Why launch a company and dive back into the trenches all over again, after having launched a slew of successful businesses? Why decide to cofound with each other? Why choose employee service delivery as the core problem to solve for? What are our thoughts on the economic slowdown and how does it impact our plans?
I sat down for an evening Teams call and asked Atomicwork cofounders about everything that transpired to bring them to this point. Read on.
On starting up again
A lot of people ask me if I’m crazy to start up again. And I understand where they’re coming from. Startups are painful, especially in the initial days. There is too much work, too many unknowns. You have to raise funds, assemble a team, and iterate on ideas – most of which won’t work out, so you go back to the drawing board and refine them, again and again. The first couple of years is generally depressing for founders.
Adding to that, when we started our earlier companies, there was inherent stress involved. With this venture, though, we are enjoying the journey more than we have before. Even though there is a certain level of stress, there is a lot of conscious joy this time around. Earlier, we were always looking for milestones to celebrate, and now we don’t.
At the core, all three of us enjoy the Zero-to-One journey and it feels like a no-brainer to do it again.
When we started Freshdesk, I wasn’t as confident and aspirational – I didn’t know that the company would grow this big or exist for these many years. I had a stressful time for the first seven years at Freshworks, being in product development and reliability engineering. I didn’t have a single weekend off for the entire time. I was more emotional as well. Whenever a customer churned, I used to take it to the heart. Whenever the app went down, I used to think that that was the day we would shut shop and go home for good. I never thought that we would scale so much and build a full-fledged platform company.
Most of what Vijay and Kiran said resonates with me, in terms of ‘why’.
Building a startup is a serious commitment. When we started talking about Atomicwork, I was in a comfortable position in life – I’d proven myself in my career, had built a family and settled down well. Building a startup from scratch at that stage was going to push me right out of that comfort zone.
Apart from that, the three of us have gained considerable experience in building SaaS companies, which puts us in a position where we can share our knowledge and grow the next generation. Building a company from India and delivering its value to the rest of the world has its fair share of pride as well.
On coming together
After Freshworks went IPO, I began thinking about what’s next for us. While I wanted to start up again and give back to the tech community in my own way, I was aware that I needed a co-founder with strong CEO skills, someone who could put together an organization. I was also aware that at this stage in my life, it’s quite hard to find the right match.
I have known Vijay since 2012-2013. We were moving Freshdesk from a PaaS platform to AWS, and a friend referred Minjar, Vijay’s previous company, to help us with the migration. We decided to not go forward with them after a brief conversation. Vijay tried to sell me another one of his products called Simplify, an anomaly detection tool. We didn’t go through with that either.
However, we continued to keep in touch over the years. We also worked together for SaaSBOOMi Build, the engineering conference.
Later, at the Freshworks IPO celebration event, a common friend suggested that I touch base with him. We realised we were thinking along the same lines of starting up again, and began exploring a partnership.
I believe at Freshworks, we were successful mainly because of the quality of the products and how well you can use them. So, I was certain we needed a third co-founder with a solid product background.
Parsu and I worked together briefly in Zoho, then at Freshworks right from the 0th year, and was an obvious choice for me. I reached out to him, and the three of us agreed to band together.
From the beginning, all three of us were clear that we didn’t want to do a three- or four-year stint and get out. We wanted to build a long-term company.
We realized that we were comfortable working with each other and didn’t find any red flags. Only after we made sure that we were compatible and that we could build a company together for multiple decades, did we go to the drawing board and start discussing product ideas.
When we initially met and discussed numerous divergent ideas, I found that we were always trying to zero in on common ground, rather than trying to push for our own ideas to be accepted. To me, that was a big green flag. Despite our different personalities and viewpoints, our interactions were organic and working together felt effortless.
Let me put it like this – we debated, a lot. But we never fought.
That’s a great way to check co-founder compatibility – how strongly someone holds their opinions and how open they are to accept new ones.
When it comes to working with people, I always go with my instincts. If the gut is good, it generally works out.
When looking for a co-founder, I generally look for how grounded they are – you can always dream in grandiose terms, but building a startup is not a cakewalk.
Kiran and I go way back, as he mentioned. We’ve matured together as engineers and as people.
With Vijay, I like how down-to-earth he is – even though he has a vast experience in tech and business, he will never show superiority when you talk to him. I also appreciate his deep empathy towards others.
These aspects made it quite easy for me to decide to team up with them and build something new together.
And I second Parsu – you want to work with people who have ambition but are also humble, who have high aspirations but also operate with common sense.
I also want to touch upon something Kiran had spoken about earlier – about looking for co-founders with complementary skills.
If you’re strong in building products, then you need to team up with someone who can sell them, and vice versa.
If you’re just going to onboard tech people, you’ll keep building features, with nobody around to sell them well. On the other hand, if you only focus on finding salespeople, you won’t have anybody to build the product and it’ll become more like an implementation company. You need people with a balanced set of skills to come together.
On the problem, and the solution
Right from the start, I was firm that we needed to build a platform company, rather than a point-solution company.
After working through a plethora of ideas, we eventually landed on the pain points in an employee’s journey, which soon steered us in the direction of B2B HR tools.
Incidentally, Vijay had written a personal note years ago, around the idea of building a People OS – eerily close to whatever we were discussing in our conversations by this point. And that set the course of our journey together.
When we zeroed in on the Service Delivery space, all three of us got excited. We validated our idea with several people in the industry and that gave us the confidence that we were doing something right.
We felt that the software that employees use at workplaces is legacy and complex. While as customers we prefer smart and state-of-the-art tools, most of the back-office software is outdated and cumbersome.
And with the increasing remote- and hybrid-first work setups, we now use employee delivery software and systems more often than we used to, when working in a physical office. We felt that not much innovation has happened in this space, and there is ample opportunity for us to build modern, frictionless software that would solve the existing challenges.
I consider service delivery as our starting point. Going forward, we want to build software that helps enhance employee experience, improve their productivity, and empower them to work better. That’s the core theme of what we want to work with.
Personally, as well, we disliked most of the HCM and IT service delivery systems that we’d used in the past. Those were core systems for a business – if you take them away you won’t be able to run most of the business processes and can even bring the company to a standstill.
While most of them started out as great products, and some of them are even growing strong to date, over time their complexity started killing the experience. As these companies became bigger, they stopped caring about usability and experience. They only care about process and automation.
Let me give you an example. We used to have a process to file travel requests. And every time you go in to fill one, you have to enter all the details from scratch, even the ones that can be easily fetched from the employee directory (My manager has remained the same for 12 years, and yet I’ll have to fill his name every single time, for 12 years). You’ll have to go through a similar ordeal when you are required to fill out forms for insurance, company goodies, etc.
Even in the case of performance reviews and employee surveys, the level of duplication in those processes truly irks the engineer in me. Those products are so bloated that no employee would want to use them. I see a lot of scope for improvement in this area.
At least 90% of the people we speak to have had an unpleasant experience with internal service tools. They can immediately connect with the problem – one way or the other they would’ve worked on one of these products which would’ve given them a subpar experience.
For instance, in one of the tools that we’d used, the first approval request email would usually go to your junk folder. You’ll have to mark it as not spam for the subsequent emails to reach your main inbox.
Companies choose these products only because they’ve been around for a long time and are what organizations of a certain size are generally known to use. They have set a good precedent because they started years ago, have established themselves, and have stabilized their compliance. But their user experience was designed two to three decades ago and has remained almost the same since.
Sadly, employees aren’t considered first-grade citizens.
And that’s precisely the perspective we need to change. We already see the growing trend of companies treating employees as their first customers.
We want to champion putting your own people first. That means giving them superior workplace designs, workflows, experience, engagement, and tools. In turn, they will help you deliver a superior customer experience and customer success, which will consequently translate to a good business outcome.
20 years ago, we had no good tools for marketing. Over time, marketing went from just running ads to a whole suite of operations. And we needed tools for all of them. When email emerged, we needed new tools for that. When digital marketing emerged, we needed more new tools for that.
Similarly, with the emerging remote and hybrid work culture, there’s a need for better tools and systems to work well in the new environment.
I’d like to quote one of our advisors here. She framed the problem very well.
Two decades ago, enterprise products were the real innovators – the ones primarily meant for internal use. But after a point, they stopped focusing on the experience, while the customer side of things has continued to evolve and overtake.
The catch-up will happen in the next decade. It’ll be a gradual process, but we’ll eventually get there.
On building in an economic slowdown
When we were thinking of starting up, the market was healthy. The market was, in fact, in a hybrid phase. With highly inflated salaries, we were even worried that it would be difficult for us to hire good talent.
Firstly, I believe that economic slowdowns are a great time to build because you can attract the right people who are genuinely interested in working in a startup.
In such an uncertain scenario, unless someone is actually interested to join a startup for the right reasons, they won’t come. And that acts as a great macro-filter in itself.
Secondly, slowdowns are ideal for starting up because startups need a build time of at least a year. And when customers eventually come out of downturn, they tend to look for cost-effective solutions to consolidate their operations and processes. That opens up a lot of opportunities for startups.
So yes, a recession, while it does adversely affect people in a lot of ways, is actually a good time for building startups.
Like Vijay said, recession or not, we would’ve started up anyway. We didn’t really time our decision.
The stock market began falling right when we started recruiting. And this was the first question almost every candidate asked us – “Why start up during a downturn?”. And our answer has always been this.
There’s no right time to start. But I just see an added advantage right now.
When we’re recruiting, we know there’s a slowdown and the candidate has to let go of a fat paycheck and join an early-stage startup. It’s an effective litmus test – if you truly want to work with us then you’re welcome, otherwise if you’re comfortable with your current position you can continue to stick with the big guns. The present economic climate has made it easier for us as well as the candidates in making this decision.
We’ll be seeing startups from experienced and serial founders who’re well-versed in the game. And for first-time founders, the thesis needs to be great, the pitch needs to come together, and the product needs to be superior for VCs to open their pockets.
I’ve personally become more cost-conscious now, both personally as well as professionally. Recession helps people develop a frugal mindset – so they spend only on what is absolutely necessary and hold back from splurging on the rest.
I’m also feeling grateful for our current position. If we had started a year ago, we’d have been trying to sell our product right now in this climate. We would’ve been left struggling to figure out if it were a market problem, a product problem, or a go-to-market problem. It would’ve been incredibly hard to assess and course-correct.
More than anything else, I think we got lucky with the timing.
Now, from a product perspective as well, we’ve started taking the effects of the downturn into account. There are going to be layoffs. Expenses are going to be cut down. How companies manage their employees and what values they want to drive within their organization are also going to change. And we are putting some thought into how all these shifts will impact the employee experience and how we can help make it better.
Generally, in a recession, a lot of companies take measures like reducing the workforce, freezing their hiring, etc., which increases the overall stress level. And most companies get more conscious about reducing friction at work – by reducing the scopes of projects, simplifying processes, and so on. They go the extra mile to enhance the employee experience and boost morale.
So will solutions that help bring people together and help align goals and operations.
One thing we want to drive into our product philosophy is how we showcase the value – the value of productivity that every employee experiences, irrespective of the multiple independent systems they’re working on. And how we can gather that visibility and deliver it to the top management. Productivity will be one of the key value drivers of our product.
An employee experience platform is an integral part of an organization’s system. It’s hard to operate a sizeable business without the right solution, because it has a direct effect on employee productivity, and in turn, the bottom line. Even though there might be churn in terms of the number of users, product churn would be extremely less, especially in bigger companies.
I believe that we are in a great place at the moment. And we hope we continue to be.