Sridhar Vembu, founder and CEO, Zoho Corp
Days after being conferred with the Padma Shri, founder and chief executive of software development firm Zoho Corp Sridhar Vembu speaks to Forbes India
about their new instant messaging app Arattai, privacy concerns over WhatsApp and a new school initiative in the village in Tenkasi district (Tamil Nadu). Edited excerpts:
Q. What was your initial reaction when you got to know that you are being honoured with the Padma Shri?
It was a complicated feeling because I'm a little shy about receiving awards like this. To be honest, I have been amply rewarded. The reason why I'm giving back to India is because India has given me so much. But I do accept the award, in humility. There are social workers and others who deserve this type of recognition, because they are selfless servers who have actually given up a lot to serve the country. I'm a business person and that's why I want to give back to India.
Q. Tell us more about Arattai. How will it be different from other messaging apps?
First is the strong emphasis on privacy—that is what Arattai is. Our business model never relies on advertising and that's why we can actually make the commitment. Because something like instant messaging carries your most personal conversations, pretty much all life now happens over instant messaging, and all business too. Arattai came from our technology roots, Zoho Cliq—it's a platform like Slack for internal communications within the company and the same technology is used in Arattai. We are going to have a very strong product because we have the expertise to do this. This app will be formally launched in a couple of months.
Q. What are your expectations from Budget 2021?
I don't actually have a very serious opinion about the Budget because I look at India's challenge primarily as a private sector one, investing in deep technological know-how. We can build factories, projects, but we need the expertise and capital equipment. For example, take textile factories: All the machines are imported. We need the machines, we need to know how to build those machines, because we have the mechanical, electrical, and software engineers, all of the talent we produce. We need to be able to make these machines and that is the challenge India faces. Tweaking the Budget here and there is not the primary reason those are not made. The primary reason is our private sector has to step up and invest. So I am focussed on that problem. That’s the reason I don't have a lot of opinion on the budget, and what the taxes are. India's already reasonably good in terms of our policies. One will always debate if this particular policy is better than the other. But overall, I would say, India is actually a good place to do business today.
Q. How was business for Zoho last year?
Well, we actually did well. Between March and April, there was a little bit of downturn, but we recovered quickly. The rest of the year was better than I would have expected. Honestly, I had prepared our employees for an extended downturn, but we bounced back swiftly. But I always say that also because of the extreme monetary policies around the world, particularly in the US, and trillions of dollars poured into monitoring the financial system that created a recovery… but I do believe that there will be payback for it. So I always caution our employees, in particular, not to overextend themselves, be prepared for an extended downturn.
Q.Last year when the government banned Chinese apps, including CamScanner, Zoho made the paid plan of its Doc Scanner free for Indian users for a year. How many new users did it gain and did you add new features or modify it?
Yes, we have been updating it. And that's actually part of our own Zoho Office Suite as well. We also have a product called Zoho Workbook, which is doing quite well for us and we've been extending it with capabilities like scanning. Anything Zoho launches, we are in it for the long haul. We don't just launch and withdraw from something, and you will see that in Arattai as well. You will see us constantly improving the product. Take, for example, Zoho Meeting: Some years ago, this wasn't as usable, but now, we can conduct meetings like this one. In 2021, Zoho Meeting will make major strides. So that is how we operate… we invest in long term R&D, and our products keep improving.
Q. It’s been more than a year for you in the village in Tenkasi; any new learnings and experiences that you’d like to share?
Yeah, so I've become much more native here. People here have accepted me. In fact, yesterday, one of the villagers told me 'you are one of us now'
. I felt good about it. And that's why these people invited me for Thai Poosam (a festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu). Yesterday when I went for a swim in the local pond, a few kids approached and said, “You have to join us for this temple visit tomorrow at 3 am.” I decided to do it. I woke up at 2:30 am, and wasn't sure if I was going to go. But this morning I went and it was an awesome experience.
Q. How much of your workforce is now working out of villages?
Right now, most of the employees are still working from home. About 15 to 20 percent staff would have returned to our offices… the percentage varies in Chennai, but it is lower. In Tenkasi, it's much higher. About 40 to 50 percent of people have returned to office. We’ve also opened about 15-plus rural centres in India; that number is changing, because we are adding constantly. We also just opened one office in rural Texas (United States), and will soon be opening more offices in rural US. We have done the same in rural Germany as well. We’re going rural everywhere!
Q. According to you how will US President Joe Biden’s presidency benefit India?
Things like ‘Are Democrats or Republicans better for India?’—it doesn’t work that way. India and the US are very large countries; the US needs India and vice versa. So regardless of who is president, that partnership should endure. That's what I believe. And the substantial number of Indians living in the US are an indispensable part of American culture. Similarly, American investment has been very crucial for India too. I'm sure Joe Biden will continue to build a stronger relationship between India and the US.
Q. Tell us more about your school initiative in the village at Tenkasi?
We started a school—it's not like I moved in with a plan that I will start a school. I arrived just to live in the village and experience life and make plans for long term over time. Then the school happened, due to the pandemic… the kids were around and they weren't going to school. There's no concept of Zoom classes for village kids, because most of them don't have computers or even smartphones and no broadband connection. There is no real possibility of online classes. So they had no classes. I invited them to come to my place and decided to teach them during my spare time. That's how it started. Later on, it ballooned from three to 10 kids and those 10 brought more kids. At one point I realised there's a huge demand and I didn’t know what should we do, because I'm not very good at managing kids. Fortunately, some of my colleagues stepped up and now we have a very good professional setup and 120 kids are enrolled. We keep innovating our teaching methods and don’t give them any homework. The kids are enjoying so much that they ask us to keep the schools open on Sundays as well and I tell them that we teachers need a break from you (laughs).