The SaaS market presents a complex challenge for companies striving for sustained growth, requiring careful consideration of many strategies. Embracing full decision-making autonomy to concentrate on product and service development might be a viable – albeit challenging – one to consider.
Zoho, an extensive suite of online productivity tools designed to streamline business management, collaboration, and process automation, has been successfully navigating this path for over 25 years.
In our interview with Tejas Gadhia, Head Evangelist of Zoho's developer platform, we underscore the significance of remaining autonomous, prioritizing long-term stability over immediate gains, and cultivating customer trust through transparent practices.
Tejas Gadhia is the Head Evangelist of Zoho's developer platform, focusing on empowering developers to leverage Zoho's technology. Before Zoho, he played a significant role as the National Director of Communications at Delta Epsilon Psi Fraternity and worked at Apple as an AOS Business Accounts Manager.
Spotlight: Zoho was born from a simple idea: "Build smart technology to help businesses work better." How did this idea grow into your all-in-one software platform?
Tejas: Zoho One, or the "Operating System for Business", is the natural progression of a company founded by engineers whose roots are in research and development.
Rather than building one or a handful of solutions targeting a specific team or business process, because that's where the market appeared to be moving at the time, Zoho's mission from the outset has been to build in as many areas that consistently add value to customers. Over decades, Zoho's development efforts produced over 50 connected applications and countless deep services.
Offering all of that on one unified platform is something no other vendor could do, but we never built applications specifically to round out Zoho One. It happened organically.
Can you tell us how Zoho differentiates itself in a crowded market of business software solutions?
Zoho differentiates itself in a crowded market of business software solutions in two key ways:
- High-value products: Zoho offers high-value products at a fraction of the cost of its competitors. This is because Zoho is bootstrapped and does not have to answer to shareholders, which allows it to focus on long-term growth and customer satisfaction.
- Long-term thinking: Zoho is focused on long-term growth and sustainability. This means that Zoho invests heavily in research and development to ensure that its products are always ahead of the curve. It also means that Zoho is not afraid to make tough decisions that are in the best interests of its customers and employees.
Zoho's differentiation has helped it to weather the current economic downturn better than many of its competitors. Zoho's focus on customer value and long-term growth has allowed it to continue to invest in its products and services, even as other companies have been forced to cut back.
Zoho has existed for 25 years without seeking external investment. Why did the company decide on this approach, and how did it affect your growth strategy?
The short answer is that without full decision-making autonomy, Zoho wouldn't be able to focus on product and service development. It would be much harder to break into the SaaS market without outside capital today, but 27 years ago, the field was far less crowded, and the industry had yet to establish a playbook for how to build and grow a tech company.
Outside investors, or shareholders of public companies, prioritize gaining the biggest and fastest return. They're all about maximizing revenue for themselves, and not thinking about their customers. That doesn't come as a surprise, because they don't generally answer to their customers, or their employees, but instead to shareholders. As a company that has been bootstrapped since day one, has never taken any external funding, and has no intention of ever going public, we only answer to employees and customers.
We have to run a healthy business ourselves before we can offer solutions for others. That means running a cash flow-positive business, not overspending on sales, marketing, and administration costs, and instead continuously re-investing in research and development to make our products better. Zoho also runs on Zoho, meaning its 15,000 employees are daily using, testing, and improving the company's products and services.
At the same time, we have to think about the long term. Just as we've seen an explosion of B2B software in the past decade, we've now seen a lot of companies struggling to survive given the current macroeconomic conditions. When an organization invests in business software, it's not a simple exchange of money for software. There is a symbiotic relationship that is formed between the vendor and the customer.
The vendor has a responsibility to offer a product that improves the customer's business. In exchange, if the customer's business grows, they'll inevitably invest more in the solutions offered by the vendor. That allows the vendor to reinvest that revenue into more R&D to make the product better or develop new products, which in turn helps customers. It's a continuous cycle.
Zoho prioritizes research and development over sales and marketing. Can you explain the reasoning behind this approach?
Marketing doesn't bring value to customers. In certain instances, marketing does bring awareness to customers about a company or its products, and for that reason, Zoho does do some marketing. But again, Zoho's defining strength is its prolific product development.
Combine that with the fact that Zoho owns its entire technology stack, and the company is in a rare position to go to market quickly with new products and services at a price that is unmatched by competitors. This all comes together in a broad and deep technology portfolio that offers businesses differentiated value.
It's not that Zoho sells itself, though that would be wonderful, but it offers enough standout upside to yield consistent, long-term growth and customer loyalty that the company can afford to spend less on sales and marketing.
Zoho’s approach to privacy is rare in today’s world - you don’t show ads within your products, and you prohibit third-party trackers from operating on your websites. Can you share advice to potential companies looking to follow a similar path?
Generating money from user data is easy and high margin, which makes it very tempting. There's a lot of companies can do to justify the sale/transfer/sharing of data to "improve customer experience," but right now, they're under no obligation to protect user privacy.
Any company willing to put forth an honest effort to ensure the privacy of their customers will be leaving money on the table. Therefore, if organizations want to follow a similar path, they'll need to make sure their business model is sustainable without the revenue gained from selling user data or from targeted advertising.
It can certainly be done, and legislation could force an end to tracking altogether, so Zoho commends any other business that truly values privacy and is proactive about protecting it.
As a company, you want to help stimulate local economic revitalization by stepping away from the "mega-office" model. Was this direction inspired by the effects of the pandemic on remote work?
We've had the idea for several years now. In the US, our first big office was in Pleasanton, California, about an hour east of San Francisco. We wanted to be further from the city to have more space, provide a better cost of living for employees, and cut down on time spent in traffic every day.
In 2011 we opened an office in Austin and planned to expand heavily there in an attempt to get even further away from the Bay Area, and the issues that come with it. The Austin office ended up growing over a decade from 3-4 people to over 100.
Before the pandemic, Zoho purchased a large plot of farmland on the far outskirts of Austin, again outside the financial and congestive issues that have developed in the city. Rather than build a large Zoho campus on the land, the company elected to convert existing structures, including a farmhouse and two barns, into workspaces. As Zoho's presence in Texas matured, the company chose to develop new smaller offices in rural, small city areas in the state, including New Braunfels and McAllen.
Zoho has adopted a hub and spoke growth and expansion model around the world and today the company has 75 global offices. Zoho's expansion in Texas, as well as around the world, has been an evolving process wherein decisions are contingent on proximity to customers and providing a good quality of life for employees.
What role do AI and machine learning play in Zoho’s current and future offerings?
Zoho has invested years in developing and improving its private, in-house AI engine and virtual assistant, Zia. The goal is for Zia to enhance every single application within Zoho's portfolio.
Looking ahead, Zoho's challenge is to balance AI power and performance with the company's commitment to privacy. For instance, we know that models get better with more data to analyze, and yet we've been able to advance Zia using public datasets and the like to ensure that privacy.
We also approach AI practically, emphasizing functionality and business use cases rather than promoting a gimmick or a promise. We are building for AI assistance, not employee replacement.
Right now, AI is primarily reactive, but the future and Zoho's efforts are to unlock proactive AI actions. For example, sentiment analysis and generative content creation occur in real-time as a person writes a sales email, and not after.
Context is key, too. Because we make the entire business operating system, we can provide context across apps and silos. We have this advantage by design, and AI & ML are the mechanisms to deliver it.
Can you share some of the common mistakes businesses make when choosing and implementing a software suite, and how does Zoho mitigate these issues?
- Some businesses approach SaaS and subscription licensing with the understanding that it gets better over time automatically, but solution development comes when the vendor chooses if they choose to improve the offering at all.
- Customers often fall for the flash, whether it's big production events, celebrity endorsements, or stadium billboards. Every dollar spent to name an arena is a dollar not spent on serving the customer or improving the product. This is why I would caution buyers to base technology decisions on what's offered by the vendor today, not what's planned down the road or advertised in flashing lights.
- Choosing a product or vendor is a long-term commitment, so like any relationship, there needs to be a foundation of respect and trust. Buyers should do their homework, looking to align their priorities with those of their prospective provider. Look out for the health of the company, recent mergers and acquisitions, and what core functionalities and capabilities are developed in-house as opposed to bought or repackaged.
How do you see business software solutions evolving in the future, and how is Zoho preparing to meet those changes?
We continue to see market consolidation and product commodification. Funding has slowed, which means the barrier of entry for new companies is incredibly high, dropping the probability there will be new challengers to industry giants.
Those giants, however, will see increased costs associated with running in-demand, on-demand technology at scale, including but not limited to generative AI. Zoho, as discussed earlier, is private, bootstrapped, and generally avoids acquisitions, preferring to build up and out in-house, all of which insulates the company from these external factors.
Zoho will continue to build new technology with a close eye on privacy. Its ongoing development of large language models (LLMs), which can be leveraged to offer generative AI without endangering user data, is one example.
In general, the company remains focused on researching and developing solutions to create better customer outcomes and bring value to businesses on their terms.