How a simple comment on Hacker News motivated me to resign from my comfortable well paying job and launch my own startup.
My name is Girish Mathrubootham and I am the Founder and CEO of Freshworks (previously known as Freshdesk). I am 36 years old, married and live with my wife and two boys in Chennai, India. This is the story of how I quit my comfortable job and launched my own startup. Hope you like it.
My Last Job
For the last 9 years I was fortunate to be an employee of Zoho Corporation (was called AdventNet when I joined in 2001 as a PreSales Engineer) and in my last role I was VP of Product Management at the ManageEngine division of Zoho Corp.
I had a great team and the satisfaction of having built several successful products under the ManageEngine brand.
I have been building on-premise helpdesk systems since 2004. In fact I have experience with an ITIL helpdesk, a customer support helpdesk and a facilities helpdesk and know a lot about these markets. In addition to this I had a ringside view to all the action in cloud computing happening in Zoho.
How it All Started
Sometime in the middle of last year I was reading this article on Hacker News. This article was about Zendesk raising their prices 60 – 300% and how their users were unhappy about it.
That comment was like a slap on my face. Here was an opportunity sitting right in front of me. I had the domain knowledge and I knew that a massive transition to cloud is happening. The spidey sense in me told me that I should throw in my hat into the ring. That was the exact moment that I decided that I should build something in the customer support market delivered as SAAS.
The next few weeks were actually pretty stressful. I couldn’t sleep because of the excitement and the fear.(school fees, home mortgage etc.) I had not talked to anyone(not even my wife) about the idea but I was researching all the companies in the space.
I actually read everything that was ever written on those companies on Hacker News. The Hacker News Search (yes that tiny little link on the bottom of every HN page) is in my opinion an entrepreneur’s best resource. (If you are the type who prefers reading printed articles you should consider the Hacker Monthly)
I zeroed in on some potential domain names and found that freshdesk.com was actually expiring in a couple of weeks. So I backordered it on Godaddy and waited and waited. It was almost a month before the domain was officially transferred to me.
The time had come when I needed a co-founder. I talked to my good friend and colleague of several years, Shan – who is a great techie and he immediately agreed.
For a few weeks we tried working weekends and nights but since both of us had families and kids it was obvious pretty soon that we had to do this full time if we were serious. We both resigned in October 2010. Now we have a team of six people – (3 developers, 1 UI/UX designer, 1 QA / Customer support engineer and me as – the Product Manager / CEO).
US Company or India Company
We are based in India and I couldn’t find any payment gateway provider offering recurring payment solutions in India. The best payment processors that we wanted to work with worked only with US bank accounts. We decided to incorporate Freshdesk in the US. You can read the entire story of how we incorporated a US company from India here. We used FeeFighters to search for an affordable card processor and almost settled on Co-Card, but instead went ahead with the more expensive Braintree as they had everything we needed and also had excellent reviews on Hacker News. We also ended up registering a company in India as we were going to have employees, hire an office space etc.
Logo and Website
We wanted a logo and a website and we did not have a designer in our team at that time. I looked at several outsourcing options and again Hacker News gave me 3 excellent choices – 99Designs, ThemeForest and SortFolio. We liked the idea of 99Designs very much but we wanted a website design and a logo and we found an Indian company on Sortfolio called Getmefast.com who agreed to do everything for around $450.
We put up the website with standard helpdesk features and we wanted to know if customers would buy what we were going to build.So we created a Wufoo form for beta signup and started advertising on Google Adwords, Facebook and LinkedIn with $10 and $25 and $50 budgets. We also wrote some blog posts which got some decent views. In all we spent around $350-400 in advertising and we got more than 150 valid signups.
We started looking for patterns in our customer profiles and identified that most of our leads were from a few niche market segments that we could market to easily.
Product /Market Fit
We started engaging with our prospects on what they were currently using and what problems they were facing. In many cases people were telling us clearly what they really wanted to see in their customer support software.
We were surprised to see that a lot of what customers wanted were their core problems solved and not some fancy features like supporting customers from their Facebook wall or converting tweets into customer support tickets. While we understand that these are definitely the way of the future, many many customers do not need this today.
Another important learning for us was that customers did not want to be dealing with separate invoices for their helpdesk, their contact management software, for their customer feedback forums and customer satisfaction surveys. The SMB customer wants one invoice and as much functionality as possible in the customer relationship management solution.
We also identified underserved market segments (companies with multi-brand support requirements) and segments which were getting priced out because the current solutions were expensive.
So we re-prioritized our feature set to what we thought is the ideal product/market fit for us. This means that things like Twitter and Facebook integration can wait. But things like multiple support emails or support for SLAs and Business hours are in.
We have had no outside funding till date and have not applied to any VCs or angels. Our burn rate is quite small currently – around $5K for a six member team and our entire team is working for around 30-50% of their market salary.(I don’t take a salary and we all have generous stock options). We moved in to a swanky new office for a rent of around $160 per month! We may look for some angel / VC funding in the near future and I read up a lot on Venture Hacks on how to get funded.
They have an excellent article on preparing a Business plan using a 10 slide deck at “What should I send investors?“, which I used to create a Business plan. I also created a profile for Freshdesk at AngelList which I think is one of the best things to have happened to startup entrepreneurs. We have not made our Angel List profile visible to any investor because we want to wait till our launch – because we know that traction is the most important metric for any investor. (thanks to Venture Hacks for the excellent advice)
We are now in private beta and hosted on Engine Yard. We are sending invites to small groups at a time to beta test Freshdesk and plan to open up the public beta in the coming weeks.
How You Can Help Us
If you have actually read this far, thanks for reading our story and if you are looking for an awesome SAAS customer support helpdesk be sure to sign up for a free trial.
We are participating in the Lean Startup Challenge to show the world that it is possible today to build a world class product startup from India. Vote for Freshdesk on this on this page or by tweeting this link with #leanvote42 if you think Freshdesk is a great example of a lean startup.