Reflections for the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and big thinkers

- May 21, 2021 4 MIN READ

As Zoho clocks up a quarter of a century in business, Chief Strategy Officer Vijay Sundaram shares his reflections and advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Starting a business is a daunting task; one which requires courage, drive and tenacity. In Australia, almost 1,000 companies are founded every day but 20% fail in their first year and 60% within their first three years. There are some obstacles that businesses in every industry face, and other challenges that are specific to particular industries. Whatever they are, though, businesses must find ways to innovate and overcome to succeed – particularly today while faced with an extraordinary challenge. 

It’s a popular theory that innovation thrives during periods of global turmoil. Uber, AirBnb, Square and WhatsApp are just a few industry-leading global businesses born during the 2008 global financial crisis. Like then, the circumstances we’re battling today present challenges, but will also catalyse a new wave of innovation and business evolution. Indeed, data from ASICs shows that business registrations in Australia are 25 per cent higher than the seven-year average.

So as new technology startups take their first steps, we wanted to reflect on and share our own learnings, as Zoho celebrates the 25th anniversary of its own bold, bootstrapped first steps.

Culture and values

Contrary to popular belief, the most important part of a business is not what it does; but why it does it, how it does it, and the people behind it. Technology comes and goes, but people, culture, and values define a business. We’ve learned to be flexible in our products and technology offerings, but to never compromise in our commitment to our workforce and their values. If we lose our people, we’ve lost our identity as a company.

Before you get stuck into the nitty gritty, devise a big-picture mission that underpins everything you do. For us, it’s regional empowerment. In Australia, we’re based not in Sydney or Melbourne, but in southern Queensland, and globally we’ve opened offices in small towns and rural areas throughout India, the United States, and Canada, with plans to expand in Europe and Asia next. It’s allowed us to build roots in non-metro areas, be a part of the communities in which we’re based, and provide opportunities to those who might not otherwise have had them. Talent, after all, is universal, but opportunity is not.

Employee experience

As workplaces change and previously peripheral skills become more sought-after, a more nuanced, flexible approach to hiring becomes necessary. When hiring staff, culture, fit and enthusiasm are more important than credentials. By not deeming university degrees essential, we have opened ourselves up to a diverse global talent pool that enriches the company’s culture and way of thinking. And whoever you hire, don’t define them by their title. We’ve found, and you may too, that sometimes the most innovative ideas come from the most unexpected people.

As your business grows and evolves, don’t lose sight of the important things. Rapid scaling may sound exciting, but can be unsustainable. Be considered and deliberate. We’ve been bootstrapped since day one, and that’s allowed us to sustain during change, competition and uncertainty without compromising what’s important: our culture, our employees and our customers.

Technology and tactics

When it comes to your goals, be patient, and try to refrain from setting too many lofty goals – like Unicorn status or market monopolies – too soon. It gives you little-to-no flexibility, the most important business characteristic today. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your business plan if the situation demands it. Zoho wouldn’t be the company it is today had our leadership not remained flexible and adaptive.

The technology industry is fast-paced and cut-throat, but those that stand the test of time are those who do so at a sustainable pace. Buy is faster than build, but it’s not always better. Building in-house has allowed us to keep costs low for customers, expand our workforce, and differentiate ourselves from competitors. We build and own every level of the technology stack and this has made creating and integrating new products easier, more cost-effective and more customer-centric.

It may sound counter-intuitive, idealistic and easier said than done, but leave money on the table. Keep prices low, add services and capabilities for free, and cater to customers not investors. We could charge more, but we’d rather 10 customers pay $1 for something than one customer pay $10. That approach incentivises loyalty and democratises what we offer. For us, that’s more valuable than any one sale.

Whatever you’re creating, don’t compromise when it comes to data privacy. We omit third-party trackers from all of our software because we value customer data privacy. If it’s important to them, it’s important to us. And, when it comes to reinvesting your money, do so with development, not dollars, in mind. By investing heavily in R&D rather than marketing we’re building a vision and an offering that sells itself.

If the last 15 months have taught us anything, it’s the importance of adaptability and trust, culture and conviction. Those – along with learning from our mistakes and leaning on are values – have served Zoho well over the last 25 years. As the next generation of Australian innovators, entrepreneurs and big-thinkers embark on their journey, it could be lessons they heed too.

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