It takes time to build something successful!

Since SaaSx second edition, I have never missed a single edition of SaaSx. The 5th edition – SaaSx was recently held on the 7th of July, and the learnings and experiences were much different from the previous three that I had attended.

One primary topic this year was bootstrapping, and none other than Sridhar Vembu, the CEO and Founder of Zoho, was presenting. The session was extremely relevant and impactful, more so for us because we too are a bootstrapped organisation. Every two months of our 4.5 year-long bootstrapped journey, we have questioned ourselves on whether we have even got it right! If we should go ahead and raise funds. Sridhar’s session genuinely helped us know and understand our answers.

However, as I delved deeper, I realised that the bigger picture that Sridhar was making us aware of was the entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery. His session was an earnest attempt to promote deep thinking and self-reflection amongst all of us. He questioned basic assumptions and systematically dismantled the traditional notions around entrepreneurship. Using Zoho as an example, he showed how thinking from first principles helped them become successful as a global SaaS leader.

What is it that drives an entrepreneur? Is it the pursuit of materialistic goals or the passion to achieve a bigger purpose? The first step is to have this clarity in mind, as this can be critical in defining the direction your business would take. Through these questions, Sridhar showed that business decisions are not just driven by external factors but by internal as well.

For example, why should you chase high growth numbers? As per him, the first step to bootstrapping is survival. The top 5 goals for any startup should be Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive. Survival is enough. Keep your costs low and make sure all your bills are paid on time.  Cut your burn rate to the lowest. Zoho created 3 lines of business. The current SaaS software is their 3rd. They created these lines during their journey of survival and making ends meet.

Why go after a hot segment (with immense competition) instead of a niche one?  If it’s hot, avoid it i.e. if a market segment is hot or expected to be hot, it will be heavily funded. It will most likely be difficult to compete as a bootstrapped organisation and is henceforth avoidable. Zoho released Zoho docs in 2007, but soon as he realized that Google and Microsoft had entered the space, he reoriented the vision of Zoho to stay focused on business productivity applications. Zoho docs continues to add value to Zoho One, but the prime focus is on Applications from HR, Finance, Support, Sales & Marketing and Project Management.  Bootstrapping works best if you find a niche, but not so small that it hardly exists. You will hardly have cut throat competition in the niche market and will be able to compete even without heavy funding.

Most SaaS companies raise funds for customer acquisition. Even as a bootstrapped company customer acquisition is important. As you don’t have the money, you will need to optimise your marketing spend. Try and find a cheaper channel first and use these as your primary channel of acquisition. Once you have revenue from the these channels, you can start investing in the more expensive one. By this time you will also have data on your life time value and will be able to take better decisions.

Similarly, why base yourself out of a tier 1 city instead of tier 2 cities (with talent abound)? You don’t need to be in a Bangalore, Pune, or a Mumbai to build a successful product. According to Sridhar, if he wanted to start again, he would go to a smaller city like Raipur. Being in an expensive location will ends up burning your ‘meager monies’ faster. This doesn’t mean that being in the top IT cities of India is bad for your business, but if your team is located in one of the smaller cities, do not worry. You can still make it your competitive advantage.

Self-discipline is of utmost importance for a bootstrapped company. In fact, to bootstrap successfully, you need to ensure self-discipline in spends, team management, customer follow-ups, etc. While bootstrapping can demand frugality and self-discipline, the supply of money from your VC has the potential to destroy the most staunchly disciplined entrepreneurs as well. Watch out!

And last but not the least – It takes time to build something successful. It took Zoho 20 years to make it look like an overnight success.

This blog is authored by Ankit Dudhwewala, Founder – CallHippo, AppItSimple Infotek, Software Suggest. Thanks to Anukriti Chaudhari and Ritika Singh from iSPIRT to craft the article.

Get to Learn from @Zoho – Zoholics: India, Nov 20-21, Bengaluru

We have been around for the last 18 years, making software for businesses around the world. At Zoho, software is our craft and our passion. Our people spend years mastering the craft, and their handiwork are the 30+ products that we now offer. With more than 10 million users across the world, we are one of the largest IT product companies based out of India. This journey has taught us many things, and we are ready to share our experience with you.

We are holding our first-ever event in India on Nov 20 and 21 at The Ritz Carlton in Bengaluru. At Zoholics: India, we will share our story and talk about creating world-class products, and selling them to a global audience, from India.

Other sessions include, product vs services mindset, engineering products, running a business on a budget, whether to take VC money or not, and much more. To view the full agenda, click here.

zoholicsJoin us at Zoholics:India, to learn, share and explore the Indian innovation in IT, through the lens of Zoho.

Who should attend and why

Entrepreneurs and Startups: It does not matter what business you do. Business apps can greatly increase your productivity and help you streamline various processes. This will leave you free to do what you love. At Zoholics:India, you can learn about which tech-tools are best suited for your business, how to position your product in the international market, and whether taking venture capital is good for your business or not.

Aspiring Entrepreneurs: Learn about various opportunities in the local market and how to create world-class products and sell them to a global audience, from India. Also find out how to capture the attention of an increasingly mobile-centric world.

CXOs and Managers: Discover some of the best practices in online marketing for selling to a global audience out of India. Know about the market trends and opportunities.

Technology Geeks: Learn about cloud-based technology and how it is affecting the local market. Find out more about business apps and latest trends.

Business and Technology Analysts: At Zoholics, we will discuss product vs services mindset, how college credentials are of little value as the real learning happens at the workplace, market trends and much more. Also, use this opportunity to learn more about the cloud market in India.

To register, log on to ZOHOICS India website. Use the discount code: ISP to avail a 15% discount.

Guest post by Raju Vegesna, ZOHO


If you are bootstrapping, you are not alone here – Sridhar Vembu(@svembu), @Zoho #BootUpINDIA

Sridhar Vembu is a simple person, and most of what he says are tweet sized bits of wisdom. He inspires you almost instantly when you start conversing with him.

That was the first impression when I spoke to him for the first time.

He wanted to get into action as fast as possible. Before we recorded this video I was trying to make him comfortable with what I am going to ask but then he almost immediately started talking about super-interesting things. It was fascinating to hear from him directly. I could almost feel the vibe even when it was virtual. Since I am also focusing on Indian SME and am bootstrapped, I loved this advice: “Go out and learn from the best of the best in the world and then apply them to the local context”. This very much resembles what I wanted to do and my thinking was validated.

We spoke about Zoho’s early days and his remarks will help any young entrepreneurs starting out now. When we start up, a lot of us don’t even know what is the destination and how to navigate the path and what we want to become. In such cases we need a little bit of time and freedom to figure out things along the way. Instead of being forced to adhere to fixed format, setups and rules, bootstrapping is an excellent choice. With bootstrapping there is no sandbox we have to look at.

When I asked him about his hardship to acquire his first 100 customers, he stressed that getting the 1st paying customer is particularly hard. I completely agree; its key to be able to sell to the 1st ever paying customer for any entrepreneur. And the focus here is to find the fit and area where the market leaders are unable to penetrate for some reason. So identifying what is the right place for the current time will become instrumental to get the first one, ten or hundred customers.

At this point I did not want to miss the opportunity to ask a question that I was mulling over for some time. In our first OEQ Hangout on bootstrapping, Shekhar Kirani had said it won’t be possible to build Zoho without funding in today’s times. I did not agree completely with Shekhar at that time. So I asked that question directly to Sridhar to hear his viewpoint. It appears that he somewhat agrees with Shekhar about Zoho. However he said it is possible to build a sizable company now and even after 50 years without external funding. Its just that the entrepreneur must look hard whether the opportunity exists in the current market situation.

So its fair to say that there is nothing wrong in either path. The founders need to evaluate current opportunities and choose the best path that they are comfortable with. Success or failure both can come regardless of the path you choose. So the real focus should be the business and the value the business is creating than the way they are funding their growth. The ecosystem must celebrate both pathways.

Finally, if you are bootstrapping, you are not alone here, this #BootUpINDIA program is for you, come and apply today.

On that age old debate, Bootstrapping Vs Venture Capital

“The best way to do something ‘lean’ is to gather a tight group of people, give them very little money, and very little time.” – Bob Klein, chief engineer of the Grumman F-14 program.

I first came upon this quote on Paul Graham’s website, and it always intrigued me, the small detail about the money – it could be little or a lot, but money is a factor, and a very important factor at that.

Bob Klein’s F-14 program is now legendary in aviation history; the Tomcat was one of the airplanes I was familiar with even in the Indian Air Force circles of the 90’s. Designed to fulfill duties both as a air superiority fighter as well as a naval interceptor, the F-14 Tomcat was easily one of the greatest airplanes ever built then, and Bob Klein did it, as he said, by keeping it fast and cheap.

Bootstrapping or Venture Capital

So is that the blueprint to build something amazing and meaningful? To just sit down, tighten your belt and do it, what we call bootstrapping, or is embracing the stability of venture capital a better way?

It’s an important question in the context of the product startup, and I believe there’s no right and wrong answer to it.

Last week, in a conversation with iSPIRT’s co-founder Sharad Sharma, this topic came up and proceeded to lay claim our entire discussion. When these days a bootstrapped startup is seen as something of an aberration, and scale is seen as validation, Sharad maintained that there’s no formula here; both these paths can lead to success, if followed with caution and perseverance.

Quoting Sharad –

“When you are building something that hinges on a market prediction, that so and so market will be worth so and so in 2025, and you want to be there to fill that gap, then VC funding for the idea and for you is probably the way to go. But if you have no such idea or bet on the future for what you are building; it’s much more experimental (which is ok, that’s how innovation happens), then bootstrapping might make better sense, even if just for the sake of flexibility and more control.”

I could find no reason to disagree.

The Zoho Example

The success of Zoho, the poster child for the bootstrapped product startup, is now quite well known. And all of it with not a penny in external funding. The company is growing, has always been growing, and has just announced a bold move to make one of its flagship products completely free. These are big decisions, made strategically and with a much larger gameplan. Zoho has always stood for something, and its clear, unmuddled decision making has been one of its strengths through the years.

Would Zoho have been able to make such decisions if a member of its board was an investor? Perhaps, but not very likely.

Which I think is significant. What ails the ecosystem these days is a ‘go big or go home’ attitude that typically results in an organization and a product that scales far ahead of its time, resulting in chaos and sometimes even graver problems. Zoho didn’t fall into that trap, it took its own time, and now stands tall as an organization.

Sometimes VC money, though a huge competitive advantage, can come with its own baggage, and the pressure of having to execute something extraordinary all the time can weigh down on doing what actually needs to be done.

But sometimes that baggage is exactly what you want.

The Zomato Story

When Deepinder Goyal started Zomato off, he certainly would not have known that the product he was building, a restaurant review and recommendations site that is today used in 40 cities across the world, would change the entire landscape of eating out. He would have had a vision, but of course he could never have knows what exact shape his business was taking. But he knew he had something; he raised funding. Venture capital stood him up as he expanded hard and fast and cool. It was great to watch.

Would Zomato have been able to scale the way it did without venture capital? The answer is an emphatic no. The awesomeness of the Zomato model rested on its ability to execute, and they did it magnificently well; waiting was something Zomato could not have afforded anyway.

In this case, the VC prerogative to execute fast and hard tied in perfectly with what Zomato itself wanted to do. What resulted is Zomato’s incredible success as a platform, a lovely example of using funding to take an idea big.

“There is no formula”

Again, though, Sharad put in a word of caution – it all depends. This may be a good rule of thumb but there is no formula. Product startups are all different from each other, and what works for one is not at all guaranteed to work for another.

And this is when it struck me that there’s a third category here as well, the perfect example of which is that darling of the younger generation, Instagram.

The Instagram Model

Instagram started out as Burbn, a location sharing app with the option of taking a photo thrown in, but then pivoted to the unbelievably successful photo sharing app we know. And they were funded from the beginning by Andreessen Horowitz and Baseline Ventures.

So here’s a venture funded company, which was trying to build something purely ‘social’ and ‘viral’ in parlance, and the VC’s let them experiment to an extent as to change the focus of the product itself. This is the third kind, the company which adds the no-commitments freedom of bootstrapping to the competitive advantage of venture capital, and becomes a sort of hybrid, absorbing the good in both approaches and ridding itself of the bad.

An important point here is that Instagram never really had a monetization plan in the first place (other companies like this include Tumblr, Twitter, Foursquare, and so on). Positioned for acquisition because of the exponential increase in their user base, they could tread this middle ground with the confidence of knife edged focus.

WhatsApp also did something similar. When Jan Koum and Brian Acton started working full time on WhatsApp, they already had $250000 in funding from friends, which meant that they had the freedom to innovate and at the same time had the stability of capital.

The Last Word

In 1986, Tony Scott’s Top Gun hit the silver screen, in which a young man called Tom Cruise flew a F-14 Tomcat to box office glory and superstardom. The immediate aftermath was that the US Armed Forces were overwhelmed with young people wanting to sign up for service, so much so that the US Navy opened recruitment desks outside cinema halls.

The Tomcat became the symbol of a generation, the high of the air and the allure of uniform combining to give an era its own narrative. And it was exhilarating.

It was a small team that built it. With the entire might of Grumman (later Northrop Grumman) behind them, Bob Klein could have done it in any way he wanted, but he and his team chose the best way for the specific thing they wanted to do, and executed.

And that’s exactly what we can learn from them – that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question, and the ecosystem should encourage bootstrapping as as much of a viable pathway to growth as venture capital.

As for the startup, it should choose wisely.

Zoho, Cloud, Sridhar Vembu

Those who know me well have heard a lot of stories about my experience at Zoho when they transitioned from AdventNet to Zoho. I worked there between 2001-2004 when it was quite a new thing in the indian product ecosystem to talk of Product Management etc. During that period, the company went through a very significant phase of transformation which I was fortunate to be part of, see & learn from close quarters. Today, Zoho was named 4th best Cloud company to work for – makes many of us very proud.

The first thing that struck me was Sridhar’s focus on leveraging data. It went to a point where we realised that inefficient code can put paid to aspirations of leveraging data. And he rethought the data model for our suite of products ground up. The larger ambition was “Deliver software as service, not as installable“. This was in 2003! Back then, the company had about 5 big platform products (SNMP, WebNMS etc). Rethinking the data model, writing and enforcing code that didn’t obfuscate the database (most code was in Java, so it was easy enough to write inefficient code) were tough but important changes he brought about.

Sridhar cared a lot about how teams were organized – large teams are an inherently inefficient lot! Sridhar had the view that teams should be less than 7 people, cross-functional. The reward for growing a team beyond 7 was that it will be split :). His view was that since “Software will be delivered as a Service”, the company should transform from 5 big ships to a 1000 speed boats. To do that, each team team had to focus on a specific market, build and ship a unique product. By 2004 when I was leaving for Yahoo!, there were already 18 products underway. Before the end of the last decade, they were doing over a 100 products!! To go from 5 to 100 in just a few years is quite something.

There’s a lot to lay by the founding DNA of a company and what it can accomplish. While building Credibase which I’ve cofounded a few months ago, here are a few lessons I took away that we try to practice:

Data is God

Focus on the User and all else follows

Small teams create great work

Code always goes from Simple to Spaghetti, but never comes back

The Product Business is Like the Movie Business

I read the cover story in Forbes on the success of Dropbox, which is set to do about $240 million in sales in 2011, with only 70 employees. As Forbes points out, that is about 3x the revenue per employee of Google, which is no slouch in the revenue per employee department itself. First, congratulations, Dropbox! This is the type of breathtaking number that makes the ordinarily successful companies like, well, Zoho, to wonder “What are we doing wrong?”

In our 15 year history in Zoho Corporation – which is bigger than the Zoho product suite itself – we have shipped over 70 products, of which we would say about 30 have been successful in the sense of being nicely profitable. Yet, even with that group of 30 products, we have seen the 10x effect: a set of two products that have taken approximately the same amount of effort to build, by similarly situated teams, yet one of them does 10x the sales of the other, with both of them being profitable. Of course the 10-bagger is much more profitable but the key point is that both of them could be counted as successful in the sense of being profitable. We have even seen 100x difference for approximately the same effort, but in our case, that is the difference between doing only $100K a year in sales vs $10 million a year, and I would not count that as 100x because the $100K product either grows up or we would eventually discontinue it because it is not profitable.

Dropbox is a logical extension of this phenomenon, where a product does 100x the sales, without taking much more by way of engineering effort than a profitable 1x product. And then the grand daddy of them all – Google search, which in its heyday reached $1 billion in sales, on not much more than the effort of a single engineering team – the headcount gets added later to diversify the company but the original search was a small team. I believe there has only been one Google search so far, so the ordinarily successful (ahem!) shouldn’t feel too bad.

Y Combinator, which has funded over 300 companies so far, is a perfect illustration. All these teams are similarly situated, with similar founder profiles and they all get similar initial funding, and they spend similar initial effort. If we consider only the universe of profitable YC companies, my guess is that so far there is only one 100-bagger i.e Dropbox, in the YC portfolio. Based on Zoho experience, I would estimate YC has about ten 10-baggers, and about fifty one-baggers (i.e just about profitable).

Welcome to the product business, which looks very much like the movie business!