Day zero—the founder who wasn’t supposed to win

The IPO filing of Freshworks* poignantly describes it as “the company that wasn’t supposed to win”. Even with the benefit of hindsight, founder and chief executive Girish Mathrubootham was, in a sense, “the founder who wasn’t supposed to win”. Especially a decade ago, when the world of enterprise software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) was still in its infancy, and no Indian SaaS company had scaled to any meaningful degree.

The only thing in Mathrubootham’s favour was that he had spent a long time in SaaS startup Zoho, arguably the only SaaS startup with an Indian connection with some scale at that point. But then, Zoho was a bootstrapped startup and an outlier in more ways than one. Apart from this stint, Mathrubootham had nothing much going for him. He didn’t have a gilt-edged resume or an academic pedigree or the consulting “polish” that was regarded as being essential for a startup founder to be marked as a winner.

I first saw Mathrubootham at a startup contest organised by Microsoft in June 2011. Given his background and the nascent state of his startup, probably no one gave him much chance of winning. But win win Freskdesk Blog A Million Thanks! Read more he did!

Girish accepting the Microsoft Bizspark Startup Event 2011 startup prize on behalf of Freshworks

Mathrubootham’s very first public appearance and his first win offered three lessons.

The power of a good story

Mathrubootham’s presentation didn’t contain any slides or product demos. He merely stood on stage and narrated the story of how a poor customer experience with a vendor triggered the idea of Freshworks. It was a good story, with all the essential narrative elements in place—a villain, a hero, a journey. It evoked empathy and was impactful.

Startup founders often forget how critical a good story is to their success. Storytelling drives most, if not all, high-value victories, from winning customers to securing funding to convincing people to join your team. You never forget a good story, and Mathrubootham was a master raconteur.

Make your own rules

The Microsoft event required contestants to show a product demo and explain their solution and business model. Mathrubootham didn’t do any of these things. Recognising that these weren’t his strong suits, he chose to make his own rules, narrating his story evocatively instead of showing a dull demo.

The other big challenge for Mathrubootham was that there was a broad perception that selling business software was the exclusive preserve of large vendors in the west. Indian startups didn’t have much of a chance to compete in this crowded sector.

Instead of listing reasons why his startup could succeed, Mathrubootham put his point across by quoting a famous punch line from south Indian actor Rajnikanth—“Naan late aa vandhalum latest aa varuvein”.


Sumanth Raghavendra

Sumanth is a serial entrepreneur with more than eighteen years experience in running startups. He is currently the founder of Deck App Technologies, a Bangalore-based startup attempting to re-imagine productivity software for the Post-PC era. Sumanth’s columns appear regularly in leading publications. He holds MBA degrees from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management, USA.

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