The monk who bought BMWs for his team — Suresh Sambandam #JeenaIsiKaNaamHain

Recently, a Chennai-based founder was in the news for gifting 5 high-end BMW sedans to his colleagues — early employees who supported him for ten years through thick and thin.

But there were two things that didn’t get covered in the media around this generous act.

Firstly, the startup in question, Kissflow, is not a VC-fuelled blimp bloated by the largesse of investors — instead it is a company that has tilted at the windmills for more than a decade now competing with much large competitors with meager capital and resources and has achieved business success against great odds.

Second, the founder of Kissflow thought it fit to recognize and reward his colleagues with high-end cars from a fancy brand but is himself content to drive a second-hand car that he bought from a founder friend in Chennai.

Meet Suresh Sambandam.

Let’s raise a toast to today’s #JeenaIsiKaNaamHai protagonist.

Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

I have known Suresh for more than one-and-a-half decades. I first met him in 2006 when I was at NASSCOM staging the Innovation Awards. There were certain challenges that startups were facing while filling their nomination — Suresh was visibly perturbed and not because he was unable to fill his nomination but concerned that others like him would stumble. That gave me an early indication of how community-minded Suresh was.

Over the last fifteen years, the communities that I have shared with Suresh have changed names and brands many times — NASSCOM, iSPIRT, SaaSX, SaasBOOMi, and many others — but throughout this time, two things never changed about Suresh.

The Energizer Bunny — indefatigable energy and passion

The age-old criticism leveled against self-effacing individuals is that “Oh but they have a lot of free time”, and in this case — I am not suggesting that he encountered it — such barbs simply would not stick. At that time he was building Orangescape and like every other founder, for him, time was a limited currency. Later on, he would reinvent the company and re-platform it to what is now a global name in SaaS — Kissflow. Despite these transformations, his enthusiasm to help people hasn’t dimmed.

The brands kept changing. Sometimes it was the NASSCOM Product Conclave, at other times it was Product Nation Growth or SaaSx but he continued to help many founders and share his insights with them. He never shied away from traveling to far-off destinations even during scorching heat or in numbing cold weather while conducting dozens of roundtables where he shared his unvarnished and hard-earned lessons with other founders — lessons that can’t be learned at Ivy schools or from reading blog posts from founders whose world view is colored by experiences that are half a globe away. While many generations of founders learnt valuable lessons from Suresh, our hero himself was humble and self-effacing — insisting that he gained equally from interacting with founders as it fed into his energy resources and made him indefatigable. Suresh’s ability to coalesce communities and pay it forward taught me many lessons as well — I owe him a debt of gratitude in terms of understanding how to deal with multi-layered organizations and getting jobs done without a formal line of control to force deliverables and accountability.

Indian SaaS’ Trillion-Dollar Vision

The second thing that hasn’t changed about Suresh in these past fifteen years is his ability to draw up a grand vision and work tirelessly towards achieving this. At a time when SaaS was largely an unknown commodity in Indian tech circles, Suresh came up with his vision of a “Trillion Dollar Indian SaaS ecosystem”. I use the word “vision” and not the word “dream” intentionally as Suresh didn’t simply come up with a grandiose ambition — he came up with a blueprint that painstakingly chalked out how the Indian SaaS community could get to a trillion dollars in market capitalization. In the recent past, many lauded consulting firms and government agencies have taken inspiration from Suresh’s vision and echoed this trillion dollar ambition. In parallel, Suresh has worked tirelessly at the grassroots level in Tamil Nadu and has not only played a big role in establishing Chennai as the “SaaS capital of India” but in also encouraging young entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds and Tier 2/3 towns to become first-class citizens of this community.

While these two above-mentioned facets of Suresh haven’t changed in the last fifteen years, there are two ways in which he has changed a lot in this period.

Taking the road less traveled

While SaaS in India has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade on all vectors, most notably funding, Suresh has chosen to take a different path. While Suresh did raise a small round of capital early in his journey and he even moved to the US for a while, he soon realized that the path of funding-fuelled growth is not the only way to build a SaaS business and pivoted to a different route of investing time, effort and money to build a platform business that took him to hard-earned success. Suresh also became one of the early believers that you don’t necessarily have to be in the US to build a global SaaS company and has since emerged as a leading voice of the SaaS ecosystem in both Chennai and India.

Now that Kissflow has achieved substantial scale, perhaps Suresh will revisit his beliefs around VC funding for the next stage of growth but as things stand, Suresh is one of those rare SaaS founders in India who have bootstrapped their way to startup success and have done so without leaving our country.

The importance of health and personal branding

Those who have known Suresh for a while would recollect a mild-mannered individual who wouldn’t bother much about personal appearance and fitness. In fact at one time just around his US sojourn, Suresh put on a lot of weight and became almost bloated. But then, he was quick to recognize this and embarked on a fitness journey that not only brought his weight down substantially but also made him look twenty years younger with folks remarking about his almost teenager-like gait and energy levels. In parallel, Suresh also became fashion-conscious, not so much out of some misplaced sense of vanity but out of a realization that these minor attributes help in establishing a personal brand. So much like Steve Jobs’ famous black turtleneck, Suresh’s public appearances usually have him wearing a body-hugging black T-shirt over which I believe he has claimed proprietary rights. If any of you readers haven’t filed your IPR in this regard, well, I am sorry to say you might be too late. Wearing a black T-shirt is no longer available to be your calling! And, of course, Suresh is also well known for his trademark mustache that has a life of its own — it twirls or is made to by its owner, lending credence to the power of non-verbal communication.

All in all, if Girish Mathrubootham of Freshworks is the Rajini-equivalent “Thalaiva” of the Indian startup ecosystem, Suresh is undoubtedly Kamal Hassan — a consummate performer with preternatural longevity and a magnetic personality.

My dear Suresh, you are a treasured friend and besides all these qualities that I mentioned, what I most like is your unfailing ability to speak your mind. In a world where everyone is always politically correct and toes the line,it is extremely difficult to remain forthright and speak your mind honestly and unapologetically.

Can you see Suresh here :)

Here’s wishing you more power — may you continue to be the strongest brand ambassador for Tamil Nadu, the SaaS fraternity and for the Indian startup community at large. As your friend, I have continued to draw wisdom from our conversations and have grown richer in the process — thank you!

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Avinash Raghava

Avinash Raghava

Building @ScaleTogether, Founding Volunteer at @SaaSBOOMi | Past: Community Platform Evangelist @Accel_India. Co-Founded@iSPIRT(@Product_Nation), @NASSCOM