Interview with Sridhar Vembu, Founder of Zoho

Interview with Sridhar Vembu of Zoho.

I did an interview with Raju Vegasna earlier (link) and this is presenting the second part of the interview with Sridhar Vembu, founder of Zoho.

The first part of the interview focused on Zoho products (and evolution of online docs), and this interview is purely focused on entrepreneurship and challenges in building global products from India.

If you have any questions for Sridhar, please leave them in comments section.


Zoho and the Entrepreneurial journey

[Ashish] What are the challenges you have faced while building a global Internet consumer product from India?
The biggest challenge is one of skepticism that it can be done from India. Product management, domain expertise and so on are often quoted as impediments. I don’t believe any of them matters as much as people think they do. Over time, there developed this attitude that Indian software equals outsourcing, and that has been a hurdle. That attitude manifests itself in the way people prefer a presumed “safe” job in an IT services company than in a “risky” product company. Overcoming that kind of skepticism is one of the biggest challenges.
Then there are areas like usability, technical writing, marketing etc. where we have had to learn lessons the hard way – as a matter of fact, we are still learning lessons.

[Ashish] Building a competitive engineering workforce is a huge challenge in India – especially for product companies. Please share some of your experiences/insights on the same.
We have been fortunate that we started out as a product company in 1996 and stayed the course. We built a culture of creating a product, selling it to customers, which is a lot tougher than building the product in the first place, supporting customers and so on. Creating that culture is what I regard as the most important first step.
It also helps that we don’t put that much weight on paper credentials – the kind of college a person attended, their academic performance and so on. We have found that most of that is not very useful in predicting job performance. By ignoring such conventional metrics, we truly broaden the pool of people we draw our team from.
Of course, the Indian IT market is hot, and anyone with experience has a multitude of opportunities to choose from. We are fortunate in that our people, by and large, choose to stay in AdventNet/Zoho, because they like the challenge here, and they like the culture of the company. Without that team and the culture, we couldn’t have come as far as we have come.

[Ashish] Do you see the rising salary level (in Indian market) a problem-in-making?
[Sridhar] As the Indian economy grows, it is natural that incomes in India would go up – in fact, incomes should go up if economic growth has any meaning at all. So I don’t view it as a problem, but as a given. Clearly, Indian companies have to focus on productivity i.e revenue per employee. To the extent that revenue per employee has not been a focus in Indian IT industry, it is a problem – the days of making money purely on wage arbitrage are probably coming to an end. But I am sure the industry will find ways to adapt.

[Ashish] There is too much of noise regarding feasibility of web2.0 apps in India – what’s your take?Given the relatively low Internet penetration in India, leave alone broadband penetration, it is a bit too soon. Hopefully just as mobile took off in a matter of few years, broadband will take off in India, and that would give a big boost to web applications. As incomes grow in India (see answer to previous question!), India itself would emerge as a large market.

[Ashish] Your tips to entrepreneurs
[Sridhar] It helps to have passion. It helps to keep in mind that there is no template to succeed – there are so many paths leading to success, and so many paths that result in a dead-end too, and nobody can tell you which is which in advance. Each person has to find their path, tuned to their inner nature and self. Like a grandmaster, it helps to study past chess games, while keeping in mind that each game is likely to be unique, so often the only way to know the outcome is to actually play out the game.


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