“It was crazy.”
The tension as well as excitement in the room was palpable. “Should we go ahead with the idea?” “How would people react to it?” “What if it backfires?” Questions like these must have vexed the minds of the three occupants of that room on that fateful weekend of December 2011 as they decided on their bold bet. There was no way of knowing how the people would react. But the least they could do was to bounce their idea off a company investor.
As luck would have it, the investor nodded his agreement—with one caveat. He asked them to go ahead after removing a direct reference to the competitor in the domain name of their “idea”.
The trio put their plan into action—one that would send ripples of support across significant swathes of online forums and social media.
Those who know the story behind the domain name, ripoffornot.org, recall with relish the brave and fitting rejoinder that an underdog, the fledgeling Freshdesk, put up against its much bigger rival.
That URL and the story continue to live on the internet as a rallying call-to-action for anyone who has been wrongly targeted by a bulkier opponent.
Recalling the intensity and the impact of it after almost eight years, Sreelesh Pillai, one among our three dramatis personae, sighs and says it again, “Oh, it was crazy!”
G (Girish Mathrubootham, the Freshdesk CEO) and Parsu (Parsuram Vijaysankar) were the other two protagonists. The investor was Shekhar Kirani of Accel.“You can imagine what kind of a risky thing it was for the investor as we wanted to take this brash move,” Sreelesh tells me over the phone from his office in Sydney.
At that time, Sreelesh—Sree for short—was a lanky young digital marketer barely three months into Freshdesk, which is how the company was called then. Now, as a general manager, he spearheads Freshworks’ business in the Australia-New Zealand region.
After the investor’s nod, while G got the domain booked and wrote down the “sequence of events that happened,” Parsu built the site and Sree got going on customer reviews and some behind-the-scenes viral action. What had happened was that the CEO of a bigger competitor had called Freshdesk a “Freaking rip-off” on Twitter. And our very own “G Company”—refusing to take it lying down—was prepping what in hindsight can only be described as an epic response.
In almost no time, ripoffornot.org was going viral, thanks in no small measure to Sree’s digital and social media acumen. Using the tricks of the “digital acceleration” trade he had learned in his previous organization, Sify, he embedded AddThis (a social sharing widget later acquired by Oracle) as well as some revelatory customer comments, saucy headings, and metas into the page to make it go viral.
“Because I was involved in the support function at Freshdesk, apart from being the marketer, I would also occasionally go in and answer customer tickets for Freshdesk support. So even before we put up that page, I knew of many customers coming to us and saying, ‘Freshdesk is better’. So I was able to collect those actual instances of customers saying so and presented the same on that page,” says Sreelesh.
The results were as awesome as G’s response on the page: for Freshdesk, which was then only a toddler-upstart in the burgeoning world of SaaS, it went wildly viral. “I think in the Hacker News forum, where all the tech guys hang out, ripoffornot was the trending topic for two days minimum. And we had a lot of traffic the likes of which we had never seen before—what we had in a whole year, maybe we now got similar traffic in just a week,” chuckles Sreelesh.
Sree, the Kenyan Keralite
When I ask him about his Twitter handle, @KenyanKeralite, Sreelesh laughs shyly. “Oh yes, I sometimes tend to forget that!”
Born and brought up in Nairobi, Kenya, Sree has his family roots in Kerala in southern India. He did most of his schooling in Kenya but came to India for high-school education because he wanted to get himself soaked in the rigor of India’s education system. “For higher education, India is definitely a better choice versus Kenya,” he insists.
After finishing high school from St. Thomas Central School in Thiruvananthapuram, he acquired two degrees: a Bachelor’s in electronics and communication engineering and an MBA in marketing and finance. But it’s the acquisition of real-world experience, especially his SaaS journey—first at Zoho and then the ongoing one at Freshworks—that has made him the thoroughbred professional he is today.
Sreelesh first cut his teeth at Reliance Communications, which hired him in June 2006 as a management trainee through campus recruitment. He was initially in Cochin but later moved to Thiruvananthapuram to “handle the bigger clients” in the region. And while his LinkedIn profile mentions his designation as Corporate Customer Relationship Manager, he says what he did there was “end-to-end business management,” including upselling and cross-selling, key account management, and what-not. The what-not part once saw him deliver an international roaming SIM to the managing director of a company in the middle of the night!
Besides imparting a multi-faceted experience, episodes like this taught him patience—something that would prove quite valuable in his ensuing customer-centric career path.
From Z to G
It was at Zoho that Sreelesh met the two people who most influenced and shaped him as a professional. The first was his immediate superior, his “first ever manager in the software world,” as he puts it. What Suresh Vembu [not related to Zoho founder Sridhar Vembu] told him was simple but foundational. “He taught me that to be really successful in marketing, you should say something that would evoke an emotion in the customer. Many a time, a marketer may come up with something without understanding the customer, but once you’ve been in the customer’s shoes and know their pain points then your marketing is so much more effective,” says Sreelesh.
To his credit, Sreelesh was as worthy a student as a teacher could possibly hope for. This is more than apparent in this recommendation that Suresh wrote for Sree on LinkedIn [reproduced below with minor edits]:
“A market analyst, a technical writer, and a customer support engineer. These posts look seemingly discrete and disconnected. If there is one common thread to all of the three above, then you have Sreelesh for you. He is a real smart guy, who is equally adept in figuring out what the market trends are for the product, as well as in writing technical details on it. A more important trait is the empathy he shows toward the customers/prospects. A call scheduled at 3am to discuss a priority issue with a prospect? No problem! Sreelesh will be awake to handle that for you. This is the level of dedication he shows toward his job. He is very quick to understand the concepts and is never shy of experimenting and echoing his ideas.”
The other mentor who deeply influenced him is G, who was responsible for product management at Zoho. I ask him about the top learnings from G that he really values and carries with him as his guiding lantern. “It’s always being positive and doing whatever it takes to ensure you’ve got a happy team. Being very focused on what you’re trying to do in terms of vision. G is one hundred percent the most empathetic leader I’ve ever had,” he says.
The story of “how G discovered Sree” makes for interesting reading.
When Sreelesh started working with Zoho as a marketing analyst for VQManager, their VoIP quality monitoring tool, he was urged by Suresh to be involved in customer support as well. “I took calls in the night. I wrote ‘knowledge base’ articles and website pages. I decided on pricing…as I sat with the pre-sales team on demonstrations and then slowly I headed up the support team—while also doing the marketing for VQManager,” he remembers.
Once, while Sree was involved in a reseller conference, G saw him make a presentation for VQManager. The next thing he knew, G brought him into his team to work on digital marketing and associated tasks for OpManager, one of Zoho’s network monitoring products. Here, as before, his role was multi-faceted: looking at product positioning, creating collaterals and digital ads, and ensuring—through Google AdWords or other means—traffic to the website.
Sometime after G left Zoho to start Freshdesk, Sree joined Sify—but soon their paths would cross again.While G was getting his new venture and product, Freshdesk, ready to take off, Sree was sharpening his edge in digital marketing. At Sify, he was handling end-to-end business for portals. “So Sify.com/sports, the whole sports business, was with me: I had to bring in digital spends, bring in traffic, and sell ad spots to outside parties,” he says.
During those times, Sree would sometimes get calls from G asking for help on AdWords. “I even briefly opened up a few campaigns for Freshdesk,” he recalls. And then one fine day when G called him, he thought it to be one of those routine, ask-for-some-help calls. Instead, G offered him to join Freshdesk. The product was ready—and so was G to hire someone to do the marketing in full earnest.
Sree didn’t hesitate to say Yes. And thus began a new chapter in his career.
Up and above in the Land Down Under
The viral success of ripoffornot.org and his experience in digitally reaching out to prospects further whetted Sree’s appetite to get more and more customers for Freshdesk. It led him to a lot of experimentation within the company.
Recalling those early days in Freshdesk, Sreelesh says, “I used to track on a sheet how many days it took us to reach 100 customers and then I stopped when one day we did reach 100! G has a blog on getting to our first hundred.”
That desire to acquire customers, he says, led him to setting up an outbound sales team. “I had three juniors join me and we experimented selling to [the likes of] Nike—big organizations that typically don’t do their research online to sign up for a free trial [which is what most Freshdesk customers, primarily small and medium businesses, typically did and still do]. So I asked these passionate youngsters in the team, ‘Hey, which is your favourite brand?’ And when they said ‘Nike,’ I told them, ‘Okay, your job for the next one month is to go all out and catch Nike: speak to Nike and see whether we can interest them with Freshdesk’,” he tells me with a twinkle in his eye. In addition to this team, he also engaged a Bengaluru-based agency for outbound sales.
Sometime in 2014, an ex-salesperson from a competitor approached Sreelesh, expressing his wish to set up a sales office for Freshdesk in Australia. But during the interview, Sreelesh found him to be a bit too opportunistic and possibly not a right-fit for the company. When attempts to look for a more suitable senior sales guy didn’t bear fruit, Sree put his hat in the ring. He said to G, “Maybe I can give this a shot because I’ve also done outbound sales from here, right?”
Never one to discourage any experimentation, G told him to try it out but ensure that the whole team of digital marketers he had built in Chennai was not hampered when he was away.
This might have put some additional stress on Sreelesh, but then, as is his wont, he took the challenge head-on. He shuffled between Chennai and Australia for a while and, when he found someone to lead the team in Chennai (Ramesh Ravishankar) and his first Australian hire, Chris Wyman—who is still with Freshworks—he finally moved to Sydney for good.
As of writing this post, Sreelesh has grown the Australian team to 20, split between the office in Sydney and one in Melbourne. Along the way, he and his team managed to get one of the largest product deals in Freshworks’ history—besides several other wins.
Not that there weren’t any challenges. One of the big challenges for Freshworks and Sreelesh in the region was the lack of a data center: most Australian businesses wanted their data to be hosted locally. This was overcome with the launch of a data center in Sydney in 2018.
But there’s another challenge Sreelesh is keenly working on to tackle: sales targets. The team over-achieved against targets only in one of the past four quarters. “Does it pull him down or depress him in any way?” I venture to ask. “Nope,” he says. “I’m a very grounded, numbers-driven guy. I know our graphs are up and that we can do much better—we absolutely will just wait for it!”
In this series, Humans of Freshworks, we aim to bring you stories about the people who make Freshworks what we are.