Zoho may not be a household name right now, but the software as a service company aims to change that.
The privately held Austin, Texas-based company (with international headquarters in Chennai, India), currently provides service to more than 20 million customers worldwide from ten datacentres globally. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the opening of its Canadian datacentre until early 2021, the company still boasts more than 20,000 Canadian customers. Its portfolio includes over 45 applications spanning all business needs (its newest offering is a small business-oriented CRM solution called Bigin), including the Remotely suite of 11 productivity and collaboration apps designed to help businesses transition to remote working. Remotely, created to assist during the pandemic, is free until September 1, 2020.
To further assist small businesses Zoho has offered an emergency subscription waiver program: customers with fewer than 25 employees could apply to have their fees forgiven for three months. Zoho says 750 Canadians took advantage of the offer.
“When the pandemic struck we desired to extend this particularly to small and midsize businesses because that’s where we saw significant pain coming,” explained Zoho founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu, speaking from his farm in south India. “And we are giving three months of free subscription. We’ve actually decided to extend the program a little bit so that customers can get back on their feet. These are all existing customers who have been paying us for a year or more. They continued to use the product, continue to be customers, we give support for it, but they don’t have to pay us, so that was the arrangement.”
Interestingly, added LSP Chandrasekhar (known simply as LSP), Zoho’s Canadian evangelist, some of the customers who had accepted the waiver resumed paying after a month or so and told Zoho to offer it to others in greater need after they realized their businesses were OK.
Zoho, like other businesses, also had to cope with the new world of work from home itself. All of its products, with the exception of development tools, were cloud-based, allowing most of its employees to make the transition easily. Vembu noted that it only took a few days to migrate the dev tools to the cloud as well.
“So now 100 per cent of our work happens in the cloud,” he said, adding that Zoho has always gravitated to smaller centres for its offices, and intends to continue doing so. “As a company, we’ve always had a rural flavour,” he said. “I moved to this farm in September of 2019. A lot of people ask me whether it was the plan for me to be here during the pandemic. It wasn’t actually; I moved here well before it. And then the pandemic struck and a lot of things changed. But we were already planning to expand our rural offerings.” He described this philosophy as transnational localism: thinking globally in terms of strategy and philosophy but applying them in a local context very close to the customer.
Zoho already had plans to establish not only data centres, but local customer support and product customization centers around the world, he said, and the pandemic has simply accelerated those plans. The company is currently scouting for locations in smaller towns.
Vembu is a firm believer in rural life. “I believe that is exactly what the world needs right now,” he said. “Staying out of debt, living in smaller towns, conserving your capital, having quality of life along with lower cost of living. And all these are well served by this thing, and the technology enables you to get work done.” And he doesn’t agree with companies that lower salaries for people living in smaller centres if they choose to work from home.
“We are encouraging people to move to rural and pocket the savings because we want our employees to build up savings. So that is why we pay the same, but they lower their cost of living by moving to a rural location,” he said. “I’ve encouraged the employees all along; even before the pandemic, I said a major crisis the world faces is the debt crisis. And so, personally avoiding debt and being frugal and being careful with finances is a good way to be long term, and when the pandemic struck actually that proved to be very prescient.”
Vembu’s stand on privacy is uncompromising as well. For over 15 years, he has refused to put ads in Zoho’s free products.
“If you have a free product, you offer a free product that’s genuinely free, not a privacy-violating free,” he insisted. And a couple of years ago, Zoho removed all third-party trackers from its web sites and mobile apps. “The latest Safari has now enabled you to see all the trackers that are active on your pages,” he noted. “And Zoho is the only tech company you’ll see with zero third-party trackers.