SaaS provider Zoho held their 2020 Analyst Day at their new US hometown of Austin, Texas January 29-31st. If you don’t know Zoho, think of them as an Austin, Texas for the tech industry. It is definitely not weird, but the culture is unique, and in several respects out of the mainstream of most significant technology firms. It is no surprise that Zoho has chosen Austin as the site of the largest US campus for the firm.
What makes Zoho unique? It is privately held, and resolutely so. It is based in Chennai, operates on all continents without a direct presence in more than just a few countries. Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu is also profoundly committed to firstly, improving the Southern Indian community that he has made his home, and then loftier goals. He seeks to empower local communities furthermore through innovation, such as the cloud, carries a lot of different tools to build and support a community.
The employees at Zoho love it and know they work at an Austin in the tech world. When I asked CEO Sridhar Vembu what the one single aspect of the culture that he would never give up, he mentioned how managers treat their employees. That approach is much more realistic in a privately held company than one tied to the whims of the listed capital markets. The ambition stretches beyond the current position as a challenger to larger vendors and a key player in the small to mid-sized market.
It is also easy to forget that Zoho also has some products, in fact, a lot. From payroll to customer experience and AI and accounting. Customers can acquire Zoho products individually, with CRM being the mainstay, or packaged up as Zoho One; a single portal to all that Zoho has to offer. The growth in both customers and product depth in Zoho One has been exceptional. Soho One has over 40 products within the umbrella suite.
From the perspective of data centres and data privacy, Zoho has a unique take. It doesn’t locate with the global cloud providers, e.g. AWS and Google. Instead, it operates 10 data centres of its own, with Australia’s pair the two most recently announced. It is differentiating on this point with the perspective that the client’s data is their own. It cannot and will not sell that data or sell access to it. This is incredibly important, particularly in light of the Google et al. approach to data privacy. Given the track record of consistency of the overall Zoho approach, it is one that would be anticipated to be maintained without fear or favour as core to the culture.
Zoho is a great success story but not perfect. No vendor is. It has been slow to move to the mid-market. It needs to both accelerate a presence in the market as well as to build out a more partner orientated integration ecosystem to enable the growth and the integration of the Zoho product set for the mid-market, before any consideration for larger enterprises. It can learn from the foe that is Salesforce to an extent for this. It has made a few growth missteps in some key markets but has an awareness of this, so can act upon it. The product suite is robust and deep, but losing focus on breadth and depth would make it a thin veneer, again, something that it is looking to avoid.
Zoho is a fascinating and capable provider, and part of an increasingly strong Chennai SaaS ecosystem. It’s most substantial differentiation is arguably the culture that it exudes for both customers and employees. It is building out and undeniably strong portfolio for the mid-market, with longer-term aspiration and capability. Work is needed here, and it will not fly below the radar forever if it is to succeed.