The people that made Freshworks
On the original team and the company built on their shoulders
As Freshworks debuts on the Nasdaq, I find myself working for the firm that invested in the startup more than 10 years ago. Accel’s Shekhar Kirani was the first investor to bet on this little startup from Chennai. It’s a remarkable little twist of destiny: Two groups of amazing people won big today, and somehow I’m part of both.
What do you say about an achievement as big as this? Or what can you say that hasn’t been said before?
Freshworks’ success should be seen as a battle cry to the world: India SaaS is here, and there are more of us coming. This is true. But the Freshworks story can also be told as a clean, clear tale of entrepreneurial genius and hard work. That is true too.
These stories will be told. Better writers and journalists will chart the paths, analyse the decisions, and add to the legend. I don’t need to.
But I will perhaps write about some things these numbers won’t tell. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. They weren’t there, I was.
When Girish hired me, he told me that this startup may or may not work, and that if not, we were all talented enough to find other jobs. Laughable as that seems today, you have to remember that Freshworks was then not more than 2 rooms, a bunch of computers, and 8 people.
And that last part is who I want to talk about: the people.
Everyone will talk about Girish, and they should. The man’s a genius. There will be a lot written about him in the coming months and years, not least of which is the book being worked on by Pankaj Mishra and Josey John, two of India’s best tech journalists.
But I wanted to write about that early team, because they still are the most ridiculously competent group of people I have ever worked with, and I look back on those days with particular fondness. They are the giants on whose shoulders this victory has been built on.
Credit goes to Girish for bringing them together. This is the stuff he is unparalleled at: Gathering great talent. I think it was Shekhar who once said that you know a great manager when everyone they have ever led wants to work with them again. All of the early Freshworks team had worked with Girish before, and all of them wanted to work with him again.
Shanmugam Krishnasamy, or Shan, co-founder and CTO of Freshworks, was one of his people. Shan was close to me, we shared a love for fiction and the open roads. He remains a quiet person, hiding his razor sharp intellect behind a facade of ready sarcasm, and was quite ruthless about the way our products were built. The bar for quality was very high, and he made sure everyone knew that, rejecting faulty code even if we were on deadlines. That rigour is what gave the Freshworks products their reputation for being world-class.
Shihab Muhammed, now CEO of SurveySparrow, and who led me for a brief period, was, at the time, a tell-me-what-you-want-I’ll build-it breed of engineer. Shihab is soft-spoken and slight, but has a head for business-building that Girish tapped for Freshservice. The hugely successful ITSM product division is basically his creation, and he ran it with an iron hand. During one memorable sales-marketing meeting, he picked up the phone and called a prospect who had been marked as unavailable. The prospect picked up, to the sales head’s horror. Shihab handed the phone to him and walked off, his point made.
Vijay Shankar, our sales-support everything at the time, was the loudest of the lot. He can sell anything and knows it. Vijay knew the product inside-out and would sell it loudly to prospects, enjoying himself immensely. In the two room office we had, Vijay was given one room to himself so the others could close the door on him. Vijay is indispensable to Freshworks, he has worked on every major deal the company has closed, right from the very first one. With time, he became Vijay anna. Something you don’t understand, ask Vijay anna, something you are stuck on, tell Vijay anna. He has trained all the star sales and support people the company has, mentored literally every pre-sales person. Even now, he is among the kindest, most helpful, most approachable people in the company.
Parsuram Vijayasankar, or Parsu, was a magician. He was our front-end developer, back-end developer, illustrator, and web designer. If there was something else to do, he could do that too. He was a machine. Gregarious and cheerful, he also had an eye for design and detail. Everything in those first 2 - 3 years we put out, he made. He was close to me, and also great friends with Vijay: Both of them, then very young, would talk and trade games. I remember both of them wanting to start a gaming startup one day. I’m glad they stuck to playing them. Because without Parsu, we could have done nothing. His impact on what Freshworks has built is staggering.
I never understood clearly what Kiran Darisi did. That’s not because of him, it’s because I don’t understand technology. Kiran was Shan’s understudy, and they talked in tongues I was baffled by. But I understood enough to know that it was important, and that Kiran was a no-nonsense guy. He would brook no silliness and was sharp at shutting down small talk. To gain his respect, you needed to be good at your job. Only when he saw a couple of things I did, and having concluded that engaging with me was not a waste of his time, did he treat me as part of the team. But that’s who Kiran is. He is now one of the most senior engineers in the company, his handiwork is in everything the company makes.
Sreelesh Pillai was a marketer, like me. Except he was an ace and I was a rookie. Sree is a kind, patient man, and anything I’m any good at, he must have once taught me the basics. Sree bore the early load of growth single-handedly. He could because he was good at all of it. All of the mumbo jumbo that gets thrown around these days: product marketing, content, brand, demand gen - Sree could do all of it and better than anyone I know. He was Indian SaaS’s original full stack marketer, and was a pleasure to work and spend time with. He’s today GM of Freshworks Australia and from what I hear is as delightful and spectacularly good at what he does as he was then.
Now that you have met all of them, you may think that I’m exaggerating. But that’s the point. I know I’m not. Freshworks became what it is also because of the sheer quality of that early team. That I worked with them was a privilege. That I learnt what I could from them to launch the career I now have was a gift.
Several friends and former colleagues were in New York yesterday, and it was a warm, happy feeling to see all the pictures they sent and posted, all the happiness in the air, Indian flags in hands.
What a feeling it must be to build something, to work on it for years, to devote to it time and energy and your life, and actually see it grow, bloom, and become something great. I don’t know that feeling, I played only a minor part in this blockbuster.
But I share in it all the same. As do we all.