A summary of SaaS Insider’s Chat AMA session with Vijay Shankar, Co-Founder, Freshworks

Aug 10, 2020

We, at SaaS Insider organized our very first AMA session with Vijay Shankar, the Co-Founder and Director of Solutions Engineering at Freshworks. It was an insightful event where the attendees actively interacted with Vijay.

Below is a summary of the session..
For each question, you can see the response from Vijay Shankar (preceded by VS).

1.If there is one piece of advice you would give your younger self, what would it be?

-VS: Trust by Default - To anyone who is bringing an idea. Be calm and experiment often. Fail, but gracefully.

2. Companies often run into this ‘Buy vs Build’ dilemma, especially in SaaS. What do you think would be an ideal way to pick a side? Do you have any personal experience where you’ve faced this dilemma yourself?

-VS: We've also gone the Build way and Buy is only when something strategic comes your way and is the need of the Hour. Even in the past or even now, we always build - Eat your Own dog food analogy. Take T20 Analogy - You are cruising and the Bowler gives you a Free hit, you take it. Always Build first.

3. Could you tell us about an instance where the team had to pivot their idea after spending a lot of time on the product. How did they take that decision? What factors went into the decision and what were the learnings from it?

-VS: Take the perfect example of Freshchat. We re-invented and pivoted the product 3 times and finally it was a success. Adoption and customer growth is the key to anything being launched or built. Even if free customers are coming in and adoption increases, it's good for business to grow and enhance. If there is no adoption even in free sense, then time to pivot.

4. Would you focus on building a product that lasts forever or that adapts to changes?

-VS:  Agree to Adapt to changes and enhance. E.g. Freshdesk. After 2 Years, Freshservice was born because customers started using it differently. Out of Freshdesk came Freshsales, because customers were using it for Lead/Contact management. It's all how customers are using - sometimes you need to show to customers but in B2B this will not work 100%. It is always better to adapt and change.

5. What is the key element one should have to be successful in Saas industry?

-VS: Simple and Time tested analogy - It's a marathon not sprint. To build something great, you need to be in it for the long run. Salesforce was launched in 1999 and no one believed in the SAAS story but look at the business today. Patience, Perseverance, Culture, Like minded Team and the biggest is - TEAM. Without TEAM, no one can win this marathon and we are so lucky in Freshworks.

6. How did you handle adversity and doubt?

-VS: It's not going to be a perfect culture if we don't have doubts and unpleasant situations. It's always “How we solve them”. Most of the time, people doubt the decisions because either they are under utilized or wrongly placed. So at Freshworks, we've found that analogy very well. Find the right fit for that person and you will not have such doubts. Yes, sometimes it's tough - that's why we have a specific culture code - Speak Up, when needed and we've taken tough decisions when needed.

7. Your two cents on Accuracy vs Agility. What was your approach towards building Freshworks from scratch? Was it perfection or was it speed to market then to keep improvising.

-VS: It's always Agility - Accuracy will happen in time as you see more customer growth and adoption. As Bezos says, act like a Day 1 Company and if you run with agility, you will automatically see processes getting added to improve on accuracy. Simple Example: in 2011 when we started/launched Freshdesk v1 - we were shipping 10 features every week, this helped us bring more process around test cases, we started on RSPEC and accuracy followed in parallel.

8. In SaaS we build a lot of small features. How do you decide how long to pivot those and till what stage? Do you prefer building v1 and holding up till you get feedback or see it's success?

-VS: It's always best to capitalize on V1. Another analogy was “Gamification” in Freshdesk. When we launched gamification in 2012, everyone in helpdesk laughed that there is no future, but we enhanced on the feature and customers saw adoption. Everything is business impact dependent. If you launch a feature and it has no business impact, no one will buy but if you bring meaningful Business impact, you will see adoption and be forced to bring V2.

9. You played a crucial role when you were at the US office and now at the Australian office. What are the major differences between customers/buyers in these markets? Could you give an overview of the buying mentality in both the markets?

-VS: US is Technology driven and if you showcase a capability that exists, organizations will buy. Field of Dreams analogy - build, people will come. In the US, you can sell and build too, sometimes it works, but you need to deliver, to sustain. But in Australia, I am seeing a totally trust driven market. Unless a concept or capability is proven to work 100% and has some trustworthy feedback / people to vouch, they will not buy.

10. A follow up question from the above. If we are a new player in the Australian market and we are yet to build a customer base, how do we build that initial trust?

-VS: It's purely a customer reference here. ANZ - One has to be very patient or go big bang with viral marketing. Only 2 options here. You cannot win here, that easily.

11. What are some of the riskiest assumptions made while building products for Freshworks and how did you validate it in the market if your core business idea was built around it?

-VS: Anything we build or design, has to show its value - Is it fit for its purpose? Is it fit to use? These are ITIL terms and they make sense. When the iPhone was launched - purpose was to be that one device to replace phone + internet browser + music device.
Identify the purpose you are going to solve, ideate and design - it will then be fit to be used by everyone.Will only a specific set of customers use it?Will only the ecommerce and finance team be the target audience?These two points are essential. We validate every feature on what purpose is it solving and what pain is it going to diminish and then design comes into play.

12. You played a crucial role in Freshchat, during the app launch and the growth of the product. Could tell us what are the points you have considered/taken that led to the growth of the product in such a small period of time?

-VS: I am a solutions team member, so always believed in solutioning and we did that a lot. We did lots of hackathons to bring in quick wins, apps and workflows to showcase and pushed them internally. Customers didn't even know they needed them, but when seeing the features work, the adoption picked up. One organization will introduce them to their team in the US or EU or ASIA. It is always what the competition is doing. If it's a proven and existing market, how are you going to improve the customer experience matters. We used to do personalized demos and that works wonders and gives that WOW moment.
          We saw that our Adwords channel was very strong and the existing Freshdesk customer base was the big lead gen that helped us win. Customer feedback- agreed was essential but it was purely the PM team’s gut feel and market adoption -  observing where teams like Swiggy or Zomato were lagging, we were bridging those gaps and customers came.

13. (i) How do you align hired-experienced people into Freshworks' CULTURE, while they are glued for years in a different company's culture?
(ii) Any tips for on-boarding new people at this 100% remote work?

-VS: (i)I think we are lucky and truly grateful that culture flows from top to bottom and vice-versa. We've rejected some really major resumes, because they were culturally not fit. You can be an IIM+IIT Grad but if you are culturally unfit, you will not make it. Our cultural fitness for leadership is personally handled by Girish and he is one of the biggest judge of characters and as he calls it - BSQ - Bull Shit Quotient is how it is measured.
(ii) I feel this is the time, we need people to be more close and get involved as families and not as co - workers. Personalized onboarding and the need to get everyone treated with more empathy and kindness is essential as these are sensitive times.

I think families can help a lot here. Onboard the team's family to the new work family. You will see immense happiness and cheer. Try it once.

14. How do you think integration of Freddy AI to Freshchat could increase its capabilities from an User Empathy perspective. Are there specific solutions to address this when customers are talking to a bot? Where does the handoff to a representative happen in such cases?

-VS: Freshchat now has intent detection and features are working out well. NLP is trained well to understand sarcasm and slightest dissatisfaction that quickly nudges to chat mode. Also, customers today can type in ‘Connect me to an agent’, and it happens immediately.

15.Thanks Vijay Shankar, for your guidance and support.  Your suggestions for an aspiring PM to be able to add more value to the SaaS ecosystem - where should the focus be - domain expertise or generalist approach to improve qualities as a PM? If it's both, how can we balance to make ourselves worthy to the company if  given a chance?

-VS: Domain Expertise is good, but you cannot get that as a PM, that easily. Perfect example. Girish came from a sysadmin background, moved into a pre-sales role, then became PM. Can you see the pattern there? Domain expertise for a PM can only come from the actual work you are indulged in or something that you truly love. If you love Retail, you can launch an E-commerce portal or build something like Shopify. I am no PM to make that comment, but it's the little things that make you happy, when you build something. What makes you happy - Is it the design aspect, is it the UX of an application? If you take up an idea and improve on it, you are a PM already, that's how you grow and bring change to the App.

16. What is the right skill set needed for a customer success person and how do they develop if they want to be a successful Customer Success domain?

-VS: You can't develop this as a skillset - doing what's right for the customer and the company. Taking Agile decisions but with the right mindset, without causing any negative effects.

17. Can you share with us your version of checklist you go through before a new product launch?

-VS: Although I am not from the PM side, but have had a 360 view on how things go. As I earlier mentioned - Fit for purpose and Fit to use. Purpose - What is it going to solve, How, Is everyone doing it or will you be the only  one. How are you solving it ? Use - How can you make it better. How will I like it ? how will the end user perform the action. How can it be made for noobies.

18. I often see people transition from Product Marketing to Product Management and Vice versa. What's your perspective on an ideal transition between these two? Or would you recommend someone to gain a steady and scaling experience in either of these?

-VS: Nothing wrong in the experimentation. It's always what you love and whether you are good at it. If we see a person is writing good emails to customers with good rich content, I will experiment with them in Content Marketing. Same way if a Product Marketer is bringing Business Impact Analysis or ROI Data from the product feature, I will always experiment with them to try for Associate PM and nurture them. Big point - Are they willing to do this? Or is it a phase? I would want them to give it a 100% even if things don't work out, you did a great job and hey you are good at content, let's continue and will find something better for you.

19. I'm sure in the last 10+ years on building Freshworks from the ground up, you would have faced lots of tough scenarios.I have been curious for a couple of years about the different ways in which Freshworks innovates, and how far has that innovation come into helping customers get more from the applications.

-VS: Tough Scenarios will always be there, it's how well we adapt and move on is the most important question. One of our team members - new college passout in 2012, took down the entire Freshdesk. Did we panic? Yes, for 30 mins the product was down, but we didn't punish him. We explained how things worked and how not to do things and today he is one of the best colleagues. It’s always best to move on from negative sentiments and build it better. Innovate in a different angle. If one feature or product doesn’t work., it’s fine. Conduct a hackathon, ask for feedback from other team mates and make it better. Again, Freshchat - we shut down 3 times and now it’s one of the best products in the market. Don't be afraid or get bogged down by such tough scenarios.

20. What do you think about the Global tech entrepreneurs setting base on India and how do you think people like us here in India can leverage them?

-VS: One of the best ways to learn from the brightest minds in the world - there is no substitute to learning and I think it should be a moment of pride that we get to work and innovate alongside. Perfect example - JIO Meet. They replaced Zoom in a matter of weeks. Zoom was launched in 2011 and 2020 took them to the peak. JIO Meet was launched in 2020 and is seeing success - why? Mobile number signups - Zoom doesn't do that, but JIO is going to win, because of this. Global organizations can join us and work alongside us, but How are you different and what pain point are you solving is going to help us WIN.

21. Given the current pandemic situation, what are the two practices that have best worked for you while WFH?

-VS: Family and Freshworks colleagues, making others happy. As Girish says, ‘Growth is the biggest motivator and I want to get this region to grow and this keeps me motivated and pushing for more’. How can I make the team happy? -  need to keep thinking about that. Nothing else matters. Money will come and go, but happiness is of utmost importance at this time. We need to take care of every member in the remotest corner and ensure they are happy and enjoying their Freshworks life.

If you are interested in reading the complete AMA, it is available in our Slack channel. Kindly click on the link below:


Thanks to all who participated in this session! We believe you had an interesting experience. With that being said, we are indeed considering to organize more sessions in the future.

Stay tuned!

Written By - Chameli Kuduva, Founder - SaaS Insider