“Chennai is heaven,” says Girish Mathrubootham, cofounder of Freshworks. Sitting at his San Francisco home, his new residence since he relocated to the US last month, Mathrubootham is a tad emotional as he speaks on a Zoom video call one early morning. “What do you miss?” I ask.
It is not so much the things, he says, as he waves his cup of filter coffee that his wife has freshly brewed. He lets out a faint smile: “It is the city, the air, its people and much more.” Mathrubootham and his love for Chennai can be explained in an interesting backstory.
Many Chennai entrepreneurs shift base to Bengaluru once their startups gain a certain size — for example, Ather Energy that was incubated at IIT-Madras or IITM in 2013 but shifted to Bengaluru in 2015. In 2011, Mathrubootham also seriously contemplated shifting his base from Chennai to Bengaluru. “The suggestion came from an investor,” he recalls. He went to Bengaluru, zeroed in on an office space for his year-old startup and explored residence options. Besides everything else, being in a city where he could rub shoulders with India’s startup pioneers, like the Bansals of Flipkart, was a big draw. Then hurdles emerged. Some of his early employees didn’t want to move. Besides, finding a suitable school for his children proved to be a challenge.
“It was as if the universe was conspiring to keep me in Chennai,” he says. One evening, as he waited at the Bengaluru airport for his flight back home, at the spur of the moment Mathrubootham decided “forget Bangalore. Let’s just stay in Chennai and build Freshworks.” “I am glad I stayed,” he adds after a pause.
Almost a decade later, Freshworks is a unicorn, valued recently at $1.5 billion. Mathrubootham, though, has shifted base from Chennai to Silicon Valley even as his company gears up for the Nasdaq IPO. And Chennai has become a hotbed of software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups.
There are an estimated 600-plus of them buzzing around in the city with Mathrubootham playing its biggest cheerleader. Besides the current unicorns Zoho and Freshworks, Zinnov forecasts that Chennai could see the emergence of seven more unicorns in the next five years, including Uniphore, Mad Street Den, ChargeBee and Crayon Data. With 15,000 employees, SaaS revenue from Chennai has touched $1 billion with $500 million of funding. “SaaS offers a $1 trillion opportunity for India. We will lead that wave,” says Suresh Sambandam, cofounder, OrangeScape, who along with Mathrubootham has been working passionately to nurture Chennai’s startup ecosystem.
This article was originally published in Economic Times. You can read the complete article here.