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 Zoho’s Sridhar Vembu: A True ‘Made in India’ Brand Ambassador

Sridhar Vembu, the founder of Zoho has been awarded the Padma Shri award in the trade and industry category.

This company and its Founder have consistently remained under the radar, despite being the poster boys for India’s software product companies and boot-strapped entrepreneurs. Hence, it’s only fitting that Sridhar Vembu, Founder and CEO of software development firm Zoho Corporation, has been awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour–the Padma Shri.

Zoho Corporation’s revenue may have already surpassed Rs.4,000 crore since it was at Rs.3,308 crore in FY19 as per its filings with the Registrar of Companies (ROC). And yet, it’s not a listed company or funded by any investor despite being wooed by venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) investors for over two decades. Even San Francisco, US-based cloud computing company Salesforce, once considered buying it–an offer was made but Vembu declined.

Yet, for all his success, Vembu remains a very modest person, wearing his learning lightly on his person. This makes him a true ambassador for India’s ‘Atmanirbhar’ campaign without he even knowing it.

I recall spending a couple of days in November 2014 at the DLF information technology (IT) park in Ramapuram, in the heart of Chennai, and touring the then two offices of Zoho that were housed in the adjoining blocks of the IT park. The idea was to interview Vembu, his colleagues and meet up with his employees to understand how he had built his empire without any funding from investors or even being listed.

My visit coincided with Zoho’s media campaign that included a print ad and a television commercial. The ad read: Software is “…our craft, our identity…” The punchline: “Made in India. Made for the World.”

Vembu has proved this point repeatedly, ever since the inception of Zoho in 1996 as Advent Network Management. Vembu and his colleagues changed its name to AdventNet the very same year since they felt it was not an impressive name for a company that saw itself solving the business problems of small- and mid-sized entrepreneurs. Besides, the age of telephone directories had almost ended so it did not matter whether a company’s name began with ‘A’ or ‘Z’.

Zoho’s story has a striking resemblance to that of Infosys. Zoho, too, was launched by six employees–all were engineers, and all became co-founders with a couple of them leaving the company to start their own ventures.

Vembu, for those who know him well, would second this fact that he is rarely found in his cabin. In fact, when I tried to seek him out for the interview, I found him squatting next to a wall with some employees. He was discussing some strategy with them, and it was only when I introduced myself and shook hands that he got up and took me to the cafetaria for a cup of strong coffee.

I have only fond recollections of those meetings with him and his team. Having spoken to Vembu at length over those two days, it was clear that he lay a lot of emphasis on culture–one reason why he is not very keen on acquisitions. He did not list his company since he does not like shareholder pressure. He believes that to be successful, entrepreneurs should have a product that solves a problem. Moreover, they should be willing to adopt a long-term approach for the same. This also explains why he does not like to take VC money since the latter would look for a faster exit.

Zoho has performed well in the small- and medium-sized business (SMB) market with its India office productivity and CRM suites, competing with the likes of bigger companies including Salesforce, Google, Oracle CRM, Microsoft CRM, and SAP.

When I interviewed Vembu in November 2014, Zoho’s declared revenue for FY12 was Rs. 474 crore. Zoho had around 2,600 employees and 10 million users in 2014. Today, Zoho has more than 45 apps catering to segments like sales, marketing, customer support, accounting and back office operations, and an array of productivity and collaboration tools. It has more than 9,000 employees and over 50 million users.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Vembu was awarded the Padma Shri in the ‘Trade and Industry’ category. He will truly do justice to the award and India.

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