Pleasanton in California with international headquarters in Chennai and offices in Austin, London, Yokohama, and Beijing, has more than 4,000 employees.
Zoho is the only tech company in India that scaled heights without raising VC funds.
e27 sat with Vembu post the event to know more about entrepreneurship and life. Here are some excerpts.
Why money has not made you arrogant
Something we should realise that despite having a lot of money, we have friends, family and other relatives. I don’t believe in showing off. We have a small life and there is no room for show-off. Nothing changes here. Money is only a means, not an end. There is a lot of things we need to do. Our success is in creating an impact on people’s lives. That’s why we have invested in rural people.
Why you said competition doesn’t kill businesses
What it means is that your business needs to be in the right market. Maybe you need to be in some other markets to be successful. So companies have to repurpose themselves and figure out a market where their product is relevant.
How you look at the slow-down in the Indian startup market
Every market goes through a correction period and India is no exception. After this period, things will stabilise. Silicon Valley has also gone through this period.