With his newly hired army of growth marketers at Freshworks, Arun Pattabhiraman is a marketer with a mission. An accomplished marketer who has been there, done that, he is ready to do it yet again: take marketing to the next, billion-dollar level at one of the fastest growing SaaS companies in the world.
The ever so rapidly expanding team at Freshworks led by Arun is a bunch drawn from different parts of India and from the top companies across the world. Some of them he had to convince for weeks, while many others readily moved, having known him for years. “We often joke about a guy in my team, for instance, who is from far up north. We say, ‘We’ve made you travel the whole swathe from Kashmir to Kanyakumari!’” he chuckles.
In many ways, the draw is hard to resist: what Arun’s team is doing is at the center of the new way of doing business in SaaS. You can be in Chennai or Chicago and sell great software around the world. That’s because software buying is increasingly becoming a bottoms-up exercise as opposed to a top-down one where c-suite executives made most of the decisions.
“It almost feels like it’s going to be bigger than the IT services industry and we’re doing it all from Chennai,” says Arun, who grew up in Chennai but has worked in different global marketing roles. The Indian IT services industry is now $180 billion in size and a few decades old. Experts predict that SaaS companies—including many from India—have the opportunity to create a bigger industry in the years to come.
At least four Indian SaaS companies right now have revenues upward of $100 million. There are more than a dozen or so with revenues upward of $25 million and over 30 companies with revenues between $5-25 million. One back of the envelope calculation predicts that in the next five years, SaaS companies from India will be servicing an opportunity of over $10 billion.
Arun believes that he’s smack-dab in the middle of an opportunity to create a billion-dollar revenue company on the back of a world-class product, marketing, and sales engine. He likens the journey to being on a plane with two mission-critical engines firing at the same time. And as Freshworks takes the leap from serving its primary base of small and medium businesses to catering to larger enterprises, he and his team are busy putting together a comprehensive cross-channel marketing strategy that involves multiple buyer personas.
Among the key things the growth marketing team at Freshworks has done to grow annual recurring revenues to the $100-million mark and beyond are: rebuilding the marketing tech stack to integrate existing marketing tools and new platforms such as those for data quality and marketing resource management; building Freshworks’ own marketing intelligence cloud; and significantly growing the size of the business development representative team. (Read Arun’s blog on scaling sales here.)
With a neatly kept beard and an easy charm about him, he can make you instantly comfortable but, as our conversation progressed, I also saw in him a highly focused, sharp individual. What’s more, he says that he likes to “create opportunities out of nothing.”
From music and art to engineering and marketing
Hailing from a culturally rich environment, music and art have always flowed in Arun’s blood—marketing came much later.
“My dad is an English and Tamil poet; he used to be a writer in Ananda Vikatan. He’s also a pencil portrait artist. My mom is a Carnatic musician. And my grandmother used to sing on All India Radio,” he says. Ananda Vikatan, one of the oldest Tamil weekly magazines, is also one of the largest in circulation to date. All India Radio is India’s public broadcaster and only a few get the opportunity to sing for it.
A similar environment enveloped him in school and college. The school he went to, Hindu Senior Secondary School, counts popular singers such as Chinmayi Sripada and Mathumitha among its alumni. Although a trained Carnatic vocalist, Arun used to “sing light music” for Dhwani, a band he and his friends set up in college while studying engineering. He also used to do pencil sketches and has a flair for languages, thanks mostly to his dad’s influence.
So I asked him what got him first into engineering and then into marketing.
It so happened that Arun went with the zeitgeist of the times and ended up picking electrical engineering at Anna University for his bachelor’s degree. By the time he was in his final year, however, he had made up his mind to do an MBA and become a marketer instead.
But his epiphany notwithstanding, he found himself following the “herd mentality of campus recruitment” and got taken in by a software company. He got placed at TCS’s Hyderabad center, but in the very first conversation with his boss, he told him candidly: “Look, I’m going to be a marketer. So I’m not too keen on on-site projects. I’m going to write my MBA again and move; it’s just a matter of time.” His boss liked his clarity and replied, “You know what, I’ll give you a testing project so that you get time to do other stuff.”
At TCS, on the advice of a mentor, Arun signed up for the Tata Business Excellence program, usually meant for experienced employees to certify them as assessors of business processes in various Tata companies. Arun was among the youngest to do this “mini-MBA” of sorts, which set him up for a business-specific role in the future.
A big turning point came for Arun when one of his seniors from TCS, Caunteya Parekh, joined the Indian School of Business. He introduced Arun to ISB and urged him to get admission to their MBA course. A visit to the ISB campus in Hyderabad “completely floored” Arun.
“You had professors from Kellogg and Wharton teaching at the institute. It was meant only for experienced people, and the diversity was just completely different,” he reminisces. The one year he spent at ISB transformed him as an individual and widened his horizons, to use a cliche.
From that point, the possibilities opened up for Arun and there was no looking back. After ISB, he joined Airtel and worked there for about three years before moving on to InMobi, a mobile advertising platform. At the telecom major, he came to grips with data-driven marketing and helped the company grow in the highly price-competitive Kerala and Tamil Nadu regions. As a recruit under the Young Leader program of Airtel, he had the freedom to work across functions—sales, marketing, customer support, or “whatever you wanted”—before picking a career path of his choice.
He picked marketing and has happily stuck to that choice ever since.
Arun’s next career move was to head marketing for developer solutions at InMobi. “I was working with the app community worldwide, and we were competing with some big brands like Google and Facebook,” he recalls. His deep focus and willingness to go the extra mile to gain the knowledge of whatever he was working on made his star rise higher and higher at InMobi—finally landing him the role of its global chief marketing officer. He went on to win a string of awards wearing the CMO hat, including The Most Influential Marketing Leaders award at the World Marketing Congress (2016) and the Top 50 Brand Leaders in Asia recognition by CMO Asia (2017).
While his career took him to Mumbai for a brief stint with a media company, he soon quit and joined Freshworks as the global VP of growth and marketing. Arun has known Freshworks CEO Girish Mathrubootham for many years now, and when the opportunity to finally jump on to the rocketship came by, he gladly did. Freshworks’ motto of nurturing a happy environment, and Girish’s vision and leadership were critical to helping Arun make the decision.
“At the end of the day, if you are not happy doing what you are doing, it doesn’t make sense,” he says.
Upward and onward
So, does he find marketing as fulfilling as he once did music and art? I prod him once more.
“My background and upbringing helped me gravitate toward picking marketing as a profession because it is as much of an art as it is a science,” he says. “Marketing is a lot about communication, so there is ample opportunity to be creative—and it is numbers-driven, so there is an opportunity to be analytical. I’m an engineer at the end of the day, so I’m also analytical.”
Arun believes that his greatest strength is the clarity on what he wants to do and how things need to be done. For marketing to build credibility and “have a seat at the table,” he says, you need to be able to talk the language of the business, the language of your customers.
At Freshworks, Arun has been busy building out a world-beating GTM team and his priority has been to deepen the functional depth within marketing. He is now singularly focused on artfully navigating the complexities of turbo-charging a hyper-growth company as far as marketing is concerned.
“If you don’t seize the opportunity,” he says quietly but firmly, “somebody else will.”