What it Takes to Create a Global Business Unicorn: The Story of Freshdesk
Frustration and wanting to vent about appalling customer service triggered the idea that led to the creation of Freshdesk (now called Freshworks), a multibillion-dollar cloud-based customer support platform for companies to serve their customers better.
The story begins in 2009 when Girish Mathrubootham moved back to India from the United States and entrusted his belongings to a shipping company. Two months after returning home, his possessions arrived, but his expensive television was broken. As he had purchased insurance, he wasn't worried and expected the bill for a new set would be picked up.
So he got in touch with the shipping company hoping for a swift response. Five months, multiple calls, emails and document submissions later, he was nowhere nearer receiving compensation. At that point, he no longer cared about the money; he just wanted closure. Frustrated, Girish let off steam on an online forum and told his story with pictures of his damaged TV.
The following day the president of the company contacted him and apologized, and the day after that, the money was in his bank account. It was a lightbulb moment. With one online post, he was able to accomplish what almost half a year's worth of communications via traditional customer support routes couldn't.
Girish had previously created four customer helpdesks and believed a paradigm shift in the balance of power was taking place. Customers were taking on companies on social media and forcing them to do the right thing. When he looked around at the help desk space, he realized most of the tools still focused on traditional customer service channels like phone and email. He thought the time was ripe for a new kind of helpdesk hence the name Freshdesk.
It was an exciting and stressful time. Exciting because he was keen to build something in the customer support market delivered as SaaS (Software as a Service), which was just taking off in India.
Girish convinced his friend and colleague, Shan Krishnasamy to join him on the venture. They worked on the fledgling company on weekends and nights but knew they had to devote to it fulltime to get it off the ground. And this is where the stress came in. Both quit their secure full-time jobs with Zoho for an uncertain future.
Bootstrapping the Business
They started small by bootstrapping with Girish's savings but had big dreams to sell their product to the world. By early 2011, Freshdesk had a six-member team that worked on salaries that were around 40 percent of the market rate, while Girish and Shan didn't draw a salary. He knew this wasn't sustainable; customers and additional funds were needed.
Nine months after founding the company, the product was launched even though it wasn't ready. To attract attention, Girish posted a blog on the Freshdesk story to date, which was picked up by Hacker News, a popular social news website. As a result, Freshdesk's site received almost 30,000 visitors within two days, and 175 signed up for the product. They were on their way.
To attract their initial customers, Freshdesk created a form for beta signup on Wufoo, an online form builder. They advertised their product on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google AdWords and wrote a few blog posts that reached a healthy-sized audience. The marketing spend was small, less than $500, but that was enough to garner interest.
The first six customers came from four different continents, so the company was global right from the start. To build their customer base they engaged with prospects on what they were currently using, the problems they were facing and what they wanted to see from customer support software. This helped Girish and his team prioritize Freshdesk's feature set to what they thought was the ideal product/market fit.
Within 100 days of launching, Freshdesk had 100 customers.
Funding helped Freshdesk implement and accelerate its plans. The first notable cash injection came in June 2011, when the company won $40,000 in the Microsoft BizSpark Start-up Challenge in the Cloud category. Fortuitously, venture capitalists were on the judging panel and were taking notes.
Coverage on Hacker News also gave them valuable exposure to potential investors as did their selection as finalists at a prestigious event called Unplugged in Bangalore. On 1 December 2011, Freshdesk received its first round of funding worth $1 million. It was a time for celebration, but the smiles were short-lived.
The next day a noted industry blogger tweeted that Freshdesk was a rip-off of Zendesk, then the dominant force in the customer support software space. At the time, it had over 10,000 customers and more than $26 million in funding. The criticism came out of the blue and angered the Freshdesk team, who wanted to respond publicly and strongly to defend themselves against the baseless criticism. Wiser heads prevailed, and Girish urged caution.
Because he had access to the company's data, he knew the blogger hadn't tried the Freshdesk product. He was also suspicious that the tweet came a day after the company had announced its successful funding round. What he did next turned what could have been a public relations disaster into an easy win for Freshdesk.
"It turned out to be the best PR we've ever done," Girish told an interviewer. "What we did was reply with a website called Ripoffornot.org, where we actually identified that the person who had attacked us was, in fact, a paid blogger of Zendesk.
"So basically, they were trying to spread a bad name because they thought we were a small fish who would go away. But when we got the funding, they probably wanted to smear some mud on our campaign, and it boomeranged on them."
Now everyone could read the full facts, and Freshdesk's reputation survived intact.
The company had overcome this obstacle, but long-term success was far from guaranteed with a big player such as Zendesk already established in the market. But Girish wasn't fazed as he explained in an interview: "In the world of B2B software, there is always space for multiple players." Plus, the company had an ambitious growth strategy from the start, which it hoped to achieve through acquisitions, new product launches and aggressive funding rounds.
By the end of 2014, Freshdesk had around 50,000 customers in more than 100 countries and had made their first acquisition, 1CLICK.io, a video chat and co-browsing platform. This helped expand Freshdesk's functionality with better real-time support through video chat, voice chat and co-browsing.
As the company grew and opened offices in the US, UK and Australia, it attracted more VC funding, including raising $7 million in 2013, $31 million in 2014 and $50 million a year later.
Other acquisitions followed, such as Frilp, a social recommendation application and Joe Hukum, a chatbot building platform. All the while, Freshdesk was developing and launching new products such as Freshservice, an IT service desk and Freshsales, a CRM for high-velocity sales teams.
Crossing the $100 Million Mark
In 2018, Freshdesk achieved a significant milestone, crossing $100 million in annual recurring revenue, and it had got there in less than a decade. An impressive achievement fueled by sales to more than 100,000 customers around the world, including Honda, Hugo Boss, Rightmove, Cisco and Toshiba.
Preserving the Culture
While reflecting on the company's success, Girish points out one of the biggest challenges he's had to face. He wasn't overly concerned about Freshdesk’s ability to build and ship products, market them, support customers or scale the business because everything seemed to be under control. What did vex him was how to preserve the culture of a startup when going from 20 employees to 200 then to 2,000 and so forth.
Girish identified this as a potential problem early on, so he devoted a lot of time to devise the company's culture. He also managed to distill it down to one sentence: "We want Freshdesk to be a happy workplace for employees." This comes, he said, by doing work that gives happiness and satisfaction.
To make it work, he has given numerous presentations to Freshdesk teams and ensures that only the right people are hired. These are self-starting individuals who are inspired by what the company is doing and wants to join them on their journey of creating something meaningful.
Ten years after the company’s founding and Girish is still at the top as CEO, overseeing an enterprise with 250,000 customers and a value of more $3.5 billion. Next on the horizon might be an initial public offering which according to reports could come as early as 2021.