Just before Covid, Zoho’s co-founder Sridhar Vembu, in November 2019, decided to shift his base from the concrete jungle of San Francisco to the lush green Mathalamparai village of Tenkasi in Tamil Nadu at the foothills of the picturesque Western Ghats. This was to chase his passion for rural revival with technology as the key enabler.

The pandemic came as a blessing as Vembu ran the $1-billion-plus company from his rural home without any disruption.

Thanks to his efforts, there is now a social transformation in smaller towns, including Tenkasi and Madurai, with the company setting up centres to work on ‘cutting edge’ technology and rolling out products for the global markets. He wants to replicate the model across India. Looking at the success of Zoho, other companies are also trying to follow his model.

It’s been a long journey for Vembu, who won the 2018 businessline Changemaker Award for social transformation. 

‘Transnational localism’

Vembu started Zoho Corp in 1996 with a dream to build a software product company from India back when services companies were the norm. The company took the approach of “transnational localism”, a growth strategy of staying locally rooted via an on-ground presence while being globally connected through shared culture and knowledge.

Since 2020, as part of this strategy, Zoho has adopted a hub-and-spoke work model and opened over 25 satellite offices in tier 2 and 3 towns and villages across India with a view to growing with the community as well as providing a better quality of life for its employees. The company follows a people-first approach and has 12,000 employees, globally.

Breaking barriers

Vembu believes in challenging norms and breaking barriers, especially in the field of technology. This reflects in Zoho’s product philosophy, that value-driven software can be built from anywhere if there is engineering focus backed by long-term R&D. In 2020, five Zoho applications won in the Office and Business categories of the Atmanirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge: Zoho Cliq, Zoho Workplace, Zoho Invoice, Zoho Expense and Zoho Books.

The period from 2021-23 saw Zoho evolving into a technology company offering comprehensive digital solutions for businesses of all sizes, from large enterprises to SMBs.

Vembu was conferred the Padma Shri in the trade and industry category in 2021, just as Zoho completed 25 years of building robust business solutions from India. Under Vembu’s guidance and conviction for R&D-led development, the company’s cloud portfolio became 55-plus products strong, all built in India ground up, on the same technology stack that’s entirely Zoho-owned.

Products such as Zoho One, Zoho CRM and Zoho People offer solutions for diverse business needs from sales, marketing, and customer experience to HR, finance, employee productivity, and enterprise collaboration. More than 90 million users over six lakh businesses in 150-plus nations use Zoho’s cloud services today.

Zoho recently announced a three-year 65 per cent CAGR in India within the mid-market and enterprise segment, with many large companies in its clientele such as Axis Finance, Samsonite, BigBasket, Tata Play Fiber, Mercedes-Benz India, among others.

With its employees at the forefront even during turbulent economic times, the company aspires to stay rooted to its ideals and grow along with its key stakeholders and communities. Zoho’s innovation and R&D-driven outlook will underpin the company’s efforts towards digitally empowering small businesses as they grow while helping larger enterprises with their complex transformation needs.

For over two decades, Vembu’s strongest determination was to stay private, which has given him freedom. For example, during the downturn, Vembu was willing to suffer an erosion in profitability and even slow growth so that Zoho could protect its employees and not lay off people. This is the kind of choice that public companies and deeply funded firms cannot easily make, he says.