Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Suresh Sambandam's long march to success at SaaS company Kissflow

After almost 20 years, this entrepreneur has set himself up for the bigger leagues

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Feb 20, 2023 04:26:29 PM IST
Updated: Feb 22, 2023 12:47:58 PM IST

Suresh Sambandam, Founder and CEO, Orangescape TechnologiesSuresh Sambandam, Founder and CEO, Orangescape Technologies
There was at least one time when Suresh Sambandam came pretty close to shutting shop at Kissflow, where he is founder and CEO, but the universe had other plans for him. Grown-up life started early for this entrepreneur, who had to put college on hold to help resolve a crisis at his father’s business.

Eventually, he never went to college, he says, but, with a serious interest in computers, started his own small training centre of sorts with four computers. He was around 19 then, in his hometown Cuddalore, which is some four hours by car down the coast from Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

“I thought it was a business, at the time, but it was more like fun, and it gave me all the computers to play with,” he says.

Over the next six-odd years, he taught himself enough software and tech to land himself a job at Hewlett Packard (HP) in Bengaluru. This effort included putting down Rs5,000 for a three-day course in Chennai, offered by a private institute. “That’s like spending Rs50,000 today,” he says.

And mastering tomes on software like dBase, paying the rupee equivalent of $40 or so for a textbook on the subject, biking up to nearby Puducherry for it as there was “no bookstore in Cuddalore” that would stock such books.

At HP, he stayed for a bit over three years and played a part in building a fraud-detection solution for a big client—Vodafone. In the process, he also authored some patents—he has three US patents to his credit.

Later, at another company, Silicon Valley-based Determine (back then it was called Selectica), Sambandam was leading his own team when the insurance software unit that he was part of, was acquired by Accenture. And instead of joining the large tech services company, in 2003, it was time for him to start out on his own.

Suresh Sambandam, Founder and CEO, Orangescape TechnologiesSerious entrepreneurial success would elude him for another 15 years, but the journey’s never been boring, he says.

Kissflow started as OrangeScape Technologies in India. The original idea was to build a low-code, no-code platform. Now there is also Kissflow Inc., the US-based business that was incorporated in 2012.

“The market was ready in 2014, but we started (OrangeScape), like, a decade earlier. We were trying to tell people, ‘boss, you need something like this,’ and people were totally not getting it. We were too much ahead of time,” he says.

Therefore, they decided to change, and built a workflow software, around 2010, and developed it over the next five or six years, when the low-code wave caught up with them, he says. They worked their way back into the low-code business, where Sambamdam reckons, this time, they were a couple of years late.

Let’s explain the workflow part of it first, which remains one of three important parts of Kissflow today. Once a company has hit something like say 500 employees or more, what Kissflow offers becomes relevant, Sanbamdam says. This is because, typically, in larger companies, customer-facing software, such as a CRM [customer relationship management] system, or business management backend software, such as an ERP software package, are well known and established.

“But the middle-office systems will not be there,” he says. Middle office systems and processes are a bit more unique to each company and Kissflow helps businesses to automate some of it easily—a reimbursement application is a simple example.

For example, Bank of the Philippine Islands, with some 18,000 employees, is a customer of Kissflow. Between the bank’s internet banking system and its core banking software, say an executive has to approve a loan of $1 million to a business and approve an overdraft. Previously that would have been on email, typically. Today such processes get automated with software applications built using Kissflow.

Today, Kissflow’s 400 employees service 10,000 business customers in 160 countries. Of these customers, about 1,500 are paying customers, and while Kissflow has stopped its free plans, it’s still serving its legacy users, he says.

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Most of Kissflow’s staff are in Chennai, but also in other Indian cities including Bengaluru and other metros, and “we have a solid presence in the US,” he says. The company also has “physical presence” in Dubai and Philippines.

Some of the biggest corporations in the world use Kissflow, including PepsiCo, Michelin Tyres, World Vision, various oil and gas companies, large banks, manufacturers and healthcare providers. “It is industry-agnostic software,” Sambandam points out.

 Cloud computing taking off and becoming mainstream helped, he says.

And adoption of low code software took off in 2017, he says. In simplistic terms, low-code software offers IT professionals within large enterprises a way to quickly put together applications for various users.

No-code solutions, on the other hand, is aimed at the “power user” among business professionals, who aren’t software engineers or coders, but often need some quick automations. For example, think of a finance head, who would like an automated process for various approvals that comes across her desk and imagine if all that has to happen on email—you get the picture.

Low-code and no-code solutions take such information out of the individual siloed email inboxes and centralise them where all those who need it can be easily give access to it. That’s one of the benefits. Better collaboration is another. And when data gets centralised, it can be analysed and that’s a third benefit.

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Today, Kissflow offers, in addition to the workflow software, solutions for what is called case management and application management.

“Kissflow started with the middle piece and then we added both the case and the apps. It naturally fit into our expansion strategy. We had one piece, now we have all the three pieces,” Sambandam says.

Low code and no code solutions today are where CRM software was several years ago, he says.

“The market for low-code, no-code, and intelligent developer technologies continues to see strong demand from both professional and non-technical developers,” market researcher IDC said in a press release in January. IDC estimates this market to grow to $21 billion in 2026 with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 17.8 percent from 2021 to 2026.
“We are doing some cool stuff,” Sambandam says. For example, Kissflow already offers some of the “scaffolding” that can support snippets of code generated by ChatGPT – the generative AI software from OpenAI that has gone viral for its ability to mimic humans, although its shortcomings are also now surfacing.

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The significance, he explains, is that code generated by ChatGPT probably won’t just go into production, meaning commercial use. However, it can go straight into an existing software environment provided by Kissflow or other such software vendors.

Sambandam declined to provide a number for the company’s revenues and added that in the year ahead, he expects revenue to increase at least 70 percent, while the ambition is to double it from current levels. Over the last 3-4 years, the company has generated enough “excess cashflow” to fund its plans, he says.

Kissflow raised $1 million from VC investors, according to Crunchbase. Sambandam says that today, the company is “totally privately owned with no external investors at this point in time.”

Outside Kissflow, Sambandam is also seen as an important figure in developing the Indian SaaS ecosystem, including as a founder of the SaaSBOOMi community. He says he voiced the idea first that the SaaS sector in India can become a trillion-dollar sector, some four years ago.

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Avinash Raghava, another important SaaSBOOMi figure, last year, described Sambamdam as the ‘monk who bought BMWs for his team’ – perhaps inspired by the title of the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

This was after Sambandam bought five BMW sedans to reward long-standing employees. He was himself driving a second-hand car, Raghava pointed out at the time, in his post on Medium.

Of course, all journeys have their low points too. For Sambandam, the nadir was when a co-founder left, some 10 years ago after a bad spat, he recalled himself, in a podcast interview commissioned by SaaSBOOMi, which was published May in 2020. He offers more details in that interview, but in the end, it took him about six months to stabilise the company and get it back to growth.

Today he has more cheerful ambitions. In three-five years, he wants to see Kissflow as a $100 million revenue company. To that end, he has hired executives from companies like IBM and Salesforce and other well-known software companies. He also wants Kissflow to be among the top three vendors in its category.

In soft drinks, there are Pepsi and Coke, in shoes, Adidas and Nike, and in smartphones, Apple and Android. “So eventually it is down to two brands. I want to be one of those two brands in the low code market,” he says.