The adage ‘don’t judge the book by its cover’ exists because appearances can, at times, be deceptive. Clad in a black polo-neck kurta and loose denim trousers, with a French beard, Sridhar Vembu’s diminutive figure can be easily deceiving, because this 48-year-old entrepreneur doesn’t posses the ‘perceived’ appearance of the CEO of a multi-billion dollar global tech company.
I first met Vembu at a product launch at Zoho’s first rural facility in Thenkasi in Tamil Nadu a few months ago. On Wednesday, I got another opportunity to sit with him, on the sidelines of the unveiling of its new product suite Zoho Finance Plus, at its main campus in Chennai.
In this interview, he talked about the SaaS CRM company’s new plans, rural initiatives, Indian e-commerce scene, and the implications of US’s new visa programmes.
Here are the edited excerpts:
What is Zoho Finance Plus? Given that GST is still in the early days in India, how will you tackle the potential problems arising from the implementation?
Businesses need a comprehensive interconnected suite of financial apps that talk to each other and share data seamlessly. Zoho Finance Plus connects different departments of a business and gives business owners access to real-time information for faster decision making. It also organises all transactions, which can be filed with the GST portal at the click of a button.
The Zoho Finance Plus suite includes:
Zoho Books — An intuitive accounting and invoicing software for forward-thinking businesses
Zoho Invoice — A customisable invoicing software for freelancers or businesses to get paid on time
Zoho Expense — An expense reporting solution tailor-made for businesses to automate their employee expense reimbursements
Zoho Subscriptions — A solution for subscription-based businesses to automate their recurring billing
Zoho Inventory — the perfect order management and fulfillment solution for retailers in India.
With regard to the challenges, there will always be teething troubles in the beginning. We don’t expect everything to be smooth from the day one. But as a company, we are flexible and adaptable. We move fast. As the landscape changes, we will launch new services tools, helplines, etcetera. We are planning to invest in a lot of software and support.
Are you targeting only SMEs with the new product suite?
We also work with large enterprises. However, our bread and butter comes from the SME base. There are over 50 million SMEs in India and it is a huge market.
Until a few years ago, India was your fifth largest market. Now, India has moved up to become the second market. However, tech adoption among SMEs in India is still low. How will you tackle this issue?
Firstly, we are seeing the mass market branding at Zoho. The company is known much more than it was five years ago. Secondly, look at the SMEs; the smartphone itself is driving a revolution. SMEs are now used to downloading and using apps. We push our solutions as apps. We integrate with the cloud. That’s how we are planning to break the adoption barrier.
You are positioning yourself as an Operating System for businesses. Are you looking at the payroll space, moving forward?
We have plans for additional capabilities. We have not announced anything yet.
You opened an office in Tenkasi a couple of years ago, and are opening yet another facility there. Are you taking this initiative to other parts of India?
Right now, we are planning to expand only our Tenkasi office. As we get more expertise doing this, we may expand in future.
How is your Zoho University initiative going?
Zoho University (ZU) is going well. What started in 2005 with six students has now groomed more than 350 students, and is now a major contributor to the workforce of Zoho Corporation. ZU students are put into a 24-months training course where they are taught different subjects. After 12 months of learning in the university, students are moved into working teams for hands-on experience.
As per a report, Freshdesk, a SaaS helpdesk startup launched by one of your early employees Girish Mathrubootham, is looking go public in the US. Do you have plans to hit IPO anytime soon?
No, we are a private company and are going to stay private, at least for the foreseeable future.
President Donald Trump is looking to revamp the H1B Visa programme, which is expected to hit thousands of Indian professionals working in the US. What will be the long-terms implications?
Since Zoho is an Indian company, the visa changes are not going to impact us. In general, I believe that the US has benefitted from the emigration of Indian professionals. Now, it is up to them to decide whether they want to accept us or not.
I like the way the Telangana IT Minister said about this issue, ‘if the US doesn’t want us, it is okay. We will keep the talent in India and develop India”. So I think India should be happy to keep the talent here.
There will be some impacts in the short term, but you know those hiccups will go through.
Entrepreneurs say it is easy to start a company in India, but the exit/winding-up process is a hard task? If you look Stayzilla, the company had to through a lot of problems after its shut-down. How do you look at this?
Clearly, for businesses, both the processes (entry and exit) have to be smooth. Only when you wind up properly, then you can use that resources — real estate and employees — etcetera in a better business venture. So there has to be a freedom of entry and exit. I think India is on that path, and the government recognises these things.
How do you view the recent developments in India’s e-commerce scene. There is a lot of consolidation happening, with Flipkart acquiring eBay and Snapdeal on the verge of a shutdown. Is e-commerce on the verge of a bubble burst?
I am not an expert on e-commerce. But in general, any business needs sound fundamentals to survive in the market. I think the future of e-commerce is very bright in India. Regardless of the temporary hiccups, e-commerce is going to thrive.
How do you view the call for protectionist policies by some Ola CEO Bhavish Aggarwal and Flipkart Co-founder Sachin Bansal? Do you support an open economy or a closed one?
In general, open economy is doing better than a closed one, in spite of the issues and challenges it poses. So I do support an open market, because Indian companies can learn to compete with global majors. I am of the opinion that despite challenges it poses, we will be better off as an open economy.
Image Credit: Lingeswaran ‘Mali’ Marimuthukumar
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