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How a damaged TV set and shoddy insurance service sparked a $1.5 bn startup

Girish Mathrubootham Founder, Freshdesk
In 2009, Girish Mathrubootham, then a vice-president for product development at SaaS-based software product company Zoho Corporation, returned to India after a stint in the US. While his luggage was in transit, his television set got damaged and he did not get an insurance claim despite running from pillar to post.

Twenty-eight e-mail threads and six months later, a bitter Mathrubootham posted his experience on an online forum where expats from the US look for support while relocating to India. He got an immediate response from the logistics company and his complaint was closed within a day. This made him realise the power of the internet.

In the October of next year, Mathrubootham, along with his colleague Shan Krishnasamy, launched Freshdesk, a customer relationship management software startup. The company launched its first product in June 2011 and signed up its first customer from Australia online four days later. The same month, Freshdesk won the Microsoft BizSpark Startup Challenge, carrying a prize money of $40,000.

The journey for Trichy-born Mathrubootham, who considers superstar Rajinikanth as his biggest inspiration in life, has not been that easy. He does not hesitate even to dot the walls at Freshworks with photographs of the actor. “Our initial scaling was fast. We hit 100 customers in 100 days and 200 customers in 200 days,” recalls Mathrubootham.

The infamous "rip-off" episode, wherein Mikkel Svane, CEO of Zendesk, called Freshdesk "a freaking rip-off" led to an intense conversation on Twitter and then on ripoffornot.org. Mathrubootham handled the incident with a great deal of maturity.

In fact, Mathrubootham’s decision to launch Freshdesk was also triggered by angry outbursts online against Zendesk’s decision to raise the price of its software rather steeply in 2009. Even today, Mathrubootham, despite his busy schedule, takes time to review the feedback the company receives from its customers. "I have always believed that one of the key traits of a good product manager is to look at customer feedback without emotion and see the product the way the customer sees it."

After his early education from Campion Higher Secondary School, Trichy, Mathrubootham did his bachelors in engineering from Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology and Research Academy, and MBA in marketing from the University of Madras. He landed his first job in 1999 as a technical staff member at HCL Cisco offshore delivery centre before moving onto AdventNet Inc (which was later renamed Zoho Corporation) as the lead engineer for pre-sales customer support.

At Freshworks, then Freshdesk, the initial days were tough, but the team enjoyed the work they did and the results started showing: Mathrubootham took the company to a new level by convincing the small team to go for fundraising. From then, the company has raised around $250 million in equity funding so far, including the latest round of $100 million from investors co-led by Sequoia and Accel.

Sharing his leanings from the fundraising, Mathrubootham says entrepreneurs should pay attention to many things other than just the financial valuation. "We did not choose the investor who gave us the highest financial valuation. We chose the firm that we thought had the best track record, the partner we felt the most comfortable with and which we felt was smart and could challenge us to perform better."

With a user base of over 150,000, including large global firms like Honda, Bridgestone, Toshiba Hugo Boss and Toshiba, Freshdesk is by far one of India’s most successful software product companies. Some of the leading names in India’s e-commerce and startup space such as Saavn, Grofers, Lenskart, Oyo Rooms, Byju's and Goibibo use Fresdesk’s customer relationship management software.