This sales leader’s career is proof that you can be nice and finish first
Back in 2004, young Mike stepped right into the thick of things at a back office company in Bangalore and quickly discovered that his gift of the gab would take him places. His voice was warm, with just the right amount of confidence. In just two years, Mike became a tech lead at the company with a team of 15 support engineers.
If you’d heard Mike, you’d bet on him too.
And I can vouch for this because it’s 2020 and I am seated opposite Vinod Chandramouli, aka Mike, at the Freshworks office in Chennai on a downer of a week. And with every passing minute into this conversation, I can feel his positivity infusing the air.
While listing out names of people who have and continue to contribute significantly in making Freshworks the fastest-growing SaaS company that it is today, Vinod’s name featured right up top.
As on the day this profile was written, Vinod is the head of business for Freshworks’ India and ASEAN markets. The story of how he got here from being a quiet kid from Coimbatore who wanted to become an aeronautical engineer is one that I think would make for a great uplifting movie about taking things as they come, communicating well, and learning to trust your instincts.
Hakuna matata – it means no worries
VCM as he is referred to by the people of Freshworks, doesn’t get rattled too often.
Not only is this abundantly clear in the way he speaks and carries himself—lean, fit, crisply ironed clothes, and the kind demeanor and wisdom of a modern-day Buddhist—it is also how he has predominantly lived his life.
“Growing up, I was always under the radar. I was never the guy people would call out nor was I at the end. I was in the middle and I liked it there. Safe space,” says Vinod, who was a very no-muss-no-fuss kind of kid, happy to stick to routine.
Between Carnatic music, shorthand, typewriting, and all the extra studying at home with a mother who was his teacher, Vinod’s childhood was calm yet rich. His mother’s teacher status meant having access to the staff room, which he likens to lounge access at an airport, but it also meant maneuvering the fine line that separated teachers’ kids from the others. “It was touch and go with the other kids — they like you but they don’t like you”, but Vinod doesn’t have any regrets.
Between Nehru Vidyalaya in Coimbatore, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Erode, and two years at the Delhi Tamil Students Association in Delhi, Vinod grew up with a balance between being shielded by his mother’s teacher status and receiving an exposure that allowed him to view education from an unbiased lens and a wider perspective.
In his late teens, he figured he’d have to give aeronautical engineering a pass because he ‘sucked at math.’ His dreams of studying management and following in his uncle’s footsteps also came crashing down when he ‘flunked spectacularly’ in his CAT exam.
Never mind. Vinod picked himself up, dusted himself off, and proceeded to get a dual degree in Commerce and Computer Applications from Kongu Arts and Science college. None of these changes to the plan were ever roadblocks. He only looked at them as new opportunities and was constantly nodding towards, “What’s next?”
Follow the yellow-brick road
Working at Convergys in Bangalore wasn’t even a part of the plan. Attending the job interview wasn’t on the agenda either but there he was, one of the only two people from Bharathiar University who had been placed with a job before graduating.
Vinod moved lock stock and barrel out of Coimbatore with no idea what he was getting into. From being a home-bred boy all his life, he found himself right in the middle of the thrumming vibrance of culture at Bangalore! “Moving to Bangalore from Erode was like moving to NYC!”
At work, his job was technical. “Because we had the inclination towards learning they put us with the same batch of engineers and I had to learn coding.” At the end of that jig, Vinod became a business analyst for the applications support team.
In about five years he spent at Convergys, he missed birthdays, saw his social life shrink, and even had to attend client calls at exactly midnight on New Years Eve, but always one to look on the bright side, Vinod attributes this to a very solid time of growth. “By the time I became a team leader, it taught me how to manage time, how to manage expectations better. And I got a kickass American accent out of it as well”, he grins.
One day, a newspaper ad for a role at consulting firm Deloitte caught his eye. He was told that he’d be lost in a big organization but that didn’t stop him. “I moved from a contact centre, to a proper services organization, to all of a sudden this world of consulting and I was the odd man out from day one”, he recalls. But Vinod proceeded to have ‘the best and worst days of my life’ at Deloitte as a senior analyst.
It was during Impact Day, Deloitte’s annual global CSR initiative that Vinod had the opportunity to lead a team. “I had to present to the Board members why I needed Rs 50,000 and that one hour meeting is when I knew I wanted to be in sales.” Vinod walked out of that meeting with Rs 50,000 more than he had pitched for, and the next leg of his journey fell into place.
A sales-star is born
A heart-to-heart talk with a friend in Hyderabad, one ‘shitty’ resume and a phone call later, Vinod found himself in Bangalore, delivering a presentation to five people at Akamai Technologies. He went to lunch and when he came back, they gave him the offer letter.
For the next seven years, Vinod donned multiple hats from pre-sales engineer, service line manager, technology evangelist for Asia Pacific and Japan, to head of business development. The man who had never travelled outside India till 2011 has since then travelled 36 countries till date. “It’s never too late,” he says.
It was while working on a deal for Akamai that Vinod found himself in the place that would soon become an integral part of his life.
The winds of change
“In 2011 we were trying to win this deal with a company that had just raised funding and was set to go big,” Vinod begins, with a smile.
Vinod and his colleague Ananth flew to Chennai to visit the towering SP Infocity techpark. They rode the elevator to the 7th floor to meet with the founders of Freshworks. One demo of the Akamai platform and some bonding over the Tamizh language later, Girish Mathrubootham (G), CEO and founder, signed the contract and handed it over to Vinod that very day. The deal, which brought in $5,000 a month, gave him a seat at the coveted Titans club at Akamai.
On their way back, Vinod recalls telling his friend Ananth that they should take care of this organization. “Turns out that seven years later, that organization is taking care of me,” he says.
What could possibly go wrong – there’s a beach!
Few months later, Vinod chanced upon a customer success role at Freshworks and wrote to G on LinkedIn. He wasn’t expecting a response but G, well-known for doing the unexpected, rolled out an offer.
“Given your experience in pre-sales, we want to open up a pre-sales role and expand our pre-sales team”, G explained to Vinod over coffee back at the Chennai office.
“We want to grow it, starting with Freshdesk and then move to other products.” Vinod agreed. That same afternoon he went home with an offer letter.
“Never in my life would I have ever thought I would move to Chennai. But I went to my wife Deepthi and I said, we’ve got to do this. It feels right. It’s a great company to work for and Girish has a good vision. Plus, this role won’t have me traveling so much and it’s Chennai! It has a beach!”
He began at Freshworks in 2015 as the global head for pre-sales and marketplace for nearly five years, and is the head of India and ASEAN business.
Vinod feels that what he has learnt in the last four and half years with Freshworks overshadows the last 35 years of his life both personally and professionally.
“If I were to write an autobiography of my life only the first few pages would be about life before Freshworks,” says Vinod, for whom spending eight hours at Freshworks everyday is filled with new learning experiences and challenges to take on.
Being adaptable and open-minded is core to his leadership style. “It isn’t about the money. At the end of the day there are 25-30 people who are looking up to you to make some hard decisions that are unbiased and for the greater good of the organization.”
As a man who keeps his door open and calendar relatively free, Vinod draws parallels between how being a leader shapes his life outside work as well. “If I am mature here, I will be mature in life as well. I will never say ‘I don’t have to do this because it’s not my job’ and I am comfortable dealing with things outside my comfort zone.”
Going with the flow that will take him to the mountains
Time flies when you are in conversation with this man. Before I know it, my hour is up and we have travelled through such an insightful conversation filled with refreshing and thoughtful perspectives. And I have only just scratched the surface.
Of everything we talked about, what stands out the most is his faith in identifying and trusting a certain flow of energy that resonates with you. Call it instinct if you will.
“I’ve never really run behind money, or my impulsive moves have not been because of better pay. It was only because it came with the flow,” says Vinod who is now learning to produce music at a studio that he’s set up at home. “It’s only in the last seven years that I have finally begun to understand what I want.”
And what is that?
“At some point the creative space is what I want to get into. A side business, perhaps a small coffee shop up in the mountains somewhere, and that’s about it. I don’t think I’ll make a career out of it but I’ll make a life out of it.”
And I’m sure to make my way up that mountain, to have a cuppa and conversations ranging from SaaS, sales, life, to the Universe, with this gentle giant of a man.
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