I first met Girish “G” Mathrubootham, founder and CEO of customer engagement platform Freshworks, nearly a nine years ago at CRM Magazine’s annual industry event Evolution. Soon after I had him on as a guest of this series to discuss why he thought it was important for CEOs to regularly spend some time taking customer support calls, in order to stay in touch with their needs. At the time the company had only been around for a couple of years and was definitely a small business with not that many employees.
The last time I spoke with G was before the pandemic at Freshwork’s user conference, Refresh. But a lot has happened for the company since then, including having thousands of employees and being publicly listed on NASDAQ just last fall. So I was very happy to have an opportunity to have a LinkedIn Live conversation recently to get his thoughts on how things have changed for him and the company now that they’ve been public for over six months.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
Brent Leary: When we first talked nine years ago you were looking to get more CEOs to spend some time doing customer support….
Girish: I still look at support even in fact, even as of half an hour ago. Even with such a big team, I still read support. We had a customer whose credit card was failing and there was a billing issue and he indirectly decided to tell it to me. And so, I have the luxury to directly pass it down to our billing team. But I still try to drop a line to the customer saying, “Hey, sorry for the trouble.”
Importance of going public
Brent Leary: What did the Freshworks IPO mean to you personally, but also to India’s tech community?
Girish: I felt like an Indian athlete who has won the Olympic gold medal. The dominant feeling was happiness. There was also a feeling of fulfillment because at the end of the day, you had created the currency for people who believed in you all these years. They can see the fruits of their labor. So I felt a sense of fulfillment for one set of my responsibilities towards those early investors and employees.
People advised me don’t make the IPO a big event. It’s just a milestone. Keep going, because the journey is more important. But we really made it a big event because it was a celebration of sorts for India. And I think all of our employees got so many congratulations from their friends and relatives and family members, and we created a lot of wealth for employees.
Everybody was excited for our employees and in fact there were memes and jokes on Instagram and others networks. People were saying “I should have swiped left on that guy on Tinder from Freshworks….”
Breaking barriers for India’s SaaS industry
Girish: India did not have a lot of exits. The Flipkart acquisition by Walmart was the first big exit for this investment in India. And then our IPO and Zomato’s IPO in Indian markets happened around the same time. So those are two big events where the ecosystem saw exits, which is a very, very important thing for investment money to pour into the country. Every founder celebrated our IPO as if it was their own IPO. I think it was gratifying for me to see that happen. And I think we have managed to inspire an entire nation of founders.
I like to call it the Roger Bannister moment – running the first sub four-minute mile. I think once it is done, everybody gets to believe and everybody starts doing it more and more. And I think that’s what is happening.
Adjusting to being CEO of a publicly traded company
Brent Leary: What has been the biggest adjustment for you post-IPO
Girish: I think just having to be a little bit more measured and cautious with everything that you say and see. I am a person who generally speaks from my heart and my philosophy in life is, okay, if you always speak the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. But now I have to remember, okay, there’s a set of audience or who have access to this information that a set of our audiences doesn’t or is not supposed to have access to the information then.
It took a few months to get used to it because that was not who I was like. I always just go out and in front of employees and share a thing and had fun doing it and believe that was the right thing to do. Now you have to worry about, Okay, what can I say? What can I not say? And because being in the public scrutiny and being responsible to make sure that everybody has the same level of access to information that change acquired some practice.
Balancing long-term goals with short-term needs
Girish: I think that’s hard balancing the short term in the long term. As a founder, you always want to focus on the long term and probably can because they are all in it for the long journey. And how do you do that while still coming back to report on the short term, trying to balance that and communicate what’s happening? Because the short term from a company standpoint, from the money that we have in the bank standpoint, it doesn’t change. It’s the long term that matters. But from employees wealth standpoint, shareholder wealth standpoint, things could change. The number could be very different after that, before the earnings call and people really get emotional about it.
Going through this transition from a privately funded company founder to becoming a public company CEO It is a learning process, and I’m enjoying it as a learning process. That’s my reason for going public. I’ve been a reasonably successful privately funded CEO and I can keep doing that. And we didn’t need money when we were going public, but we went because we had the opportunity to be the first SAAS IPO from India. That was exciting. And the other important thing personally for me was, hey, what’s the next journey for me? How can I learn how to become a public company CEO?
Conversations happen everywhere
Girish: One of the biggest changes that we are living through right now and accelerated through COVID is every business today wants to engage with their customers on digital channels. Now, when I say digital, it’s different in different parts of the world. In India and Asia, it’s a lot of WhatsApp, so businesses today engage with customers only on WhatsApp.
Like you buy something, your order notification comes on WhatsApp. You have a question the customer writes in a chat on WhatsApp and the business listens in response on WhatsApp. If they want to send you a marketing offer, it comes on WhatsApp. So that’s in India. In Asia. But in the US, that is starting to happen on text messaging.
All businesses here do everything with email right? Let’s say you receive spammy marketing emails where people say, Hey, do you want a home loan? Or Do you want a car loan? Right. A financial institution may send you that marketing email.
Today, everything is targeting you on Instagram or on text messaging. You go and visit Wells Fargo Bank from Atlanta for a home loan. Maybe you can get a personalized marketing message and a text message saying, “hey, chat with an Atlanta home loan advisor and here are some properties that you want me to submit.” So everything has become personal. It’s happening on digital channels and businesses have to engage with customers on those channels.
The second change that is happening is the lines of are blurring between sales, marketing and support, especially between support and sales. Now, let’s take Allbirds, which is a shoe brand and they’re fantastic selling through Allbirds.com, they’re not selling through any stores. So now if you go to their website and you’re looking at a shoe and then you don’t add it to the cart or you add it to the cart but don’t checkout, their marketing will actually send you an offer saying, hey, come back a Brent and buy this nice pair of red shoes that you wanted.
Now, that’s a marketing conversation. You may have a question “Hey, how does the shoe fit?” Now you’re not a customer yet, but now it’s a sales kind of thing, and you’re doing it from text messaging. Does it fit like Nike and Adidas? Now it’s a sales closing thing. The product specialist would be actually helping it.
Evolution of CRM
Girish: How CRM is changed is the line between sales, marketing and support are all blurring. But businesses are having conversations with customers and businesses have to figure out how to route it internally, how to bring the right person to support the customer. But the customer is having a conversation with the business.
That’s the biggest change that’s happening in CRM, and that creates the opportunity to break down the silos of sales, marketing and support. And that is where you are seeing all these large companies today trying to invest in the customer data platform (CDP) and trying to pull all the data from sales and marketing and support that to help the person who’s talking to the customer, who’s having a call to the customer with everything that’s happened.
Correlation between CX and EX
Brent Leary: I’ve been having this ongoing conversation over the past year about the correlation between employee experience and customer experience. Some people say that it’s highly correlated and if you make it a more pleasant experience for employees, that automatically translates over to a greater experience for customers. Then I have other folks who say there’s really no direct correlation. You can pay somebody a lot more money as an employee. That doesn’t necessarily generate a better customer experience.
What’s your what’s your thoughts on the correlation between better experience from an employee perspective? Does it equate to a better experience for a customer?
Girish: I am squarely on Camp one. We have said happy employees create happy customers and there is no other way. We believe that happiness is contagious. Even on the phone, that energy and excitement, you cannot have happy customers if you don’t have a happy employees. That’s my core belief.
Brent Leary: When I started promoting this conversation, a lot of people were really interested in it. A Freshworks employee said “It is a pleasure to work with a leader whose primary objective is empowering others. I’m excited about the future”.
How does that make you feel when you hear one of your employees talk like that? Really about you?
Girish: The value makes me feel happy. My fundamental belief is I cannot close the door through which I came in. I know that when I was an employee and I worked my way through the ranks, the number one thing that I enjoyed was that skill and operation of freedom. And if that is what created happiness for me, then as a leader I should know that that is what creates happiness for my employees.
When they feel they are respected, they are valued, and they are empowered to go and do what they believe is the right thing for the company.
Keeping the corporate culture after the IPO
Brent Leary: How do you keep that excitement going? I don’t know if there’s any specific or significant changes since the IPO that you’ve had to do or make when it comes to keeping employees happy with what they’re doing. Happy about not only their job, but the company and the people they were for and with. How difficult is that going forward, now that you are a public company and you may have to do things differently?
Girish: I think at the end of the day, it all boils down to ownership and pride. I have told this multiple times and even today I told this to somebody; I am not building this company for “G”. We are building a world class company together.
So if somebody who is leaving Freshworks after six years, they get very emotional and they say thank you for everything and say they are grateful, I actually say I should be the one thanking you, because we built this together. Freshworks wouldn’t be what it is today without the hard work and sweat and tears and blood of so many employees who have nailed.
I think that is the answer to your question, ownership and pride. When enough people feel that Freshworks is their company and they are proud to be associated with it, I don’t have to do much. I think making sure that we don’t lose that is what I need to ensure that we work on as a company.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it’s an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.