Sridhar Vembu founded AdventNet with his siblings and Tony Thomas, in Pleasanton, California in 1996 to make software products at a time when IT services were the rage. AdventNet acquired the Zoho.com domain in 2002 and morphed into Zoho Corp in 2009 to reflect the transition from a software company serving network equipment vendors to an innovative online applications provider.
Headquartered in Chennai, Zoho has over 60 million users worldwide and counts Whirlpool, Ola, Xiaomi, Levi’s, Amazon, Philips, and Zomato among its clientele. According to Friday Magazine, an online publication, the company continues to be bootstrapped but commands a valuation of nearly $1 billion.
Vembu graduated out of IIT Madras in 1989, completed a Ph.D. in Princeton, and started working as a wireless systems engineer at Qualcomm. After two years, he co-founded AdventNet with two of his brothers and three friends. At the time of launching his company, he noted that in spite of having a number of talent, India never produces any software products. He felt that in order to be economically advanced, India should start producing software and take up complex tasks. Vembu moved to the US in 1997 to build sales and marketing for Adventnet. However, product development and product management for them were always based in India. They kept building the products out of India from their early days and build these complex technologies from India. This was the differentiating factor between other companies and Zoho Corp.
Zoho university was formed in 2004 and later known as Zoho Schools with an aim to train and onboard students with skillsets and abilities. Students of this university receive a free-of-cost education and are provided with a stipend of ₹10,000 throughout the tenure of their two-year course. The university focuses on the eagerness to learn than their previous skills. The Zoho School was started with six students and two professors but today more than 800 students have graduated from these schools and are employed with Zoho Corp. Out of the 9,300 employees of Zoho Corp, 875 are students from Zoho Schools. 15 to 20 percent of their engineers do not have any engineering degree. They are all trained in-house. Zoho Schools that are going all digital now have allowed them to bypass colleges and secure a decent livelihood.
Zoho is now able to provide cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) solutions and more than 40 apps foronline accounting, human resource and inventory management, and more. Their products likeZoho Desk, acustomer service software, were built out of the Mathalamparai office, as Vembu believes that we need not to be in the urban hubs to develop world-class products. His vision encouraged more people and facilities to shift to villages as the tier 1 cities already started to face major challenges. The pandemic and the phase of all digital where people moving to their hometowns aided up to this belief of Zoho founder.
The 54-year-old entrepreneur moved to Mathalamparai, a nondescript village near Tenkasi, in 2019. From Tenkasi the company has built advanced products like Zoho Desk.Zoho has earned its reputation of being the first software product unicorn. Forbes valued Vembu’s 88 percent stake at $1.83 billionin 2019. In the same year, Zoho reported profits of ₹516 cr. on total revenue of ₹3,410 crores. The company recently has 50 million users globally for its apps. The most recent of which was launched before the Covidpandemic and is suitably called Zoho Remotely.
Nine years ago his company purchased 4 acres of land in Mathalamparai village that is 650 km away from Chennai to begin operations from the village. Vembu’s days begin at 4 am when he completes calls to the US offices and goes for a long walk or swim in the village well at 6 am. Strict to his village life routine, Venbu goes for a walk in the morning and evening and keeps his gadgets turned off for a few hours, as he interacts with villagers and enjoys village ponds and creeks, teaches in Zoho schools, and rides an electric auto-rickshaw during that time. Vembu steps out to the fields to grow paddy, vegetables like brinjal, okra, and tomato, and fruits such as mango, coconut, and watermelon.
Presently, Zoho has two rural offices in Tenkasi and Renigunta in Andhra Pradesh with 500 of its 9,300 employees globally working out of these. The company has a larger plan of its 8,800 India-based employees working out of non-urban India.
Sridhar Vembu said in an interview that his motivations to go rural are two-fold: “One, I want my employees to live in these villages because it brings a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas. Once some high-earning people come in, they bring in good and bad habits.” The mentoring and coaching of the staff can be done in the city and they can be recruited to work from their own village. With this great idea in mind, Vembu has gradually moved back to his rural and agrarian roots over the past 15 months. He was recently conferred with the Padma Shri award, the fourth highest civilian award in the country, by the Union government, and is appointed as a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).