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Girish Mathrubootham: Freshworks IPO is a Roger Bannister Moment for Indian SaaS, 'apna time aa gaya'

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MThis is a story that Freshworks founder and CEO Girish Mathrubootham loves to tell. A story that doesn’t feature his favourite actor Rajinikanth but Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, a British athlete and neurologist.

Bannister became the first athlete to run a mile in under four minutes on 6th May, 1954. But that is not the fascinating part. As soon as Bannister did it, there was another person who did in 46 days, and then a few more that year. Thousands of runners have broken his record since. Bannister broke a barrier that seemed insurmountable till then.

In a similar vein, Mathrubootham believes Freshworks‘ listing on Nasdaq is a Roger Bannister moment for Indian SaaS (software as a service). It created history by becoming the first Indian SaaS company to list on Nasdaq with a spectacular pop on September 22, but could be the first of many, cementing India’s place as a product nation.

Mathrubootham, who hails from a middle-class background in Trichy, has often said he was always an average student, but had an unquenchable thirst to learn and teach, qualities that honed his skills as a master storyteller. He spoke to Moneycontrol from the US, hours after he rang the Nasdaq bell, flanked by his family, early investors, employees, ushering a seminal moment for the Indian startup ecosystem.

Your IPO has popped on debut, over 22 percent. Take us through how the day was for you- ringing the Nasdaq bell, flanked by your wife, sons, and dog. Investors and employees flew down from India to the US to be with you. What emotions did you go through?

It was definitely super exciting and I was happy for all of Freshworks. This is our big day. I wanted to say thank you to all of Freshworks’ current and past employees because it is a cumulative effort. To be the first Indian SaaS company to do that is an honour and we take that responsibility very seriously. I look at it as a Roger Bannister moment. He is the first athlete to run a mile in under 4 minutes but the interesting fact is the year he did that, there were 50 others who did that. So I am super excited to see our dream of India as a product nation. It is going to be exciting for India SaaS with all of the founders coming next and startups scaling nicely. I would say apna time aa gaya (our time has come).

You’ve switched to Hindi from Tamil?

Gully Boy- it captures the moment perfectly. Your audience is also national so why not.

But was there a feeling at the back of your mind that it would have perhaps been wonderful to have a listing in India. A lot of the wealth creation in IT for example happened because of that

Every company has their own decision and criteria to decide the best market to list. For Freshworks we started in Chennai but we were also founded as a US corporation, and our customer base is global and all of our revenue has been in the US. As a global company, with 52,000 + customers in 120 countries, we took the decision that the US is the best place to list. As a US company we are not allowed to list in India. I think for any founder taking a company public is an emotion and I am happy with it. I felt like an Indian athlete who has won the gold medal. There are some startups going public in India, you need some in the US as well, so both are good.

Take us through the wealth creation as a result of the IPO. Your stake is now worth over $600 million, investors such as Accel have made huge returns. How many employees have become millionaires? I think 75 percent of your employees hold shares in the company

Our employees are also our shareholders. This IPO has allowed me an opportunity to fulfil my responsibility as a CEO to early shareholders- both VC investors and employees who have believed in the dream of Freshworks. We needed all the trust and belief that the early employees and investors who joined us and believed in the dream.

As CEO, it is immensely fulfilling for me to finish my responsibility as I take on the new responsibility of public investors who have now invested in the future of Freshworks. 76 percent of our employees hold shares, the number was even higher at 90 percent but because we have been hiring so many people recently it is 76 percent. For our employees in India, we have more than 500 crorepatis and 70 of them are under the age of 30. They passed out of college a few years ago and they fully deserve it. They have all created Freshworks together, including past employees.

In terms of the pressure being a listed entity creates for you, listing usually brings a lot of discipline, strengthens governance. Will it make you focus more on driving profitability going forward?

I spoke about an Indian athlete winning gold right- that is the going public part. But if you truly want to be a world-class athlete, you have to be disciplined and train every day, and keep winning. So it’s not about winning one gold medal and then going home and sleeping. All this discipline will help us focus on how we keep executing on the massive opportunity we have, we are sitting on a $120 billion market opportunity for Freshworks. We would like to stay disciplined, train regularly as an athlete would do, and do what is expected of a world champion, and keep going.

You’ve also made many global hires in the last year, compared to the previous years when Freshworks was largely seen as an offshore operation based in India. Were the hires necessary in line with becoming a US-listed company or was it based on business needs?

I was asked 5 years ago, “Why are you hiring everybody in India? I look at my job as captain to field the best possible team to win. When you look at the opportunity and problems we have to solve, you want to find the best talent available and hire them where they are available. Today, every successful founder and CEO knows it is a talent game. I look at my job as captain to field the best possible team to win, like what Dhoni would do for CSK.

From Freshdesk to Freshworks- to CRM and Sales, you’ve expanded into various areas. What else? You said in your S1 filing that you want to do for business software what iPhone did.

The best way to understand our long term vision is to start with our mission. Our mission is to make it fast and easy for every business to delight their customers and employees. That is the guardrail we are setting for ourselves. If you see any gaps, what can we do – can we build, add or acquire to help us in this mission to break down silos of sales, marketing, support in customer world, or break down silos of HR, IT in employee world- you can expect Freshworks to play in these areas.

If there is a Rajinikanth song or dialogue that best captures the moment now, what would it be?

“Singa nadai potu Sigaraththil yeru” – I see this (IPO) as a peak that we have scaled. Usually, when people climb the peak, they climb down. But what Rajini says is “Sigaraththai adainthaal Vaanaththil yeru” (when you conquer the peak, reach for the skies). So, now it is our moment to climb the skies.

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