Is Courtallam Valley India's answer to Silicon Valley? Zoho thinks so

Last week, Vembu launched for Zoho, the born-on-the-cloud company he founded in 1996, its latest offering, Zoho Desk, developed entirely by a 150-strong team of engineers and developers at a software centre located on a land that was once intended for a fruit pulp factory.


By Narayanan Madhavan

"Greenfield products through blueskies thinking," says a slide on the screen in the conference room, which could be anywhere on the connected planet. Sridhar Vembu, 48, is sporting a green half-sleeved shirt to match his crisp white veshti, the sarong-like waistwrap that is tropical Tamil Nadu's standard outfit.

Outside are a mix of paddy fields, coconut groves and stately royal palms in the backdrop of the Western Ghats, all matching the green shade of the shirt -- and his thinking.

The goateed engineer, who studied at IIT, Chennai before getting a PhD from Princeton, is trying to change the emphasis of India's software revolution from this speck on the map, just outside the temple town of Tenkasi, or southern Kashi, home to a Shiva temple at least 500 years old, built by King Parakrama Pandian when the original Varanasi (Kashi) fell to Muslim rulers.

Is Courtallam Valley Indias answer to Silicon Valley? Zoho thinks so

Last week, Vembu launched for Zoho, the born-on-the-cloud company he founded in 1996, its latest offering, Zoho Desk, developed entirely by a 150-strong team of engineers and developers at a software centre located on a land that was once intended for a fruit pulp factory.

The fruits of his labour are a far cry from the bananas and mangoes that grow in the vicinity. They are intended for a global market, where Zoho has a worldwide customer base of 150,000, who subscribe to 30 products ranging from Web-based e-mail and presentation applications to ones managing accounts, hiring, analytics and projects. The competitors include Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce. Zoho's products have thus far been developed by its 4,000 engineers, most of whom sit in a suburb of Chennai.

"This is made in rural India, made for the world," declares Vembu, himself based in Pleasanton, California who makes a dash every quarter to Courtallam, which is on the tourist map for a clutch of waterfalls and never known for the technology industry.

Zoho Desk took five years to build, which is not a short time for the product, but the obstacles were different. The struggles were about levelling the land and attracting a team of developers who Vembu expects to be trailblazers in a new trend to shift the focus of the industry championed by the likes of Infosys and Wipro away from the congested, smoke-filled centres such as Bangalore, Chennai and Gurgaon to small towns because in a bandwidth-rich world, where you are does not matter as much as what you do.

"Hundred thousand is a pretty sweet spot, you have a school, a hospital," Vembu explains on what should work for his intended next wave. As he figures, if towns with a population of 100,000 get on the software trail, it will help meet former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's idea of PURA (Providing Urban amenities in Rural Areas). Tenkasi has a population of 70,000.

Zoho Centre, Tenkasi

So, the big question: do millennials who like to hang out in malls and lounges at weekends, and aspire for global careers, shed their love of the big city for a rural speck 650 km south of Chennai?

Vembu believes about 20 percent of workers are the ones who actually like this rural lifestyle -- and many of them are rooted with families in nearby zones. A big slice of the Tenkasi centre are engineers who came back home to families a commute away, and some are adventurous ones trying on a semi-rural lifestyle. From a business standpoint, Zoho gains from Tenkasi's strategic location just a couple of hours drive from Kerala, whose talent pool supplements the ones from Tamil Nadu's 500 engineering colleges.

Somewhat gauche and not fluent in English, many of Zoho's Tenkasi engineers work in tandem with customer-facing colleagues up north in Chennai -- but their skills in developing apps for iPhones and Android platforms alike makes them hot global talent.

"The nearest competitor is in San Francisco. And we are in a downtown in the middle of nowhere and built a world-class product," declares Vembu, who shrugs off Chennai-based FreshDesk as a competitor. "There is a waitlist of about 300 people in our Chennai office waiting to move here"

Moving to small towns is not exactly new for India's software industry. Infosys has centres in Bhubaneswar, Mangalore and Jaipur in its quest to scale up while keeping costs low, but Zoho is different because it is way beyond IT services, call centres and back-office outsourcing to develop products that create intellectual property and deal with workflows for global customers.

Vembu thinks it is not a big deal for back-end engineers to be geographically proximate to end- customers, and his company has been walking his talk for nearly two decades now.

A new 30,000-square-foot facility is being built alongside the old one to deploy new hires. "We do see some hesitation from hirees. But we do find and incubate them," says head of engineering Subbu Raj.

The perks for being in a rural outpost include getting piping hot masala dosas and freshly steamed idlis in the canteen, where engineers swipe digital cards to measure the food consumed, which comes free.

Thirty-four-year-old Shanthi, a master's in engineering attired in a burgundy brocade saree and plenty of jasmine flowers in her hair, coaches mathematical aptitude to engineers as part of "Zoho University" - Vembu's in-house teaching venture that ramps up code geeks to creative and analytical levels needed to build products.

"This improves my qualifications because my knowledge in theoretical maths is being applied here," she reasons.
Zoho Desk already has customers that include US retail chain Sears and India's Tech Mahindra. Vembu expects at least a third of its current 150,000 customers to lap up the offering.

Picture Zoho Desk as a traffic policeman on the cloud who directs customers, whether they are whiners on Twitter, mailers on email or phone callers with customer complaints. The software routes the right complaint to the right support staffer in a time-bound manner.

"I am a native here. This is where I grew up. I did not like Chennai's traffic and pollution," says Mohamed Aniba, a 32-year-old specialist in iPhone and Android apps, clad in a black shirt and a spot-white veshti. "When they started a mobile product unit, I said let me come here."

Vembu says salaries reflect qualifications and experience but typically, mango on mango (to turn the apple idiom to rural India) it costs half as much to hire an engineer in Tenkasi while the cost of living is much lower. One engineer, who has two years of experience and previously worked for Cognizant Technology Solutions, says he gets about Rs 50,000 a month -- a princely sum that must be matching the district collector in the local administration.
Vembu has shunned billion-dollar valuations by saying no to private equity and a desire to go public, and his offbeat ways stretch to the ways he dresses and talks about his "Make In India" dream.

Zoho has swapped doughnuts for vadas, services for products, the Silicon Valley for the Courtallam Valley and rural India for the metros, but is the revolution sustainable?

Vembu, who himself comes from the rice bowl district of Tanjore, hopes Tenkasi will only be a representative sample for an evenly spread out technology revolution in which many such towns will join in. He expects half of the industry to be in rural areas in a decade, aided by falling costs of solar and wind energy.

"Frankly, I don't want overcrowding," he says.

(The writer, who travelled to Tenkasi as a guest of Zoho, is a senior editor and journalist who has worked for Reuters, The Economic Times and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity)