Let’s CHAT about what makes Freshworks who we are

[This is part of a series on our revamped culture code, CHAT, what it means for us, our customers and other stakeholders, and how we practice it with all the WFH fun and challenges.] 

The idea of Freshworks was born of a compelling desire to change the status quo in customer service, and to build user-focused products that solve core problems rather than flaunt code with bells and whistles. What took birth as Freshdesk with a handful of people nearly 10 years ago is now a thriving, multi-product organization employing over 3,000 and serving companies of all sizes in diverse global markets.

There are many ingredients to success, true. But it is our culture more than anything else that has kept us unified in our continuing mission to help businesses create customers for life. And how we do that is part of our growing legend: by building customer engagement software that users love.

“Culture forms the basis of everything we do at Freshworks,” Suman Gopalan, our CHRO told me over Zoom. As a company, Freshworks started building its culture from day one, she said, even though “we may not have called it as such at that point.”

Perhaps sensing my curiosity, she continued, “From day one, we had a point of view about the kind of company we wanted to be: how we build products, the kind of people we hire, how we work together as a team, and the relationships we are going to have with our customers.” 

Over time, that way of life and working for Freshworks and its people evolved into what we now call our culture code.

Over time, as our founder-CEO Girish Mathrubootham took to heart a bad customer experience with the insurer of his television that was broken in transit (known as the “broken TV story” in Freshworks folklore)—and vowed to build a world-class cloud software company out of Chennai—the kind of things we did and how we did them got woven into the fabric of our culture. 

Indeed, over time, each warp and weft along our journey helped clothe our organization in a culture that has helped us not only look good in the eyes of the outside world but also strengthened us internally with its moral fiber.

Taking me through the evolution of our culture code, Suman said, “When we started this company, we used what we called ‘first principles’ when hiring employees or working together in teams. And as we became successful, as we started growing…I think we were in our third or fourth year when G actually sat down and wrote it on a piece of paper and said, ‘You know, these are some of the things I never want to lose as our organization grows bigger.’ This, in fact, evolved into our culture code.”

What G (which is how Girish is fondly called by people in and around Freshworks) wrote gradually morphed into eight simple things that Freshworks wanted to practice and nurture across the organization: Happy work environment; play as one team; take ownership; practice craftsmanship; take smart risks; act with urgency; speak up; and, of course, be a customer champion.

All these elements gradually became intrinsic to how we operate as an organization.

In terms of a happy work environment, for instance, if you think about hiring someone for a role, said Suman, we look at folks who have “a passion for the role” rather than just the qualification for the role. “People who join us can come from diverse backgrounds, but do they have the ability to sweat the details about the role? Do they have the ability to think about not just how to do the role, but how to enhance it?”

Being passionate about something really makes us look at every nuance and detail, thereby bringing about customer delight. “That’s the whole notion of craftsmanship that defines every role at Freshworks,” she said.

In our recent virtual all-hands, G put forth the idea of craftsmanship succinctly through a rhetorical question. “Ask yourself this,” he said to Freshworkers from across the world, “Are you proud to put your name on it?”

It is culture that makes you return to your roots, over and over again, and take pride in where you come from.

A time for refinement

At this point, I’m tempted to ask Suman what prompted Freshworks to tweak and refine our culture code—and condense it into the spiffier, more appealing acronym, CHAT.

“The beauty of our culture is that it is ingrained in everything we do. But as our organization has grown, we’ve also had to refine our culture code to make sure it continues to be applicable for the stage that we are in, to make sure it continues to be globally relevant in terms of the way we say it, the terminology we use—all of that. So we haven’t changed the culture code dramatically, but refined it to make it more contemporary,” explained Suman.

She went on to say that one of the biggest things on our mind as our organization scales is to be very specific about making our culture code “more front and center,” putting it out in a way that people can recall easily. “Every year we are hiring about 1,000 people. So, what happens is that everyone comes with the muscle memory of what they did in their previous organization. And over time, culture is nothing but a set of behaviors that manifests itself, right?”

Suman believes that at any given point in time, people should be able to not only recall but also articulate the elements of our culture code. “One of the things we’ve been thinking about is that eight is a lot—and recalling all eight elements and being conscious about practicing them becomes a little bit more difficult,” she told me. This is particularly challenging when more and more young people are joining us every quarter.

“So, as we scaled we said that it is important that we simplify the culture code and put it in a manner that makes it easy for people not only to relate to it, but also to recall and practice it,” said Suman. What we did was look for some “natural adjacencies” in the existing elements of the code and meld them into something that keeps the spirit of the code intact. 

So, while Craftsmanship was retained as it is, what we now call ‘Agility through empowerment’ becomes the notion of a sense of urgency, taking smart risks, and speaking up. And as we conducted this exercise, luckily, said Suman, it also came together into “a fun, fancy, easily memorable” acronym.

But there’s one Twist in this tale—with a Capital T . While the C, H, and A were coming through clearly on the whiteboard when the Freshworks leaders were doing the brainstorming (this happened just before the world got locked down in its battle with the novel coronavirus), it wasn’t until someone suggested borrowing the T from ‘True friend of the customer’ that ‘CHAT’ emerged as the winning choice.

“G always says that we don’t just want to be a vendor or a partner to the customer; we really want to be their friend,” recalled Suman. “So we said, ‘Okay, why don’t we introduce that as a concept and reword it’? I think the credit for this should go to Prakash—he’s the one who came up with the acronym. And it came out just beautifully.” (Prakash Ramamurthy is the Chief Product Officer, Freshworks.) 

Taking the conversation forward with CHAT

Like we said before, our core culture remains the same—but we just put a new shine on it. Reiterating its significance in a broader context, Suman said, “CHAT is about the kind of organization we want to build, so it has an impact on everything. It has an impact on the kind of work we do and the kind of experience we promise, whether it’s to our internal customer or external customer. So CHAT is essentially the DNA of everything we do, the DNA of how our organization functions.”

And that’s why everybody connected with Freshworks gets to experience CHAT in some shape or form—whether they are employees or customers or other stakeholders.

So, how do we ensure that our 3,000-plus people are aligned with this new culture code? “Communication is first and foremost,” said Suman. However, she added that making people aware and knowledgeable about CHAT alone is not enough. “We need to translate that into assimilation.”

As part of our effort to ensure assimilation, every single person who joins Freshworks goes through an onboarding experience where we talk about culture. “We are refining that at the moment to see how we can bring it to life when we are all remote. But every single person at the time of onboarding receives a lot of information about what our culture is, and what some of the expected behaviors are. We’ve also started another initiative: each month or quarter, all new hires have a conversation with G, including a chat about CHAT. As a founder, he talks about, in a very authentic way, why this is so close to his heart and why this is the secret to our success.”

But that is only the beginning. According to Suman, it is equally important to talk about how all the managers at Freshworks can bring CHAT to life in their teams. “Because at the end of the day, that is a true manifestation of culture. We can have the talk, or put up posters of the code but, ultimately, it’s how people experience Freshworks and how we enable them to do the work they’re meant to do.”

That’s what we’d say makes Freshworks, Freshworks.

[Stay tuned and check our blog later for more in our Culture@Freshworks series.]